Classical music terms unravelled (or unRavel-ed)

Jokes about terms used by pro musicians

(originally published by Verbatim magazine)

The terminology preferred by classical musicians is, on the whole, pretty blackly humourous. To classical music fans this may come as a surprise but then, classical music’s image has never married with its reality. To the general public, orchestral players appear to be sedate, stiff-backed old guys in white tie and tails (these days, sedately disciplined young people in black shirts and trousers) manhandling Mahler etc. with awesome skill and creativity.

In fact, beyond a pretty notable lack of sedateness in real life, numerous studies have proven that orchestral musicians boast comparable job satisfaction to factory workers, and roughly equivalent self-esteem. The lifestyle is tough on families and the pay is lousy. And that’s not all. The very level of dedication and creativity required to scale the musical heights stands in sharp contrast to the amount of artistic freedom permitted a player once they’ve ‘made it,’. Their reward for decades of self-doubt and slog is to be obliged to play their every note at the time, in the style, at the dynamic and with the articulation of their conductor’s choosing. Thrilling as this can feel, with a great or good conductor, every musician will also occasionally find themselves at the mercy of the, um, ‘not-so-good’ conductor…

For this reason there are loads of terms used for conductors/music directors, most of them unprintable. The most common term is ‘carver,’ as in, ‘Who’s carving on Saturday? Will they notice if I’m ten minutes late?’ The historical term is, of course, ‘Maestro,’ (master), which was in vogue, at least, to the conductor’s face, throughout most of the last century, as he was — and it was almost always a ‘he’ — hirer and firer of all the players. However, with the growth of self-governed orchestras, ‘Maestro’ tends to be used ironically, if at all, as in, ‘Don’t tell me, let me guess. We owe these flakey bowings to the Maestro, am I right?’

Yet great conductors are still held in hugely high esteem — just recollect the outpouring of sorrow when Bernard Haitink died. There’s also a joke that one viola player in a famous orchestra returns home one night, only to find his house razed to the ground. A neighbour tells him, ‘I’m so sorry, but the conductor came here with a meat cleaver, murdered your family and burned your house. Upon which the violist says, in disbelief, ‘You’re kidding! The conductor came to my house?’

The very term ‘orchestra’ comes from the area of the hall where what was originally known as the ‘band’ played. The principal violinists being called ‘concertmaster’ (in Europe, ‘leader’) dates back to the baroque-period pre-conductor age when the principal violinist led the concert. Nowadays their role is much reduced, something some few have yet to come to terms with. As for the co-principals, associate principals, assistant principals and sub-principals — whether first violins, second violins, violas, cellos or basses — they sometimes call to mind the cellist joke: ‘How many cellists does it take to change a light-bulb?’ (Answer: ‘Ten. One to change the bulb and nine to think they could, perhaps, have changed it rather better…’)

Section players in the strings yet to attain the heady rank of sub-principal are known as ‘rank and bile’ — a corruption of the late 20th-century term ‘rank and file,’ which — you guessed it — originally emerged from the military. Rank and file players are also occasionally colloquially known as ‘pondlife,’ as in ‘Right, we’ve finished rehearsing the chamber number. Are all the pondlife here?’ Additionally, a ‘wrecker’ is somebody, usually in the strings, who routinely either comes in too early or hangs on to a note too late, as in, ‘He’s a wrecker, and always has been, but, have to admit, his heart’s in the right place.’

Orchestral concerts are inevitably referred to as ‘gigs,’ as in, ‘I’ve only got ten gigs this month’ — which would have been pretty good going, at least during Covid. The ‘gig’ is a relatively recent usage in classical music, but jazz players have referred to ‘gigs’ for years, and orchestral players in London adopted the term in the 1980s.

Recordings are known as ‘sessions’ as in, ‘He’s a session player, is why he’s got a Porsche.’ Similarly, the recording being ‘in the can’ suggests that — in the opinion of the CD producer — this is the best they’re likely to get or — alternatively — the production backers have run out of money. In either case, it’s cool, as it means you can get paid and go home. Interestingly, ‘in the can’ is reputed to date back from the early movies, when the final cut of the film was physically put into ‘a can’.

‘Squeaky-door’ dates used to be the derisory title for 20th-century brand-new-music concerts. Not only do these generally not happen anymore, but the phrase is also deeply unfair on almost all modern composers these days.

‘Bucket dates’ is used for those concerts which put bread on the table yet strike dread into musicians’ souls, featuring as they do endless conjunctions of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — we’re talking pre-Ukraine here — Ravel’s Bolero, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, toastmaster-style carvers and the Royal Albert Hall. The terms dates back to a famous joke (‘What’s the difference between this concert and a bucket of horse s**t?’ Answer: ‘The bucket.’) Other ‘bucket’ dates include massacrings of Bach’s Brandenburg, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by candlenight, essayed by pros weighed down by heavy 18th costumes and plagued by itchy wigs. Having said all that, London tourists love ’em!

‘Muddy field’ gigs — though temporarily buried in Covid-itude — are self-explanatory. This is the recipe. You take one muddy field, in which sheep habitually graze (generally within hailing distance of a 17th-century stately home or castle) a covered, moveable stage (still manages to let rain in, generally on the lower strings) glamorous backstage facilities consisting of one tent and two portable toilets, and add several adjoining fields pressed into service as (a) car parks (b) audience seating and/or © a launch-pad for the finale fireworks. What have you got? A muddy field gig!

There’s only ever one thing of critical musical importance on a ‘muddy field’ date: the orchestra exit plan. This is because — due to the popularity of their fireworks — your personal French horn solo may be amplified to an audience of 15,000 people; hence, the Musicians Union has determined that the performers have to have a separate exit, even if it is does require crossing a plowed field. (What occurred one night when I was playing in the Royal Philharmonic in Yorkshire is part of the reason for the Union’s laudable obduracy on this point. As we were accompanying Jose Carreras, no less, I didn’t succeed in exiting the car park until 2 a.m., limping back to London as dawn was breaking over the M25…)

A ‘hit and run’ gig, by contrast, refers to an amazingly prestigious one-day trip to Copenhagen or similar. This involves waking up at four in order to reach the airport at six, checking into the hotel before noon, grabbing a damp sandwich before the three-hour rehearsal, snatching a McDonalds’ ready-meal before the three-hour concert, and resisting the impulse to adorn the hotel bar until daybreak. (Unless one is a brass player. There, bar attendence is obligatory.) Then there’s the fascination of the six a.m. wake-up call in order to get bussed to the flight back. Oh, the glamour of it all!

One can earn good money in a ‘dummy session.’ These refer to when musicians are hired, often in costume, to pretend to play while being filmed in the background of a period TV drama etc. (directors having belatedly realised that actors look incredibly stupid in BBC dramas holding their horns back to front or their violin bows crooked). This work is mostly for men, as professional musos were almost inevitably male until the mid-1900s — though boyish women who can carry of the costumes can get lucky. This term is related to the use of actual ‘dummies’ in film crowd scenes, circa 1940s. (A more accurate term might be ‘mime session’ as the musicians are often over-dubbed by session musicians in recording studios.)

‘Fixers’ are the people who decide who gets hired and fired. In the US these are known as ‘contractors’ — however, the principle is identical. Unless currently married to the conductor or general manager (not, repeat not, one of the exes) your career is at the mercy of these people, most of who are pretty corruptible, as in, ‘She’s a wrecker on the double-bass, but stunning in bed.’

‘Stone age’ is an affectionately belittling way of referring to those violinists, oboists, trumpeters etc. who play ‘early music’ such as Vivaldi, Bach, or even Beethoven and Schubert on ‘period’ instruments — meaning instruments replicating those used in the period, and thereby disdaining the developments in power, tone and range occurring in the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Stone age’ players, who represent a sort of subspecies, often specialize in yoga, herbal medicine, health fads and serious facial hair as in, ‘He mostly does “Stone Age” but he hasn’t gone vegan.’

‘Desk’ (‘stand’ in the US etc.) references a shared music stand, thus ‘The principal violist won’t have him on second desk, because of his buzzy C-string.’

‘Sordid’ is the common slang for ‘con sordino,’ meaning, with mute, hence, ‘Can someone check that we’re really meant to be sordid at letter G?’

‘Rep:’ is a union representative, as in, ‘Doug’s the rep., but, even though it’s 20 degrees Celsius below zero, don’t expect him to blow the whistle.’

‘Pit gig,’ is an opera, musical or ballet gig, where you play in a black pit extending halfway to the centre of the earth. The main difference between a ‘pit gig’ and hell is that, as far as I know, in hell you’re not normally choked with fumes from the stage effects above…

‘Canon gig,’ refers to a small ensemble — electric harp trio, old-fashioned string quartet — hired to play music as background for a reception. The ‘Canon’ is of course, Pachelbel’s. If an all-girl group gets the nod, these also count as ‘stiletto gigs.’

Some beloved musical works also rejoice in such mangled titles, such as ‘The Battered Broad’ (Smetana’s Bartered Bride), ‘The Glums’ (Les Miserables), while’ Finzi’s elegiac Op. 20 (‘The Fall of the Leaf’) has been rechristened, inevitably, ‘The Fall of the Figleaf.’ There’s a whole baseball joke about Beethoven’s 9th, where the bass section enjoys some time off near the end. In the joke, the entire bass section sneaks offstage and charges to a pub for a drink. Suddenly one checks his watch and groans ‘We only have a minute to get back!’ Whereupon the principal bass says, ‘Don’t worry, I tied the last page of the conductor’s score with string to give us more time.’ They boozily wend their way back to the hall, to find the conductor desperately working on the knot tying his score. One audience member nudges his companion, wanting to know what the problem is, and is told, ‘It’s a critical moment — bottom of the nineth, the score’s tied, and the basses are loaded!’

The names of some classical instruments have curious pedigrees. Most people know that the piano began life as the pianoforte, (soft-loud), the term used around 1710 by its inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731), in order to distinguish its superior gradation of dynamics compared to the harpsichord (sometimes referred to as the ‘harpsiplonk’.) But not everybody is aware that the English horn is not only (a) German but (b) not a horn. Musicologists suspect that, as it started life as an oboe slightly bent in the middle, it was called the cor angle (in French, ‘at an angle), which was later corrupted to cor anglais (English horn). Which bright spark decided it was a cor (horn) remains unknown.

Anyone fascinated by musicians’ bizarre and even puerile senses of humour have plenty of websites to choose from, with viola jokes and opera jokes particularly popular. Here we can also find ‘definitions’ including:

Bar line: what musicians form after a concert

Metronome: an urban gnome

Conductor: someone talented at following lots of people at the same time

Clef: something one ought to consider jumping off prior to a viola solo

And: What’s the definition of a gentleman? (Obvious, really! This is someone who can play the viola, but chooses not to.)

But I don’t want to spoil it for you! Google ‘viola jokes’ yourself, and enjoy another glimpse into my world!

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Alice McVeigh

Alice McVeigh

Novels — some award-winning — by London-based Alice McVeigh have been published by Orion/Hachette, UK’s Unbound Publishing, and Warleigh Hall Press.