Sunday, 3 April 2011

To sit or not to sit? That is the question.

Today, I´ll write about something that may make no sense out of Spain, but I´ve been asked about it quite a few times: In the orchestra, should I stand up or sit down when playing?

In Spain, the usual procedure is to stand up for playing cymbals, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, xylo... In my particular case, I have never asked myself why, but as it was what I always have seen, I simply stood up for playing.

It was not until I moved to London that I started questioning this method. The first work I played with the orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music was Strauss´ "A Hero´s Life", and I was in charge of tam-tam, cymbals and triangle. When I stood up to play my first entrance, the whole section looked at me and made funny faces. As soon as I finished, the principal asked me: "Why are you standing up?" Very secure of myself, I told him all that stuff about the visual thing, the theatrical component, that a concert is also seen, apart from listened to... He smiled and told me to do whatever I fancied but, in the UK, that was quite extravagant.

Few days after I attended my first concerts, and I realized that the whole section was sitting down.

I asked my teacher, and his explanations convinced me.

There´s no other member of the orchestra (except for the conductor) standing up for playing. When a player stands up, is calling attention to himself, announcing in a very visual way to the audience that he is about to do something: "Hey, look at me, I´m standing up so you can see I´m about to hit something!"

Standing up, you are calling an unnecessary attention to yourself and to the entrance you are about to play, which shouldn´t have it: No other player makes such a pompous announcement. The important thing is Music, not your next entrance, so boldy announced when you stand up. When you do so, you also take the risk of making extraneous noises (cracking floors, noisy chairs...).

You can keep the visual aspect keeping your instrument high, showing it to the audience (the old saying "if you can´t see it, you can´t hear it" is still valid), but not taking the theatrical aspect so far that it gets over-important.

Since my London days, I play sitting down. There are very few occasions when I stand up. This way, I do not call attention to my next entrance, and give the importance to the Music, not to me, the chap who is standing up, distracting the audience, calling for attention, focussing the interest, and making the members of the audience say "look, look... He´s standing up, something´s about to happen!"

As you can see on the first video, I play cymbals (both clashed and suspended) sitting down on a high stool, right at hip height: This way, my height is almost the same standing and sitting, not calling attention to myself.

You already knnow the following video from the post "Tambourine Technique", but it illustrates very well my purpose: I´m playing sitting down, but maintain the visual aspect keeping the tambourine high.

Same thing with bass drum... There´s no need for standing up. I can play everything while sitting down, no extraneous moves...

I can assure you none of the section principals nor conductors I have played with, have ever complained about me sitting down while playing. Try it: Sit down, don´t call attention to yourself, keep things nice and easy, no complicated stuff... As they say, KISS! (keep it simple, stupid!).

Jesus told Lazarus to "stand up and walk!". I tell you to "sit down and play!"

…et in Arcadia ego.
© David Valdés


  1. Intersting - can you play a 5 octave marimba or xylophone sitting down?
    And ... the CBSO in the UK always stand to play, or at least they did when I was there in the 90's.

  2. Obviously, I won´t play "Reflections on the Nature of Water" while sitting down. Xylophone? Yes, I have played this instrument sitting down. Whenever I can, I keep my butt on the chair.

    LSO, LPO... The majority (this doesn´t mean all of them) of the orchestras I´ve seen in the UK had percussion sections that prefered to sit down while playing.

    For me to prefer the seating down option doesn´t mean I´m right. I´ve been in the "standing up group" for many years, tried the other option, and now I´m a convinced member of the "seating down gang". Just try and, whatever works for you, go for it.


  3. es interesante lo que planteás sobre el estar sentado no llama la atención, cuando comencé a tocar en mi orquesta lo hacía sentado hasta que me dí cuenta que también se puede tocar parado, pero no había reparado en que estaría llamando la atención del público, quizás vuelva a tocar sentado, aunque por supuesto con una butaca alta, tuve un profesor que sostenía que los músicos debían estudiar de memoria las partes para evitar el tener la partitura y permitiera al público ver al músico tocar su instrumento , es un poco extremo pero vale aunque más no sea para replantear el tema de tocar parado o sentado, gracias.

  4. I undestand what you wrote about calling attention, etc. But i think it depends on the culture most of the time, for example, in the Festival de Música de Londrina, here in Brazil, the conductor don´t let any percussionist play sitting down, it´s always standing up, and then sit on the rest. In Wagner´s Rienzi Overture, i couldn´t even play the triangle with two beaters, he asked for just one beater in hand, standing up.

    1. I can see your point.

      There are orchestras (Boston Symphony, for instance) where percussionists play while standing up, and there others where they sit down (many in the UK, for example). "When in Rome, do what Romans do": when I gig for an orchestra I never played with before, I follow their custom and do whatever they do. When I play with an orchestra I know the principal or have been gigging with them for a while, I opt for what I consider (just under my humble point of view) the best option, which is sitting down. No conductor nor principal has ever complained about me sitting on a stool while playing.

      Your case is a little bit more specific: With all due respect, that conductor you are refering to is interfering. Did that conductor ask the oboe player to use a particular kind of reed? Did he ask for dark horsehair on the basses bows? I bet NO. Why does he fill entitled to tell a professional (a percussionist) how to do his job? That conductor is disrespectful. My duty is to do my job perfect, and the conductor should not care whether I sit or stand up to play my instrument. I opted to sit down, but that doesn´t mean it´s the only correct option.

      You should get to a conclusion and see what is best for your playing. In fact, to stand up or to sit down is trivial, as the important thing is to make music. I got to the conclusion that, for me, sitting down is best, but that doesn´t mean that standing up is wrong: you just have to make a decision based on what you think is best for your playing.

      Thank you very much for reading an commenting.

      Best regards.