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POM43110.1177/0305735613491998Psychology of MusicDobson and Gaunt


Psychology of Music

Musical and social communication 2015, Vol. 43(1) 24­–42

© The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0305735613491998

Melissa C. Dobson and Helena F. Gaunt

Research on orchestral musicians has predominantly used survey methods to measure stress and/or
work satisfaction; studies have seldom used in-depth interviews to ask orchestral musicians to reflect
on their own practice and have neglected to elicit musicians’ perceptions of the processes involved in
expert orchestral performance. Using semi-structured interviews, this research aimed to investigate
20 musicians’ experiences of working in a major London orchestra, focusing in particular on the
skills and qualities they feel are required, and on how they negotiate challenges and sustain their
careers. The interviews were analysed thematically using a grounded theory approach. The sample
emphasized a set of skills which they considered vital for achieving excellence in the orchestral
context, encompassing listening to, communicating with, and adapting to those around them at all
times during rehearsal and performance. Strong social and interpersonal skills were also cited as
important for orchestral work, with participants stressing the significance of maintaining good social
relationships with colleagues in order to foster a conducive environment to achieving excellence on
stage. These findings are considered in light of their potential implications for conservatoire training
and their contribution to research on co-performer communication and collaboration.

cooperation, communication, conservatoire training, interpersonal skills, listening, orchestral musicians

Symphony orchestras – and the performances, recordings and community or educational proj-
ects they produce – are one of the most iconic features of the classical music sphere today, with
professional orchestras in the UK performing over 3,700 concerts in 2011 (Association of
British Orchestras, 2011). However, the past decade has seen a state of change in the activities
and business models of orchestras (Cottrell, 2003; Radbourne, 2007; Tepavac, 2010), and
although orchestras remain an important source of employment for classical musicians, a
recent survey of UK musicians who completed their postgraduate studies between 2004 and
2012 found that ‘a number . . . noted serious worries about their orchestral work in particular,

Guildhall School of Music & Drama, UK

Corresponding author:
Helena Gaunt, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Barbican, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DT, UK.
Email: helena.gaunt@gsmd.ac.uk
Dobson and Gaunt 25

with pay cuts at major orchestras, recruitment freezes and the threat of redundancy’ (Musicians
Benevolent Fund, 2012, p. 7). Relatively little research investigates and documents the skills
and qualities required by 21st-century orchestral musicians. It is therefore difficult to properly
assess the degree to which music training institutions are equipping their students with rele-
vant and adequate skills (cf. Gembris & Langner, 2006, p. 142), not least if they are to find
orchestral work in an increasingly competitive market.
There are two main channels providing information about the personal qualities and musical
and professional skills required by orchestral performers: first, from research into symphony
orchestras and the working lives of their musicians; and, second, from research focusing on the
nature and efficacy of musicians’ transitions from higher music education into the music profes-
sion. Much of the former research has been conducted within organizational or work psychology,
and has predominantly used survey methods to measure, for example, stress and/or work satisfac-
tion amongst professional orchestral musicians (e.g., Allmendinger, Hackman, & Lehman, 1996;
Mogelof & Rohrer, 2005; Olbertz, 2006; Parasuraman & Purohit, 2000; Piperek, 1981; Steptoe,
1989). The findings of these studies have indicated a tension for musicians who are highly trained
by the conservatoire education system not only as ‘technicians’ but also as ‘interpreters,’ who then
must – in the orchestral context – largely put aside their own interpretative ideas to fit in within a
section and to give precedence to a conductor’s artistic vision (Gillinson & Vaughan, 2003).
Brodsky (2006) interviewed, on multiple occasions, 54 British musicians from a number of
different orchestras. His research creates a picture of the gains, risks and costs of, first, music
performance as a career (including pleasure from working within a large group of like-minded
people, and the negative consequences of a working pattern which requires much time away
from home); and, second, the experience of performing on stage (including the buzz of perform-
ing and the long-term effects of performance anxiety and/or stress). The study highlighted a
number of important issues relating to the working lives of musicians, finding that a love of
music and of working in collaboration with others are primary motivations for embarking on
– and staying in – an orchestral career.
However, Brodsky’s work and other studies still provide little information about musicians’ per-
ceptions of the processes involved in expert orchestral performance; that is, their reflections on
their own artistic practice and their observations on the skills and approaches required for their
work. There is growing evidence that professional musicians require a range of skills (musical
and extra-musical) in order to successfully negotiate the transition from higher education to the
music profession, with calls for conservatoire training to become better aligned with the demands
imposed by professional work. Recent studies have highlighted the importance of interpersonal
and communication skills (e.g., Creech et al., 2008; MacNamara, Holmes, & Collins, 2008), and
have noted that it is relatively rare for ‘formal training to address the social skills that facilitate
collaborations between musicians’ (Lehmann, Sloboda, & Woody, 2007, p. 180).
Channing (2003) describes a shift in orchestral training within conservatoires since the late
1980s, from students being required to ‘pick up certain skills by osmosis’ outside of their prin-
cipal study lessons (p. 180) to a more systematized approach which might now encompass
repertoire orchestra rehearsals (where the sole purpose of the rehearsal is to ‘read through’ a
selected work, with no intention of a subsequent performance); orchestral performances pro-
duced from short, intensive rehearsal periods; and high-profile conservatoire orchestra con-
certs, prepared over a period of weeks and often conducted by a visiting, well-known conductor.
Students may also compete for programmes which link conservatoires with orchestras, provid-
ing opportunities to participate in professional orchestral rehearsals and performances.
Drawing on interviews with orchestral musicians and students from two such programmes,
26 Psychology of Music 43(1)

Hager and Johnsson (2009) argue that the point of transition into professional work often sees
a ‘clash’ between a competitive attitude cultivated by conservatoire training (often placing
emphasis on technical accomplishments) and the collaborative attitude needed for success in
on-going professional orchestral work (see also Davis, 2004). They emphasize the value of
tacit, practice-based learning within the work context, allowing students to develop the ‘craft’
of being an orchestral musician through the development of musical skills (such as contextual-
izing orchestral excerpts they may have already prepared, or learning to adjust tuning quickly
within a section), and through enabling the assimilation of rehearsal/performance etiquette.
Indeed, the importance of practice-based learning is not isolated to the orchestral context;
Becker, for instance, identifies unspoken codes of etiquette relating to improvisation among jazz
musicians, and describes how the only way to learn these codes was by ‘quietly observing, as
youngsters, what older players did, and noting what happened when someone (usually a novice
or some other unsocialized type) failed to obey those rules’ (2000, p. 172).
This form of tacit knowledge is one of the ten conditions that Sawyer (2007, p. 43) identifies
as contributing to ‘group flow,’ defined as a collective ‘peak experience, a group performing at
its top level of ability.’ These conditions provide a strikingly useful framework for considering
the processes involved in expert orchestral performance. They comprise: the presence of a
shared goal; close and responsive listening; complete concentration; being in control yet
remaining flexible; the blending of egos through listening and reacting; equal participation;
familiarity with the tacit rules of a given context; constant communication; improvising solu-
tions to ‘move things forward;’ and the potential for failure or risk (Sawyer, 2007). Sawyer’s
theory indicates a need for colleagues to maintain good working relationships, through which
open channels of communication can facilitate the responsiveness and adaptation required for
innovative progress.
Studies of co-performer communication in Western classical music have begun to consider
the interpersonal dimensions involved in rehearsal and performance: as Goodman (2002, p.
163) notes, ‘ensemble performance is about teamwork […] Half the battle of making music
together (and ultimately staying together as an ensemble) is fought on social grounds.’ Studies
of group processes in professional string quartets (Blum, 1986; Murnighan & Conlon, 1991;
Young & Colman, 1979) have pointed to the interconnections between effective social relation-
ships among performers and their abilities to successfully collaborate musically. However,
research on similar processes in jazz (e.g., Monson, 1996) paints a more complicated picture,
with accounts of a sense of underlying musical trust and cooperation between musicians tak-
ing precedence over their purely social compatibility. Similarly, Moran’s (2013) study of co-
performer communication in North Indian classical music demonstrates that effective and
meaningful performances in this context are highly dependent on musicians showing an
awareness of others (including both co-performers and the audience): ‘musicians who do not
get on socially can find affinity during co-performance, and the reverse can also be true’ (p. 11).
Preliminary evidence suggests that the musical and social communication skills required
within a symphony orchestra ensemble are co-dependent; Marotto, Roos and Victor (2007)
found that group peak performance was dependent on positive interactions and task engage-
ment between group members. Johnsson and Hager (2008) note how learning to work with
colleagues – in both social and musical realms – was a key means of ‘becoming a professional’
for recent performance graduates who participated in a professional orchestra’s training pro-
grammes. Music graduates participating in German research felt they had not been trained
sufficiently in ensemble playing/listening skills or the ability to integrate into an orchestra
(Gembris & Langner, 2006), echoing Hager and Johnsson’s (2009, p. 112) conclusion that ‘a
Dobson and Gaunt 27

Music School [conservatoire] education alone is unable to produce fully-fledged professional

orchestral musicians.’
This review has indicated that ensemble practices rely on collaborative and communicative
skills, many of which are tacit and embodied. These skills are increasingly important for the
conservatoire sector to understand if it is to provide aspiring students with appropriate expecta-
tions and competencies for the profession they hope to join. In the present study we draw from
a larger project which elicited data from in-depth interviews with members of a UK symphony
orchestra. The larger project aimed to build a composite picture of musicians’ routes into, moti-
vations towards, and strategies for staying in, an orchestral career. This article focuses on one
question from the larger study: What skills and qualities do orchestral musicians consider to be
essential for their work?

Twenty performers from a major, self-governing symphony orchestra in London agreed to par-
ticipate in interviews. The orchestra had a membership of 96; the sample therefore comprised
just over a fifth of the ensemble. The orchestra’s community and education department acted
as intermediaries in the logistics of organizing interviews with a cross-section of the orchestra,
using their knowledge of the orchestra’s schedule to approach potential participants and to
secure interviews at mutually convenient times. The participants were paid for taking part in
an interview at their standard rate of remuneration for education work.
The participants’ ages ranged from 27 to 60 years; years of membership in the orchestra
ranged from 5 to 35 years. The full spectrum of instrumental groups was represented, with five
participants from the upper strings, five from the lower strings, three woodwind players, and
seven from the brass, percussion and harp sections. Overall, 13 participants were male and
seven were female. This ratio (65:35) was close to representative of the membership of the
orchestra during the period when the interviews were undertaken in 2010–2011, where 71%
of players were male and 29% were female. Players from a range of positions were recruited,
with nine occupying principal or co-principal positions, and 11 occupying non-principal (or, in
the case of string players, rank and file) roles.

Data collection and analysis

Both authors conducted interviews for the project; the interviews all involved one researcher
and one participant, and each participant was interviewed only once, using the interview
schedule provided in the appendix. The second author, who conducted 13 of the interviews,
has a long association with the orchestra, and was already known to some of the participants;
the first author was previously known to none. The first five interviews (conducted by the sec-
ond author) were initially treated as a pilot set of data and the transcripts were read and
reviewed by both authors before further interviews took place; no changes to the interview
schedule were made following this period of review. The first author studied these transcripts so
that, as far as possible, a similar interviewing style to the second author could be employed –
particularly in relation to the use of the interview schedule’s prompt questions. It is possible
that the differences in status between the two authors may have affected the participants’
responses. However, it is difficult to provide generalizations for the nature of these effects. For
28 Psychology of Music 43(1)

instance, some participants may have felt more comfortable talking with the second author
because of a feeling of shared experience prompted by their knowledge of her history with the
orchestra; others, however, may have preferred the relative feeling of anonymity engendered by
an interview with a researcher whom they previously did not know.
The authors’ home institution has a growing association with the symphony orchestra; the
research was conducted within a collaborative programme between the institution and the
orchestra which aims to promote orchestral training opportunities for advanced conservatoire
students. The study was approached primarily as a self-contained piece of scholarly research;
once completed, there was a mutual understanding between the authors and the orchestra that
the study’s findings may hold potential to inform the development of practice and policy within
both the orchestral workplace and higher music education, and especially through the orches-
tral training programme which the orchestra and the authors’ home institution jointly run. The
orchestra approved the interview schedule and assisted in organizing the interviews, but had no
other involvement in the research process. Once the analysis was complete, anonymized sum-
maries of the findings were made available to the participants and the orchestra’s management,
who considered their implications for future development within the organization.
Before the interviews, the participants were sent a description of the study and an outline of
the interview topics. The interviews all took place in meeting rooms either at the authors’ home
institution, or at the arts centre in which the orchestra is resident. At the beginning of each
interview, the participants were asked to read an extended outline of the study (which specified
that all interview data would be treated confidentially and anonymously) before signing a con-
sent form which stated that they were free to leave the research at any time without compro-
mising their professional position. The participants are treated anonymously in the findings
which follow, and have each been assigned a number from one to 20 from which they are
The participants were told in advance to expect the interviews to take up to an hour. The
majority lasted between 40 minutes and 1 hour; the shortest interview was 30 minutes and the
longest 80 minutes. The interviewing approach was semi-structured; the interview schedule
comprised eight main questions which each led on to further discussion as appropriate. Every
participant was asked each of the main questions, but a semi-structured approach was taken
by allowing for the question order to vary in accordance with the flow of the conversation, and
through following up on each of the set topics to a greater or lesser degree depending on each
participant’s experiences and interests. The sets of interviews conducted by each author
spanned a range of lengths; we attribute the variability between the lengths of the interviews
to the participants’ individual differences and responses to the interview situation. The inter-
views started by asking the participants to describe their motivations for becoming an orches-
tral musician, and to identify any key influences or experiences that they felt had been important
in their transition to an orchestral career. They were asked to describe the skills and qualities
required for orchestral work, and then to identify what helps them to sustain their careers now.
The participants were next asked about their awareness of, and their relationships to, their
various audiences (including their home audiences, audiences when on tour, and audiences/
participants in education/community projects). The final questions addressed aspects of their
work the participants enjoy and find most challenging, before focusing on their hopes and aspi-
rations for the remainder of their careers.
The interviews were audio recorded using an MP3 recorder, and were then transcribed.1
Each participant was sent their full transcript for approval and given the opportunity to make
clarifications, additions or deletions. Although few participants took the opportunity to make
Dobson and Gaunt 29

amendments at this stage, this process was deemed important given that anonymized summa-
ries of the data analysis had been promised to the orchestra’s community and education depart-
ment. The final set of approved transcripts was read repeatedly and then coded thematically
using a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Through a process of thematic
coding, this method of analysis uses the participants’ responses to generate theory, rather than
testing preconceived ideas deductively. Grounded theory analysis follows three stages of coding:
open, axial and selective. Open coding involves labelling the data with descriptive, and then
interpretative or analytic, categories (Willig, 2008). Through a process of constant comparison
between categories and subcategories, axial coding is concerned with refining existing catego-
ries and testing out ways in which the categories may interact (Seele, 1999). Emerging from the
process of axial coding comes selective coding, where a core category is determined as a ‘central
phenomenon around which the categories arising from axial coding are integrated’ (Robson,
2002, p. 495).
In the present study, each transcript was subjected to open coding sentence-by-sentence, using
NVivo software as a tool for marking up the transcripts and for providing a visual representation
of the coding structure. The coding process was iterative; interviews analysed early in the process
were later revisited, so that, where appropriate, material could be recoded using more effective
categories which had subsequently been created. After this first level of coding was complete, data
coded under each category were read through repeatedly and annotated, organizing groups of
subcategories and noting interactions between categories. In particular, attention was paid to
drawing out the similarities and differences between responses. A hierarchical structure of cate-
gories and subcategories emerging from the data was devised; these were then analysed for fur-
ther relationships between categories and for the creation of higher-order concepts (axial coding).
Relating to this article, open and axial coding produced a structure of higher-level categories
relating to the perceived skills and qualities required for orchestral work (see Figure 1). The pro-
cess of selective coding identified the areas of musical and social communication as the core cat-
egories of interest. A further aim of grounded theory is also that it is capable of ‘developing
categories into more general analytic frameworks with relevance outside the setting’ (Silverman,
2005, p. 179). In the Conclusions and implications section, we offer some initial insights into the
potential theoretical applications of our findings for non-musical settings.

Results and discussion

Each participant was asked to reflect on the key skills and personal qualities that they felt were
essential for working in a high-level professional orchestra. A broad range of skills and qualities
was identified, including organizational skills (e.g., preparation and planning), common sense,
a positive approach, and love of music generally and of symphonic repertoire specifically.
Figure 1 shows the nine most frequently-cited skills or qualities given in response to this ques-
tion; each of these were mentioned by more than half of the sample. The three most frequently-
cited of these skills and qualities – musical ‘radar’ (defined below), interpersonal and social
skills, and working within a team – together indicate an importance of communication, respon-
siveness and adaptability within orchestral work.

‘RADAR’: Musical communication and adaptability

An extremely prominent theme relating to the skills and qualities required for high-level orches-
tral work was a set of skills we have termed ‘radar.’ Three-quarters of the participants discussed
30 Psychology of Music 43(1)

Number of parcipants


Most frequently-cited skills or qualies

Figure 1. The most frequently-cited skills or qualities required for professional orchestral work.

this skill-set, with many promoting it as the most important repertoire of skills required for
achieving excellence in the orchestral context. As a concept emerging from the data, radar
encompassed listening to, communicating with, and adapting to other members of the ensem-
ble at all times during rehearsal and performance. Operating in an environment where high
technical facility was assumed as a basic requirement, a key attribute of radar was the ability to
split one’s focus: rather than simply playing their part, the performer is always informed by lis-
tening and then adapting to the multitude of approaches that may be taken by colleagues
within the ensemble:

… no matter how good you are at playing yourself, you have to be playing in tune and in time and in
the same way as your colleagues. So it’s really, really important to be listening the whole time to
everyone else and responding to what everyone else does. And that … leads on to the next thing,
which is adaptability, because when you’re playing with a hundred other people you’re not always
going to be agreeing with absolutely everything, on the first play through certainly. And so you have
to be able to adapt what you think is the way of playing something, in order to fit with everyone else.
[Participant 16]

Linguistically, the participants frequently described this set of skills collectively as their
‘radar,’ ‘antenna’ or ‘aerial.’ This skill-set operates both within their instrumental sections –
especially through ‘blending’ with immediate colleagues – and then further out across the
orchestra, matching timing, pitch, and phrasing through a ‘constant dialogue between sec-
tions’ [Participant 6]:
Dobson and Gaunt 31

the main thing is using your ears and having your aerial, your antenna be so finely honed, to realize
that you’re almost never playing just by yourself. There’s always someone breathing with you and
someone phrasing with you and someone to play in tune with, someone to blend with. [Participant 12]

In the context of a large ensemble made up of many smaller sections and sub-sections, an indi-
vidual player may need to make momentary decisions about where and how to place their notes
in relation to other players. For those with non-principal roles, this process involved an extra
stage of negotiation between the sometimes conflicting demands of following one’s principal
and aligning with the remainder of the orchestra:

[Being] a second player in many ways is more difficult than [being] a principal player. As a principal […]
your channels of communication are not as complicated somehow, because […] you probably com-
municate via the conductor and the string leaders, whereas I have to communicate via these channels,
but then also with an extra chain in it via the principal bassoon. [Participant 19]

… even if you’re with the conductor and with the cellos or whatever, … even if I’m right to all intents
and purposes as far as the score is concerned […] I’m wrong because I’m not with the first horn.
[Participant 8]

There is, therefore, more to the demands of orchestral performance than simply relinquishing
one’s interpretative control to a conductor (Mogelof & Rohrer, 2005; Parasuraman & Purohit,
2000), with non-principal players prioritizing cohesiveness within their sections over their own
artistic instincts or ideas. An individual’s own actions in performance may be formed as a result
of adapting and synchronizing to any number of their colleagues, forming a rapid chain of
action and reaction within a complex web of allegiances and hierarchies, of which the conduc-
tor’s directions may only form a small part. For example, Participant 8 described the process of
gradually realizing, over her time as a member of the orchestra, the importance of the unspo-
ken forms of judgement, negotiation and adaptation that may occur in anticipation of a single
note or phrase:

… in theory, all the things would line up, and they don’t always. And it’s knowing who to go with. Or
it’s realizing who isn’t going to move, either because it’s a piccolo [sitting] on the top of whatever, and
she’s going to be there so we have to do this, or because it’s a guest player or something and they’re
probably not aware. […] certainly the people that I really respect, I am aware of them all going ‘right
we’re just going to have to adjust now’. […] Listeners wouldn’t be aware … or like the trombones, if
they’re not playing, they wouldn’t be aware. But they would hopefully just be aware of ‘oh […] that’s
really well in tune, that’s nice.’ [Participant 8]

This account situates radar as a collective, conscious process that arguably develops in subtlety
as the familiarity between members of an ensemble increases over time, with the section form-
ing a group consensus about when – and how – to adapt. Participant 8 depicted this develop-
ment as an internal process which is imperceptible to those on the ‘outside’, involving collective
action in order to align with prominent parts within the ensemble for the greater good of the
performance. In this sense, an individual’s actions may be swayed as much by the idiosyncra-
sies of a guest player as by the directions of the conductor, in a working context where ‘speed is
of the essence in terms of knowing your part and assimilating what’s going on around you’
[Participant 15] and good performances rely on an ‘amazing connection between the players
that just seems to make things happen really fast’ [Participant 15].
32 Psychology of Music 43(1)

Importantly, some participants noted that it was not uncommon for professional musicians
to lack the skills encompassed by radar. One string player described ‘the amount of times that
fantastic players do wonderful, wonderful auditions and you put them in a section and they
cannot count four. They cannot play with anybody else. They’re completely unaware’
[Participant 4]. It is likely for this reason that, while an outstanding technique was viewed as a
prerequisite for expert orchestral performance, the participants devoted relatively little time to
discussing this part of their skill-set. As Participant 4 suggests, many performers possess the
purely technical skills required for orchestral playing, but relatively few demonstrate these skills
in addition to the ability and inclination to listen, communicate and respond within the orches-
tral setting. Indeed, even within the context of the high-calibre orchestra from which this
study’s participants were drawn, the sample’s youngest participant described being ‘just
amazed by how many people can play all the notes brilliantly and are complete cloth ears. […]
They’ll hear one instrument playing one rhythm, and they’ll just go “that must be this and I’m
going to lock into it”, to the exclusion of everything else around it. And I’m sat there going “it
doesn’t fit with anything”. Because they’ve misjudged it’ [Participant 8].
If not all (otherwise highly-qualified) performers possess these skills, then how and where do
performers develop them? Only a small number of the participants explicitly described a process
of acquiring the skills encompassed by radar, and none mentioned the role of their tertiary
musical training. Of this small sub-set, most described learning what to listen for and how to
adapt by experience, often in a post-conservatoire training orchestra or a first orchestral job.
One described developing radar since joining the present ensemble, aided by feedback from col-
leagues; her career until this point had mostly comprised chamber music performance, and
conservatoire training had not instilled the specific listening skills required in the orchestral

Participant 18: when I first came in I found it incredibly confusing. In fact, quite often I just didn’t lis-
ten at all because I didn’t know what I should be hearing or should I be following the conductor, or …
all those things are really important to know.

I: OK. So how have you kind of made sense of that?

Participant 18: Just listening to other players and … I think experience is key in learning it. […]
Occasionally, a colleague will tap you on the shoulder and whisper something in your ear. That cer-
tainly happened to me on trial, which was very helpful.

This quotation serves to highlight a tension between the orchestra’s trial system (in which, fol-
lowing an audition process a small number of shortlisted candidates undertake work with the
orchestra, often for years rather than months, until the decision to appoint one candidate is
reached; see Gillinson & Vaughan, 2003) and how radar can be acquired: the implication of
many participants’ accounts is that radar occurs at a higher quality and speed in a professional
orchestra than anywhere that a young player may have previously experienced. Some partici-
pants expressed the view that these skills can only be fully learnt in a professional orchestra;
yet, without these skills, one may not remain on trial for long enough to develop them.
It is important to consider that the possible emphasis the participants placed on radar may
relate in part to their particular orchestral working culture and ethos. Working within a self-
governing, British orchestra may have meant that the skills encompassed by radar took on
more prominence in this ensemble than in orchestras which adopt different organizational and
funding structures, and/or which are based in countries other than the UK (see Cottrell, 2003,
Dobson and Gaunt 33

2004). This can be demonstrated through briefly considering two aspects of the participants’
working culture prominent in their accounts: the pace of work, and the importance of ‘risk-
taking’ to their orchestral identity. Relentless schedules and an extremely fast pace of work
were some of the most significant challenges the participants identified. The pace of work was
perceived to be higher in British orchestras than in orchestras elsewhere, with less rehearsal
time per programme and more intensive scheduling. Many participants indicated that the con-
servatoire curriculum did not adequately develop the full skill-set that students would need in
professional orchestral life, particularly in relation to working at the required pace:

I sometimes wonder whether we do [in conservatoires] actually replicate our true working environ-
ment. I think in a way the in-depth tutoring replicates more how they work on the continent, because
they have a much slower pace of learning repertoire over there, and they really can get to the nitty
gritty. It has its place, because you should learn how to play the repertoire properly before you get into
the orchestra. But also in the same vein, we don’t have that luxury of rehearsal time in this country.
And so sometimes you’ll hear the complaint being, ‘well, yes they’re a really good player, but they’re
just not quick enough to work with us’. [Participant 2]

It is easy to see how radar emerges as a vital skill-set in this context, where rehearsal time is at
a high premium. Therefore, being aware and adaptable without verbal prompting is highly val-
ued, and indeed is presented as necessary for professional survival.
Relating to the orchestra’s ethos, the pursuit of excellence was the most commonly coded
sub-theme. The second − and associated − most prevalent sub-theme was a culture of risk-
taking, which was perceived to feed into the production of engaging, high-quality performances:
one participant described the orchestra as ‘different, in that it takes risks […] everyone is taking
a risk because music is all the better for these extremes’ [Participant 7]. This orchestral culture
of aiming for excellence and pushing for new interpretations in performance provides another
explanation for the importance placed on the radar skill-set: without it, performers could not feel
free to take risks in the knowledge that their colleagues will be listening and responding to their
actions – whether or not the risks turn out to ‘pay off.’ For example, radar was seen as a vital
component for achieving satisfying and high-quality orchestral section playing, acting as a
mechanism for facilitating spontaneity of musical expression at a collective level:

one of the skills you develop is awareness of very small movements and changes all around you, […]
you need to be able to notice those things in order to adapt what you do. If the tempo from the whole
group is minutely different, you’d have to notice that right away, and also do something about it, and
try and fit it together again, and really, really good orchestras are really good at doing that, and bad
ones don’t seem to either notice or care. […] If as a string player everyone is playing [in] the same part
of the bow and going for the same type of sound, the result that comes out is going to be really interest-
ing. If everybody is doing slightly different things, then it won’t be terrible, but it just won’t be as inter-
esting. [Participant 11]

Additionally, the more experienced participants described how the demands of exhibiting radar
sustained their motivation and interest when playing repertoire they had performed with the
orchestra many times before, through the need to ‘keep an eye out, an ear open for everything
that’s going on around you. You can’t relax at all really, because every performance is different’
[Participant 5]. With this perception that a player’s own contribution to the ensemble can
always be improved, radar was valued in relation to the importance the players placed on
accepting and enjoying their own role within the ensemble (a skill which the majority of
34 Psychology of Music 43(1)

participants identified as important for orchestral work). Using the skills encompassed by radar
to good effect was seen as one of the primary means of doing one’s job well and contributing to
the production of excellent, responsive performances.

Social awareness and interpersonal skills

The majority of the participants (17 of 20) identified social or interpersonal skills when asked
about the skills and qualities required for orchestral work. Some discussed these in general
terms, stressing the importance of ‘being able to get on with people’ [18], while others identi-
fied a range of different qualities, including a sense of humour, humility, and a ‘good’ or ‘posi-
tive’ attitude. Four participants (three of whom were section principals, the fourth a member of
the orchestra’s board of directors) identified diplomacy as an important skill; and a significant
number (8) discussed the importance of tact, or social awareness, when interacting with their
colleagues. As Table 1 illustrates, it emerged from the analysis process that sensitivity and an
awareness of one’s own actions were related to a sub-theme conceptualizing the interdepen-
dence of musical and social awareness. An associated theme of diplomacy and adaptability was
also identified, a sub-theme of which was the ability to ‘fit in’ to the ensemble, while simultane-
ously retaining and (when appropriate) asserting one’s identity.
Just as awareness of others’ musical actions played a key part in radar, an interpersonal
awareness of colleagues’ behaviours and possible internal states was also deemed an important
quality. Some participants explicitly noted that a sensitive and adaptable approach was neces-
sary in both musical and social interactions within the orchestra:

just being switched on and listening to what’s going on around you and noticing if you’re out of tune
or … just being […] generally aware of what’s going on around you. And I suppose that applies to the
social side as well, being socially aware as well as musically aware. Because maybe your colleague
didn’t sleep well last night or is having trouble at home, and you almost have to become intuitive to
those things, so that you don’t put your foot in it, especially if you’re on trial. [Participant 2]

As this quote hints, some participants perceived causal relationships between their extra-
musical behaviours and the quality of a performance, particularly by recognizing the pressures
their colleagues may be under at given moments during a performance and then moderating
their own social and/or musical behaviour accordingly. For example, Participant 19 (quoted in
Table 1) described consciously creating a supportive environment when his colleagues have
solos to play by suppressing his own signs of nerves. Another woodwind player emphasized
how good working relationships between colleagues are a necessary part of working effectively
in a collaborative group context:

I think it’s the sense of creating something with a group of other people, that everybody adds their
contribution, and the finished result is a joint effort, and the spirit of cooperation and … well, to an
extent, comradeship, because you really do need to get on with the people you work with, even if it’s
just a sort of working relationship, it doesn’t need to be a deep friendship, but you really need to try and
understand people. [Participant 1]

It can be very, very difficult if people don’t really fit into a team. […] Because music is like a language.
It’s very intimate in a way. It’s all about communication, so if the communication is difficult or non-
existing … I don’t say that you have to be friends with everybody, but in a musical way you have to get
on really well. Otherwise it’s very dangerous for a section. [Participant 19]
Dobson and Gaunt 35

Table 1.  Social awareness and interpersonal skills, and their effects on group performance.

Sub-theme Sample quote

Sensitivity; awareness Some people don’t want to hear you practise backstage. Some people are funny
of own actions about it. . . . when you come out of college you assume that everyone is bright
and keen and desperate to listen to your amazing warm up that you’ve spent
four years perfecting, and they don’t want to. They’re not interested. They just
want you to do a good job on stage, so you actually have to almost learn how
to be quite discreet about it. I suppose that’s another social awareness thing as
well. [Participant 2]
Diplomacy and adapt- You have to be able to negotiate. . . . talking from the point of being in an
ability orchestra, not necessarily being a musician in an orchestra, I mean being part
of a group. [. . .] You talk to people in other orchestras and you realize that be-
ing in an orchestra like [this orchestra], orchestral musicians have very strong
opinions, but orchestral musicians in [this orchestra] have particularly strong
opinions. And they all want them to be listened to. So you have to accept that,
you know, other people are going to have very differing opinions to you, almost
always there will be somebody who has the opposite opinion to you, and it’s
a matter of finding a way of coping with that and seeing how to make a way
forward through that. [Participant 3]
Interdependence of To be a second player . . . you have to sort of be able to read somebody’s mind, to
musical and social a certain extent, and also be supportive, because the principal players get under
awareness a different kind of stress, and you want to make them feel comfortable. So even
if I get nervous about something, I sort of can’t really show that all that much.
I think that’s one of the great things about [this orchestra] – it [nervousness]
never becomes a selfish thing, it much more becomes a focus. Because if you
become nervous in a very selfish way, it can actually affect people around you
incredibly. It can really drag the experience down. [Participant 19]
Fitting in yet retaining I think when I first went into the profession it was very much a case of ‘oh I
identity have to get it right’. And so I adapted that way. Because in a way, the trial pro-
cess is quite . . . there are different ways of approaching it. There is like you said,
the way of saying ‘right I am here, this is me’. Or there’s . . . what I was when
I first joined the profession which was ‘I’m going to fit in, I am going to make
it all fit in’. And I think you need both really, to be honest. If you’re one rather
than the other I don’t think it would work really, so that’s part of the adapting
as well. [Participant 16]

Good working relationships are portrayed as a gel between players, establishing and opening
channels of communication that are required during rehearsal and performance. Successful
personal communication was perceived to facilitate musical communication in this context,
where the same large group of people plays together as an ensemble for a significant proportion
of their working lives. It is possible that greater emphasis is placed on working relationships in
this context than in other professions, relating to a team effort for a distinct common goal (the
performance) in which the majority of one’s working hours are spent in the direct presence of
– and in constant collaboration with – one’s colleagues.
The analysis revealed two related key mechanisms through which good working relation-
ships were engineered and maintained: tact and diplomacy. The topics of tact and sensitivity
were raised around a number of different scenarios. Being sensitive to others when warming up
or playing backstage was repeatedly mentioned, with a consensus, typified by Participant 2
(quoted in Table 1), that brash or ostentatious warm-up routines are one means of losing favour
36 Psychology of Music 43(1)

among colleagues. Participant 15 also described this behaviour in relation to working with the
orchestra for the first time: first impressions could be shaped by the way a player behaves in the
liminal stages of a rehearsal, especially if their actions do not correlate with their ability to meet
expectations in performance.

… don’t neglect the little bits of the job, the lesser bits of the music that you think aren’t going to matter.
[…] actually somebody coming down the line and just playing three bass drum notes beautifully is
going to impress someone at the head of the section far more than someone who comes in before the
rehearsal starts, [and] starts whizzing around the xylophone or flying around their Sibelius concerto,
because they [the triallists] can all do that. What they can’t do is just sit in a section and fit in and be
anonymous almost. [Participant 15]

An antipathy towards virtuosic displays might seem counterintuitive among an orchestra that
prides itself on its musical excellence. However, these accounts suggest that virtuosic displays
are disparaged because they do not relate to the primary function of the ensemble: to work as a
team to achieve a successful performance. In the orchestral context, where sections of musi-
cians all play the same instrument, these acts could easily be interpreted as competitive as
opposed to cooperative.
The participants who described the importance of tact and diplomacy also articulated that
when working and interacting within a large group good relationships need to be maintained
– both within one’s section and between sections. Some described devising their own strategies
to maintain a diplomatic approach and to mitigate against the possibility of offending

it’s possibly 90 other people on the platform and that’s 90 very different characters and personalities.
So you often have to bite your tongue a lot. You do have to be very sensitive often to people, which isn’t
always easy. […] you often have to count to ten before you say anything to anybody about anything
sometimes. [Participant 4, section string player]

As the quote from Participant 3 in Table 1 indicates, strategies must be employed not only to
maintain good relationships with others, but also to reconcile oneself with the need to frequently
compromise one’s own artistic ideals for the sake of group cohesion. For example, when asked
about receiving criticism, one player described how ‘it’s a problem because it’s a democracy, but
yet of course it’s not a democracy’ [Participant 8]. Highlighting the tensions induced by power
relationships in the giving and receiving of feedback within the ensemble, this stance makes
evident the realities of a working within a complex organism where one hundred people may be
simultaneously reliant upon each other. Individual parts may, on a momentary basis, fluctuate
in their influence on the group’s overall cohesion; while, on a more permanent basis, some indi-
viduals inherently retain greater authority and prominence than others.
The trial system of recruitment in UK orchestras was one particular contributor to the per-
ceived need for performers to exhibit social awareness and an ability to ‘fit in.’ The participants
highlighted the increased need for players to demonstrate tact and social awareness when on
trial, while simultaneously noting the difficulty of this process for a triallist, who – new to the
orchestra and only booked for specific dates – does not have the knowledge and experience of
the ensemble and its personnel with which to contextualize others’ behaviour, or with which to
moderate their own. Through this process, potential orchestral members are tacitly required to
demonstrate their ability to be a ‘team player’ [Participant 18] not only in their musical work,
but also in their relationships with colleagues throughout the daily life of the orchestra. As
Dobson and Gaunt 37

Participant 16’s quote in Table 1 shows, this ability to fit in must also be finely balanced with
retaining and asserting the very identity (both musical and social) which may have attracted
the orchestra to the candidate in the first place. The extremely high quality of shortlisted can-
didates means that personality, including the ability to ‘fit in,’ might realistically serve as a
deciding factor between two otherwise equal players. As one participant described, ‘the person
you choose is going to be the person who blends in with the section best, and whose personality
works with the people who are already there’ [Participant 1].
As discussed above relating to radar, this focus on effective working relationships is perhaps
elevated in importance because of this orchestra’s particular working context: the relatively
intensive schedules of British orchestras – which, in our sample’s case, also included frequent
touring – meant that the performers spend more time with each other, often under stressful con-
ditions, than may be the norm for colleagues, further emphasizing the importance of effective
interpersonal skills (cf. Gaunt & Dobson, 2013). In this situation, some players described how
working and personal relationships become blurred, especially when on tour, where socializing
with colleagues replaces the act of spending time with family or friends at home. Triallists are
therefore also judged on their abilities to manage working relationships effectively while under
stressful circumstances, such as being on tour (Gillinson & Vaughan, 2003, p. 196):

you have to be able to fit in, because it’s not just how someone plays. If you’re very prickly and people
don’t really get on with you, they’re not going to want you around, even if you’re a brilliant player. So
I think people skills are important as well as your playing skills. [Participant 5]

The data presented in this section therefore indicate that the distinctive work pattern of orches-
tral musicians – in which a large number of colleagues work collaboratively together on a daily
basis, and are often required to achieve a daily objective successfully – fuels the perceived need
for adaptability and sensitivity on both musical and social levels. As we have explored, specific
aspects of our chosen orchestra’s working context and group culture may mean that these
skills have been further privileged in the participants’ accounts, and that musicians from other
orchestras may prioritize the skills and qualities required for orchestral work differently.

Conclusions and implications

The prominence of radar and social communication was unexpected, and suggests that further
investigation of co-ordination and communication within large-scale musical ensembles is a
fruitful avenue to pursue. Existing research on co-performer communication (e.g., Ford &
Davidson, 2003; King & Ginsborg, 2011; Weeks, 1996; Williamon & Davidson, 2002) has pre-
dominantly examined musical interactions from the outsider’s perspective – through the analy-
sis of gestural cues, or the use of recordings to analyse synchronization in timing between
performers – and has consequently placed greater emphasis on the musical, rather than explic-
itly social, mechanisms of performers’ interactions (cf. Sawyer, 2005, p. 53). The present study
has shown the usefulness of gaining accounts from performers themselves about how such
processes take place, and demonstrates the value of gaining insights into performers’ intentions
in addition to recording and analysing their musical actions. While, for understandable meth-
odological reasons, existing studies on co-performer communication have gathered data from
small-scale ensembles, the present work has highlighted complexities of co-performer commu-
nication which would not transpire from studies of small-scale chamber ensembles. Further
work therefore needs to be conducted on musical and social communication in orchestral
38 Psychology of Music 43(1)

playing, investigating how radar occurs in specific instances within this context, and further
exploring the multifarious and interdependent modes of communication that operate between
individual players, orchestral sections, the ensemble as a whole and the conductor. As high-
lighted in the Results and discussion section, we recognize that the prominence of radar in our
data may relate to particular organizational features of the orchestra used for the research, and
indeed that this relationship may function reciprocally.
The findings of this paper add to an emerging body of literature (e.g., Gembris & Langner,
2006; Johnsson & Hager, 2008; Marotto et al., 2007) documenting the mutuality of musical
and social skills required for working effectively in the music profession. The present study is
among the first to document this interdependence of musical and social skills in the profes-
sional orchestral context, and to emphasize the importance of effective social interaction
between colleagues outside of the strict confines of rehearsal and performance. Recognizing
that these interactions can influence musical communication, and hence the overall musical
product, a significant finding of the present study is the importance attributed by players to
both a musical and social ‘fit’ between a player and their section. Whilst recruitment decisions
in many sectors have the capacity to be swayed by the perceived fit between a potential employee
and their future supervisor and/or team (Ostroff & Zhan, 2012), this may be greater in occupa-
tions, such as being an orchestral musician, in which colleagues spend the vast majority of
their working hours actively engaged in collaborative activity.
This article’s findings relating to musical and social communication suggest that, as a struc-
ture of collaborative activity, the workings of a successful orchestra may yield insights into
effective cooperation within large groups in other fields. In orchestral research carried out
within organizational psychology there has been a tendency to focus on mechanisms of leader-
ship and decision-making, with a particular emphasis on the conductor−orchestra relation-
ship (Boerner & von Streit, 2005; Hunt, Stelluto, & Hooijberg, 2004; Koivunen & Wennes,
2011). However, our findings indicate more complex levels of negotiation and communication
within the ensemble than can be represented by a single uni-directional flow of communica-
tion from conductor to orchestra: the participants devoted greater attention to outlining the
complex skills required for communicating and interacting with colleagues than to those
required for following the directions of the conductor. Sennett (2012) stresses the importance
of listening as an aspect of cooperation in both musical rehearsals and verbal discussions, and
a key finding of this article is the importance of the process of listening and then adapting in
musical interactions between players – often through tacit and non-verbal means – and the
high complexity and pace at which these processes occur. Further work could build on this
research to explore what might be learnt from the professional orchestra as a model of effective
cooperation and collaboration; elsewhere, we consider the concept of the orchestra as a com-
munity of practice, from material in the dataset not presented here (Gaunt & Dobson, 2013).
Finally, while orchestral studies from work or organizational psychology often focus on per-
formers’ working contexts, motivation and stress factors, they rarely link up with pedagogy to
consider how students might be better equipped for the demands made by an orchestral career.
The present research indicates that conservatoire training needs to address both musical and
social communication in ways which highlight the interconnections between the two, and
demonstrates that conservatoire training could do more to prepare students for the complex
modes of communication and heightened awareness needed to operate successfully in a profes-
sional orchestra. There are a number of implications of these findings for the conservatoire
sector which could be explored, including: finding ways to help students to focus on the pro-
cesses of listening and adapting, while still producing technically accurate performances;
Dobson and Gaunt 39

exploring further ways of introducing students to and/or replicating the professional orches-
tral working environment at appropriate stages during their training; re-aligning the conserva-
toire assessment system to give greater emphasis to assessing individual students’ collaborative
skills when working with others in ensemble rehearsals and performances; and educating stu-
dents about the importance of etiquette to maintaining social cohesion in the orchestral con-
text, while also making clear that behaviour conventions are likely to differ between ensembles.
In order to inform the ways that conservatoires attempt to equip students with the communica-
tion skills highlighted in this article, we recommend that more detailed retrospective work be
undertaken with successful performers to identify how they themselves acquired these skills,
and by what means they believe these skills can best be assimilated by today’s generation of
aspiring orchestral musicians.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-
profit sectors.

1. In presenting quotations from the interview transcripts, the following conventions have been used:
an ellipsis indicates a pause in speech; an ellipsis enclosed by square brackets indicates an editorial

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Interview schedule
1. What motivated you to become an orchestral musician?
2. What were the key influences and experiences which led to you becoming an orchestral
• [prompts:] Teachers
• Listening
• Studying
• Experience
• Parents
• Colleagues
3. What skills and qualities are essential in becoming an orchestral musician? What skills
and qualities pertain particularly to playing in this orchestra?
• Musical
• Instrumental
• Communication
• Self-confidence/self-efficacy
• Perseverance
• Versatility
• Personal organization
• Creativity
• Enjoyment
• High standards
4. What helps you to sustain your professional career?
• Practice
• CPD, lifelong learning
42 Psychology of Music 43(1)

• Exercise
• Networking
5. What part does your interaction with (or relationship to) your various audiences play in
sustaining you as an orchestral musician?
• Has this changed over time? If so, what were some critical experiences for you?
6. What do you enjoy most, and what do you find most satisfying about being an orchestral
7. What do you find most challenging about this orchestra/being a professional orchestral
• Are there things you miss in supporting your career?
• What do you feel are/could be the threats to your position in the orchestra?
8. What are your aspirations now as a musician? Have these changed from when you first
became an orchestral musician? If so, how?