The truth about orchestral players

  • 8 March, 2006
From "Toby Appel's Guide to the Orchestra"...

The members of the orchestra are divided into four sections. These are woodwinds, the strings, the brass, and the percussion. There's also someone standing in front of all these other folks playing no instrument at all. This would be the conductor. It is generally required that the conductor is required to make musical decisions and to hold all of the instruments together in a cohesive interpretation of any given work. Not so. Rather, the conductor is necessary because the four groups would rather eat Velveeta than have anything to do with someone from another section. And, as we know, musicians are quite serious about their food.

Why all the animosity? Before I begin my explanation, let me set the record straight in plain English about some of the characteristics which typify the four groups.

  • Woodwind players have IQs in the low- to mid-genius range. Nerds with coke-bottle glasses and big egos, blowers tend to be extremely quiet, cowering behind bizarre-looking contraptions - their instruments - so nobody will notice them. It is often difficult to discern whether a wind player is male or female.
  • String players are neurotic prima donnas who won't even shake your hand for fear of permanent injury. A string player will never look you directly in the eye. They never bathe carefully - or often.
  • Brass players are loud-mouthed drunkards who bully everyone, with the possible and occasional exception of a stray percussionist. They like to slick their hair back. Nobody knows why.
  • Percussionists are insensitive oafs who constantly make tasteless jokes at the expense of the strings and woodwinds. They look very good in concert attire but have the worst table manners of all musicians. They are always male, or close enough.

The Woodwinds

Oboe players are seriously nuts. They usually develop brain tumors from the extreme air pressure built up over the years of playing this rather silly instrument. Oboists suffer from a serious Santa Claus complex, spending all their waking hours carving little wooden toys for imaginary children, although they will tell you they are putting the finishing touches on the world's greatest reed. Oboists can't drive and always wear clothes one size too small. They all wear berets and have special eating requirements which are endlessly annoying and which are intended to make them seem somewhat special.

English horn players are losers, although they dress better than oboists. They cry at the drop of a beret.

Bassoon players are downright sinister. They are your worst enemy, but they come on so sweet that it's really hard to catch them at their game. Here's an instrument that's better seen than heard. Bassoon players like to give the impression that theirs is a very hard instrument to play, but the truth is that the bassoon only plays one or two notes per piece and is therefore only heard for a minute in any given evening. In order to keep their jobs, however -- and this is their only real concern -- they act up a storm doing their very best to look busy, usually by raising and lowering their eyebrows at an alarming rate.

It takes more brawn, and slightly less brain, to play contrabassoon. They are available at pawnshops in large numbers -- the instruments as well as the players -- and play the same three or four numbers as the tuba, although not quite as loudly or beautifully

Okay, now we come to the flute. Oversexed and undernourished is the ticket here. The flute player has no easier time of getting along with the rest of the orchestra than anyone else, but that won't stop them from sleeping with everyone. Man and woman alike, makes no difference. The bass flute is not even worth mentioning. Piccolos, on the other hand, belong mainly on the fifty yard line of a football field where the unfortunate audience can maintain a safe distance.

The clarinet is, without a doubt, the easiest of all orchestral instruments to play. Clarinets are cheap, and the reeds are literally a dime a dozen. Clarinetists have lots of time and money for the finest wines, oriental rugs, and exotic sports cars. They mostly have no education, interest, or talent in music, but fortunately for them they don't need much. Clarinets come in various sizes and keys -- nobody knows why. Don't ask a clarinetist for a loan, as they are stingy and mean. Some of the more talented clarinets can learn to play the saxophone. Big deal.

The Strings

Let's continue now with the real truth about this section. We begin with the string family's smallest member: the violin. The violin is a high-pitched, high-tension instrument. It's not an easy instrument to play. Lots of hard music is written for this instrument. Important things for a violinist to keep in mind are: Number one - the door to your studio should be left slightly open so that everyone can hear your brilliant practice sessions. Number two: you should make disparaging remarks about the other violinists whenever possible, which is most of the time. And number three: you should tell everyone how terribly valuable your instrument is until they drool.

The viola is a large and awkward instrument, which, when played, sounds downright disgusting. Violists are the most insecure members of the string section. Nothing can be done about this. Violists don't like to be made fun of and therefore find ways of making people feel sorry for them. They wear shabby clothes so that they'll look as if they've just been dragged under a train. It works quite well.

People who play the cello are simply not good looking. They have generally chosen their instrument because, while in use, the cello hides 80% of its player's considerable bulk. Most cellists are in analysis, which won't end until they can play a scale in tune or, in other words, never. Cellists wear sensible shoes and always bring their own lunch.

Double bass players are almost completely harmless. Most have worked their way up through the ranks of a large moving company and are happy to have a secure job in a symphony orchestra or anywhere. The fact that it takes at least ten basses to make an audible sound tends to make these simple-minded folks disappear into their woodwork, but why do they drive such small cars?

Plucked and Hammered Strings

Harpists are gorgeous. And they always know it. They often look good into their late eighties. Although rare as hen's teeth, male harpists are equally beautiful. Harpists spend their time perfecting their eye-batting, little-lost-lamb look so they can snare unsuspecting wind players into carrying their heavy gilded furniture around. Debussy was right - harpists spend half their life tuning and the other half playing out of tune.

Pianists in the symphony orchestra work the least and complain the most. They have unusually large egos and, because they can only play seated, also have the biggest butts. When they make mistakes, which is more often than not, their excuse is that they have never played on that particular piano before. Oh, the poor darlings.

The Brass

Trumpet players are the scum of the earth. I'll admit, though, they do look good when they're all cleaned up. They'll promise you the world, but they lie like a cheap rug. Sure, they can play soft and pretty during rehearsal, but watch out come concert time! They're worse than lawyers, feeding off the poor, defenseless, weaker members of the orchestra and loving every minute of it. Perhaps the conductor could intercede? Oh, I don't think so.

Trombone players are generally the nicest brass players. They do tend to drink quite heavily, however, and perhaps don't shine the brightest headlights on the highway, but they wouldn't hurt you. They don't count well but stay pretty much out of the way anyway. Probably because they know just how stupid they look when they play. It's a little-known fact that trombone players are unusually good bowlers. This is true. They're the folks to call with all your pharmaceutical questions.

Regarding the French horn, I have only two words of advice: stay away. Horn players are piranhas. They'll steal your wallet, lunch, boyfriend, or wife given half a chance - or no chance at all. They have nothing to live for and aren't afraid of ruining your life. The pressure is high for them. If they miss a note, they get fired. If they don't miss a note, they rub your nose in it and it doesn't smell so sweet.

The kind-hearted folks who play the tuba are good-looking and smart. They'd give you the shirt off their back. The tuba is one of the most interesting to take in the bath with you. It's a crying shame that there's only one per orchestra. Would that it could be different.

The Percussion

These standoffish fools who get paid perfectly good money for blowing whistles and hitting things don't deserve the considerable space they are allotted on the stage. Aside from the strange coincidence that all percussionists hail from the Deep South, another little known, but rather revealing fact is, there are no written percussion parts in the standard orchestral repertory. Percussion players do have music stands, and they do use them - to look at girlie magazines. Percussionists play whatever and whenever they damn well feel like it, and it's always too loud! The ones with a spark of decency and intelligence play timpani.

Most percussionists are deaf, but those who play timpani pretend to tune their instruments for the sake of the ignorant and easily-duped conductor.

The guy with the short nose who plays the cymbals is no Einstein, but he's also one of the best guys to share a room with on tour. Cymbal players don't practice - I guess they figure it's bad enough to have to listen to those things at the concert.

Percussionists pretend to have lots of kids whose toys can be seen quite often shaken, dropped, or manhandled to great effect. Whole percussion sections can be seen now and then on various forms of public transportation, where they practice getting up and down as a group. This represents the only significant challenge to a percussionist.

And that just about does it. I trust that this little tour has enlightened you just a little bit to the mysterious inner world of the symphony orchestra. This world, one which is marked by the terrible strain of simple day-to-day survival, is indeed not an easy one. Perhaps now you will be a bit more understanding of the difficulties which face a modern-day concert artist. And so, the next time you find yourself at the symphony, take a moment to look deeply into the faces of the performers on the stage and imagine how much more difficult their lives are than yours.

Comments (52)


wow you waste your time on something like this!! you sound soo stupid!! have you ever been in a band? and just because someone plays a certain instrument dosent mean they act the way some other guys act across the country!!

March 31, 2009, 9:12 p.m. #
If only you read the first paragraph.

This is seriously funny. I've been a member of a band for many years and, unlike the previous commenter, I can see the funny side of stereotypes. As a bassoonist, flautist and a pianist, I admit, my eyebrows possibly may have a mind of their own, and I often use the 'unfamiliar piano' excuse. I do protest to the big butt comment, however. Highly unfair. Still, such a funny summary of the orchestra, truly hilarious :D

July 25, 2010, 8:25 p.m. #

Can I ask you what instrument you play?

I play french horn and what you write about us was absolutely entertaining!
(I live with bassoonist. ;))

Sept. 26, 2010, 9:07 p.m. #
Maddie (bassist)

Surely the tuba?

Oct. 1, 2010, 11:13 p.m. #
standoffish fool

Reading this reminded me of my old high school band days ;)

I played the drums, and i always found that the percussionist always made bad jokes, and we always made fun of the rest of the band cause we could eat during practice and they couldn't Haha !! Good times !!

P.S. I'm not from the deep south

Oct. 22, 2010, 8:21 p.m. #

I laughed so hard while reading this post. I laughed harder after reading the first comment.

Twas amazing, absolutely amazing. Props to you!

Nov. 27, 2010, 10:39 p.m. #

I believe this is from "Toby Appel's Guide to the Orchestra"

Nov. 28, 2010, 1:01 a.m. #
Thank you :)

Perfection. You've interpreted the members of an orchestra down to a tee.

Nov. 28, 2010, 7:53 p.m. #
Sam (A bonafied Piranah)

Oh my, this is hilarious. I found every moment utterly gut-busting. Being a horn player I found what was written very very amusing! Very entertaining I must say, thank you for posting this delightful little diddy.

Oct. 2, 2011, 6:39 a.m. #

A Piranha! This just made my night. That reminds me of my Horn section. They're evil! A lot of this post is true I'd have to say.

Nov. 10, 2011, 3:09 a.m. #

As a clarinetist and bassoonist, This made me laugh. I am quite sinister and obsessive when it comes down to it!

March 28, 2013, 5:39 a.m. #
A Floutist

Piccolos do belong a football field. A rainy damp football field, where they can mold and die.

May 8, 2013, 12:27 a.m. #

That was the most entertaining thing I have read in quite some time:) well thought out!

May 8, 2013, 1:55 a.m. #

Love it! Some of your descriptions actually do ring true to some fellow musicians. Definitely was not a waste of time writing or reading! :-)

Aug. 30, 2013, 9:54 a.m. #

Sooo hilarious and accurate. Only one problem with this. Cellists are usually the most good-looking people in the orchestra, whadoya mean they're ugly?! And tubists generally aren't that attractive i'm sorry...

Aug. 31, 2013, 1:56 p.m. #

I just stumbled upon this while pretending to write a paper... Love it!!
I play clarinet, bassoon, and oboe - I think the stereotypes are perfect for myself. Especially the eyebrows, they're *always* moving when I play my bassoon! :) x

Jan. 17, 2014, 1:56 p.m. #
pongy farty

lol violas certainly sound better than any other string instrument. its the nice version of the violin!

May 6, 2014, 1 p.m. #

This is so funny! You hit the nail on the head with the woodwind section! Reeds are actually pretty expensive, though.

May 10, 2014, 10:05 a.m. #

Wow! This was hilarious! All through it I was giving you credit for the posting's humor and play on words. Then, as I was setting up to comment, I noticed that you only forwarded it. You done good! Thanks for forwarding it! Sure wish you could find and pass on who the author was so I could enjoy more of his craziness. I write my Blog in a similar style but I can only hope I do as well as the mystery author. My Blog is called called Foolishness...Or Is It? Check it out. It's not all silliness...Or is it? See Website (optional) above.

June 28, 2014, 6:18 p.m. #

(Firstly, was that math question in the posting info an attempt to find out our IQ to guess which instrument we play? I stink at math so I have no idea how I ever learned to read music at all.)

But seriously, this is a riot! I've played trumpet, French Horn, tried flute (didn't like it--obviously not a woodwinds person) and I've been working on the cello for about 4 months. The most difficult of the three for me personally? The cello. There are so many bowing lanes, techniques, positions, patterns, and that darned screeching and squeaking is "of the debbil'!! French Horn would be second--there are only three keys (and a trigger on some); if there are 13 notes, more or less 2-3 possible octaves possible, and 5 miles of swirly-twirly tubing that has to be tuned, then guess what has to happen? Yep, those fingers have to learn a lot of key variations and the lips and diaphragm have to be like a circus contortionist to cause the majority of notes to be made appropriately (That's why they say, "French Horn players make better kissers". Well heck yeah!) The flute was just an annoying pain and the sound of high-pitched whistling and a constant windstorm--instead of actual notes--was too unattractive for me to persevere on. The trumpet is easy to get a sound out of and doesn't require nearly as much air the 3-keyed French Horn; however, like the French Horn, the lips do a lot of work, especially with the higher notes.

So all that unnecessary information being said, the main thing is the hilarity of this article. I disagree with most of it but who cares? It was meant to be ridiculous no doubt. Well, SUCCESS! Nobody will EVER agree on the most difficult instrument because everybody possesses different abilities, and all are biased and convinced that their instrument is like the Holy Grail--such a holy object that they were surely hand-selected by God himself so as to enthrall and hypnotize the ignorant, non-musical masses with IQ's of 60 or less.

So there are my own unsolicited thoughts. Now you wish you'd just kept scrolling until you found a comment by a "sackbut" player, huh?

Aug. 3, 2014, 6:26 p.m. #

Harsh and blunt but funny :)

Aug. 5, 2014, 4:32 a.m. #
Niels Trumpeteer

Absolutely brilliant and true.
I would like to add, that I rarely trust a brassplayer that doesn´t drink...

Aug. 9, 2014, 6:33 a.m. #
Zac (Trombone, Tuba)

I think this is hilarious and what you have said about the brass absolutely 100% true

Aug. 9, 2014, 12:01 p.m. #

Now worried that you might get round to singers one day - except that we don't count as real musicians!!

Aug. 10, 2014, 6:11 p.m. #

Thanks ever so much for this. I've been an orchestral tuba player in the UK for over 30 years and I can confirm that every word is true, especially the bit about my instrument. My wife is an oboist, but isn't quite so keen on the analysis (you're quite right though)!

Aug. 10, 2014, 7:55 p.m. #

Hilarious. And true. Thanks for making me laugh! I play the violin...

Aug. 11, 2014, 6:47 a.m. #

Hey, TerryBaritone, he's not gonna do us.
For, as the man said: 'Like a dolphin is not a member of the family of fish, a singer is not a member of the family of musicians'!

Aug. 11, 2014, 8:04 a.m. #

You haven't captured the sheer weirdness and hilarity of the majority of viola sections!! We couldn't give a rats arse about having egos like the violins and cellos! Definitley the most fun section! Although our music is almost always boring and monotonous...

Aug. 11, 2014, 12:08 p.m. #
Cor Blimey!

Amazingly accurate!
As a Cor Anglais specialist I have to agree!!

Aug. 11, 2014, 12:26 p.m. #

As a clarinet player, I found this really hilarious in every single possible way. Especially the trumpets.
However I will be the one to complain that playing the clarinet is not hard, but playing it and making people not want to snap it in half and burn it in a fire is quite difficult.

Aug. 11, 2014, 1:03 p.m. #

Orchestral fluter here. It's all true! Well, most of it.
One thing very, very wrong though - no distinction between characteristics of 1st vs 2nd violins?!

Aug. 11, 2014, 3:05 p.m. #
Jerry Berglund

Haha... loved this. But no... I am a trumpetist. We are defenately not scum. BUt we tend to like bragging... haha. And yes we do love to play loud.

Aug. 11, 2014, 6:57 p.m. #
David Holroyd

I'm an organist ... what's to be said about US as a breed of musicians?

Aug. 11, 2014, 10:18 p.m. #

I am that scum! I do like to slick my hair back, and have no idea why!

Aug. 12, 2014, 12:25 a.m. #

Getting on and off stage indeed is the hardest part of being a percussionist. ;)
Love the percussion part, and our tubaist indeed is the nicest person in the orchestra.

Aug. 12, 2014, 10:18 a.m. #
Ted Chew

You forgot about the second violins, but that's okay. Nobody notices the seconds... *sob*

Aug. 12, 2014, 4:52 p.m. #

I reckon this could be the basis of a very penetrating thesis

Aug. 14, 2014, 9:22 p.m. #

Mr. Holroyd: you don't want to read an essay about organists, the center of the worldists, the we have to hear the organ above the taking off of 747s people. Organists think that "rank" means their position in the music world.

Aug. 16, 2014, 2:34 a.m. #
Van Tony Free

Would you happen to be Christopher Lamb, a Grammy Award-Winning percussionist. Also Principal Percussionist Of The New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Or are you related ?

Aug. 16, 2014, 1:40 p.m. #
Oboe Player


Aug. 22, 2014, 3:30 a.m. #
Oboe Player

This was written by Toby Appel. A violist, NPR presenter and a teacher at the Julliard School.

Aug. 22, 2014, 3:40 a.m. #
The Piper

Hilarious stuff! Thanks, though, for not skewering organists. Yes, I know. It would have been far too easy...

Aug. 22, 2014, 4:28 p.m. #
Katja (clarinet & saxophone)

Downright hilarious, a bit harsh though, but nevermind that :D

Nov. 13, 2014, 5:01 p.m. #
Tooo Bist

Yeah, tuba is a bitchin' ax. But I got so bored in concerts I got a second job pumping gas while counting rest measures. Still, my mirafone is a total chick magnet, you know, with the Naugahyde case and all.

Dec. 16, 2014, 12:39 a.m. #
Saxophonist and Bassoonist

Can you find one with saxophones in it?

Jan. 11, 2015, 10:07 p.m. #

This is kind of offending to me. I'm a flutist and I feel we play awesomely. I get along perfectly with my band. Plus oboists are not like that. This was an article that made me mad. Please, don't ever write an article like this again. This disappointed me. I'm sorry if I'm being negative but it's not fair to be made fun of. :( >:(

Jan. 11, 2015, 11:36 p.m. #

Violists are the inner voice. As we listen to the inner voice we, like Kafka, believe we have been transformed into cockroaches. It is impossible to reconcile the inner voice with what we hear around us. Hence the insecurity.

Feb. 14, 2015, 5:28 a.m. #

Showing my friends this. They think it's all too true.
(I especially agree on the synopsis on the Bassoon and French Horn players.)

April 11, 2015, 5:42 a.m. #
E Lillia

This was hilarious!!! I play the oboe and although it is not true, I really enjoyed reading it!!!

April 22, 2015, 1:53 a.m. #
Louisa (Horn,violin,trumpet,saxophone,piano)

This was spot-on!

July 31, 2015, 3:57 p.m. #

I must say, I feel a bit misled by this piece...where are my fine wines, sports cars and beautiful exotic carpets??

Aug. 5, 2015, 2:25 a.m. #
Charlie Tuba

The guy who wrote this must be a tubaist. Also as a brass player/tubaist, I can't slick my hair back. I have what some call a Jewfro (although I'm not Jewish).

Aug. 5, 2015, 3:52 p.m. #