Jazz Meets Classical

At some point, some of you jazz cats might get called up to do a gig with a classical ensemble, or even a whole orchestra! No need to be nervous—I’m sure you’ll do great, but you should know there are some subtle cultural differences between the jazz and classical worlds. It’s a good thing I’m here to help you out.

So here we go with the Professor’s guide for jazz musicians playing classical music:

Before the gig, you will definitely be required to rehearse. (A rehearsal is where a group of musicians get together to practice the music they are going to perform. Practice means to spend time playing your instrument trying to get better.)

Hot Jazz Jubile

Mozart-SaxThe thought of “winging it” doesn’t really fly in a classical concert, so make sure you turn up for the rehearsal. Oh and also, don’t bring beer to the rehearsal…or anything stronger for that matter. (Don’t get me wrong, classical musicians aren’t prudes, they just don’t do it out in the open.)

Now once you arrive at the rehearsal, you’ll probably be given music to read. Classical musicians like to write down—in advance—the music they are going to perform. Don’t panic! You won’t need to write anything down, but you will be given music to play, written down on paper. Don’t give it away that you can’t actually read music. When it’s put in front of you, best not to ask questions like “what are all these squiggly lines?” If you want to make a comment, keep it general. “Nice font” should do the trick.

On the night of the performance, you’ll most likely need to wear a tuxedo. Since the only times you use your tux are for your part-time waiter or stripper gig, I suggest getting it dry cleaned before the performance.

UpBeat Records

On a jazz gig, you normally enter the venue through the kitchen. Classical music is classier: the musicians enter through a special entrance called a “stage door.” In fact, you may not even see a kitchen the whole night! Don’t be alarmed if this is the case.

Once on stage, classical musicians like to tune up. Here’s what you do. When the oboe plays its tuning note, emulate the facial expression of someone trying to diffuse a bomb, and fiddle with your instrument for 30 seconds.

On jazz gigs, the guy standing in front of the band waving his arms is normally a random drunk idiot. On classical gigs, it’s the conductor. Although in essence he’s the orchestra leader, he’s not the boss in the traditional sense, so don’t ask him when you’re getting paid. Don’t high five him. And he won’t have any drink tickets on him, so don’t bother asking. Furthermore, the conductor doesn’t stomp his foot to count off a movement. He won’t even shout “1, 2, 1234” to start it off.

In fact—there are no count offs at all! He uses a little white stick, like a Harry Potter wand, and when he motions downwards everyone seems to just magically start at the same time. Don’t ask me how they do it. I’m still trying to work that one out myself. Throughout the song he’s going to point his magic wand to different people in the orchestra. If he points at you and looks excited: play louder. If he points at you and looks pissed: play softer.

Here are some final miscellaneous tips:


If someone else in the orchestra has a solo passage, don’t shout out words of encouragement. “Yeah man! Go get em!” doesn’t fly in the classical world.

Don’t clap your hands along with the beat. (Although personally, I doubt Beethoven would have minded, being deaf and all).

Don’t bring your friends up on stage to “sit in” with the orchestra. Jam sessions don’t really work when you’re playing a symphony.


Here’s a warning: classical music goes on for a while. Most jazz tunes go for a few minutes, but a symphony can last an hour! So try not to fall asleep. Also: If you have a large passage of rests, don’t go to go the bar.

I hope this has been some help for you jazz guys out there. Now clip on your bowtie, comb your damn hair and get to work!

(The Mozart graphic is courtesy Arizona Musicfest, which recently offered a program of “Classical Sax.”)


Reedman extraordinaire Adrian Cunningham is the leader of Professor Cunningham and his Old School Jazz Band, based in New York City. Adrian Cunningham was voted in a 2017 Hot House Jazz Magazine readers’ poll the Best Alto Sax Player in New York. His most recent album is Duologue, issued on the Arbors Jazz label. Visit him on the world wide web: www.adriancunningham.com.

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