Arts 101: Classical Music Lingo

If you’re a musician, do you scrape, bang or blow? And if you’re a fan of classical music, what are your thoughts about Rocky II?

Today we continue our series explaining unusual words and phrases in the arts by looking at the insider language of classical musicians.

Sam Bergman, a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, isn’t certain he and his colleagues in the classical music world use a lot of jargon. “We don’t really have slang because we have Italian,” he insists, but a recent conversation with the affable violist revealed a few examples to the contrary.

Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman

Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman.

scrape, bang and blow

Bergman credits the late Canadian singer and comedienne Anna Russell with nicknaming the string, percussion and horn sections of an orchestra scrape, bang and blow, respectively.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra performing in concert

The BBC Symphony Orchestra (photo by Lara Platman).

Rock / Proke / Shosty

Because their names are long and frequently appear in the orchestra’s repertoire, Bergman says it’s typical to clip the names of Eastern European and Russian composers. Therefore, Dmitri Shostakovich is Shosty, Sergei Rachmaninoff is Rock, and Sergei Prokofiev is Proke.

Pieces of music can get nicknames, too. “Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is usually just called Rock Pag,” Bergman says. “If we’re doing Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, it’s Rocky II.”

Sylvester Stallone circa 1983

“Yo, Sergei.” (Sylvester Stallone photo by Alan Light, used with permission)

fixed chair

Some of the on-stage furniture at Orchestra Hall has likely been repaired over time, but that’s not what “fixed chair” means. According to Bergman, a fixed chair is a musician with a title in front of his or her name, e.g. principal, assistant principal. The fixed chair in a section has a leadership role that Bergman likens to a team captain in sports. The remaining section members do not have a hierarchy. “In the Minnesota Orchestra, we revolve within the section, so every couple of weeks, we’ll switch seats,” Bergman explains. “The titled players, the fixed chairs, do not. They stay where they are.”


Osmo Vänskä isn’t among them, but some conductors like to call the trombones in an orchestra simply bones. Bergman doesn’t recommend this. “I think it’s a macho thing,” he says. “One of our other violists today was saying, ‘Really, conductors who say ‘bones’ should just be banned.'”

“the Marylou Strad”

Many people know that Strad is the shortened name for a Stradivarius, a violin made in the late 17th or early 18th centuries by renowned Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari. But here’s a lesser-known part: Because the violins have been around for so many years and only a few hundred exist, each violin tends to take on the name of a previous user or owner.

For example, when Sam Bergman was a youngster, one of his teachers was Marylou Speaker Churchill, the late New England Conservatory instructor and member of the Boston Symphony. Her violin is now known as the Marylou Strad.

The violin played by Joshua Bell is currently known as the Gibson Strad, named for a prominent 19th-century English violinist who once played it. Bergman believes one day this instrument will be known as Josh Bell’s Strad. To read the full story of this fascinating instrument — there’s intrigue, feuds and two thefts — visit this page on Joshua Bell’s official website.

Joshua Bell plays his Gibson Strad

Joshua Bell plays the 1713 Gibson Strad in the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Studio during a 2005 visit to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR photo/Vaughn Ormseth).

As for Bergman’s instrument? “I play a Canadian viola that was made in 1992,” he says, “so I’m the only owner it’s ever had.”

cane source

Double-reed players — the oboists and bassoonists — care about this deeply. A cane source is the person who provides the raw material double-reed players use to make their delicate mouthpieces. Because double-reed players spend hours each week scraping cane to fashion their reeds, finding a good cane source is vital.

Bergman playfully lowers his voice and shifts his eyes as if he’s selling “used” (ahem) stereo equipment out the back of a van. “When double-reed players find somebody who they consider to be a good cane source,” he jokily imparts, “they want that person to always supply them … and they probably want to limit the people who know about that.”

best hair

Bergman admits string players have their own obsessions, one of which involves having their bows rehaired several times a year. “We’re forever discussing who seems to have the best hair in town,” he says. “We’re always exchanging information on that.”

Finn Meyer is a luthier from Minneapolis

Finn Meyer of Minneapolis makes violins and violas, and he rehairs bows. The hair in his right hand is used for bows; it is clipped from horses’ tails, then cleaned and dressed. Meyer says good bow hair can cost as much as $700 per pound.

Bravo Man

This one is peculiar to the Minnesota Orchestra. Bravo Man is the name the orchestra members have for the person heard enthusiastically shouting “Bravo!” into the still-silent Orchestra Hall at the end of a piece. Bergman reveals that Bravo Man is a local artist whose real name is Egil. “He knows he’s Bravo Man and he actually calls himself that,” Bergman chuckles.

“He’s a nice guy, he’s very considerate,” Bergman continues. “He’s usually in the third tier and if there’s somebody in front of him, he’ll always cup his hands to his mouth and point his face to the ceiling so he’s not yelling directly into their head.”

Next Tuesday, visit State of the Arts for lingo from the world of book publishing.

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