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Robert’s Rules of Order: A Primer

1 Robert Levine
parliament Editor's Abstract

I read a first draft of Robert Levine’s primer on Robert’s Rules of Order at a break in rehearsal — my colleagues refused to believe that an article about parliamentary procedure had caused me to laugh out loud. But indeed, Robert’s description of how to use Robert’s Rules to run an orchestra meeting is very entertaining, as well as very informative. I don’t believe you’ll ever think about meeting procedures the same way (nor be intimidated by them), once you’ve read this article!

Ann Drinan

There are lots of reasons that musicians cite for refusing to serve on orchestra committees (and especially for refusing to chair such committees). Many are reasonable. But one that is often used by unwilling musicians is not: the fear of parliamentary procedure. Fortunately for their orchestras, it’s a fear that’s largely unfounded. The basics of parliamentary procedure make good sense and take very little time to understand. And the basics are all that’s necessary to be able to run most orchestra meetings.


The term “parliamentary procedure” refers to a set of rules that govern the operation of a democratic assembly, and comes from the English concept of a parliament, a word that is derived from the French “parler” (to speak). There were democratic assemblies before the first English Parliament met in the 13th century (most notably the great governance bodies of classical Athens and the Roman Senate), but the English model is generally recognized as the “Mother of Parliaments.”

The guiding principle behind the Anglo-American concept of parliamentary procedure is simple: it is to “allow the majority to make decisions effectively and efficiently while protecting the rights of the minority and giving each member or delegate the right to voice [their] opinion.”


As with most clear and simple goals, the principle is easier to state than it is to implement. As a consequence, parliamentary procedure has developed a reputation for being esoteric, difficult, and elitist. But remembering, and acting in accordance with, the twin notions that the majority has the right to make decisions and the minority has the right to be heard will take any orchestra chair 90% of the way towards running a meeting well.

Where to Start

The best-known authority on parliamentary procedure is Robert’s Rules of Order (first published as the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies in 1876). The author was US Army Major Henry Martyn Robert. The genesis of the book was his experience in presiding over meetings of his church and his subsequent discoveries that 1) he didn’t know enough to do so and 2) that there were widely differing rules of order in different parts of the country and different kinds of assemblies. The structure he devised was based on the rules of procedure of the US House of Representatives.


Other versions of rules of order are similar to Robert’s Rules; Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure in particular is an excellent source of examples for the budding parliamentarian, and also contains much information regarding such matters as elections and the writing of bylaws. But the vast majority of US organizations that need rules of order use Robert’s Rules, which have the additional advantage of being widely available both in print and on the Internet.

Basic Rules of Procedure

Meetings of all but ad hoc bodies are governed by the constitution and/or bylaws of that organization (your orchestra’s musician association does have bylaws, right?). Some bodies (the AFM among them) have formally adopted Robert’s Rules in their bylaws as rules of order for their meetings. This is a good idea, especially if disputes arise regarding how business was done by the meeting that need to be resolved by an outside body.

Almost every aspect of parliamentary procedure is based on the concept of a “motion,” which in essence is a proposal for the meeting to make a decision of some kind. A motion can propose almost anything that is legal. But, in order to be able to be considered (in parliamentary terms, to be “in order”), a motion must be proposed (or “made”) at the appropriate time in a meeting. If, for example, an orchestra meeting is working from an order of business outlined in its bylaws and is currently considering the “minutes” (i. e., written summary) of a previous meeting, a motion to spend the entire assets of the treasury on a party for the conductor would be out of order (as well as dumb). But such a motion could be made during that part of the meeting dedicated to “new business” – although it would still be dumb.

Motions must not only be proposed by a member of the assembly but must also be “seconded” by another member (the major exception is a motion coming from a committee, which is considered seconded by definition). The intent behind the need for a second is to ensure that one wacko cannot tie up a meeting, intentionally or otherwise, with a series of bizarre proposals, each of which must be discussed and voted on, thus consuming time and (more important) everyone else’s patience and energy. While this does not protect the body against multiple wackos, experience has shown that such people generally do not share agendas.

One of the key concepts of parliamentary procedure is that of “rank of motions.” The most counter-intuitive aspect of this is that the most important motions, in terms of actually making substantive decisions, are the lowest on the totem pole of precedence. A “main motion” – a motion to spend the treasury on a grand party for the conductor, for example – can only be considered if there is no other motion pending (or “on the floor”). While this seems strange, it is core to the concept of providing for true deliberation by the body. Deliberation is protected because any motion to modify (“amend”) or postpone consideration of the motion has precedence over the main motion and must be considered first. The rights of individual members are protected because they can, at any point, raise questions about procedure or fact simply by “raising a point of order” or by “raising a point of information,” neither of which need seconding and both of which take precedence over almost anything else in the meeting.

An Orchestra Meeting You’d Like To Miss

How does this work in practice? Here’s how it might sound:

Chairperson: “Is there any new business?”

Musician #1: “I move to spend the entire contents of our treasury on a party for our glorious departing music director.”

Other musicians: [loud groans]
Chairperson: “Is there a second to the motion?”

[long embarrassing silence]

Chairperson: “The motion fails for lack of a second. Is there any further new business?”

Musician #1: “I move to spend up to $25 of the treasury on a going-away gift for the music director of a statuette of the Venus de Milo with a clock in her stomach.”

Musician #2: “I second the motion.”

Other musicians: [semi-audible grumbles about whatever instrument Musician #1 plays]

Chairperson: “Is there discussion of the motion?”

Musician #3: “I move to amend the motion by changing “$25” to “$10” and by changing “a statuette of the Venus de Milo with a clock in her stomach” to “a gift card from Target.”

Musician #4: “I second the amendment.”

Chairperson: “The amendment is seconded; is there discussion of the amendment?”

Musician #5: “I move to buy an ad in the local rag with a full-page copy of our last evaluation of the SOB.”

Chairperson: “The motion is out of order, as there is another motion on the floor.”

Musician #5: “Given that the #$!&* tried to fire half of the orchestra last year, why are we even considering giving him anything but some unpleasant disease?”

Chairperson: “That is also out of order; we are simply discussing the amendment at this time. Is there further discussion of the amendment?”

Musician #6: “Call the question.”

Chairperson: “There has been a motion to end debate on the amendment; is there a second?

Musicians 7 through 40: “Second.”

Chairperson: “All in favor of ending discussion on the amendment, please signify by saying “aye.”

Musicians 2 through 110: “AYE!”
Chairperson: “All opposed?”
Musician #1: “…nay?”

Chairperson: The motion to end discussion on the amendment is carried. We will now vote on the amendment. All in favor of…”

Musician #12: “Point of information!”
Chairperson: “Please state your point of information.”

Musician #12: “Is it even legal under Federal labor law (to which, of course, our bylaws are explicitly subordinate) for us to be giving gifts to our supervisor?”

Chairperson: “I don’t know, but we will check it out with Len Leibowitz before spending any money. All in favor of the amendment, please signify by saying ‘aye’.” [half-hearted “ayes” from most of the meeting.] “All opposed?” [a few “nayes.”] “The amendment is passed. Is there any discussion of the motion as amended?”

Musician #54: “I move to adjourn; it’s ten minutes to rehearsal and I want to buy a latte for the guest conductor before the rehearsal starts.”

Chairperson: “There has been a motion to adjourn, which is a privileged motion that takes precedence and does not permit of discussion. All in favor? [“aye”] “All opposed?” [“NAAY!”] “The motion to adjourn fails. Is there further discussion of the motion as amended? [long silence]. “Hearing none, the Secretary will read the motion as amended.”

Secretary: “that we spend $10 from the treasury to buy the departing music director a gift card from Target.”

Chairperson: “All in favor of motion?” [“…aye?”] “All opposed?” [“NOOOOOOO!!!”] “The motion is defeated. Given the lateness of the hour and the fact that most of you are on your way out the door anyway, the chair will entertain a motion to adjourn.”

Musician #109: “So moved.”

Chairperson: “All in favor?” [“AYYyyyyyeee….”] “All opposed?” [“……..”] “The meeting is adjourned.”

If you know enough to understand why the chairman acted as she did in the various situations thrown her way in the above meeting, you know enough to run 95% of the orchestra meetings I’ve attended.

Types of Motions

There are multiple classes of motions; the key ones, in increasing order of rank, are:

Main motions
Subsidiary motions
  • 1. Postpone indefinitely
  • 2. Amend the main motion
  • 3. Refer to a committee
  • 4. Postpone to a definite time
  • 5. Limit or extend debate
  • 6. Previous question (end debate and amendments)
  • 7. Lay on the table
Privileged motions
  • 1. Call for the orders of the day
  • 2. Raise a question of privilege
  • 3. Recess
  • 4. Adjourn
  • 5. Fix a day to which to adjourn

If this seems like a lot to master, most of these rarely come up in orchestra meetings (in 30 years of running meetings of various sorts, there are four of the above that I’ve never heard made, and a few more that I’ve only heard raised once or twice). There are, of course, many more possible motions of interest only to parliamentary geeks (i.e., people who can take Robert’s Rules to bed and not fall asleep reading them). If you’re worried about stumbling over one of these parliamentary obscurities, it’s entirely in order to propose to the body that a geek (formally known as a “parliamentarian”) be appointed, assuming of course you have one in your orchestra. There are even online courses to help you become such a geek:


Robert’s Rules, Orchestra Meetings, and Urban Myths

Many orchestra musicians have just enough exposure to rules of order for some urban myths to have developed around the subject. Here are a few.

Myth: Anyone can end debate by yelling “call the question!”

Fact: The motion “to call for the previous question,” which is actually a motion to end discussion on the main motion and prevent further amendments to it, is generally in order, but it requires both a second and approval of the body (although a savvy chair can save some time, if there is obvious desire on the majority’s part to move on, to simply ask if anyone objects to ending discussion). The usual practice, when such a motion is carried, is to let anyone speak who had indicated a desire to speak before the motion to end discussion was proposed (i.e., by standing at a microphone or raising a hand).

Myths: Nominations need to be seconded.

Fact: Not unless your bylaws call for that specifically.

Myth: Anyone can demand a secret ballot on any question.

Fact: Anyone can move for a secret ballot, but that motion requires a second and approval of the body. However, anyone can demand a count of hands after a voice vote (technically known as a “division of the house,” after the practice in the British Parliament of counting votes by having members leave the floor and walk through one of two doorways on opposite sides of the chamber to be counted).

There are times, however, when a secret ballot is required by law for labor organizations (and orchestra musician associations are considered labor organizations); in particular, votes on dues increases and election of officers. Unless you enjoy spending time with investigators from the Department of Labor, these are votes that should be run by the book.


In addition, AFM bylaws require secret ballots for contract ratification, while some AFM media agreements require secret ballots for project approvals as well.

The Art of Running a Meeting

Chairing a meeting is more than knowing procedure. The ideal chairperson is fundamentally a traffic cop; directing traffic, making sure it keeps moving, and preventing collisions. The ideal chairperson is a neutral mediator of discussion and business.

Adopting this posture can be a real problem for orchestra committee chairpersons, as it is unlikely (and even undesirable) that they really are neutral on most matters that come before their orchestra. After all, much of the business that will come before their orchestra are matters that they were deeply involved in negotiating with management or formulating with the various orchestra committees. It can be very hard to simply direct traffic and not engage in discussion with their colleagues on these topics.

Orchestra musicians can have another, more subtle, problem when moderating meetings. An orchestra meeting, with the chairperson standing in front of a group of seated musicians, can look very much like a rehearsal. It is all too easy for the person standing in front of the meeting to assume that anything said by one of those seated musicians is something that she needs to respond to. It’s been my experience, when chairing meetings, that most people, when discussing the business at hand, seem to be addressing me directly and not the meeting as a whole. It can feel almost rude for the chairperson not to respond.

But it is imperative for the chairperson to do just that; to not respond (unless, of course, it’s to a point of order or point of information). What the chairperson ought to be thinking about, when standing up at the front and (seemingly) the target of all remarks, is who’s due to speak next, how much longer is left before rehearsal starts, and other aspects of directing traffic. Having a chairperson who treats a meeting as a dialogue between himself and the other participants is the biggest paving stone on the road to orchestra meeting hell. If a chairperson feels a compelling urge to argue one side of a question, he should hand over the gavel to the vice-chairman or another officer and raise his hand to be recognized, just like anyone else. The meeting belongs to the people sitting down, not the person standing up. In that respect, as in many others, it’s most definitely not a rehearsal.

So don’t let fear of making a fool of yourself in front of your colleagues deter you from running for a position in which you might have to run a meeting. Some basic knowledge of parliamentary procedure, an ability to keep your mouth shut most of the time, and a desire to help your colleagues reach decisions democratically will take you over most of the hurdles. You might even come to enjoy it. After all, how many opportunities are there left in the 21st century to sound like a judge out of the pages of a Dickens novel?

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  1. Pingback by Polyphonic.org - The Orchestra Musician Forum - Robert’s Rules, according to Robert
    March 14, 2019 at 1:20 AM

    […] read a first draft of Robert Levine’s primer on Robert’s Rules of Order at a break in rehearsal — my colleagues refused to believe that an […]