Robert Levine  

Robert's Rules of Order: A Primer

Robert Levine
April 9, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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.

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