Virtual Discussion Panel
:: Baton down the hatches
:: 10/9/07 - 10/19/07

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About this Virtual Discussion (Click to Hide)

Ann Drinan  

Ann Drinan

Senior Editor
Discussion Moderator

Question: what do you call 100 conductors at the bottom of the ocean? If you answered “a good start,” you probably play in an orchestra.

Robert Levine and I are pleased to moderate what should be a lively discussion about musicians' perceptions of, and reactions to, conductors. We don't intend this to be an exchange of conductor jokes (which thankfully are replacing viola jokes! — both Robert and I are violists), but we do expect a certain amount of levity.

But our main goal is to provide a forum for constructive criticism. We rarely, if ever, get a chance to evaluate our boss, whose ability (or lack thereof) is so critically important to our own success in presenting a concert. Polyphonic is pleased to offer that rare opportunity — so critique away (without getting personal; we reserve the right to edit any comments made about a specific conductor).

We hope that our conductor colleagues will take heed and perhaps learn a few things from reading the exchange. We also hope that we musicians can share new perspectives on an age-old pastime: complaining about the person standing up on the podium waving his/her arms.

Robert set the stage for our panelists' Day 1 posts by asking them to list five things they would change about the behavior of conductors in order to make working for them a more positive experience than it often is.

Panelists

William Buchman's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

William Buchman  

William Buchman

Assistant Principal Bassoon, Chicago Symphony

I can recall many times when I've thought I could tell a conductor to stop doing one or two things in order to get an improved response from my colleagues (and myself), but I never got up the nerve. I thought it would be too presumptuous, or I just didn't care enough to stick my neck out. But some problems are quite widespread, and can be summed up in a few principles. (For conciseness I'll refer to conductors with the male gender, but no bias is intended.)

I'll start with a generalization: the less a conductor talks, the more I like him. Some conductors seem incapable of showing their ideas with their hands. There is certainly a technique to conducting, just like there is for a musical instrument. A conductor's hands are his most important tools, and I can only assume that he has resorted to words because those tools have failed him. Imagine if an instrumentalist had to explain with words every idea she had about what she was playing. You'd say, "Don't tell me what you're trying to do, just do it!" The same goes for the conductor: show me what you want with your hands, not with words. I'd even extend this to the habit some conductors have of telling the orchestra where they'll be conducting in two or in four. If you find yourself needing to explain all the time what you want or what you're doing, perhaps you should put a critical eye to your stick technique.

Other issues emerge from an apparent lack of trust on the part of the conductor. When, in the first rehearsal, a conductor stops the piece in the second bar to make corrections, he has already lost my goodwill. A good musician usually can hear the same errors the conductor hears, and will be happy to be given the chance to fix them without having them pointed out. Given a bit of time and momentum, a lot of problems will go away on their own, and the conductors I prefer to work with will let us read a whole movement or piece before picking it apart. Obsessing over every detail, or spending an hour on thirty bars of music, will only get one labeled as a micro-manager. Better to focus on the big picture and trust the musicians to work out the details.

Time management seems to be another issue for many conductors. I think it should be expected that the conductor will have a clear plan of how his rehearsal time will be used and will hold to that plan as closely as possible, especially when there are personnel changes from one piece on a rehearsal to another. I've played too many rehearsals where musicians sat waiting for their piece to get called, only to go home without playing a note, and too many concerts where some pieces were severely over-rehearsed and others barely even touched upon. One incident comes to mind: A German-speaking conductor had only one rehearsal for a program, and arrived at the end of it with the final section of one piece not having been played. Frantically paging through the score, he cried out, "Zese last few bars will be in vier," to which a wag in the back of the orchestra responded, "Yes, in constant fear!"

In summary, the conductors I like working for are the ones I respect, and who I feel treat me respectfully in return. I am most satisfied as an orchestra musician when I'm given a clear picture of what's expected of me, along with the freedom and trust to produce it as I see fit. It's in that environment that I've experienced the highest level of music-making, and that, after all, is what we're all looking for.

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Don Ehrlich's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Don Ehrlich  

Don Ehrlich

Retired Asst. Principal Violist, San Francisco Symphony

Baton Technique
I think that baton technique is overrated. A conductor can have the most elegant stick technique, and yet if there is no poetry behind the technique, there will be no music made.

And yet there are times that a good baton is essential. And then, for example, if all the beats go up-and-down with no differentiation between the different beats, that can only confuse us musicians.

Most conductors I've worked with conduct in front of the beat. I feel that what the conductor does is tell us how we are supposed to play when we get to the beat. It is of no use, however, if the baton is so far in front of the beat that it is disconnected from the music. That's when we have to ignore the conductor, if only for self-defense.

Conductors like it when we look at them; but for us, if what we see isn't of any use, looking can only be confusing. And if the conductor isn't present, if he/she is phoning in his/her part, what are we supposed to be looking at?

Relations to the orchestra members
Just as on parenting, there is no way to make rules of behavior. I would be appreciative, though, if conductors would remember the fact that we have to have a partnership in delivering the music to the audience. Power trips will trip up the performance.

In my experience, the best performances were those when the conductor was able to both stay away and let us play, and also to lead us to what he/she wants. Too much control can turn us into a CD player; but too little control means no point of view to give to the audience.

Too many conductors, in my view, are so involved in trying to bend musicians that they forget that we are people, too. Toying with us is a sure-fired way to breed resentment, and that can only hurt the final product.

And in this vein, what with the intensity of the schedule that most orchestras need to maintain, we musicians get injured. It's called Repetitive Stress Injuries. Is what the conductor does contributing to this problem? Could it be that a little less intensity demanded from us could prolong our careers and help the conductor make music with us over years? (I would also like to address this to the composers, too, who seem to revel in trying to expand our techniques so much that we get injured.)

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Robert McCosh's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert McCosh  

Robert McCosh

Principal Horn, Calgary Philharmonic

I remember once having to respond to a reporter, because I was on the search committee for a new conductor, to answer the question, "what are the musicians looking for in a conductor." I said, "God." And then we both laughed because we both knew there was an element of truth in the response.

Everyone so far has already mentioned many of the things that bring out our best or our worst when it comes to leadership from the podium. I would add a sense of humour(yes, we Canadians like our "u's"!). I've seen an atmosphere of fear and "reign of terror" with a new conductor turn completely around when the conductor said or did something that cracked up the whole orchestra. We then became one cohesive unit that was willing to go through fire (or at least Firebird) for her/him.

Another trait I admire is admittance of guilt. We've all experienced the conductors who administer the death ray when we mess up; but then when they make a mistake in rehearsal, they'll stop and try to deflect that with a criticism of some section or individual's playing, even though everyone knew the impending train wreck was of their doing. So a conductor who admits they too are human gets a lot of points in my book.

Here's the one that keeps me from joining the dark side: sense of rhythm in the stick. Many are simply time-beaters; others look like they're gesturing for Conductors Idol; but the good ones communicate internal rhythm. How they do that seems to be as closely guarded as the Caramilk secret. And probably more valuable.

Intonation, intonation, intonation. This gets glossed over a lot. Or they address it but don't know how. The best conductors evolve an orchestra to a higher level. But this won't happen if the conductor simply dictates up or down in pitch like air traffic ground crew. The best thing I've seen is the conductor having the basses/cellos play the tonic and then asking the musicians to tune to the strings. That way listening and playing in tune improves both individually and collectively.

And even though everyone agrees it drives us nuts when conductors stop and start ad nauseum, to take what is said and how it is said is important. If it is something that can't be communicated with the stick, or if the conductor is communicating it with the stick but the musician(s)is not addressing it, then communicating that is appreciated.

And because I know my brass playing colleagues will buy me a beer for mentioning it, I will close with the brass player pet peeve - getting the hand. There is nothing that loses more points with the brass section nor does more damage in the response from the player/section than giving the brass player the hand. This is particularly true when playing a solo, even if it is soft. The hand pointed palm out translates, as every traffic cop knows, into "STOP." That means stop using your air, suck it back in. This often results in a kak. So whoever out there is teaching this in conducting school, stop it! If you want something soft or softer, go with palms down and you'll get a thumbs up from the brass (and maybe a beer, though that might be pushing it). Cheers.

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Comments for Robert McCosh

Great points! An orchestra really plays its best when it feels like it is a cohesive unit. We are all on the same team, and if we feel like we are, the audience will feel that too.
Carol on October 10, 2019 at 3:55 PM


Craig McNutt's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Craig McNutt  

Craig McNutt

Timpanist with Rhode Island Philharmonic & Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Balance (noun) -

1. a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.

When I was deciding on a theme for my contribution to this discussion, I kept returning to the notion that we have to balance many different facets of our musical careers (and no I am not talking about issues of volume, although I am sure that will come up later). Whether it's working with a stand partner or negotiating a contract, we have to interact with others while maintaining our own sense of self. So with that in mind, here are some (I hope) balanceable facets of the conductor/orchestra realm: (Note I have avoided specific percussion-type stuff for future posts - I encourage drummers everywhere to chime in with their own concerns):

1. Give us a balanced diet of who you are and what your personality is. If we don't see the real you conducting, you won't get much of a return on your performance. If you are a meticulous type, by all means go over those details during rehearsal. The review likely will note your performance as "skillfully crafted." If you're funny, go ahead and give us a joke or two, or the occasional yarn. Don't beat it into the ground - then it becomes a shtick, and you probably would prefer not to be known on the circuit as "the comedian." And most of all, please don't try to be, or conduct like, someone else. Bad things can happen...

2. Find the balance between spontaneity and practiced. If you conduct with a complete lack of control, when you're simply trying to be spontaneous, you're going to get one messy show. Spontaneity works best when happening as a reaction to the moment. Don't plan to be spontaneous on Saturday from 8 to 10 PM. On the opposite end, please don't conduct the Beethoven 5 you listened to on your iPod the morning before rehearsal. If you're conducting the Northwest Southeastern Podunk Philharmonic, conduct them, not the original Szell recording. Otherwise, bad things can happen...

3. During rehearsals, balance the parts that are rehearsal, and those parts that are "practice performance." Go ahead and let the musicians try new ideas, especially in familiar repertoire. Some of them may work; some may fail miserably, but let them try. The last thing you as a conductor want is an orchestra that is solely concerned with playing absolutely correctly every single time. Then, at some point, come to the consensus about the performance with the orchestra. If you don't, I'm not sure bad things will happen, but they might...

4. Know what your orchestra's manpower is for staffing at the rehearsal. If you wish to move the brass onto risers, the percussion to the other side, and the harp to the front, be sure that this particular orchestra has the man(woman)power to do that efficiently, without epic disruptions to the rehearsal. If the orchestra has two very nice but volunteer stage crew folks, your favorite setup may not happen for that rehearsal. No bad things, just minor nuisances...

5. Time management - no balance reference necessary. Please rehearse at a natural pace. While we all might enjoy the extra leisurely paced rehearsal, in most cases (depending on the repertoire and the orchestra) that simply can't occur, and still end up with a top notch performance. On the other hand, can we avoid the cramming, like a high school student at the SATs? It gives you some of the worst rehearsals you could ever hope for...or not hope for. And, for those of us who count many bars rest (OK I lied about percussion stuff), please give us time to find where you're starting when you give us a bar number. It takes a bit of math to get to where you are when the starting point is in the middle of 159 bars of rest. And yes, bad things can happen...at least in terms of how the rehearsal sounds.

Disclaimer - The hardest part of this discussion is that the answers will vary widely based on both the orchestra and conductor. If it doesn't apply to you or your orchestra, consider it a success...good things might happen...

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Gaylon Patterson's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Gaylon Patterson  

Gaylon Patterson

Violinist, Memphis Symphony Orchestra

The Reign of Terror in the orchestra world is over. The autocratic maestro who rules with an iron hand and ends careers with a flick of a baton is no more. As orchestras continue to evolve and develop, musicians have to learn more and more skills that have nothing to do with playing an instrument. We have to be conversant in labor law, skilled at negotiating, judicious about using our increasing power in governance, competent at reading a financial statement ó the list goes on and on.

The same is true of the conductor. Stellar musicianship, great stick technique, and dazzling on-stage charisma are all great, but a successful conductor must also know how to "work" a party, pull off a convincing board presentation, make a case in a development call, and stage an engaging radio or TV interview, often all in the same day. I sometimes wonder how any of us have time to get together and make music.

A few conservatories are trying to prepare players for the new realities of orchestral work. I wonder whether conductors have access to similar training.

I guess I'm pretty lucky. I can count the conductors I've worked with that I truly detested on one hand. But there is always room for improvement. In response to Robert Levine's initial question, I'll throw out, in no particular order, five areas that conductors might do well to think about, in the context of their relationship with the musicians in an orchestra.

1) Respect. Aretha Franklin was spot on. We all have the same years of training and dedicated work. Few things are more off-putting than arrogance on the podium.

2) Willingness to learn. Conservatively assuming that an average orchestra musician has twenty years of experience on his/her instrument, a conductor is facing 1,500 to 2,000 years of collective knowledge. Musical ideas need to flow two ways.

3) Collegiality. Yes, the conductor is the boss, especially if he/she is also the music director, but collaboration as artistic equals is much more rewarding than just doing what you're told.

4) Concision. Say what you need to, but show me most of what you want. In performance, I get pretty right-brained, and am not thinking in verbal terms. It's better for me to keep it visual. It's also usually a lot more efficient.

5) Advocacy. The most influential spokesman on behalf of an orchestra's musicians is its conductor. It's really disappointing to see how many conductors won't go to bat for their players.

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Francine Schutzman's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Francine Schutzman  

Francine Schutzman

OCSM President, President Local 180, & Oboist with National Arts Centre Orchestra

In asnwer to our question for the first day: Hmmm... I can think of one thing: it would be great if all conductors could actually trust the musicians to play the music to the best of their abilities. I've often wondered what it is that makes an orchestra respond positively to one conductor and not another, and why some conductors have great results with one orchestra but not another. There's that elusive factor of chemistry, usual apparent from the first five minutes of the first rehearsal. I like conductors who don't waste time, but the single most important factor that draws me to a conductor is his/her trust in me (I will use the masculine from here on because of the statistical prevalence of males in the field, but please take my remarks to be inclusive of all conductors). If someone can indicate what he wants, look in my direction (it's amazing how many conductors don't acknowledge that a solo is coming up!) and nod or smile or do something that says "Okay, I've led you to this point; now it's your turn to shine," I will do anything in my power to make any suggested changes willingly. If someone tries to control every nuance, I will of course make the changes, but ... um... not so willingly. I will probably not enjoy the experience.

Perhaps I can break this down into five smaller elements:

Dear Conductors:

1) Please have your parts marked before the first rehearsal. If there are cuts, they should be either on your own set of parts or given to our librarian well in advance of your visit. Don't make us waste time marking our parts.

2) Please don't talk too much. Use your hands. If you paid attention in your conducting classes, that should be sufficient.

3) Please look at me when I'm about to play a solo. Please don't look at me if I make a mistake. That is, it's okay to smile in such a way that I know that you trust me to get it right the next time, but it's not okay to glare at me or to follow me around all week asking anxiously if I'm going to get the high note in the concert (this actually happened to me).

4) Please don't be overcontrolling. We're musicians, too, and we earned our positions in the orchestra. TRUST US.

5) Please be inclusive. If you have a remark to make to a section, make it to the whole section, not just the principal player by name (especially if the section has only two people in it). If you give solo bows (always nice), please include everyone who had a solo of some magnitude.

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Comments for Francine Schutzman

Solo bows: you have hit on a sore subject for many people. I would add, Please don't give solo bows to the same people as a matter of habit, when in some cases, they hardly had anything significant to play. Don't forget the solo cellist or solo harpist just because their solo wasn't in the treble register or consisted of chords instead of melody. Good articles, people!
Plucky on October 9, 2019 at 2:17 AM


Robert Levine's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

I'm supposed to be helping to moderate this discussion, not participate in it. But I found my own questions too tempting not to answer. So here are my five ways to have your orchestra not hate working for you:

Don't talk so much. No one became a musician because they wanted to hear conductors talk. I have sometimes fantasized about rationing conductors to so many words per rehearsal. Isn't conducting supposed to be a non-verbal thing? All that moving your hands around and such?

Talk to the point. OK, sometimes you'll have to say something. Tell us what you want in words that will actually help us achieve it. I know how not to drag, or how to play louder. I don't know how to make something "sound like the trees." Rehearsal is not a place for metaphysical explanations. It's OK to tell us (very occasionally) what the piece meant to the composer (if it's a fact and not your own fantasy). We recently did Mahler 5 and the conductor read us the words Mahler wrote to the Adagietto. While it didn't increase my respect for Mahler, it did help me to "get" the movement. But we don't need to know what the piece means to you. It means something to most of us too - but we're not wasting rehearsal time telling you about it, are we?

Feedback comes in two forms. If you tell us to fix something, let us know when we've actually fixed it. It's fine to tell the horns that they were behind at letter "B" and to run the passage again. If they get it right this time, let them know. A simple smile in their direction will do, although a verbal acknowledgement at the next stop is better. Presumably they wouldn't have been behind in the first place if they could tell whether or not they were. That means they also need to know when they got it right.

This does not mean continuing obsequious remarks about how wonderful we're playing. That falls under the category of "talking too much," and we won't believe it anyway.

If you screw up, admit it. It's better not to screw up at all, of course, but most musicians know that conductors are human (although they might not want to have to say so publicly). You know and we know when you miss a beat pattern. When we screw up, you call us on it. When you screw up, the only person that can call you on it is you. Not only is it basic good manners to admit to your own mistakes, it will greatly increase your moral standing to call us on ours.

Lose the attitude. Musicians are primed to condescension and even contempt from conductors. We're pleasantly surprised when we don't get it. Surprise us.

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General Comments on This Discussion (Click to Hide)

Great posts, all.

I have another to add. If you are new, don't diss your predecessor. It could be that the players actually felt favorably toward that person. Let your work and integrity speak for themselves. That's what we players have to do.

And echoes to the comments about good technique. We just finished a week with a previous conductor who is so clear we were able to really make music, without the stress of worrying about tempo changes, going with the flow of changing from subdivisions to large beat patterns, etc. What a joy!
CindyB on October 9, 2019 at 3:18 PM
Wow, this is an interesting discussion!

It seems as though many conductors missed the first day of conducting school- "One is Down."

What I would like from conductors is a simple, clear downbeat in every bar. Do whatever you want the rest of the time, just show me "1".
marktuba on October 12, 2019 at 1:24 PM
One more quality that inspires an orchestra to give its best: TRUST.

A recent young conductor trusted us enough NOT to rehearse an encore with us (there was very little time left in the one rehearsal he was given for an entire program). Result: a fiery performance and gratitude from the orchestra for the confidence he showed in himself, and the trust in our ability to respond to him.
Molly on October 14, 2019 at 8:31 PM
If you are a conductor who has never played a wind instrument, LEARN HOW TO BREATHE with your upbeats; audibly and purposefully. Doesn't have to be vulgarly loud, but giving a token, shallow intake of air or even none at all leaves wind players gasping.
chausse.1 on October 25, 2019 at 5:51 PM

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