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

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Panelists

Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

Stick technique has already come up in this discussion (as was inevitable), mostly in complaints about The Hand. I'd like to ask the panelists to discuss what they like and don't like about the kinds of stick technique they've seen in front of their orchestras. In particular I'd like the thoughts of the panelists on the always thorny question of conductors beating ahead - or, to put it in a more conductor-friendly way, orchestras playing behind the beat. Why does that happen? Can it be fixed short of a conductor (or orchestra) transplant? Is it really a problem at all?

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William Buchman's Statement (Click to Hide)

William Buchman  

William Buchman

Assistant Principal Bassoon, Chicago Symphony

The conductor's primary purpose is to help the musicians in the orchestra play together. The size of the orchestra and its distribution across a large stage make it difficult for a musician to rely on sound alone to know when to play, especially in a hall that provides poor contact between different parts of the stage. Obviously, then, a musician needs to be able to make some connection between what she sees from the stick and what she hears happening around her. The closer this connection is, the more confident the musician can be that she is playing with the group.

Many conductors have developed a habit of beating ahead of the orchestra, some to the extent that the connection between stick and sound is quite tenuous. Simple math will tell you that a conductor can't beat a tempo that's different from what the orchestra is playing and not have that connection break entirely before long. In my experience, the ensemble at those times deteriorates immediately, and I have to conclude that the conductor simply isn't paying attention. Both instrumentalists and conductors have to keep the connection between their hands and their ears going at all times. Enough said.

In other cases, the conductor or the orchestra develops a habit of keeping a noticeable gap between the apparent impulse from the stick and the corresponding reaction of the players. The size of the gap will vary with the tempo of the music in a predicatble way. This can work fine if it's something the players are accustomed to. Orchestras that see a lot of different conductors, though (and conductors that visit many different orchestras), are sure to find that it's hard to adjust to a delay that falls well outside an industry average -- in the tails of the bell curve, as it were. In the era of jet travel and peripatetic maestros, I would predict that the remarkably large delay becomes less common.

As prevalent a problem is the failure of a conductor to maintain a beat pattern that is clear. The first thing any of us learns about conducting is the various patterns for 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc. It doesn't make sense to me that such a fundamental element of the technique can be entirely discarded. Especially in difficult, unfamiliar or mulitple-meter music, the musicians need every clue they can get about where they are in the measure. If you're looking intently at your music and make a momentary counting error, you want to be able to look up and find your place immediately. If all you see is a pattern of 1-1-1-1-1-..., you're out of luck. More attention to the beat pattern would prevent a lot of erroneous entrances.

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Don Ehrlich's Statement (Click to Hide)

Don Ehrlich  

Don Ehrlich

Retired Asst. Principal Violist, San Francisco Symphony

The Beat, and Where It Is.

First of all, we talk about stick technique. I've had a lot of conductors who don't use a baton, or who put the baton down for a period of time up to a couple of years. How can you have a stick technique if you don't use a stick?

We were fortunate to play a concert set with Sir Georg Solti conducting us. Talk about a stick technique! All he did was wave the baton in the air. No beat visible. Yet somehow we knew exactly what he wanted; and in the end we ended up sounding just like the Chicago Symphony.

In a like vein, the first time we had Eugene Ormandy conduct us, he started the rehearsal with the last movement of Beethoven #7. He set the tempo, and then just sat there not moving, not conducting at all. Eventually, he gave us the cupped-hands thing (as in Your In Good Hands With Allstate). So we sawed away a little harder. We ended up sounding like the Philadelphia Orchestra. Again, no baton technique at all, just a motion.

So somehow, I find that the baton technique is less important than the talent/charisma of the conductor.

It has been my experience that the best conductors do intend the bottom of the beat to come before the moment of the beat that we play. It seems as though they want to indicate to us by the quality of their beat that we will need to be playing in a certain manner when we get there. If the beat is strong, we'll play with an articulation; if smooth, then legato, etc.

Also, every conductor has a different take on where the beat should be. One conductor said that the beat should be when he gets to the top button of his vest on the way up. Another one that I know wants the beat to be at the top of his stroke; that is, he goes down, hits bottom, comes up, and at the top, that's where the beat is. It sounds complicated, trying to adjust to all this, but frankly, they adjust to our playing as much as we adjust to their beat; it all works out somehow.

There is one other thing here, as well. Often the brass (for example) delay their beat; they play behind where the rest of us are. If the conductor gives the brass a beat that's really quite early, they know where to put their notes. It seems to me that this is an important part of conducting technique especially when the instrumental group is far away.

Not too long ago Rostropovich conducted us. He's a great musician but not a very good conductor. He evidently consulted a real conductor when he couldn't get the brass (for example) to play with his beat, and the real conductor must have told him what I outlined in the previous paragraph. So when our brass section was late, his first response was to blame the brass. "You're late!" (This is something else that bugs me, when the conductor blames us for his deficiency.) Then when he would repeat that passage, he'd flip his beat a little early and the brass would be correct.

So for the most part, I agree that the conductor's beat should be in front of the beat. I have said, and so have others, that when the beat gets so far in front that it is disconnected from the music, that is a recipe for disaster, unless we can just ignore the conductor.

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Craig McNutt's Statement (Click to Hide)

Craig McNutt  

Craig McNutt

Timpanist with Rhode Island Philharmonic & Boston Modern Orchestra Project

The key components for a healthy relationship between conductor and orchestra vis-à-vis stick technique are consensus and consistency. The orchestra must come to a consensus as to where they play in relation to the ictus, and the conductor must be consistent in the placement of that ictus and where s/he feels the beat relates to that ictus.

The first part of that equation, consensus, swings heavily in favor towards full-time orchestras. The more a group plays together, the more they have a feel for where they are placing (or at least feel they are placing) the beat. Orchestras that are part-time are not so fortunate in this regard, not only due to their lack of communal working time, but also the fewer number of conductors they see, and thus learn.

I personally have never had a major problem with the actual basic technique of a conductor, at least those who have attained a fair degree of success in the field. I have had more problems with the attempts of conductors to use all approaches of conducting at the same time within a given piece or concert. Things usually don't go well when the first movement of Eroica is styled with Boulezian precision, but the conducting of the subsequent movement looks like Karajan circa 1985, with the conductor expecting the sound to speak 3-5 seconds after the beat. This is an offshoot of the "real personality" discussion from my Day 1 post.

As for why this whole thing happens, I prefer to sidestep the question, given historical and cultural issues that the history of conducting carries. Furthermore, I don't know if I see an actual problem that can be fixed without changing something that is a core component of the art. And, like many things in our field, the best cure might be more practice...

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Gaylon Patterson's Statement (Click to Hide)

Gaylon Patterson  

Gaylon Patterson

Violinist, Memphis Symphony Orchestra

In my thirty-odd years of orchestral experience, I've encountered all flavors on the podium. I've seen micromanagers, and the ones who just want to go home early. I've seen great technicians who have nothing to say, and artists with a lot to say who don't know how to say it. The "ahead-of-the-beat" phenomenon isn't necessarily my first complaint, but I do recognize that it's an issue worth exploring.

I would estimate that 80-90% of the conductors I see (as in, right in front of me, on the podium) are "ahead-of-the-beat" conductors. I don't know where this tradition started, but I'm happy to join any chorus of players who would prefer to see an ictus in real time. On the rare occasions when I meet a conductor who wants to be on top of the beat, s/he always has to tell the orchestra, "No, you're behind me — the beat is here, and I want the sound to coincide." The first iteration is useless, of course, but the second generally produces an orchestra that responds very quickly and precisely.

I have never understood the "behind-the-beat" phenomenon, and would submit that if more conductors would insist on accurate rhythmic precision, then we'd all be playing better performances.

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Francine Schutzman's Statement (Click to Hide)

Francine Schutzman  

Francine Schutzman

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

I admit that this is a subject that has always irked me somewhat -- not that orchestras play "behind the beat" but that some conductors (usually not regular orchestral ones, but people who are used to working with rock bands) ask us to play "on the beat." My question is, "Where is the Beat?" For me, it's when the motion stops -- when the hopefully downward motion of the first beat completes its natural arc and changes direction to move towards the second beat. The conductors who want us to play "on the beat" seem to be asking us to play somewhere in the middle of that arc, and of course we all interpret that differently. It seems to me that it makes much more sense if the conductor realizes that the orchestra can play together (at least, that is always the goal) if we wait for the end of the motion. So I firmly deny that there is a problem unless someone comes in and proclaims that there is one!

That much being said, I have certainly noticed that certain conductors get so excited about what's going on on stage (either that, or they're busy listening to some other -- imaginary -- orchestra) that they do beat considerably ahead of where the orchestra happens to be at the time. It's not just a matter of keeping the tempo going; I'm talking about a beat or two -- or three-- ahead. When this happens, I try to think charitable thoughts about how enthusiastic the conductor is, and then I do my best to ignore him and listen hard to my colleagues, hoping that they're doing exactly the same thing.

Since we're on the topic of stick technique, I'd like to mention a couple of things that drive me batty. I've already said, earlier in this discussion, that I don't appreciate conductors who make every beat look exactly the same, so that if you happen to miscount, you have no chance whatsoever of figuring out where you are. Another thing is conductors who hold the baton in such a way that it dings against their music stand from time to time. This is rare, but I've seen it and heard it. It's quite disconcerting. On the other hand, there seem to be some people who are meant to operate a baton. I am fascinated by the fluidity and beauty of some people's beats. It's like watching a ballerina with very expressive arms.

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Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

Who comes up with these wonderful questions anyway? (That's known as "sock-puppeting" when it's done by bloggers, by the way - at least when it's done anonymously.)

My pet peeves:

Moving too much. When conducting an orchestra, less is more. Then, when the conductor actually does more, it means something. The orchestra might even notice. (We did a kiddie concert the other day on music describing various means of locomotion. Like all kiddie concerts, it opened with "William Tell." Afterwards I heard some colleagues complain that the conductor was pantomiming riding a horse for the audience. I honestly hadn't noticed.)

Baton as fashion accessory. A conductor without a baton should look as helpless as an oboist without a reed. If it's not fulfilling a function, then its value is solely as a phallic symbol. And, if it is fulfilling a function, don't put it down when the tempo marking is Adagio. If you think that Allegro is crisp and Adagio is mushy, you're in the wrong business.

Bilateral symmetry. If both arms are always doing the same thing, then one of them should be left at home. Gestures should mean something.

On playing behind (or beating ahead)

Orchestras always play behind the beat compared to, say, choruses. My own theory is that it's an attempt to play with one's colleagues; or, to put it another way, to play with what one hears rather than with what sees. I find it gets worse in halls in which it's hard to hear side-to-side and when conductors don't seem to have a strong conviction about when the orchestra is going to come in after they beat. For me, it's less bothersome than conductors who follow the orchestra (although obviously conductors should react to what the orchestra is doing), especially when accompanying.

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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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