After RCICW- Sustaining

It’s been my intent since starting  this blog to avoid autobiographical content as much as possible. I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to be particularly interested to know how excited I was to have my first authentic Cincinnati-style chilli in 4 years while at the Cincinnati airport on Tuesday. In fact, my initial response to Skyline Chilli and its many imitators was a mixture of bafflement and moral outrage. Cincinnati Chilli is not chilli at all, but meat sauce flavoured with cloves and nutmeg served on over-cooked spaghetti and covered in mountains of shredded cheese. By all rights it is an abomination and an insult to both chilli and pasta, but, in spite of this, its aroma and flavour haunt one, and eventually we all succumb to its delights and ache for its return as years go by without its delicious comforts.

Sorry, that wasn’t what I meant to write about at all.

My sole autobiographical point is that I am back home after my time in Portland (with the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop) and Durango (playing chamber music at the Clocktower Chamber Music Festival), and that, while my recent travels and projects may have left me tired, they’ve also left me feeling more excited about music and inspired to study and practice than I’ve felt since the end of the season. 

Today, I want to re-visit one idea from the RCICW. One of the most surprisingly rewarding aspects of both year’s workshops has been how helpful pedagogical frustration is to my own thinking as a conductor. In other words, I can think of many examples where I’ve come away feeling like there was something I still wanted to get across more deeply and completely to the students than I did, so I keep thinking about it and obsessing over it, and that process greatly enriches my own understanding and mastery of the question.

So, in this post, I am going to talk about sustaining. 

First, lets make clear what I don’t mean- sustaining is not playing loud. Sustaining is not playing without shape, release or diminuendo. Sustaining is not pressing, Sustaining is not forcing. Sustaining is not strangling. Sustaining is not beating. Sustaining is not slowing down. Sustaining is not grinding. Sustaining is not keeping the same level of intensity.

For the conductor, the act of sustaining cannot be applied to one note, one phrase or one musical idea. Sustaining the sound is an act that can only be expressed in terms of the form of an entire musical work.

If you don’t have a vision and an understanding of the shape of an entire piece, you cannot sustain the sound.

If you have a vision and an understanding of the shape of an entire piece, you can’t help but sustain the sound.

Sustaining is direction. Sustaining is revitalizing. Sustaining is spinning. Sustaining is flowing, Sustaining is both opening and closing. Sustaining is varying the intensity of the sound constantly, but by just the right amounts. Sustaining is the result of rhythmic energy expressed as a combination of flow, cycles and impulses. Sustaining happens when there is a natural balance of predictability and surprise in the musical line. Sustaining is the opposite of both stasis and mania.
 For the conductor, understanding and expressing the sostenuto aspects of performance is one of our most important tasks, and perhaps the most widely ignored. The gesture that initiates a forte sound is not the same as the one that sustains it. The preparation that initiates a quick tempo is not the same as the ones that allow it to continue and to unfold naturally and inexorably. It is easier, and more obvious, to show the violence of an accent or sforzando than the resonance of the sound that follows it. It is easier, and more obvious, to show an entrance than to connect two entrances.

We think that events are important- cues, dynamic changes, beats, arrivals. Really, these are, at best, a mixture of roadmarks and scenic overlooks on our journey through the piece, and, at worst, they are detours, potholes and distractions. We must not mistake road-signs for the road. The piece is the road, and the engine by which we travel it is sustain. Call it line, call it long-range planning, call it architecture, but in sound, it is sustaining.

Sadly, I think that it is the least taught and understood aspect of conducting technique. The various loops, circles and bounces taught in the great texts and methods can much too easily chop up the line, ruffle the sound  and destroy the shape of the piece. Beats are the worst. We hammer, we chop, we carve away at the sound. When the orchestra is not together by even the slightest bit, we hit them harder with more verticality. Not cool.

Next, a musical example and technical discussion inspired by the RCICW.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “After RCICW- Sustaining”

  1. David

    Not only not cool (the beating to get the orchestra back in the groove), but utterly counterproductive. The best thing we can do in that circumstance (which, by the way, has usually been caused, directly or indirectly, by our beating too much) is to stop beating. It’s the only way the musicians (and I include the conductor in that lot) can listen–and hear–since we are such visual creatures, or have evolved into them and, given the opportunity, we’ll choose the eyes over the ears every time. Listening is, gee, why is this a surprise, the only path to making music together.

    I often rehearse in a space that, while it looks kind of nice, sounds terrible. Worse than how it sounds is how impossible it is to hear on the stage. From the region of the trumpets and trombones, the violins are a mere cloud, wispy and indefinable. At best, an irritation, since the conductor keeps saying, “Listen to the violins,” or some such nonsense, and they can barely see them, let alone hear them.

    But, you know, there has never been a time when my asking the orchestra to listen to each other (including the people in the back listening to the ones in the front) didn’t help–not just the ensemble, but everything, like shape, character, design, energy, and Ken’s pet-peeve, quality of sustaining. And there’s never been a time when beating more, or bigger, or more clearly, or whatever conducting students are encouraged to do would have helped. Even in that lousy acoustic in which everyone seems to be in a 64,000 Dollar Question isolation booth. (That last reference will date me severely.)

    Why is it that conducting text after conducting text focuses about 80% of its attention on loops, swirls and icti, and so very little on how to listen. To answer my own rhetorical question, I suppose it’s nearly impossible to write about how listening is at the core of being a conductor and then expect to sell books.

    Perhaps more on Ken’s sustaining later, but I just had to fire off a response to his closing comment.

    David Hoose

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Actually, sustainnig is only a temporary pet peeve. My only real pet peeve has been discussed in this blog before…


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