Changing the bedside manner

I’ve been thinking this week about the whole question of the conductor’s bedside manner. 

It’s always been my belief that a conductor should choose his or her tone and approach and not let their way of working be too influenced by their work situation. I remember watching Peter Oundjian (former first violin of Tokyo Quartet, now MD of Toronto) in my student days coaching chamber music at CCM. In the rare situation where he had to deal with a resistant or arrogant student in a master class Peter never fell into the trap of being dragged down to the student’s level of behavior, but instead continued to act with his usual charm and good manners, even when he would have been well within his rights to throw the student out. To me it was a greater show of strength than the more common response of getting mad. 

Recently, however, I’ve had a few instances in which I suddenly realized that for one reason or another I had to change my bedside manner very abruptly. For instance, one of my basic approaches is to work under the shared assumption that both I and the players know when a mistake has been made or when something needs to be cleaned up. I feel a lot of technical work is best resolved through working toward a more musically valid performance. As a result, if something is not together, I might not address it directly right away if I feel that it will self-correct once the players get a sense of the phasing or just figure out what they need to listen for or watch for. I find that if you can use the rehearsal to get to a shared understanding of the music, and to get the players all listening to each other in the most helpful ways you only need to fix a very few technical things directly. In fact, it’s almost impossible for musicians to play out of tune or not together if they know what to listen for

However, I recently had an instance where I suddenly realized that if I didn’t immediately point out everything that was out of tune or not together, it would be assumed by some that I couldn’t tell or that it wasn’t going to get fixed. In this instance, it was a musician(s) I’d worked with before, where the performance went very well indeed, who seemed worried. Maybe I had made it look a little too easy the previous time? Maybe they prefer the security of a work approach where we identify each problem and work on it directly? To me, that’s a bit clumsy, but in this case I felt I had to do it that way to get the player’s confidence back, and we certainly didn’t have time to let things work themselves out over several rehearsals or concerts. In fact, it seemed clear that I needed to show them immediately that we could address the technical things before we worked on the music. I believe that’s an inefficient approach (as you may have to re-fix things once you put it into context), but maybe less inefficient than pursuing a path that a colleague is not comfortable with. 

This first came to my mind just minutes before a concert last spring. We had two major works on the program, one that everyone thinks is hard but is really quite forgiving and another that everyone assumed they could play brilliantly but is actually one of the toughest and most exposed works in the repertoire. I focused intently on the second work, absolutely confident that the first would be first rate in the concert. However, on the day of the show, I ran into several players who were actually rather cross that I hadn’t spent more time on piece no. 1. As it turned out, both pieces went exactly as I predicted, and the review spoke equally glowingly about their performance of both works. Had I not had those conversations, I might have walked away from the project feeling that I had handled the situation marvelously, but what I know now is that some of the players ended up not enjoying the experience of piece no. 1, even though it went well. They thought somehow we got away with it when we shouldn’t have. Had I even thought to say- “I know you think some of this is rather scary, but trust me, it will click into place in plenty of time,” they might have come away from the experience feeling better. They needed to know that I knew they thought they weren’t going to be ready and that I had a plan. 

I’ve seen this same sort of issue come up in conductor auditions. Even if an auditioning conductor can fix an ensemble problem with their hands and eyes, it may be a good idea to say something about it anyway or the committee may not know that you knew. You can just imagine someone on the committee saying “the first time through it was a total trainwreck at letter E and he didn’t even notice, then the next time the players fixed it.” Maybe the conductor had noticed and had non-verbally helped to fix it?

Of course, we all have our toolboxes, and we often change rehearsal techniques depending on what we think is the best approach to take, but what I came away from this episode with a new appreciation for is the need to know when to change tools not because the conductor thinks it’s the best way to make the music sound better, but because someone else needs to know you have that tool in your kit. 

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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.

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