That first downbeat

I often get asked “what is the weirdest thing about being a conductor?”

Of course, it does beg the other question- “why does anything have to be weird about being a conductor?”

But, hey, who are we kidding?

So… Here’s an attempt to describe at least one aspect of my job that I still find a bit surreal, especially if I think about it too hard.

Of course, the obvious winner for strangest thing conductors have to do is starting the very beginning of the very first rehearsal for the first performance with a new orchestra.

(Incidentally, Karajan always used to say that all the conductors who died on the podium died in moments of preparation and expectation- just before a big entrance, just before a transition, just before a downbeat.)

It’s intimidating enough starting a concerto as a soloist for the first time in front of a new orchestra, but at least you know before you play the first note something about the instrument you’re playing on (although for pianists, the news is not always good). You might be nervous, but you at least have a certain security in the knowledge that “if I do this, I will achieve this result.”

No such luck for the conductor. You might have been able to listen in as players warm up to get a general sense of the level of the orchestra, but there’s no telling what will happen when you drop your hands for the first downbeat.
What this also means is that in these critical moments, it’s extremely hard to get good intelligence on how you’re doing, especially if you don’t know how the orchestra usually sounds. I remember once when I was covering at a major orchestra when a young-ish guy was in to do Pictures at an Exhibition. He was not someone who suffered from a lack of confidence. After the first read through, he was elated- he thought it was great and was sure the orchestra loved him.

What he didn’t know was just a few months before, at the end of the previous season, the same orchestra had done Pictures with Temirkanov, and it was absolutely mind-blowingly good. In that first rehearsal he thought he was doing great work because they had the piece in their bones, and they thought it was not going well because all those tingly moments they were getting with Temirkanov were missing. You can imagine how the week went- each rehearsal brought the orchestra’s performance closer to his level of conducting, which in his case was not a good thing.

Postulate- Rehearsals always bring the orchestra’s level of performance closer to the level of the conductor, for better or worse.

On the other hand with a less virtuoso band (we don’t like to say “bad orchestras” there are only badly conducted orchestras), it can be just as hard for the conductor to get his bearings in the first rehearsal. Again, I hark back to the soloist who knows- if I do this, I’ll get this back out of the instrument. The conductor might give a beautifully clear upbeat only for all hell to break loose. His or her first reaction might then be to think “Oh God! What have I done here- that must have been a really shitty upbeat!” when actually the problem was that half the orchestra had the wrong piece on the stand. In this case, adjusting one’s technique could be a disaster- should you beat %20 ahead just because the orchestra plays late?

Of course, in between these two extremes is where most of the conductor spends most of his or her professional life, and the more evenly matched the conductor and orchestra are in terms of ability and experience, the harder it gets for the conductor and musicians to accurately diagnose the cause and effect relationships that are going into the product of the moment.

On top of this, when there is a first encounter between conductor and musicians, everyone tends to be on best behavior and a bit more formal in their interactions, which makes it a bit harder for everyone to read each other’s responses. For instance, in my first week with an orchestra at the first rehearsal their might be a little oboe entrance that’s a bit late. When we come back to the same spot later that evening I might just give him a little look and the entrance is fine. It’s possible that my look fixed the problem, but it’s also possible the original problem was caused by the first flute asking him where we had started just as he was about to play. I don’t know, so I may keep giving him a look he doesn’t need or want at the expense of someone else I could be helping. He might be thinking my look was a sarcastic comment on the first late entrance, so every time I repeat it, he’s getting madder and madder.

If it’s my second project with the same band and the same thing happens in the first rehearsal, I might give the same player the same look the second time around. This time he’s watched me rehearse the band for a concert, and maybe we’ve even chatted a bit in the break. This time, when I give him the look he can make a little eyebrow raise which says- “thanks, tricky entrance there- help appreciated.” Or, he might just make a little face after the first mistake and roll his eyes at the flute player, and the I know not to give him the look the second time. Communication has become more immediate and specific.

Finally, there is another, opposite extreme, which is starting a first rehearsal with an orchestra you have a long working relationship with. Whereas with a new orchestra you have no idea what to expect, with colleagues of many years, you might know more than you want to about what’s going to happen. You know so-and-so hasn’t looked at their music, principal serpent won’t know where you’re starting from, and you can absolutely predict that your third horn is going to crack the note in the concert at letter R. On the other hand, they know you’re going to do all the same old rehearsal tricks you always do, that you’re probably going to take the Scherzo too fast and that you’re going to mumble when talking to the percussion, or whatever it is they think you do. Of course, I’ve just listed the negatives- there are huge, huge positives that come with building an understanding and a shared concept over many years, but I think most musicians tend to be pessimistic right before starting a rehearsal…. After all, no performance of a Beethoven Symphony or a Berio Sequenza is ever going to be as good as the piece itself.

Postulate- Rehearsing is something musicians do so we can live with the shortcomings of our performances.

Funnily enough, beyond these first few moves, there is no difference between working with an orchestra you’re in with for the first time and one you’ve conducted dozens of times. There is no difference between rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic and the East Croyden Street Sweepers Thursday Morning Sight Reading Camerata.

I decided early on, there was only one way to rehearse, regardless of the orchestra.
1-       Let the players play
2-       Listen
3-       Try to identify any aspects of the performance you want to work on
4-       Address the most urgent area of concern. You might do this with your hands, by rehearsing in detail, by breaking things into smaller groups, by rehearsing slowly, by throwing a tantrum (that one really works well). This part of the sequence should be infinitely variable, flexible and always fresh, as the others all stay the same.
5-       Repeat


Eventually, you run out of time and have to put on a concert.


c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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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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