Trust issues

Any smart conductor knows that one thing you never want to tell an orchestra, unless you absolutely have to, is anything along the lines of “watch me,” “follow me” any other turn of phrase that can be translated as “obey my will, you scum.”

On the other hand, there are times when the single most helpful thing…. Wait….. when the only helpful thing a conductor can do is insist that the orchestra play exactly what she or he is showing. If you’re not willing to insist on this when it’s necessary, you don’t belong on the podium. Also, if you’re unable to get the orchestra “with” you, your conducting will lose impetus and focus.

It is an area of some natural tension between players and conductors, which is understandable. An orchestra is made up of musical people, all of whom have their own musical instincts, ideas and beliefs, as well as their own experience with the repertoire. They don’t need or want to be to be bossed around.

On the other hand, when the musicians aren’t playing what the conductor is showing, there is an instantaneous trust issue in play, which can seriously undermine the ability of everyone to work together. If one member of the orchestra doesn’t know if the person next to him is going to follow the conductor in a rit, then you suddenly have 3 musicians who cannot trust one another, and therefore, can not make music in the moment. When there is a disconnect between what players see and what they hear from themselves and their colleagues, everyone’s confidence quickly starts to erode.

What is often forgotten is very often, when the conductor is most insistent on being followed, it is because the conductor is also following- perhaps a solo player in the orchestra has done something unexpected, perhaps a section has had a counting problem, or perhaps the composer has just whispered “faster” in the conductor’s ear. He or she may be breaking with routine for an urgent reason.

Of course, in my experience as a teacher of conducting, I find that one of the hardest things for many young conductors to learn is when and how to follow and adjust to the orchestra. In this sense, audition videos are largely useless documents- if you tell the orchestra enough times what you want, you can get them to do something you can choreograph yourself to and look impressive on tape. It tells an adjudicator very little about how well you, the conductor, listen and make the millions of tiny adjustments to what the orchestra is giving you that you need to.

One of the general principals taught to aspiring conductors is “show, don’t tell.” In other words, a conductor must learn to show what he wants instead of simply stopping and explaining. I might suggest we add to this “listen, don’t tell.”  The players need to trust that the conductor is hearing what they’re doing- I’ve seen successful conductors finish pieces several seconds before the orchestra by beating ahead so badly; this is not trust building.So- show first, then listen, then, IF YOU ARE SURE that not everyone is functioning at the same level of awareness, go ahead and insist. In the short term, you may be unpopular, but if you can build trust, it’s worth it. If the orchestra knows that what you need to say and that you lack the nerve to say it, you’ve lost another level of trust.

At the end of the day, when it works, we forget all about leading and following- we breathe together and trust. When we play in a state of trust, we are all responding to the same musical logic of the performance- chances are is everyone’ s been listeing to what has happened so far in a performance, they won’t need a lot of mid-course correcting as the performance unfolds. Chances are that if someone didn’t look, someone else didn’t listen- could be the conductor or could be a player. It’s diagnosing what caused the trust to break down that is the problem.

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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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