Shut yer yapper

Quote of the week from Boise–

He has decent things to say to the orchestra, but by the time he says them, you’ve stopped caring. It’s extremely difficult to pay attention. I’m trying, but failing miserably. I sat assistant principal last night, and that didn’t even improve my attention span. I am officially a bad person.Plus, talking is coaching. Coaching is not conducting. If you are talking, your message to the orchestra is “I am going to tell you what it is I want. There’s really no need to look up, because we will discuss it ahead of time.” Conducting is conducting. Musicians work for decades to achieve a vocabulary of effective physical motions that translate into sounds…why don’t conductors take this aspect as seriously?”

“Coaching is not conducting…. Conducting is conducting.” Love it. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m sure the conductor in question, whoever that is, would agree as well. In theory, a conductor only stops to talk when she or he feels that the orchestra has not responded to a gesture. If I show a fp to the band twice, and both times it’s ignored, I have to assume that they’re not watching, not reading or that it’s missing in their music, so we talk. The hardest thing for a conductor is having the eyes outside of your head to see clearly whether you _did_ show that fp or that diminuendo or that accelerando. As one, very famous, colleague and friend once said to one of the great British orchestras when told they couldn’t catch him, “Funny, it looked great in the mirror this morning.” Every conductor, from Bob the band director at the middle school to Karajan and Kleiber gets it wrong sometimes- you have to know that you can live with the certainty of your occasional but certain failures if you’re going to conduct.As a guest conductor, it can be more difficult to judge when to stop and talk, because there is no established rapport. It takes time for an orchestra to get used to a conductor’s gestural vocabulary, so the conductor may be tempted to panic and start coaching when actually the orchestra needs to see more of you conducting. I always try to run things in the first rehearsal, even with a band I’ve never seen. At first, you might feel like they’re not responding at all (some respond instantly, some take time, it depends on thousands of factors), but by the end of a run-through of a symphony, the dynamic has changed. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here… I’m well aware that what may orchestral musicians like is to play, and not to stop a lot. I think there’s an ideal that a sign of a good conductor is that he or she almost never stops. Run the thing, sort out any crashes, run it, play it. Of course, no orchestra member would ever rehearse their chamber ensemble like that. You don’t become the Tackacs Quartet by just running Bartok quartets over and over up to speed, and nobody prepares their solo rep running whole things up to speed. There’s nothing better as a conductor than knowing that the orchestra will put the laser beam on things and do 9 notes, and only 9 notes, until they’re perfectly together. I’m not talking nit-picking, I’m talking really focusing. When I first went to the Surrey Mozart Players, they made it clear early on that they didn’t come to hack through things- they wanted to properly rehearse. It’s made our work together more rewarding. Hopefully, I’m avoiding coaching- their schedule is still very tight. I suggest…

Coaching is not conducting. Conducting is conducting. Performing is not practicing. Practicing is practicing. Rehearsing is not coaching. Rehearsing is just rehearsing.


Jen’s follow up puts it even better-

“Let me say this: it’s one thing if you want to stop and talk about stuff, and we get right back at it. But if you stop and talk for upwards of ten minutes about an issue with no one playing, then we have a problem.”

I’ve made a point of not knowing who she is talking about- could be a relative for all I know, but I know what she’s talking about. Amen

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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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2 comments on “Shut yer yapper”

  1. Liz


    Friend of “boise” here…..Not sure the post was to discuss running through vs. detailed rehearsing.

    The isssue is more about overtalking to discuss a musical point when a conducting gesture is all that is needed. For an exerienced orchestral musician there is a standard Vocabulary of conducting gestures. We are trained to recognize these even with a guest conductor (if given the chance).

    The problem is that with music, describing intentions with language can fall short to convey the emotional content. Unfortunately this is an issue we all have to address.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Liz. Thanks for writing. I should perhaps have been more clear- I went on to discussing running vs working as a related topic. It’s obviously not what Jen was talking about.

    I would actually take your point even farther, which is that overtalking cannot replace a missing specificity of gesture, even if the talking did finally get the point accross. The conflict between what the orchestra sees (maybe nothing) and what it’s told means that nothing gets expressed in the end..

    However, I’m not sure that it’s so much the standard vocabulary of gestures. Even the most boring conductors have those and know those. What seems to have been missing here was a certain level of musical intent and intensity informing and initiating the gestures. If you’re not in the music, you can’t make the right gestures happen, and even if you moved and pointed and flailed in all the right ways, the orchestra wouldn’t respond because they’re not hearing your inner sound track.

    Thanks for writing and reading.

    All best

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