The right way to do things….

I’m tempted to start a new column here called “things that people state as facts but that aren’t.”

Of course, I won’t because I don’t want this blog to be too much of a downer.

Nevertheless, every once in a while, I hear or read a comment about music that I think needs challenging.

The latest of these came as I was watching a TV broadcast and the commentator said during the applause “of course, the orchestra works without a conductor, which means they listen harder to each other and you can hear the results of that listening.”

Now, it would be a little self-serving as conductor to write an entire blog post explaining that a conductor’s job is to help the musicians to listen harder and better, and that, in many ways, a good and wise conductor makes it possible for the musicians to hear each other better than they possibly could on their own. I could explain that one of the advantages of being the one person onstage not playing an instrument means that you can hear the whole, not just in relation to your own playing. I could explain that the conductor can then use eyes and hands to begin to balance things, creating an environment where the players ears are more focused on the whole than they might be if everyone is hearing only in relation to their own playing. The conductor can give a bit of objectivity, and can also help to direct listening like a good chamber music coach.

All that is true, but at the end of the day it is just as false to say that “of course the orchestra works with a conductor, which means they listen harder to each other, and you can hear the results of that listening.”

I’ve often played in conductor-less orchestras, and always enjoy it, but more as a pleasant exercise and change of pace. There are real limitations to that way of working, but it does also give the orchestra a chance to listen in a different way and to take more ownership of a performance, and the lack of ownership that players often feel working with a conductor is a huge, huge problem for orchestra musicians (and the audience!).

The problem with both statements is that they are symptomatic of a larger fallacy, which is that there is a foolproof way to make music. I call this the “magic formula” mentality.

People love the magic formula mentality. In fact, in our day and age, it has become, far and away, the dominant paradigm in the music world. Here are some popular musical magic formulas….

“Always do the metronome markings in Beethoven”

“Classical and baroque music sounds better on period instruments”

“Mozart should always be played by small orchestras”

“Old school interpreters of classical repertoire understood the music less well than we do”

I’d contend that one needs to study Beethoven’s metronome markings to understand his thinking behind them, what they tell you about phrasing and bowing and style and also to know his tendencies. You can’t just do them all, because some of them are wrong (probably errors of transcription), and you can’t just go by the cliché that his metronome was too fast, because some tempi are slower than most musicians find comfortable.

I’ve heard plenty of ghastly and dull performances of classical and baroque repertoire on period instruments, and plenty of great ones on “modern” instruments. No less credible an early music expert than Anner Bylsma recorded the Bach cello suites on a modern cello (that is a Strad set up in the modern way) with a modern bow, because he thought it was the best and most expressive instrument he had found for that music.

Mozart actually was always looking for bigger orchestras for his orchestral works (as was Beethoven), and was thrilled when he went to Paris for the premiere of his 31st Symphony and had an enormous orchestra at his disposal. Mozart wrote with the knowledge that he was unlikely to have orchestras as large as he would have liked playing his music, which means the conductor has to think hard about balancing what Mozart wanted with what expected and had already compensated for.

One of the beauties of being a performer is that there is always something new to discover in old music, but your new discovery does not mean that a previous performer necessarily understood the music less well, only differently. There’s no such thing as progress in performance any more than there is progress in composition.

No, there is no magic formula that guarantees a great performance. Even hard work doesn’t count. Even talent. You can hire the trendiest 25 year-old or the wisest grand-old-man, you can rehearse for months or play in the best hall. In the end, a performance is only is good as it is. The only real magic formula is to do a good job. That means the critic has a more difficult task, which is not to see if the performer is using all the trendiest magic formulae currently on the market, but to actually assess the quality of the performance on its own merits. Someone can be doing all the trendy stuff and still not giving a good performance, while another performer might seem terribly out of touch with all that’s in yet give you chills.

c. 2007 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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1 comment on “The right way to do things….”

  1. composerbastard

    …The latest of these came as I was watching a TV broadcast and the commentator said during the applause “of course, the orchestra works without a conductor, which means they listen harder to each other and you can hear the results of that listening.”…

    good grief! who’s the idiot who said that?

    Thank God we have conductors – to focus not only the orchestra to a single artistic goal, but also support the composer by having a fresh point of view for the “performance” sake. (we wont bring up all the garbage you guys have to put up with).

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