The coach goes to his bench….

I recently conducted a concert where nearly half the members of the regular wind section were missing for a variety of reasons. In a Beethoven sized group, we had completely different horn, trumpet and flute sections, and were missing our usual principal bassoonist.

The night after our first rehearsal I came upon a late-night broadcast of a random NFL game on UK Channel 5, which I eagerly settled in for in expectation of a taste of home. Before the game got underway, about %90 of the discussion had to do with the various injuries on both teams. Who was out for sure, who was a game time decision, who was %80. From there, the analysts quickly got into which team had the deeper bench, and which coach could get more out of his bench.

”Will this limit their play calling on offense?” “Will the defense tire in the fourth quarter?” “How will the quarterback adjust to not having his favourite receiver on the filed? Will he still play well?”

As the teams took the field, both coaches were asked how they were coping, and if there were any updates on so-and-so’s ankle. Like all good members of the sports-media profession, neither gave away any information, offering instead the kind of hopeful platitudes we all love…. “We can’t let those things distract us. We’ve got a game to play, and if we play our game, we’ve got a real good chance of winning this football game, but if we don’t play our game and they play their game, then that’s how you lose a football game… We’ve got some guys out, but other guys are in, and we’re confident they can step up and make some plays.” After this recitation, the commentators then comment eagerly on the coaches’ words of wisdom.  

Well, it couldn’t help but strike me that I was in a parallel situation, but not one I could handle in the same way- we weren’t going to be issuing an injury report the day before this concert. In classical music, we’re all conditioned to treat our working situations as if they were classified top secret- we could never admit to the public that they might not be getting the entire first string, because we sell perfection, and if a perfect organization has the perfect orchestra and the first oboe is sick, then the public is getting a second rate product….

Of course, often they’re not….. Lose one principal and an orchestra’s playing might fall off precipitously, lose another and everything gets better. Some musician’s tell you they have to miss a concert and you feel sick with anxiety, but the player two rows forward says the same thing and you can hardly conceal your glee… This isn’t just at my orchestras, it happens everywhere.

We keep punters out of the loop on this stuff to our own detriment, I think. Part of what excites the football audience is the build-up of tension as they know what obstacles the team is facing. Can they overcome injuries? Is the new guy going to step up and make a play? In sports, you can see a new guy come in and get better over a few games- fans take him to heart and cheer him on and get more excited about the team.

In the perfection business, we treat change as a dirty secret. More often than not, we’re not swapping better for worse or worse for better, we’re swapping personalities and styles. We’re getting different sounds, different temperaments. Why not tell the audience this? Why not let them know that Jeff has a new trumpet he’s trying this week- you might notice it has a darker sound?

Frankly, I don’t see it happening, but just for the record, look at which is more popular- sports or music, and think about which industry is more open about the minutiae of their craft with their fans…..

For me, incorporating so many new players into what is usually a very consistent line-up was a challenge, a pain, a blessing, and an interesting exercise, fun, rewarding and disappointing. I’d like to think I got the best out of my bench, and people stepped up and made some plays, and as they got into the flow of the game, we played more of our game plan and that’s how you win games in this league…..

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.

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2 comments on “The coach goes to his bench….”

  1. Andrew J Hodkinson

    Oh how very true, and we do ourselves no favours. Take ‘Concert Dress’ for example. Would any sporting team deliberately dress in something, restricting, awkward, and years out of date, just because it looks ‘good’! (Mind you there is cricket – strange game anyway!)
    I wonder how many audiences have the remotest idea how irritating it can be to play a violn or viola with a bow tie that insists on sitting North-South on your shirt, because it is in the way of the intrument. And DJ’s that have shiny lapels, that repel shoulder rests. Let’s get real out there! Bythe way I really enjoyed the concert last night at Wilsmlow. I am a retired string teacher,but also a conductor, and average viola player who has had a lot of chances playing with lots of pro-groups. I found your directing inspirational, and I am noted as a cynical and sarcastic bugger in the North-West. Keep up the good work.

    Andy – the hairy viola player at the front! Don’t know why I was at the front as I have never played for Wilsmlow before this term, never had time.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Andy

    Thanks much for the note- it was great having you in the section. The confidence and experience really helped, and also nice to have someone around who appreciates the challenges of the Kodaly!

    As you saw on Saturday, I’ve largely dispensed with the penguin suit in favor of something moderately more practical on every level. At some point I thought I just didn’t want to be in the middel of the finale of Mahler 2 wondering if my tie was straight or my cumberbund was coming undone…… It’s intense, physical work performing, and we can still look smart without making things silly.

    Hope to see you again soon

    All the best


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