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We were rehearsing one of the developmental episodes in the last mvt of Beethoven 8 last night (the march section), and were having some ensemble problems. It’s normal in passages with repeated staccato notes for players to suffer varying degrees of rushy-ness.

So, I had the cellos and basses do the section without conductor, which solved the problem for them, then added the violins and violas, also asking them to play the entire section without conductor. We always joke that it is depressing for conductors that orchestras always sound better when we don’t conduct, but it’s not really true that its depressing or that they always sound better. There are plenty of things that an orchestra can only do with a conductor or director (conducting from the concertmaster chair or as a soloist), so there’s no need to feel too threatened. However, doing things without conductor is a way to iron out and eliminate individual tendencies. Anytime things sound better in rehearsal, it’s a cause for celebration, and choosing when not to conduct is just as much the conductor’s concern as choosing how to conduct, so no need for tears.Everyone I’ve ever worked with is either a rusher or a dragger. It’s just human nature. Rushing and dragging are relative phenomena, so when a mild dragger sits next to a severe dragger, the severe dragger hears the mild dragger as a rusher and attempts to slow them down. When a real rusher sits next to a real dragger, they tend to both become more and more insistent until they completely pull apart from each other. Both musicians are so keen to be right that they get more and more wrong as they musically shout “you’re behind the beat!” or “you’re ahead of the beat!” When you take away the visual information, there is no longer any “right” time to play- you can’t be ahead of or behind a beat that doesn’t exist, so the only thing to do is play together. Take away the idea of a “correct” time to play, and you can quickly get perfect ensemble. So last night, as we concluded this short exercise, I gently reminded everyone that the real reason it always sounds better without conductor is that when the musicians are playing without me, they’re doing something in extra that they weren’t doing when they were playing with me. If they can keep that mysterious process going once I start carving the air again, even better things can happen. (I don’t think it even helps to name that process- it’s a mixture of listening, watching, compromising, counting and adjusting…. )  This morning I did the local community affairs radio show, the Coffee Hour (actually about 27 minutes minus commercials). I like working with Tom, the host. He’s not particularly interested in music, but is a great, easy interviewer. He never interrupts me but is great about getting in quickly with a question if my energy starts to flag. This should be a good concert for marketing. The weather is turning bad, which is good for concerts, and we have all the friends and family of the youth orchestra to attract. We talked about the flourishing of the youth orchestra and I tried to explain in laymen’s terms just why I’m so proud of this group and why everyone in town should be cheering them on, and we also talked about Leandro’s piece and the Dvorak a bit. Tom also hosts the local sports chat show. He’s got an idea that I know something about sports history (I sort of do, but only selectively), so I’m going to be brave and be his guest for the full hour of Sports Talk on Friday afternoon. For all the chat about the concert, probably the smartest thing I did this morning was repeatedly mention the 8-1 Green Bay Packers from my home state of Wisconsin. The novelty of a “classical musician” (read- figure of suspicion!!) actually talking about a football team will probably sell more tickets to the curious than anything else I could do or say.

Also on the Coffee Hour this morning after me was Senator Gordon Smith, who was calling in for a phone interview from DC. We exchanged “hiya’s” as I was finishing, but I felt it was a missed opportunity. I’ve always wanted to do political journalism, and would have loved to take the chance to interrupt him with “but Senator, surely when you refer to the “surge” working against “Al Quaeda” you’re aware that you’re talking about the group “Al Quaeda in Mesapotamia,” which is a completely separate political organization from the group that claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, and shouldn’t we make absolutely clear that there was no form of Al Queada whatsoever in Iraq before 2003?” Hmm…. Wonder how many tickets that would have sold?????? 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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