I’m a bit concerned that this sudden outpouring of advice is making me look even more like a pompous gasbag than I do simply by virtue of being a conductor (and worse yet, a conductor who writes), but then there was this….
In the comments on More Tips for Soloists, composer Rob Deemer asks-
Nice posts, Ken – I would be curious to have you take your comments about concerti commissions one step further to give us your thoughts on working with composers in general, both in terms of writing non-concerti orchestral works and “tips” on how to work with a conductor & orchestra during a rehearsal for a premiere. Many of your comments in your previous post in regards to etiquette sounded quite close to my own thoughts on composers in rehearsals. I’ve given my own composition students plenty of advice, but it’s always helpful to hear it from another conductor directly.
The piece below started life as a post on Orchestralist (written in 2004) in response to one composer’s plea for help in getting their music programmed. It generated lots of comment at the time, including….
Dear Ken –
I am only now catching up with old orchestralist digests. I just wanted to drop you a line and thank you for your thoughtful and true posting concerning composers and conductors. Much of this I have been preaching for years and years, and I am glad to see a conductor saying it as well. And I found your descriptions of the opposition and preconceptions you encountered before the composer was even know to the board to be especially poignant. The same has happened to me on too many occasions, and I’ve actually had board members later come up to me and say, “hey I’m sorry that I didn’t want to give you a chance now that I hear your music. You’re stuff is nice!” Sigh.
But I especially found your comments on deportment and rehearsal protocols to be right on target. I’ve seen too many composers shoot themselves and everyone else in the foot with their own bad or unprofessional behavior in response to someone else’s bad or unprofessional behavior. I have found that it’s always best to make the best of things! Honey goes solo much further than vinegar!
Thanks again for your support of music of living composers, and again for your posting.
All my best to you and yours –
Linda Linda Robbins Coleman
Spectacular posting on Olist! Thank you for hitting the target so accurately.
Well intentioned advice from a conductor to (young) composers-
Helpful hints for getting your music played by an orchestra and surviving, even enjoying, the experience:
First, please remember that there is probably no initiative a conductor can take, except for firing a player, that will almost always generate more complaint and resistance than to program a brand new piece of music. Last year (2003), my orchestra (the Oregon East Symphony) had our first ever composer-in-residence (Emily Doolittle), and a year long focus on music by living women composers. Some members of our board literally tried everything they could think of to block this project. They even passed a resolution saying that our management was too busy to pursue funding, that the board was too busy to pursue funding, and that the orchestra, although comfortably in the black and ahead of our projections for grant income, was too poor to fund it ourselves. They also held up approval of the residency concept for so long that we were unable to apply for many of the normal grants for commissions. They literally forced me to go looking for funding myself and to prove that I wasn’t making the office staff help me. Imagine the reaction of the leader of that faction when we pulled it off and found a donor who would make the project (which was on a total shoestrings anyway) happen? Some players are also notoriously skeptical about new works- they often start making judgments about the piece right away, when they may be playing it so terribly that there is very little of the composer’s vision on display.
Composers, rightly, ask a lot of conductors. We are your advocates, and we have to overcome the skepticism or outright hostility of players, funders and audience members. Any time we program new music, we know there will be complaints, extra work for us, extra expense for the orchestra and probably some lost revenue thanks to those members of the public who would rather sit at home sulking than listen to something they don’t already know.
In the end, the residency was very successful. We gave three premieres, one US, two world, of pieces by Emily, one per concert. Each was better received and played than the one before. We also featured her final piece, “green/blue,” which we commissioned, on our educational concerts as well as the subscription program. Emily made school visits, and spoke to the kids about the piece at the concert. We have a great visual art center and community here, and we tried to connect Emily to that network. The visual art world has a completely different attitude than the music world about new material- it is the heart of what they do and makes up the bulk of what they present. We found that there were board members at the art center who had given many thousands of their own dollars to support living artists who had never even thought of going to a new music ensemble concert or supporting a new composition. As some of their leaders watched the residency unfold, heard this composer’s breadth of style over several concerts, and got to know Emily they began to get very excited about watching a new piece of music come to life. They recognized the same thrill of discovery they knew from their work with painters and sculptors- an attitude our own board could have learned a great deal from.
For my money, here are some basic things to keep in mind, if you really want your music to be played and understood. This advice is not artistic in nature, only practical. I really believe that you, the composer, hold your own professional destiny in your hands to a much greater extent than you know, although it may feel that you have more power to damage your situation than to help it sometimes. These suggestions are not presented to be condescending, but just as food for thought from a friend. They are offered with love and the deepest admiration for what you do, knowing full well that for many readers, I’m stating the obvious.
1- Always notate your music in the simplest, most traditional and straightforward way possible. Use Italian musical terms whenever possible- how would you do reading a score in Japanese/Polish/Hungarian/Sanskrit? Always present parts that are perfectly proof-read and beautifully printed. For whatever musical effect you want, find the technically easiest and most idiomatic way of achieving it. Never give up on your musical vision just to make something easy, but don’t spare yourself the effort of working at the playability of your music. Just because something “can be done” or “should be possible” doesn’t mean it belongs in your final score. Why waste time or goodwill of players or conductors if you can achieve the same musical effect with simpler means? Look at how Penderecki’s notation changed once he started conducting his own music. Look at Crumb’s music and try to understand why his crazy notation is an organic and indispensable part of the music- he had good reasons for re-inventing notation, but do you? Look at a passage like the infamous string arpeggios in Harris Symphony No. 3 and see if you could have written the same music in a more playable way. Ask a conductor or player for help in making a passage playable… wait, I meant as simple and idiomatic as possible (as simple and idiomatic as possible may still not be easily playable, that’s fine, and playable may still not be as simple and idiomatic as possible)- sometimes it is just a matter of splitting a part between two players. When writing for the harp or guitar, always show the part to a competent player before sending it to the orchestra. Note- As simple and idiomatic as possible for the piece YOU WANT TO WRITE- nobody wants you to sacrifice the clarity of your musical vision, we only ask that you find the most sensible way of expressing it to us, the performers. This is your job. This is the homework.
2- Don’t bring antagonism towards anyone else’s music into gatherings that include anyone but you. In any “us vs. them” match up, whether it is “new vs. old,” “tonal vs. atonal,” “US vs. Europe,” academic vs. self supporting, you, the composer, lose. More importantly, it creates unbelievable resentment among everyone whose support you need. You may hate Beethoven or Schoenberg in the privacy of your own home, but no matter what you hate, someone in the orchestra or the audience loves it, and if you convince them that you don’t listen to music with open ears, they won’t feel they owe you the same courtesy. More to the point, you may hate Mozart or Ligetti now, but someone in the building knows how much you could learn from them, and you’ll only embarrass yourself by criticizing their music. Think how silly Brahms and Tchaikovsky’s comments on one another’s music now sounds. Listen to the other works on the program with the same level of open-mindedness and interest that you want people to listen to your music.
3- When it comes time to attend a rehearsal for your work, arrive no less than one hour early. Check in with the conductor before the rehearsal, or ask the orchestra management if the conductor would like to speak with you. Be in the hall, score unpacked, five minutes before tuning, even if your piece is not first. Plan to listen to the entire rehearsal, regardless of how many works are being rehearsed, and try to listen with a score whenever possible- there is always something to learn, and the musicians will appreciate your interest in their work. When it comes time for your piece to be rehearsed, remember, the players may be enthusiastic or not, but they will definitely be nervous playing for you, and will be very anxious to please and sensitive to criticism. If there is something in the piece that is not presented in its most idiomatic possible presentation (see #1 above) they will be very defensive and frustrated, and if you blame them for a poor execution of it, it is just like the conductor who drops a beat, causes a train wreck and then tells the horns they were too loud- you instantly and forever lose their respect. Make notes while they are playing, and make a plan of what you want to talk about. If they are doing a run-through, be up out of your seat and at the edge of the stage when the piece is over, notes in hand and in order, ready to go, not wasting a second of rehearsal time.
4- The conductor and the orchestra want your feedback, that’s why you are there. However, you should always speak sotto voce with the conductor before saying anything out loud to the orchestra. You can only benefit from talking with her/him first- they may be able to clear up why there was a problem and save you valuable time and good will. When speaking to a string section, speak to the entire section, not just the principal. When speaking to the orchestra, speak clearly and loudly- mumbling only wastes your precious rehearsal time. Learn to phrase criticisms positively and respectfully- watching good conductors rehearse is a great lesson in semantics. Don’t point out obvious mistakes of concentration the first time they happen. Do give them your point of view about the meaning of the piece if asked or if the conductor prompts you, otherwise give your feedback in direct faster-slower-longer-shorter-softer-louder terms. If a player tells you something is unplayable, and you know it isn’t because you showed it to another player or it’s already been played, bite your tongue and talk to the conductor later. You can only lose in that conversation. However, ask yourself if, even if it is playable, could it have been presented more simply or more idiomatically? Make a note to ask someone who plays the instrument or the conductor for advice before the second performance.
5- Hang around in the breaks even if you are shy and even if nobody talks to you (welcome to the world of the assistant conductor!). You might get to learn something fantastic about an instrument that could help you in future with advice on subject No. 1 (writing as idiomatically as possible), or get a better sense of how the players feel about your piece. It is probably more positive than you think!
6- Learn to talk about your music, and about where your music fits in cultural history. Learn to talk about that Mozart/Beethoven/Bizet work on the other half of the concert. If invited for a pre-concert lecture you should be able to speak enthusiastically and lucidly about everything on the program. You should be able to answer questions about your own influences- people want to know. Forget the old “I let my music talk for me” crap. If you want your art to have a place in a lazy and anti-intellectual world, where every day corporations are spending tens of millions of dollars making and selling garbage music and garbage movies and garbage theatre and garbage TV, then you are going to have to learn to fight for your music by spreading your love of art and creativity (all art and creativity, not just yours).
7- Know something about the other arts- your biggest supporters may be people who are usually more involved with literature or painting. Also be prepared to share your general life interests- people want to know you live in the same world they do. If they understand that, your music will have greater meaning for them.
8- Always send your parts and score to the orchestra one week before the deadline– that is your real deadline. This means that if there is a problem in shipment, it is not a disaster. Once sent, make no changes or revisions- if you have done your homework (see #1 above) you shouldn’t need to. The second version is for the second performance. Always call the orchestra librarian to confirm that they have the parts and score- they are too busy to call you. Do not call the orchestra librarian or conductor to make changes or revisions (see above). If you find dozens of mistakes the night before the first rehearsal, you are about to get the performance you deserve. Do not call the conductor or the librarian. Go to the pub and start drinking, because you are about to have the worst experience of your musical life, and there is nothing you can do now. If mistakes reveal themselves in the parts during rehearsal, which they should not but will, fix them, but make not revisions unless you have the unqualified support and encouragement of the conductor, the librarian and the concertmaster. Otherwise, wait for the second performance.
9- If the conductor, or a player(s) in the orchestra are incompetent or mean, don’t let their shabby conduct drag you down to their level- others are watching, and you can go from victim to villain even faster than a conductor. Comport yourself with dignity, don’t generalize your unhappiness to include people who are actually behaving well. Do not try to take over the rehearsal- keep putting your comments to the conductor first unless the concertmaster/leader creates a dialogue with you (they are the ones responsible for saving the day when the conductor is a buffoon). Unless you are an expert, and I mean expert, never try to conduct your music in rehearsal- you might be a buffoon too! That idiot conductor might be a very good pianist, or composer, that’s probably why he or she thought she could conduct! If a situation can’t be fixed with positive language and specific musical suggestions, it can’t be fixed, so live to fight another day. If you show grace and composure, the other musicians will go to heroic efforts to save the performance, even if they aren’t huge fans of the piece (and there are few good pieces an orchestra can’t save from the clutches of an idiot conductor if they have to). Otherwise, wait for the second performance.
10- When it is all over, thank the players, and leave them feeling good about the shared effort. You may have reservations about their performance or your piece, that’s fine, but don’t share them. Instead think about what they, and you, have accomplished. Make sure to go to the reception, and seek out and thank board members. When you talk to them, tell them how helpful the people in the management have been, how good the conductor was, how much you enjoyed the soloist, or how you had played that symphony/overture/concerto back when you were a horn player. Tell people about what you’ve enjoyed in the community (BTW- always try to get to the local gallery and any non-classical music event you can make time for). When you get home, write a few thank you notes. Make your mother proud. All of this not only reflects well on you and increased the odds of the orchestra continuing to support you, but also greatly increases the likelihood the organization and community will support other composers in the future.
Wishing you the best of luck
Copyright 2003, Kenneth Woods