RCICW Wrap up rap

And so, the concert finished, we celebrated our accomplishments with a few rounds of drinks and called it a workshop. The only thing missing is a comment or two from the students- who I knew read this thing….


It’s probably a silly exercise to try and sum up such busy week with such a diverse and talented group in one or two words, but I’ve been trying to. After all, throughout the week, we tried in vane to complete the simple exercise “is it happy or sad? Round or point? One word!”

Perhaps I can suggest that it is a sign that we were  unusually lucky or successful in picking repertoire this year, that I can find a couple of themes that seemed to run through everyone’s work with the orchestra, and to come up prominently in the final discussion and concert- completeness and flexibility.

Of course, the two ideas are intimately intertwined, and both are central to the conductor’s art (it’s no accident that Gunther Schuller called his book the Compleat Conductor). The repertoire was chosen not only to provide a nice variety, but to expose our incompleteness and inflexibility as musicians. The kind of very clear, pattern oriented conducting in music of Stravinsky and Copland, where the phrasing and the bar lines are almost one, is exactly the last thing you need in the Dvorak Wind Serenade. The ability to generate explosive musical impulses and control sudden shifts of mood called for in the Beethoven op 95 is not much help in pacing the huge opening tutti of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto. Again and again we saw that what you must do in one piece, you must never do in another (which simply highlights the silliness of so-called “conducting methods”!).

Again and again, we saw where our comfort zones were, what repertoire we’d lived in the most. An opera expert might suffer in Copland, while quartet-spieler who thrives on Beethoven might not be so comfortable breathing with winds in the Dvorak.

And of course, it is that repertoire we know least in which our lack of flexibility comes most rapidly into view. This is actually a bit counter-intuitive. Many young musicians think that the mark of knowing a piece really well is in developing rock hard convictions about it, but all too often those convictions are more justifications for our own wish to stay in a safe place on a piece we don’t know well enough. True mastery of a work means that we can effortlessly adapt our beating to the tempi of a soloist, or can switch from showing a phase idea to correcting a balance problem on the fly.

Every once in the while if I feel myself getting a bit rigid in my thinking, I try to re-target my study as if I were preparing for Beethoven or Haydn to come visit the rehearsal of their piece. I want to make absolutely sure that they’re not going to have to tell me anything that is in the score, but also that if they tell me “no, no, no- much, much faster,” I can do it. Each year and each traversal of a piece, I get a little closer to that goal, as will each of this year’s students.

But perhaps the reason this notion of completeness stands out so strongly this year is because it was such a strong class, and that there were so many students who had profoundly interesting and unique skill sets. One may breathe pretty well, but when you see someone who breathes amazingly well, you are reminded of your own incompleteness. You may know an opera work very well, but perhaps a colleague has not only a similar knowledge, but brings a fresher energy, or a more powerful performing presence. Simply knowing something backwards and forwards is not enough- we must bring that knowledge to life.

Throughout the week, we spoke of cultivating changeability and being omnivorous in the quest for changeability. Early in the week, I began spotting the “watchers” in the class- the conductors who managed to keep their eyes out of their own scores and on their colleagues and the musicians while watching the sessions. It seemed no coincidence at all that they were the most complete and changeable musicians. Happily, during the week, we could see that the watchers were themselves being watched- with the pattern so obvious to see, the whole class seemed to become more focused on trying to learn from each other, rather than sitting back contemplating how they might have done it differently.

Rest assured that the faculty were watching, too…..

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “RCICW Wrap up rap”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop- digest of journal entries

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