A tribute to Glenn Gould- Ken Woods interviews Ken Woods Pt I

I’ve been feeling a bit uninspired here of late- probably a combination of being a bit too busy to really think about writing, and of not doing enough reading to feel I have anything non-autobiographical to discuss.

What I really need is a bit of topical guidance- maybe an interview? We love questions at Vftp, so why not open things up to a real reader interview? You can submit your questions via email.

Meanwhile, to get things going, I remembered Glenn Gould’s wonderful conceit of the self-interview. So, I thought I would interview myself on one of my favourite subjects- Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 and my performance of it last week.

Ken- So Ken, it was a big program last weekend- have you recovered?

Ken- I’ve completely recovered from the program- it wasn’t all that draining. I’m still recovering from the flu I picked up on the journey, but that’s a different story.

Ken- Aha- is that a bit of Glenn Gould inspired hypochondira? I seem to remember you writing last year that you were completely wrecked after that performance of Elgar 1. See here, here, here and here. That’s four posts on how tired you were. Were you exaggerating then? Was the rest of the program harder? Are you in better shape now, or what?

Ken- Well, sadly, I’m not in better shape, that’s for sure.

Ken- Yes, I can see that… When are you going to start cycling again?

Ken- To answer your question… No, the last time I did the Elgar, it was a slightly easier program- we paired it with the Khatchaturian Violin Concerto, which while rather (too)long, is very straightforward music. Second-rate music can be tiring to perform physically because it is repetitious, but it doesn’t demand much from the brain or the soul. It’s more like orchestrated folk music than classical music. The Vaughan Williams pieces this week, particularly The Lark Ascending, take much more concentration and energy than the Khatchaturian. The Lark- now that is a special, special piece!

Ken- So, what were the differences?

Ken- Well, the last Elgar 1 was at the end of a 3 concert day. I think you can safely say that “a concert is as tiring as the day the precedes it,” although I suppose Wagner would always be tiring. Then, the hall in Wrexham was REALLY hot, as opposed to Biloxi, which was just hot. A concert is also as tiring as the hall is hot. But, the biggest issue is transference.

Ken- what the hell is transference?

Ken- I’ve spent years trying to understand and negate transference, but sometimes one has to “manage” transference. It’s all about the first rehearsal- if you go into a first rehearsal for a program and a there are problems with preparation, it creates a general feeling of chaos, tension and anxiety. As the conductor, your first job is to dissipate that negative energy, but inevitably, much of that tension is transferred to you- they play behind the beat, so your arm gets tense when the sound isn’t connected to your motion, or you show a color and nothing happens, so your shoulders rise and tighten as you wonder- “did I not show that, or where they just not looking.”

Ken- So it’s always the damn orchestra’s fault?

Ken- No, far from it. Part, actually a big part, of what made me get into conducting was the experience of transference from the orchestra musician’s point of view. You come in, sit down in the cello or horn section and get on with your job while some turkey flails away like a drunken baboon. As the week goes by, they learn the piece on you, while you soak up all the shit they brought with them onto the podium. They get better through the week, but you, the poor player, get worse- more tense, more depressed, more uncertain. The conductor has sucked out all your musicality like a damn vampire, and you’re left feeling bloodless and cold.

Ken- So, how do you avoid transference?

Ken- Well, I think the fundamental mistake many people make is to think of a first rehearsal as the least important rehearsal, when it is really the most important. That’s the time that sets the tone and the mood for the entire sequence. When everyone comes in ready and with the right attitude, you still get transference, but it becomes positive transference– players absorb each others’ confidence, they get a shared validation in responding together to a conductor, and the conductor immediately starts to feel connected to the sound.

Ken- So, were these Wrexham folks really crap at the first rehearsal?

Ken- Not at all- they were incredibly fired up and played their hearts out, but it was amazing to hear the difference in their playing at the first rehearsal for this concert we’re working on now. They seem to have figured out that they can be a really fine band, so they’re coming the rehearsals with higher expectations of themselves, and way more confidence which is fab and very important. They’ve got some great new principal players too, which also helps. Anyway- the real reason that particular program was so draining was the schedule of the whole week. Way too much driving and too many programs.

I can think of many other more striking instances of negative transference, where it is taken me ages to recover from what might have been a GREAT concert, but a really rough first rehearsal. Transference is not only a moral issue- people might struggle in a first rehearsal in spite of the very best intentions simply for lack of skill, confidence or experience. There is always negative transference in the first rehearsal for a youth orchestra concert, but, wisely, Kent County Youth Orchestra always starts with sectionals BEFORE their first rehearsal to minimize that.

At the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect world- you’re bound to run into inexperienced playres, bad players and even bad people every so often. That negative transference happens- you’ve got to find healthy ways to unleash it.

Ken- Sort of like in that movie, The Green Mile, when the dude heals the sick person by absorbing their illness then pukes up a cloud of nasty bugs?

Ken- I never thought of it in such graphic terms, but yes- you can’t carry it around in you, whether you’re a player or a conductor. Some people use yoga, some use booze, some use excercise. Some may even vomit up bugs. However, the best thing is to create an atmosphere of trust, where everyone is coming in confident and prepared, so that all the transference is positive.

Ken- I see. I mean, in that movie, when he pukes up all the bugs, it’s not like he feels good. He, like, totally collapses from exhaustion.

Ken- Exactly- You can manage negative transferance, but it is like processing a toxin. Often, you really feel the toll it has taken on you when the concert is over and the adrenaline disapates.

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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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

4 comments on “A tribute to Glenn Gould- Ken Woods interviews Ken Woods Pt I”

  1. ComposerBastard

    ROFL! Ok you have outdone yourself with tis one. I can’t even come close. Although I am bewildered how you find any time for other things in life besides music and travel music and travel music and travel – stress relief and exercise and health for a start; family for a followup. ps: watch that bad karma focused out there….

  2. Bob Ellis

    Hi Ken. I enjoy reading your blog. The bit about “transference” and first rehearsals caught my attention. I’ve noticed that, in the various amateur groups that I’ve played in, the first rehearsal sets the tone for every subsequent rehearsal. And it’s usually evident after a few bars of playing whether the group is a promising one, or one that will continually struggle. And speaking of struggling, why can’t more musicians count? It’s one thing to struggle with counting the clarinet part of the slow movement of the Brahms quintet, which I have seen bring some very good amateur clarinetists to their knees. I am referring to tasks such as dividing a quarter note into triplets or sixteenth notes – a task which I have seen musicians fail at, over the span of multiple rehearsals. It’s difficult to understand the trouble when these problems can be so easily corrected by briefly practicing in front of a metronome. Do you encounter similar problems at the professional level? Do I take counting too much for granted because of my engineering background? And have I provided inspiration for future blog postings?

  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » From the mailbag- rhythm and sightreading

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