I can see the problem

The concert went well, but it felt treacherous from the podium for much of the way- a bit like driving on ice. Sometimes one has to make up for a slight shortage of rehearsal time with a bit of extra mental power behind the baton- fortunately, it sounded good even if it felt tough. On the other hand, the very end of Brahms 2 was damn exciting, and solid as a rock.

“It wouldn’t have been that exciting if you hadn’t yelled at them like that,” offered one observer of the afternoon’s rehearsal after the concert.

She was right. I’d lost it a bit in the rehearsal when half the first violins crashed in on the penultimate chord the third time in a row.

“Watch! If you do that tonight, I’ll storm off the stage before the last note,” I warned them. We didn’t try the passage again. My friend had said the power of that moment was that nobody in the orchestra was sure if I meant it or not.

I’ve never heard those last few chords tighter or more in tune than they were a few hours later, and the nearly-full house gave the orchestra a fitting cheer. It was a satisfying way to end a great piece and a great concert.

Sadly, the easier something is to play, the less likely the musicians are to watch the conductor (one could go farther and say that the easier something is to play, the worse people play it).

On the other hand, some players are keen to let you know if they can’t see you well enough- it’s not that they’re not watching it is that they can’t see you. Earlier that very afternoon, a cellist came to me and said that I was so tall that she was having a hard time seeing my beat because it was too high. Ironically, 2 minutes earlier, a horn player had said he was struggling because my beat was sometimes too low for him. This sort of thing happens all the time-I’ve even had players on the same stand make opposite complaints about sightlines.  I knew one very accomplished principal bassist who seemed to tell every conductor who came in with his band that they needed to beat bigger (something we’re all taught NOT to do in conductor school). Apparently, the bigger the instrument, the bigger the preferred beat.

(Actually, beating bigger can help make the players feel more comfortable, but I’ve never heard an orchestra actually sound better as the result of a bigger beat that was otherwise appropriate to the character of the music. )

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think watching the conductor can be over-rated. Except on the last 3 chords of Brahms 2.

In fact, this week in Wrexham, I’m working with a blind principal trombonist.

There are some allowances to be made- he needs to be warned a week ahead of rehearsal schedule so he can make sure to memorize the right movements until the piece is learned, and if we’re starting right on a trombone entrance (ie, when he doesn’t have a chance hear a cue before he has to play his first note) I need to clearly explain to him where we’re starting from. “14 after E” is not helpful to someone who can’t see the score, but “two bars before you come in with the five repeated high f#’s” is more useful. Likewise, it’s sometimes helpful if I count off aloud.

But how about all those tempo modifications (the Rachmaninoff 1st Symphony is full of them)? Well, they haven’t been a problem. I can think of one or two accelerandi where he was a tiny bit behind for the first beat  or two the first time we tried it (less so than some of his fully sighted colleagues), but that’s the exception.

Of course, he can do this because he knows what to listen for– he’s listened to the pieces enough to memorize the trombone part and all the cues and bars rest.

My favorite pianist collaborator was someone who was always with me when we played together, no matter what crazy shit I pulled, regardless of whether we had a sightline or not. She knew what to listen for- no head bobbing or looks over the shoulder required.

In our trombonist’s case, someone has to watch the conductor for all those accelerandos, but if you can’t see the conductor (in his case, he literally can’t see the conductor) you have to know what to listen to. If you’re listening like crazy, there’s never any need to be perceptibly behind or ahead of your colleagues.

Sadly, it sometimes seems that people look at the process of learning what to listen for as something they shouldn’t have to do. Yes, I suppose one can be good enough to play the notes on the page, count the rests accurately and watch for a cue and do their job, but is that making music? More to the point- do you really just want to be living in a world where your whole universe is your part and the conductor? Playing an instrument is fun, but playing music is more fun…

By the way- there is a deaf violist in the London Symphony. Apparently, her intonation is impeccable (she works every day with tuners). Just goes to show you there’s never any point in making excuses (like the hall is too cold…).

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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 “I can see the problem”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    A great comment over at Mmusing-
    http://mmmusing.blogspot.com/2008/12/sinfonia-synthetica.html
    Michael says it far better and more succinctly than I did-

    “the larger point is that the deepest and best kind of ensemble experience comes more from listening than watching and counting. (As an experienced accompanist, I find watching is needed only in a few specific moments – like during the bows.)”

    Well worth reading- he ties the whole issue in with the YouTube symphony……

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