Useless gambits, and taking it on the chin

Well, in just a few hours, I’ll be in Pendleton for our first rehearsal for this concert cycle. Like many rural orchestras, we have a couple of rehearsals with just our local core musicians, then bring in the rest of the orchestra for the weekend of the concert. In a piece like Mahler 5, that system has the potential to create some funny results.

Conductors often like to have an opening gambit for a first rehearsal- my opening gambit is usually to play the piece, and if there is any time left over, to rehearse what needs rehearsing most urgently, or to focus on some sections that will give everyone an idea of the style of the work. Not much of a gambit, I suppose. Others have fancier systems, often involving lots of talking, usually condescending talking…..

One of the worst, or at least worst received, opening gambits I ever saw was at the first rehearsal for a performance of Mahler 5 with a very, very good conservatory level orchestra. The gentleman conducting the concert apparently looked at the score the night before the first rehearsal and did what many conductors do with this piece- he saw all that counterpoint and virtuoso writing and panicked. He freaked. He lost it.

Imagine then, what happened at that first rehearsal. It’s Mahler 5- for once, even the slackers are in their seats early. They’ve looked at their parts. All the wind players have been working on their parts with their teachers. The brass faculty have looked at it in class. The horns and trumpets had special auditions for the solo parts. Everyone’s been listening to recordings, and arguing over which one is the best. Some bright guy in the bassoon section is telling everyone that Finzi was a better composer than Mahler and loudly wondering why are they all so excited about this piece of junk.

Then the maestro said these fateful words…. “Ah, ladies and gentlemen. This is a very difficult piece. I don’t know- I think maybe it is a little too hard for us. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better if we switch to Tchaikovsky or something. Anyway- I guess there’s no harm in reading it once. Don’t feel bad if it’s too hard.”

What was worse was that he meant this. Had it just been a reverse psychology gambit to get them fired up, I would say it was unnecessary and ill-advised, but it’s a gambit, fair enough. But to share your own actual doubts with the orchestra?!?!?!?!?!? To not have the confidence that you can solve the problems that are going to come up?!?!?!?!?!

One of the cardinal jobs of any leader is to provide a roadmap for making the difficult possible. Your job is not to spread the fear of failure, but to soak it up like a sponge, and rinse it out in the kitchen sink of your soul. When I see a leader, whether it is a conductor, executive director or board president in our business, or leaders in any field, start explaining to their colleagues all the ways things could, and probably will, go wrong, I often feel a rising sense of despair (which I keep to myself).

There’s a job to be done- the leader’s job is to understand all the challenges, risks and difficulties, then to figure out how those can be overcome, and then to be able to articulate that vision of success to his or her team.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this very blog is actually my version of a pep talk to the orchestra on the first day of rehearsals- a bit of the old reverse psychology double bluff gambit. Actually, I’ve felt very serene all along about the musicians’ ability to get to grips with this program as long as we as an organization give them the resources they need to get the job done. But I always like to remember that failed gambit before I start a new project as a caution to myself that my worry is my problem, not theirs.

So what did happen at that first rehearsal all those years ago? Predictably, the orchestra played their asses off, the concert was very good, but the conductor never recovered his street cred in their eyes. It takes serious balls to sit onstage and play the horn solo in Mahler 5. I think the player has every right to expect the same kind of courage and grace under pressure from the conductor. We all live not only with the possibility of failure, but with the certainty of it. Sooner or later, we all miss something, or screw something up and the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

I think it is somehow more empowering and more dignified to own your failures. This mindset of “it may be too hard for us,” or “we don’t know how much we’re going to raise this year,” is a way of distancing yourself from responsibility for your own failings. If a piece turns out to be harder than you thought, practice more. If you screw it up, smile, take it on the chin, be dignified at the gig (don’t share your disappointment with the other musicians or the audience), then go home and cry, exercise, drink or do whatever you need to do to get over it. Same thing with administrative challenges- if a project is not turning out how you expected, work harder, change your tactics, get help, but don’t start by saying it may not be possible and it’s not your fault if it isn’t. Once that starts, it’s only pure luck if you’re successful. Being in a leadership position, or being an artist, or just being an empowered human being means accepting that it is your fault.

I actually think we in the artsy-fartsy sector could live from your colleagues in elite sports, half of whom fail every time they go to work. Being in the local symphony and reading your own press, you can feel like you’re undefeated every season, and if you’re running a deficit or not playing well, it’s not your fault- it’s tough times. I think most athletes are pretty good at taking on the chin when they lose and letting go of things they really can’t do anything about, like injuries. But the greatest, like my man Favre, seem to be able to overcome injuries that keep others on the sidelines. That’s leadership- taking a situation where failure would have been a forgivable outcome because the circumstances were challenging and taking control of your own destiny. You might still fail, but failure is fine (at least, it’s only temporary) as long as you own it. If you don’t own your failures, why should you get credit for your successes? That Mahler 5 so long ago was a success, but the conductor didn’t own it at all- it belonged to the musicians who took control of the situation and refused to accept failure.

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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 “Useless gambits, and taking it on the chin”

  1. Paul H. Muller

    As a player, I agree that playing the piece through is probably the best opening gambit. In a difficult piece what you want to say after the first reading is “that was pretty good”… even if this is a stretch. I have noticed that tensions are higher when new musicians are present in the rehearsal or if the orchestra is playing for a conductor the first time. Getting a bit of positive feedback will buy you some real effort from the players when you go back and touch up the problematic passages. I have found that it is easier as a player to “make something better” than it is “to avoid screwing it up”.

    I think too that it helps when the conductor applies some assertive criticism – I find I am more careful and bear down a bit more during the performance. Kind of like the sargents yelling at the troops just before combat – it is normal and puts everyone at some ease during the actual event. But it is a tricky balence, that is for sure.

    Good luck.

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