Monday thoughts

I started my Monday morning with an appearance on Coffee Hour hear on the local radio station. You never know if you’ll be sharing the show with 10 other guest and get about 30 seconds to plug your event, or if you’re filling the entire time. Today it was the latter. Tom, the host, has always done an excellent job- I’ll miss working with him.

One of my goals for this blog was to use it as a bridge for audience building. As I left the radio station, it occurred to me that if a possible new audience member had looked up my blog after the radio show, that a twelve-hundred word essay on tempo could be a little intimidating. A wise friend with a good blog (also a conductor) said he tried to keep his posts “pithy” but that sometimes we all have to “geek out” a little bit. I’ve come to understand that Vftp is not the place for large scale audience outreach- instead, I should be blogging through the symphony’s own website as part of a coordinated effort to reach out to new listeners.

However, I’ve come to think that Seasick Steve is right.  

I saw a BBC special about him the other day, and he said that his fame, which came in his 60’s, was a complete surprise to him. He’d been basically doing the same kind of music for 45 years- the only difference was that just before he hit the big time, he’d started doing exactly what he wanted to do, and not trying to please people any more. “I wish someone had told me that a long time ago.” Posts like yesterdays can come off as pompous, boring, needlessly long-winded. There are a lot of them here in the archives. However, usually anytime I’ve just sort of sat down and written what’s on my mind, those posts seem to generate the most conversation. If I write what I would want to read, people seem to like it.

Likewise, as a conductor and music director, whenever I’ve followed the Seasick Steve model and just programmed or rehearsed or conducted exactly as I wanted to, I’ve had the best musical results, the best audience response, the happiest musicians. Maybe you can’t always choose to do just what you want to, but you can always do things as honestly as possible. Very young conductors should probably ignore everything I’ve just written- until your experience and depth match your ambition, it’s better to take a more humble approach. I guess it’s all a matter of knowing when you’re ready to say “fuck it” and do things your own way.

The problem for orchestras is that we’re supposed give the people what they want- we’re supposed to serve the community. We do market research and audience questionnaires. We set up artistic advisory committees. All of these can help a conductor do their job better, but focus groups don’t make art, and I think that’s still what audiences want. However the project came about- you’ve got to take ownership of it.

I guess that’s all a long way of saying that there will probably more long, pompous, boring blog posts to come here at Vftp.

Anyway- after the radio show, we recorded a short commercial for the concert. “Hi- this is Ken Woods from the Oregon East Symphony, inviting you to heed the trumpet’s call,” is how it starts, with me talking over the opening of the symphony. I do our commercials when I’m able to, otherwise our ED or a board member does them. Mine tend to be a bit weirder, I think.

Tonight, I’m rehearsing the OES Chorale for our Mozart Requiem concert in April. They rehearse weekly, but there are only a few rehearsals left because of spring break.  It’s funny hopping between programs- I think I have five concerts with rehearsals overlapping each other right now, when all I want to do is focus on the Mahler. It’s actually a pretty nice problem to have.

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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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