RCICW- What to look for and what to look forward to

I’m sitting in seat 4B (that’s a very nice one, as the result of a much-appreciated upgrade- I’ve decided to publicly praise the airlines any time they treat me well in hopes they’ll see the value in doing it more often. This is a very musical flight- at least one conductor, two professional violinists, one professional trombonist, three guitarists and a high school band) on my back from a few days in Madison to Portland, where we’re about to kick off the 2009 Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop.

I’m bracing myself for a very intense week- the RCICW is very much my baby, and it’s the only regular gig I’m willing to do significant admin work for beyond mere repertoire planning and normal MD duties. Over the previous four years it has come to be one of the weeks of the year I most look forward to, but it may also be my most draining and demanding week of the year.

Madcap as these weeks tend to be, I’ve managed a pretty good track record of blogging on the progress of the week (all of those blogs were written between midnight and 3 AM). You can explore my recollections of past summers here, where I’ve set up a digest of all RCICW journals.

However, I’ve never had the time or inspiration to lay out my goals for the week in blog form, so I thought I would take a moment to let curious readers (including RCICW participants cagey enough to read these pages) know what I am hoping to see in this week’s workshop.

1-       Good conducting. Err, ah…. Isn’t that kind of obvious? Well, it wasn’t obvious at some of the distinguished workshops I went to as a student, where “talent” (ie, a reckless inability to get an orchestra to play coherently or musically combined with well-known instrumental virtuosity carry the day. Actual skill combined with instrumental virtuosity only meant the poor chap had exhausted his meagre potential) trumped ability. I don’t care what you’ve done or who you are, I want to see some good conducting- clarity, detail, poise, energy, versatility, and I want to hear the orchestra and the music come to life. Some of the great memories and moments of my last few professional years have been those moments when and RCICW conductor stood up and made something happen that had seemed completely impossible 14 minutes earlier. Remember- conducting isn’t about looking pretty, it’s about bringing the music to life. Know the music then show the music, and for god’s sake, listen to the music. Have a good technique- be able to get your arms and hands to do what you want and show what you want.

2-       Open mindedness. Last year we talked a lot about the power of changeability. The more and the faster you can adapt your ideas and change your approaches to each piece, the more clearly your mastery of the material and your technique comes across. Those who can change, excel. Good technique is not looking like your last teacher, but being able to look however you need to look right now, today, with this orchestra at this moment. Sticking stubbornly to your pre-conceived ideas only holds you back. We try very hard to not impose our ideas and preferences on you, but if you do feel like the faculty are intruding on the sanctity of your interpretive vision, just remember- it’s only for a week, and the evolution of your own thinking will do away with more of your current ideas than we ever could. Be a “green eggs and ham” conductor. Just try it- you may like it.

3-       One-timey-ness. See open-mindedness above. All mistakes are forgiven. All bad ideas are tolerated. Any missed cues are water under the bridge. Make your time count, though- don’t make the same mistake twice. Use your preparation time to come up with a plan B for all tricky passages- if this version falls apart, be ready to try something else. When you go home to your orchestra, you expect them to not make the same mistake twice, or to make you ask for the same musical nuance twice- their ability to do that depends in large part on their preparation. A smart violinist might know that the same passage may need to be on or off the string depending on tempo, style and even size of section. A smart conductor needs to know that either the clarinet or the first violin cue may be more indispensable, or that this passage might be in 3 or 1, 2 or 4. You shouldn’t be completely stymied if you need to try something different- prepare so that you have a big tool kit to call on when you get to the podium.

4-       Curiosity. Don’t sit in the audience, and don’t stare at your own score when your colleagues are conducting. For Pete’s sake, don’t air-conduct along. There are plenty of opportunities in life to go to concerts, and you should know the score before you arrive. Air-conducting just makes you look like a self-involved dweeb. As David Hoose says- “sit on your hands.” I learn so much about my own conducting every summer by trying to understand moment by moment the impact that every breath, gesture and look of every conductor on every piece has on the performance of the orchestra. Never mind how much you can learn by watching the individual members of the orchestra.

5-       Takin’-it-on-the-chininess. For this one week, everything that goes wrong is your fault. If things suck, step up and take your whoopin’ and don’t try to pass the buck. Frankly, in 4 years, I’ve seen almost no problem that couldn’t be solved by the next conductor doing a better job. We all fail fairly often in this business. If you step up and own your failure, you’ll learn a lot more from it. If you’re up there thinking “I can’t believe how bad the 3rd saurusaphone player is,” you’re only cheating yourself. And, your colleague might get up next and get a fantastic performance out of that same player.

6-       Verbal-ness. Yes, Miles Davis was right, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Still, we all know teachers are going to ask every once in a while what the character of a piece or a passage is. The answer is never “um….” The ability to verbally articulate what is going on in the music is essential in teaching, rehearsing, coaching and public speaking. You might be an “analytical” type- be prepared to talk in subjective, emotional terms, not just tonic and sub-mediant. You might be a Zander-esque poet of emotional imagery- be ready to talk about modulation and rhetoric. The fact is, every orchestra and every player you deal with in your career will do better with different kinds of explanation- don’t limit yourself to one way of talking about things, and for heaven’s sake, don’t just be completely unprepared to talk about things. If David asks you “is it happy or sad,” don’t say “um….”

7-       Voracious-ness off the podium. By all means, ask Chris, David and I all the questions you can think of on the breaks and at the pub, whether it’s about the session you just had or the piece you are conducting when you get home. More importantly, ask your peers, and for heaven’s sake, ask the musicians. They can offer you so much insight into how you come across, what helps and what hinders. When you’re a music director, it becomes much harder to get honest feedback from the players- don’t miss this chance.

8-       Breadth-of-knowledge-iness. We’re doing Haydn 99. What other Haydn symphonies have you conducted or played? Do you know the string quartets, the masses, the piano trios or the piano sonatas? What is your take on historically informed performance? What recordings have you listened to? Read any good books on Haydn? Read any good blog posts? Is Haydn’s music “delightful?” Do you know why you just got decked?  How would you program Haydn 99? Can you give me 10 programs with it and explain the reasoning behind each one? Can you come up with a good nickname for it like “Military” or “Oxford” so it gets played more often?

9-       Passion. See “good conducting” above. Passion is not enthusiasm.  Passion is not ambition. Passion is not even knowledge. Passion leads to technique, and passion can’t be expressed without technique, but passion is not technique. If you’ve got real passion for the music, and a profound belief in the value and power of music, if music shakes you to your core, if you really can’t hold back tears in at least one of these pieces, then we can teach you the technique. Passionate people are music amplifiers- whether they’re performers or listeners- they bring the music to life for those around them (see “charisma” below). Those who lack passion have that ability to suck the air out of a room- they diminish the impact of the music through their own lack of awareness, involvement and openness.

10-   Charisma. See “passion” above. This is a much, much mis-understood term in the context of music. Charisma has nothing to do with that “ca-ching” grin and movie star looks, or a gift for small talk or Sideshow Bob hair. Charisma in a conductor is that rare ability to bring a room to life through your sheer love of music. If you can make everyone around you feel like the passage about to be played is the greatest thing ever created, if you can make your colleague on the podium feel like they’ve made a miracle happen, that they’ve reached you and made you want to jump up and yell and shake your fist, that’s charisma. If you can leave the orchestra musicians wondering how they did that, that’s charisma.

Now, the good news is that every summer, I see a fair bit of all of these qualities in our participants. It’s why I love the workshop. I offer this incomplete and hastily assembled list not as a monument to my dissatisfaction with the work of our alumni, but as a summing up of what has been good in years past, and what this year’s class can learn from the success of those that came before.

Of course, someone is bound to ask what I don’t want to see from the conductors this summer.

My answer…..


Really… Think of the poor musicians. All those years of practice. All that sacrifice. They deserve better than your pasty, hairy, chunky, spotty legs. And if you have nice legs? Nobody likes a show off. Nothing says “I don’t respect you” to an orchestra quite like shorts.

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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.

2 comments on “RCICW- What to look for and what to look forward to”

  1. Brennen

    My friend, I will be wearing shorts. But I guess I’m behind the orchestra.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hey, Brennen- I’ve got no problem with soloists in shorts, just conductors. It’s just wrong on conductors….

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