Don’t Beat

I don’t know if I can say this definitively, but as far as I know, Vftp is the oldest conductor’s blog still going, and when I first started I couldn’t find any examples of other substantial blogging projects by any other conductors.

While it’s nice to be first, we all need models and in those days, conductors didn’t tend to write about or discuss their craft- “better to be a little mysterious” was the generally accepted best practice. One early exception to this was Ivan Fischer, conductor and founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. His website had some very interesting and frank “conductor’s journal” entries and a few short articles exploring different aspects of the life and craft of a conductor. The website has been offline for many years now, which is a pity- there were a number of things up there I would have liked to have pointed my students towards. One such article I remembered vaguely as being very interesting was “Ninety-two Thoughts for Young Conductors.”

An archived version of the site has re-appeared on (a reminder that once something is online, it is there forever, whether you want it there or not), and there was one section of the “92 Thoughts” that sounded eerily like what I’ve been telling the students at the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop the last few summers-

About beating

Don’t beat.

Don’t show anything.

Don’t anticipate.

Don’t correct.

Beating is an insult to musicians.

The orchestra sounds better without beat.

You must radiate music.

Ivan is saying what I’ve learned from hard and painful experience- I thought I’d figured it out for myself, not read it (it’s frightening how much we forget we’ve heard or read before). In fact, you can read a thing like this, but you’ve still got to figure it out for yourself or it means nothing

In any case, it’s worth taking an hour or two to explore the archive- it’s an interesting snapshot of an important conductor’s working life a decade ago. Maybe one day, he’ll find time to start his own blog….

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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.

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6 comments on “Don’t Beat”

  1. David McMullin

    What does this mean? You still have to radiate music in such a way that the players can see the beats, right? I’m not a conductor (though I’ve had to conduct my own music occasionally), just a composer, so I’m slow to catch on.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Dear David

    Thanks for the comment! You’re asking a huge, huge question- I could spend many long posts and videos and whatnot trying to explain what Ivan is on about. I checked out your website- I see my colleague David Hoose from the RCICW just did your new work with Collage. I’m tempted to just say “ask David, he knows everything.”

    To answer your second question- I would say no and yes. “The orchestra sounds better without beat.” From that one says that rather than radiate the music in such a way that the players can see the beats, it’s better to radiate the music in such a way the the players think they can see everything they need to see. A real beat is only needed to start something or change something- the rest of the time, one wants to show phrasing, color, balance, articulation, mood, etc, while not creating a sense of uncertainty in the players. However, if they are conscious of seeing a lot of beats, each impulse requires them to all assess the question of “when,” which limits their ability to deal with “how.” Instead of allowing the music to unfold with predictability (even rubato has a natural shape to it), “beating” every beat to make it is clear as possible means the musicians can never accept the timing of the next musical beat as predictable.

    The paradox of this all is that Fischer, Haitink, Abbado, Weller are all examples of conductors we think of as having very classical techniques, but if you study them closely, they tend to allude to patterns rather than follow them and to show the flow between musical beats rather than indicate the instant of each beat with a “beat” over and over again.

    That’s just a starting point, but I hope it makes sense as a point of departure.


  3. David McMullin

    Wow, what a quick response! Yes, that makes sense, especially for music in a steady meter and tempo, where unless things are starting to come apart, everyone should be able to keep together by feel, and watch the conductor for more important things. I imagine the balance is different in complex scores with a lot of time changes and such, but still you don’t want to fix what isn’t broken, so only show what they need to see.

    Speaking of David Hoose, yes he’s terriffic, and he did a great job with my recent premiere, making perfect sense out of a new piece that depends a lot on the conductor’s shaping of things. So now I’m trying to decide whether I need to mark what he did back into the score for future conductors, or leave it as is and hope they can find a way that’s natural for them. It’s the composer’s version of the same question: at what point does more information start to get in the way rather than help?


  4. Peter

    I am reminded that the greatest conductors create the illusion that the bar-lines do not exist and that the music is somehow between the notes and not in them. I think that happens when a conductor feels the music in phrases of expressive content, and not as written code being turned into sound. The music then has its own momentum.

    It’s the difference between a great Shakespearian actor delivering a soliloquy, and a newsreader telling you today’s weather. The poetic versus the prosaic. In fact, the best musicians (and actors) create the illusion that normal time has been suspended altogether. If a conductor beats time too self-consciously, then it is impossible for this “timeless” feeling to come about. The ego is trying to control the natural flow of musical expression.

    Good musicians sense the muscial impulse inwardly and know the momentum of a phrase based on musical instinct. Of course, there are moments where even good players are struggling with the technical side of the music, and then beating time and giving entries becomes essential. A lot of new music is just not conceived in phrases and lacks that inner pulse (which surely relates to heart-beat in someway), or else it poses such technical demands that a conductor does well to hold it together with a clear beat.

    If you watch Gergiev’s recent Mahler 5 at the Proms – it showed just how far you can push beatlessness. Those fluttering hands, those puzzlingly unorthodox gestures and vague swipes; they broke every presumed rule of conducting. You would imagine the whole thing would just fall apart from bar one. Yet it doesn’t, because these were some very fine players indeed. It is also true that such a performance is high risk, especially when the band does not play together regularly. The odd ensemble slip and wayward tempo inevitably ensues. But dull and unmusical such a performance could never be.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Well said, Peter.

    I was thinking last night of a linguistic parallel. If I speak normally, the listener tends to focus on the meaning of what I say. If I speak in a heightened, poetic manner, they become less focused on the literal meaning and more focused on the emotion behind the words.

    On the other hand, if I speak for max-i-mum cla-ri-tee on ev-er-y syl-la-ble the listener becomes detached from both forms of meaning pretty quickly, because they’re being pointed towards a sort of dismantling of the parts of the language. The emphasis on clarity reduces language from ideas, to words to syllables to individual letters. Of course, where there are misunderstandings, or possible misunderstandings, it is important to have that extra clarity available. If you can’t be hyper-clear when needed, there are bound to be misunderstandings, but if you are always focusing on clarity of diction, there is no communication.

    Again, that’s just part of the equation.


  6. Peter

    You put it well Ken. It is also like practising with a metronome to make sure that technical difficulty isn’t causing inadvertent fluctuations of tempo. But when you have done that, you hope to allow natural expression to alter the tempo in minute ways to articulate the phrasing.

    Some may have read Edward Said’s observations that Western Classical Music looks very square and stiff on paper because it is notated so precisely compared to other muscial traditions. Bar lines, time signatures, tempo indications, the tempered scale, our music is a series of highly detailed instructions. A control-freak may insist on a pedantic interpretation and so kill the music off. But, as Said goes on to point out, the sound the music makes is nonetheless spontaneous, multi-layered and highly nuanced. But that comes about because the performers know that the notation is only a graphic representation of the music, not the music itself.

    You can get an idea of how that works when academics argue about ornamentation in baroque music. The musicians of the day knew that the notation was only the bare bones of what they were expected to perform. Today we would not expect to come across the instruction to improvise in most core repertoire, but there is a crucial % of musical performance that remains not written down and which can only be learned from knowing the unwritten rules of performance and by good musical instinct. A conductor working with really good musicians can make the most of the that marginal %, and this is what makes the difference between an accurate performance and a really good one.

    A teacher once said to me, the secret to playing Brahms (and a lot of music of that kind) is to make the short notes seem long. That seems counter-intuitive, but if you do, what happens is that the bar-lines disappear. The up-beat at the end of bar is often a short note or notes, and a tiny hiatus reduces the accent on the downbeat. It stops the phrase hurrying along and you start to think across the barlines. But without knowing that or being told, the temptation would be to bump each new bar, because that is how it looks.

    Said was also impressed by the complex unfolding of several contrapuntal lines in late-Strauss which create the illusion of spontaneous unfolding of multi-layered musical thought, almost like a growing organic thing. Now you just couldn’t create that illusion by beating four in a bar with a heavy downbeat. Metamorphosen restricted by its barlines would sound truly awful.


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