Let there be…… Light!

One might think that having a blog would mean never having to bottle up a rant. Sadly, I’ve found that the opposite is true- when you never know who (if anyone) is reading or why, it’s best not to carelessly let fly with whatever is bothering you. Better  to save the controversial stuff for the memoirs, when one’s career is in its autumn and you aren’t putting your children’s education at risk with an ill-advised diatribe.

However, I’ve finally been persuade to break my no-rant rule by a recent run of problems with the ups and downs of facilities management. So- this is my health warning- if you are rant averse, read no further!

Playing music well is not easy, so it’s a pity when musicians have to overcome basic problems with lighting or heating. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky of late, but 15 years ago, I never, ever seemed to encounter snafus of this kind, but lately, it’s become all too regular a phenomenon.

Now, I can guess what some of you are saying- typical conductor, thinking that everyone else’s job is easier than his, and not recognizing what the challenges are in providing a professional standard of lighting, stage setup or climate control.

Well, actually, I have a little story I can share that might explain why I’m not the most patient person in the world when it comes to lighting problems.

When I was in high school, I had one big hobby I’ve since had to drop- I was seriously, seriously involved in stage crew. Particularly in lighting.

As it turns out, the first thing I ever designed and ran was an orchestra concert. As a freshman, I’d assisted the senior lighting guy with setup and done some running of spotlights for the fall play. When the first orchestra concert of the year came around, he came to me and said “you’re an orchestra guy- why don’t you do the lights for the concert.” He showed me how to work around the acoustic shell, which, of course, wasn’t used for theatre productions, and explained how lighting music was different to lighting theatre or rock ‘n’ roll. Then, he left me to set it all up and get everything focused and balanced.

All went fine, and Mr. B, or conductor, was pleased with the setup. I wrote out a lighting schematic of the setup I’d arrived at so that the next show could be set up that much quicker. When we’d incorporate something new to me, like a soloist or a choir, I’d always try to have the adjustments and additions in place before the first rehearsal in the hall, and in four years, I was never asked to change the lights for a rehearsal or concert.

So, if a reasonably well-intentioned 13 year-old can master the art of concert lighting with a 20 minute tutorial, I see no reason it should ever be a challenge for a professional stage technician in a professional theatre.

But, of course, it can be….

In Pendleton, the Vert Auditorium was like a world heritage museum of theatrical bad practice and unsafe infrastructure. In my early years, we were still reliant on the 70-year old original lighting console, installed when the building was erected during the Great Depression. Needless to say, we had many a blackout during rehearsal. Later on, the City splurged for a new console, but one with a needlessly complicated and arcane programming system which needed occasional exorcisms. Part of the problem there was also that the lighting infrastructure was not where it needed to be- the apron was designed to be lit from pipes on the balcony, rather than from a catwalk or bar directly in front of the proscenium. What all-too-many facilities managers fail to realize about orchestras is that front and side lighting, so useful in theatre, is bad news. When the musician tries to look at their music and up at the conductor, lights coming from anything less than about an 80 degree angle go straight in their eyes, blinding them and causing migraines and foul moods.  Life improved immeasurably in the Vert when John Wilson showed up- he knows all about lights, and proved adept at exorcising the various demons and gremlins from the console. Of course, the heating continued to be a nightmare, but that’s another story…..

Perhaps the difficulties at the Vert were more to do with ancient equipment and a lack of infrastructure where we most needed it. What’s really frustrating, however, is when you have lighting problems in a facility where you know everything can work and it doesn’t. I can think of one venue that used to give me some measure of frustration at the way we always seemed to spend the first 10 minutes of the dress rehearsal getting the lights right. Finally, things melted down one day and we spent a full 20+ minutes farting around with lights in a dress rehearsal, after which I had a frank and honest discussion with the lighting technician. After that, we went many years without further problems- for the first 10 or so concerts after that discussion he would ask at the beginning of the rehearsal if everything was okay, and every time it was. After that, he didn’t need to ask, and we didn’t need to worry.

Then, at our most recent concert, he was sick and it was like they’d never had an orchestra in the building. The technician wasn’t even there when we started- someone had to run find him in the lobby reading the paper. Then, he traded darkness for blindness, as he switched on all the low-hanging spotlights in the house, inducing a sudden epidemic of migraines in the cellos. He got quite stroppy and defensive with the orchestra, too. Not good enough. A few weeks earlier, I had a similar meltdown at another regular venue- the lights were a disaster throughout the dress rehearsal, then, the technician “broke” the console for the concert (ie- forgot how to escape the wrong program configuration), so the first half of the concert was played using house lights and work lights. It was pretty soul destroying for all concerned.

One thing I really don’t get is why so many folks are always in such a hurry to  get to the lobby and start texting their girlfriend before the rehearsal has even started. When I worked stage crew it was because I loved being in the theatre. I wanted to be there, not anywhere else, and I took real pride in trying to make the stage look good. I still miss it terribly! I realize lighting an orchestra has got to be one of the most boring gigs a lighting technician can have, but it’s also an easy one to screw up. The only thing more obnoxious than leaving your post just because you don’t have much to do has to be leaving your post when you do have something to do. Last fall, I did a contemporary piece with some lighting cues in the score. I told the technician exactly when in the rehearsal we would need him, and he still wasn’t there, and the cues didn’t get rehearsed. Then, after slightly screwing them up in the concert (although it wasn’t a complete disaster), he had the nerve to ask if everything was okay. If he had cared whether it was okay, he would have been there in the rehearsal. Showing you care means doing the job right, not asking for praise.

Here are my top tips for running a great venue for acoustic music.


1-    Think about what the musicians need. They need to be able to see their music clearly and to see the conductor (if there is one) clearly. Make sure you’re getting enough light on the music that it’s easy to read.

2-    Think about what the musicians don’t need. Horizontal lighting looks great at rock concerts or in theatre, but it blinds musicians who are much more actively engaged in looking in specific directions for long periods of time than actors, who are moving constantly (and not reading).

3-    Think about what the audience needs. They want to see faces, especially that of the soloist. They don’t want anyone looking green or blue or sat in the dark.

4-    Rehearsals are for rehearsing. A good setup means everything is ready to go at the beginning of rehearsal. One second of work on lights in an orchestra rehearsal is a HUGE admission of failure. It should NEVER happen.

5-    Don’t ask questions in rehearsal or before. The musicians are there to focus on the music, not to reassure you you’ve done a good job, nor to train you in how to do your job. Certainly don’t interrupt the rehearsal to ask if everything is okay. Believe me, if there is a problem, we’ll tell you. Assuming you are there….

6-    Be there. Don’t be in the lobby, don’t be in the basement, don’t go for a smoke. Be where you can hear us and where you can see if there are problems.

7-    No surprises, please. Don’t make the lights 20% brighter in the concert than in the rehearsal, or the other way round. Just get the levels right, and consistent every time.

8-    If you can be an artist without messing things up, please do. The lighting designer at the Two Rivers Festival does a masterful job of making the Bushel Hall seem like a magic space with his evocative but completely functional lighting. I always liked the lights at the Scotia Festival in Halifax. We played in front of a white scrim there, so the lighting team could change the color scheme from piece to piece or movement to movement. They took their work very seriously, working very hard in the dress rehearsals to make the lighting interesting and specific for each piece. Although they would run a different look for each combination of instruments or piece, I can’t think of any rehearsal or concert that was ever delayed or disrupted by them. In both cases, the artistic lighting is sorted and in place for the dress rehearsal, so everyone knows what to expect in the concert.

9- Don’t get snippy or defensive. If the musicians are all yelling at once about which light is blinding them or who can’t see their music, it is your fault entirely. Own it and take it on the chin.

10- People say that time is money. It’s worse than that- you can always get more money if you run out. Rehearsal time is finite, and can never be replaced. Every second counts.


1-    If you are setting up and platforms, make sure it’s done early enough so that the lighting can be properly focused for them.

2-    Always make sure there are toe-rails on the back and ends of platforms so nobody dies

3-    Have extra toe-rails available if the orchestra are doing the setup, just in case they forget one

4-    Be realistic about how much space each player needs. Work well with the orchestra in understanding how much room is needed.


Heating and cooling

1-    I could write volumes about rehearsals spent in misery because it was impossibly hot or cold onstage. Make it comfortable, and account for the heat produced by the lights.

2-    Instruments just don’t function below a certain temperature, and neither do fingers. Yes we can put on a sweater, but the violin can’t. The wood doesn’t vibrate as it should. If we tell you  its too cold, it’s an emergency and needs to get  sorted right away. It’s a good idea to check the stage 30 minutes before a rehearsal to make sure it is comfortable. It’s really bad for it to be too hot, but worse for it to be too cold. I recently did a recording project where the heating didn’t work properly for 3 days in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility. 10 minutes in the cold when people are paying to use the hall is too long. Three days is completely beyond the pale. Also, playing in the cold can be torture for players with arthritis.


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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.

5 comments on “Let there be…… Light!”

  1. Bryan-Kirk Reinhardt

    Great well written post K. You should submit this as an article to professional lighting publications and sites because it stands on it’s own so well.

    Aside: Lets not forget the cold piano, and tuning it for concerto / recording work, and the havocs there. Just had to put in my own rant =(

  2. Brian Hughes

    I cannot thank you enough for this post, Ken. I have had to “work” in some of the worst climates (more often cold than hot) and all too often the players in the rear of the ensemble cannot see their music because no one thought to light the area. And of course–as you said many times–the person(s) responsible are never around to rectify the problem.

    Worse yet might be the sound people who think that providing support for an outdoor orchestra performance is akin to a rock band. That’s my rant for the day!

  3. Pingback: He Will Enlighten You | oboeinsight

  4. bratschegirl

    Thank you thank you thank you!!! You are right on about everything you said.

    I often have the pleasure of rehearsing/performing in city-owned facilities where the heating and cooling controls aren’t even located in that building! They’re some blocks away in a central facility so the city only has to hire and pay one person to “manage” multiple venues. We don’t really need to discuss how well that “works…”

    About the only thing you didn’t mention is that past a certain age, the eyes don’t function as they used to any more, and no amount of concentration or determination can change that. I might have been able to see my music with minimal lighting when I was 20, but I simply can’t now. That’s not me whining or being lazy, it’s just a fact of physiology. And I know the soloist has his/her music memorized, but he/she is touring with maybe 4 pieces total this year, while I’m playing a different 75-90 minutes of music every week.

  5. Neil Frowe

    Many thanks for your kind words about the Two Rivers Festival.

    Neil Frowe
    Technical Manager

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