Over my past 17 seasons with the Oregon Symphony, I’ve seen many a green conductor (and quite a few seasoned ones, as well). There have emerged some common traits, some good, some not, that particularly push the buttons of the orchestral musician, and I’ve compiled a list of my own and my colleagues’ observations on what works and what doesn’t.
So, here are some suggestions that would do a younger conductor (and some older ones, too!) in good stead as they come in front of orchestras great and small.
- Don’t clap your hands to stop an orchestra.
- Don’t shush an orchestra.
- If a musician responds to your request with an attitude, do not react to that musicians lack of tact in the same fashion. It’s uncomfortable for everyone else.
- Do say hello to the musicians at the top of each rehearsal (we like that, some of us will even say hello or good morning back).
- When trying to address a string issue – don’t just speak in hushed tones to the concertmaster or principal of the section – speak to the section members in the back who are wondering what is going on and what the problem is.
- Even if you think an orchestra has played a piece a thousand times, don’t immediately stop and pick at things. Let them play and get a feel for what you want from them in the piece. This establishes a good flow and will earn you many dividends from the musicians.
- Do acknowledge when a solo player or section sounds good. Musicians get criticized constantly and need some praise as well.
- Do NOT wear a banded/mandarin collar. It’s not sexy.
- Do not tap your baton on your lectern to get the orchestra’s attention.
- Do have a twitter or social media account to promote your travels when you have more work.
- Do show what you want first and see if the orchestra gets it. If they don’t, then stop and talk about what you want.
- Don’t talk too much. We basically want to know these four facts first: faster, slower, louder, softer. After we know what’s expected of those variables, we’re happy to talk about fluffy clouds and tortured souls.
- Do let us see your eyes. We want to see yours as much as you want to see ours. Nothing is more demoralizing that looking at the top of a conductor’s head for two and a half hours.
- Use both hands – but not for the same thing. Use your right hand to give us a clear beat. Use your left hand to show us the phrasing and dynamics you want. Mirroring your hands makes us put our orchestral blinders on. So does conducting in circles. We know that you don’t know what to do when you do that.
- Don’t assume we hate the pops or special show that you were brought in to conduct. We know what butters our bread, and many of us enjoy non-classical acts and shows very much. Besides, does saying how demeaning a show is really make it a better situation for all of us? Be a professional.
For those of you who were interested in a conductor’s list for musicians – here’s Bill Eddins’ take:
- do NOT be one of those people who show up, sit in the back of the section with a sour look on your face, and complain all day about your job. No, for the vast majority of us this music thing is not an easy life but it beats the hell out of working deep sewer. People pay us to make music. We are running the greatest scam in the history of the world.
- DO be a music nerd. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, and it’s your enthusiasm that will draw other people into the joy of music. These people may not understand more than one word in ten when you wax poetic about that fabulous use of the leitmotif in the 3rd movement of Symphonie Fantastique, but that’s OK.
- DO smile on stage. Or at least give it a try. It won’t kill you.
- DO become engaged on every level or your organization, especially in the Education ventures. The more you can reach children the more you help shape the world around us, and every single study done insists that more music makes for a better society on every level.
- do NOT start every sentence with “If only the Board raised more money…” or “If only the administration would do….”. Please. Running a personnel heavy organization like an orchestra is not easy, especially in the non-profit world. Let us be grateful that there are people willing to do this work so that we can play music. Besides, I guarantee you that I have not had a lot of conversations with Board members or administration that have started with “If only the 2nd violins had used a different bowing in that passage then…..”.
- do NOT put anyone into your orchestra who cannot play Mozart. Period.
- do NOT let any of your colleagues talk you into appointing someone to a position without going through the audition process. I don’t care how good they are. We make a lot of noise about following the union rules, etc., and this goes directly to our own integrity.
- DO embrace change. Change is the only constant in the world. Please realize, though, that with change comes failure. Some of the initiatives you will be asked to take part in will not be successful. But without failure there cannot be success.
- do NOT immediately ask “how much is the pay?” when approached to do something “outside the box.” Being flexible is a good thing.
- do NOT show up at rehearsal and sight-read. I don’t care how good you are. It’s unprofessional.