a young conductor’s guide to the orchestra

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.

I’m going to keep this as an open thread, so add your suggestions in the comments, or via email, and I’ll eventually make a static page for this post.

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:

Musicians:

  • 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.

25 Replies to “a young conductor’s guide to the orchestra”

  1. Excellent points, Charles! I don’t have much to add…except related to your point about letting the orchestra PLAY through things, rather than torturous stopping and starting. Conductors often don’t realize that many problems can be solved by playing through longer sections of music.

    Also, there’s nothing worse than a conductor saying, “That’s out of tune!” without elaborating what instrument(s) are involved, or if the pitch is sharp or flat.

    I look forward to reading others’ comments added to your already comprehensive list. It should be required reading for conductors!

    Conversely, I would LOVE to see a conductor’s list for the MUSICIANS. Wouldn’t you?

    Best wishes,
    Cameron

    1. as for specifying exactly which instrument is out of tune &/or rhythmically imprecise, well, pierre “the french correction” boulez never was one to hold back such vital info.

  2. All fantastic, common sense points. Before I crossed over to The Dark Side I was a member of a couple of orchestras. Reading your points above felt like I could have written them myself. They are all spot on. Except about the mandarin collar. What’s the big deal about that?

    1. Hi JMW, Hi from PDX! Long time no see from my CLE days. Hope all is well. Charles and I are on Artistic Advisory together not to mention share the same viola nook at work so all sorts of crazy topics come out. One of mine was this banded/mandarin look all the gents are sporting lately. I’m not a fan because I think they make most men look boxy (regardless of body type) and for some conductors they are too tight at the neck. I’m also a fan of tails, but people seem to be abandoning that ship.

    1. hahaha, nice try there, jen!

      personally, i’m a fan of nearly ANYTHING except those tired old penguin suits, starchola vests (corsets?) & hideous bow ties.

      don’t you kinda like the look of folks like Salonen, Rattle, MTT & Morlot these days when they strut in to deliver the goods?

      but, hey, i’m not an orchestra member so my vote on this probably doesn’t count.

    2. I’m not a musician, but from this audience member’s standpoint, banded collars are fine. I’ve seen them pulled off as “sexy.” But then I get a rear, or at best, side view most of the time!

  3. Thanks for this! I try to keep up friendships with players so that I’m in touch with common complaints as much as possible. It’s always good to know what the group is thinking, especially when they’re being too nice or courteous to say anything. I try to always build an environment where my players feel comfortable saying “Um, I can’t read your downbeat there” and such without malice and I can change what I’m doing to suit their needs without my ego getting in the way. I don’t always succeed, but that’s my aim. Because being in your shoes ain’t easy.

  4. do NOT talk down constantly to musicians in an orchestra and act like you know more about what they are doing than they do just because you are unfairly making at least 10 times the pay they are as well as getting 100 times the praise and respect.

    do NOT generalize and blame entire sections or the entire orchestra for a problem or issue being caused by someone specific or a specific section as it makes the people doing what is right not care to do so any longer.

    Some good points above, however there is such a divide between conductors, administration and the musicians that a sense of reality is hardly common to find.

  5. so, if shouting, hand-clapping & baton on music stand tapping are verboten methods by which a conductor can get everyone’s crisp & undivided attention in a tout de suite fashion, what IS allowed?

    will phlegm-engorged throat clearing punctuated by an insouciant hair toss do the trick?

  6. Here are a few more specific observations on conducting.

    Encourage listening. Your stick may just not be as clear or precise as you think it is.

    If two string groups are not synchronizing, do not add your own pulse to the mix. That will only confuse those already playing as well as others who have to enter the fray, and encourage some to follow that pulse, not join an existing one. Synchronize your stick with one group and encourage the others to listen and play to that pulse.

    Don’t take it as a sign of insubordination when a player doesn’t look at your baton. Often they need to look elsewhere (at the Concertmaster’s bow, or the timpanist’s stick, or another colleague’s preparation) for more precise information than your soundless gesture can give them about where to play. Do encourage watching of each other.

    Experienced players know that the sound of the music comes first, that good ensemble comes before literal following of the baton. Encourage your players to use their chamber music instincts. Conduct in a manner that facilitates that. That often means reducing gestures rather than enlarging them.

    Do not posit that players farthest away cannot trust their listening and must play literally with the baton because of a ”time delay”. The time delay is minute and a gesture waved in the air cannot possibly indicate such an infinitesimal subdivision of time. Also, players who subscribe to the time delay argument and who attempt to play early, to account for said delay, invariably play too early. Listening is the most reliable guide for good ensemble.

    Do not conduct ahead of the sound in fast mixed meter music. Ensemble will not be incisive. You must lock in with the orchestra as if you are playing an instrument.

    Conducting far ahead of the sound in general forces the players to visually disengage from you. When that happens you have lost control of tempo changes, transitions, any rhythmic shift. Ensemble suffers. Compensating for the ACTUAL time delay is humanly impossible, and attempts to do so invariably result in an overcompensation, and a beat too far ahead to be of any real help to anyone on the stage.

    Do not give the baton a life of its own, separate from your arm movements. This confuses the rhythmic intent of the gesture. The best conductors in the world do not (and did not) have loopy, wristy baton motions. The stick should move as an extension of the arm and hand, or there is no reason to use one. If your arm stops and the wrist and baton continue to move, the bottom of your beat will be unclear, and the players’ interpretation of it open to even greater speculation than normal. You may think it is stylish or elegant looking, but the figure eights are best left to ice skaters.

    Tell the players who they need to be playing with when ensemble confusion occurs. This kind of direction from the podium is too infrequent. Whenever a conductor says “listen to” such and such a voice, ensemble fixes itself immediately, as ears zoom in on that aural focal point.

    If one section or player is sounding behind, don’t give general move it ahead gestures. This only invites everyone to move ahead. Be specific about who you are urging ahead.

    The players understand that gesture is limited in what it can communicate (if gesture could really convey every nuance we would not have needed to develop language), but learn how to be succinct when asking for something there is no gesture for: “use a fast, light bow, sul tasto here”. We will know what color that will produce and even what you may be going for in character.

    1. “The best conductors in the world do not (and did not) have loopy, wristy baton motions.”

      – This is an interesting observation but one that is really misleading. Conductors that use their wrist economically yield the best results as they are using the least amount of effort to get the fastest results from their ensemble. When Pierre Monteaux premiered the Rite of Spring, he used about 12 inches of vertical space. With one hand. Economy is key.

  7. Agree with most of the points, but I’ve been around long enough to know for absolutely certain that there is no guarantee of integrity to the audition process, and there can be more honor and less waste of people’s valuable time if an orchestra simply appoints then person it knows it wants. Auditions measure some things reasonably well, but are not a reliable measure of how someone will work out as an ensemble player and colleague.

      1. There is couple more for you folks to add –

        Don’t tell jokes on the podium if you are not absolutely certain that EVERYONE will like it and it will be totally appropriate.
        Plan your rehearsal that if there could be some free time for Tuba, Harp, Celeste etc. rare instrument player – the instrument player could have it.(noting worse then time spent uselessly)
        In general – do not dress without thinking about it.(Even rehearsal is something special and musicians should feel that you respect their time and what they do with a music!)
        Don’t overdo your amplitude of you gestures and facial expressions!(too much exaggeration is really bad in this case and at the end of the day you will look like a circus man).

  8. Out of curiosity, is the smiling about while playing, or while waiting? because I know only flute players might be able to pull off smiling out of the winds. In fact most winds when playing something difficult look like they’re about to croak (cough, cough oboes).

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