Here at Stand Partner HQ, we get this question a lot! And that should tell you something without even knowing the answer. Nobody asks what a pilot does, or if we really need one for our airplanes. But the conductor’s role isn’t nearly so obvious, to our audiences and even, at times, to us!
Do we really need someone up front “driving the train”? Do a conductor’s responsibilities begin and end with a downbeat and a final cutoff?
- Akiko’s forthcoming appearance on the Every Little Thing podcast
- Audience fixation on the conductor as the focal point of an orchestra
- The job of the conductor during rehearsal and performance
- Giving instruction vs. providing a “guiding current”
- Examples of time wasting, directionless rehearsal
- Examples of showing appreciation for the work of the players; giving credit where it’s due
- Petty retaliation: talking in rehearsals and other signs of discontent
- Setting aside grudges for the concert and putting the music ahead of everything else
- Do musicians always agree who’s a great conductor?
- How to balance exerting control and letting go of it
- The “dreaded hand”: play quieter!
- Components of a perfect conductor; designing the Robo-conductor!
[00:00:01] NC: Hi and welcome back to Stand Partners for Life. I’m Nathan Cole.
[00:00:04] AT: I am Akiko Tarumoto.
[00:00:18] NC: And today we are talking about conductors and not just because we see a conductor all the time at work, see many conductors. There’s actually a special reason, that’s because you are going to be a featured guest on another podcast.
[00:00:33] AT: Yeah.
[00:00:33] NC: I couldn’t be more proud. It’s like a spinoff of Stand Partners. It’s great. We got a call from the show Every Little Thing, which is a Gimlet Media show. They answer or try to answer questions that you can’t find out just by Googling. Their recent example was how to police sketch artists really. Can they really come up with a picture that’s so close to the person you’re thinking of and they went through it. It was really fascinating, and all the episodes come from listener questions. It’s actually a great idea for this show.
[00:01:13] AT: It’s true. Should steal that.
[00:01:16] NC: I know. I think I might. They actually play the call – If someone calls in and leaves a message, it’s very 90s. You have to leave a message on the machine. In this case, someone was calling up to say if, “I were ever the victim of a crime, I would be the worst witness. There was no way the police could ever pick up the person because I wouldn’t be able to describe to a sketch artist anybody’s face. I’m the worst and I really don’t believe the sketch artist could help me. Do they really work?”
They actually found a sketch artist. So that was the expert on the call and they had this person describe his best friend, I believe it was.
[00:01:58] AT: Aha. And it worked?
[00:01:59] NC: And it worked.
[00:02:00] AT: That’s just too much pressure. I can’t produce on this level tomorrow.
[00:02:04] NC: In this episode, they have someone asking about conductors and about all kinds of things that go on in orchestra rehearsals and concerts. So that is going to be you. Now, you do have to share the episode with a conductor in addition to the caller.
[00:02:23] AT: Yes. Not in real-time, but yeah.
[00:02:24] NC: Right. Since you might – I don’t know. You might feel like you couldn’t say everything you wanted to about a conductor. Who knows? We thought this might be – They might not give you all the airtime. You might –
[00:02:37] AT: Did you say this conductor? Right. I mean, I hope that I won’t be carrying the entire episode. It would be funny if I described my ideal conductor and just synthesize this person to see if they’re really an effective leader.
[00:02:51] NC: That’s true.
[00:02:52] AT: That’d be pretty awesome. That would be like the equivalent of the sketch artist, but I won’t be doing that. I’ll just be pontificating.
[00:03:00] NC: Look for that episode. The show again is Every Little Thing. It’s a great show. You should subscribe anyway. Yeah, listen for Akiko’s episode coming out hopefully in the next month.
Today is our chance before that happens to expand on this idea of conductors. Yeah, I mean speaking of people calling in or at least approaching us after concerts, what’s one of the first things they always want to talk about.
[00:03:27] AT: A conductor. Yeah. We really like this conductor. I hear that a lot, which is great. I mean, I don’t want to hear we really hated that conductor.
[00:03:36] NC: That’s true. Because then we might feel that we didn’t somehow do our job in the concert.
[00:03:41] AT: Right. Sure.
[00:03:41] NC: If all you came away with was that you hated the conductor. We’re supposed to be the ones coming away with that. Not the audience.
[00:03:48] AT: And we do.
[00:03:50] NC: Why do you think that is? I mean, besides maybe the obvious reason, the conductor is up on a podium waving arms around and their name is really big in the program. I mean, why are audience members fixated on the conductor? Is that right? I mean, is the conductor’s job that big that they should be so fixated?
[00:04:10] AT: Yeah. I mean, definitely, I can see how someone’s attention is automatically drawn there. I mean, where else are they going to look? I mean, there’s a lot of moving parts and we’re all supposedly tuned in to this one person. So that makes sense that the audience would feel that they’re getting something of our experience by watching this person.
[00:04:33] NC: Yeah. Ideally, right. I mean, we’re focused on the conductors so that should also draw their attention to the conductor. Well, I mean that’s a great place to start, is what the role of a conductor is or should be at least according to us. After that we’re going to get into maybe what their job shouldn’t be things conductors do and don’t do that we dislike. Is that the longest section of the show?
[00:05:03] AT: Yeah. I mean, it’s something I’ve certainly thought a lot about.
[00:05:06] NC: All right. We’ll try to keep that constructive though. After that, I know we’re going to get into perhaps what happens when those conductors sort of spend their time and their energy doing the things that aren’t productive. What are some of the ways that orchestras, not necessarily us or our orchestra, sort of retaliate?
[00:05:26] AT: I think things we’ve definitely seen, we’ve witnessed.
[00:05:29] NC: Yeah.
[00:05:30] AT: Yeah. I warn you, they’re not all super mature or maybe none of them are. But –
[00:05:34] NC: All right. But human nature, musician nature nonetheless.
[00:05:38] AT: It is a glimpse into what it’s like, the dynamic of being subordinate to this person.
[00:05:46] NC: Right. Then finishing up I think with some examples of what we really love about great conductors and great conducting.
[00:05:54] AT: Yeah, and on a positive note.
[00:05:56] NC: Yeah.
[00:05:56] AT: Sound like a bunch of complainers.
[00:05:58] NC: Yeah. Okay. We’ve got the role, conductor’s role as it should be. Then maybe conductor’s role as it shouldn’t or needn’t be. Ways that orchestras respond to those bad uses of time and energy.
[00:06:13] AT: Sound like Jeopardy categories.
[00:06:15] NC: Yeah. We’d need pithier names, and we’re at least Sean Connery here to do the categories. Great! Well, we’ll start it up. What should a conductor be doing up there? Why should the audience as well as the musicians focus on the conductor in the best of circumstances?
[00:06:34] AT: I mean, obviously the very basic thing, they tell us when to play, how fast to play, how loud or soft to play. Shows how many beats are in every measure.
[00:06:44] NC: That’s sure. As you said, on the most basic level, that includes – Yeah, starting and stopping, tempos, dynamics.
[00:06:53] AT: Yes, that’s the very basics, right?
[00:06:56] NC: These are things that would matter in the performance. There are things they need to do in the rehearsal. They have jobs in the rehearsal as well, right?
[00:07:03] AT: Sure. I think one of the things that I’m always surprised is that not very many conductors are great at addressing and fixing problems efficiently and it always seems to stun me when somebody is good at that stuff. It really seems remarkable. It seems sort of basic.
[00:07:24] NC: Right. I mean, deciding when to start and stop in rehearsal as well and what to say and how to say it.
[00:07:30] AT: Yeah, and who to say it to.
[00:07:32] NC: Yeah.
[00:07:33] AT: It’s a big one.
[00:07:33] NC: I have a feeling we’ll get to some details in the next section.
[00:07:38] AT: Yeah. It’s a big deal. This stuff sounds like it should just be sort of standard, but surprisingly not.
[00:07:43] NC: Anything else you’ve taken down there in some notes?
[00:07:46] AT: I think for us, we always love when a conductor – First of all, of course they have to really love the music. That sounds basic, again, but it somehow doesn’t feel like a given in actual practice. They have to love it to the point where everything that they’re saying to you and doing physically is in the service of the music and not for any other reason. It sounds – This is going to sound petty or not very nice to say, but there’s a certain amount of vanity I think that can go with conductors, conducting.
I think it’s a little bit on display. Even the great ones, everybody has that vanity. It’s not really a natural thing to want to stand in front of a bunch of people and tell them what to do in a very exposed way. I think that kind of personality who’s attracted to that, of course, there’s a certain amount of vanity to that. But I think that great conductors, ultimately, what they do seems just very much about the music and you feel like you’re being drawn into a collaboration to present this music in the way that they choose.
But you don’t feel like your will is being bent to theirs. Again, this sounds basic, but who wants their will bent to somebody and then present it as art? But it does sometimes feel that way. There can be a little bit of a struggle.
[00:09:08] NC: Well, I mean you said something that I think is important. I mean, to play the music, for the orchestra to play the music as the conductor sees it or understands it, I mean, is it – it’s pretty necessary I think in the best performances that the orchestra pulls together. I mean, there has to be a common vision and that pretty much has to come from the podium. I mean, in rare circumstances you can get a hundred people going in the same direction without that one unifying force, but then you’ve got to be playing music that everyone’s familiar with and there has to be a shared tradition or understanding among those hundred people on stage. Otherwise, it’s going to come from that person who’s up there.
[00:09:54] AT: You hear about I’ve never played obviously in Berlin or Vienna, like a place where people really have trained in a very similar way, in similar schools, same schools. The part of the beauty of an ensemble like that is that there’s a certain uniformity that’s expected and has been trained into these people, and that’s an incredible thing. I think it’s one huge advantage that orchestras like that have, because you’re just going to hear something extraordinary that you wouldn’t really get where some orchestras, it’s like the beauty is actually that everybody brings a different strength to the table when that’s all brought together in a right way. The energy is really incredible, and that’s a different thing.
[00:10:43] NC: Yeah. The downside is no women in the orchestra, right?
[00:10:48] AT: Seen a few. In Vienna, yeah. In Berlin, it’s like normal there.
[00:10:52] NC: Yeah. Berlin is always been a bit more cosmopolitan, I guess.
[00:10:57] AT: I guess there are several reasons I won’t be a member of the Berlin Phil anytime soon or ever. But I think I come back to this theme a lot. Probably it’s going to sound a little shopworn, but I have this thing about conductors and how their rehearsal time should be spent, and it bugs me when a conductor rehearses gets very hung up on something like an ensemble issue and they just keep rehashing and rehashing it and like realizing, “This has to be together. Let’s play this together.” To me that is one of the least effective comments that a conductor can make, but they’re really supposed to be doing is training everybody’s focus and facilitating everybody’s connections.
Not just with a conductor, but with each other. So that the hypothetical conductors so good at getting everybody to play a passage and to listen to each other, because this person is not just drawing attention to themselves and saying, “Look at me.” They’re drawing attention to the music, and I think that’s a much more important thing to do. I think if you’re just telling people to play together, it’s a very vague and not particularly lofty goal. I think it’s not as effective as just getting in the general mindset of playing together.
[00:12:22] NC: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like we’re definitely now into the portion of things where we’re talking about what ineffective ways that conductors can run things. Yeah. That’s the good stuff.
[00:12:33] AT: Sorry. I couldn’t — the allure of complaining was too strong.
[00:12:38] NC: No. I think, again, I mean you’ve really hit on it. I mean, playing together is a great thing, but when that is your focus, you get tunnel vision, right? You can lose sight of why it needs to be together.
[00:12:52] AT: I mean, it’s not really achievable on an individual basis.
[00:12:59] NC: That’s true. Yeah. How am I personally supposed to –
[00:13:01] AT: That’s the other thing, it’s like you’re telling individuals to play together and it’s like – It’s as if we’re just like kind of swimming along in like a school of fish and it’s like we’ll swim parallel to that person with our fish from the other side of the school and we’re like, “I don’t know what that fish is doing. They’re all the way over there.”
[00:13:22] NC: True.
[00:13:23] AT: We need a current.
[00:13:24] NC: I mean, if everybody is swimming towards something.
[00:13:27] AT: Yeah, if the current is guiding us and like – That’s when we need a current. We don’t need instructions.
[00:13:34] NC: Yeah, very true. At the very least, I mean, if there are two individuals, let’s say, two solo lines that aren’t together, then it’s possible if those two people know each other very well and they simply weren’t aware that their lines were supposed to be together, then sure, maybe you could say, “Okay. The two of you need to be together there,” and maybe that would work.
[00:13:56] AT: I would respect that. That would be an effective way that you say, “You need to play faster, or this needs to be slower, or this –” That works.
[00:14:05] NC: Yeah. Then that’s – I don’t know if some people would be surprised to hear that, that actually that would be effective and perhaps better respected for a conductor to say, “Actually, you need to play faster. You need to play slower,” if they’re right about it.
[00:14:23] AT: That is one of the things we like. Yeah. Because then you’re not wasting – And this gets to one of the things we hate. We hate wasting of time.
[00:14:30] NC: Sure.
[00:14:31] AT: Maybe that sounds like something uniquely American, because we have these rules of rehearsal time, and breaks, and blah-blah.
[00:14:40] NC: You got to be efficient.
[00:14:41] AT: Yeah, basically. But I mean, I think the great ones really are efficient. I mean, not that they don’t need a lot of rehearsal time, but they don’t waste time on things that can be done more quickly.
[00:14:53] NC: Do you have other examples you’ve thought off of ways to waste time? Then maybe we could also pair those with –
[00:15:01] AT: Well, first of all – Okay. Sorry. The number one thing I think we notice sometimes that we’ll remark on — so let’s just start the movement and then you play the whole thing.
[00:15:11] NC: Right. When they don’t say why.
[00:15:12] AT: They don’t say why. That’s one thing. How can you say why? You’re playing the whole thing. It’s like, “Yeah, I was just –” Oh, yeah. Why are you even starting it? But they can say I want to hear the beginning again. Which is legitimate. You want to get off to a good start. So then you start playing and then keep playing and playing, then you realize, “Hey, we’re more than halfway through this movement now. It looks like we’re getting all the way to the end,” or then they’ll stop like a couple of lines before the end and be like, “All right. That’s enough.”
[00:15:36] NC: Right. Yeah.
[00:15:39] AT: The last 8 minutes of my life back. The one conductor will be – He or she will ask for a passage and then you’ll play it and then look up and this person is rifling through the score, still waving their arm around.
[00:15:53] NC: They’re still conducting.
[00:15:54] AT: Kind of absent-mindedly giving a beat and meanwhile flipping pages through their score. They’re just going to let you play. They’re just going to let you go and just keep cranking out the music while they figure what they want to do next.
[00:16:10] NC: Yeah. Well, they’re terrified of the silence, right? They think if they –
[00:16:14] AT: I can’t say why they do it, but it’s certainly irritating to see someone just sort of looking down into huge think of music and just – The right hand just continues to wave around.
[00:16:24] NC: Yeah. I mean, that’s the sign of someone who knows they’ve lost the orchestra, and if they stop, if they’re silenced, they know there’s going to be – Everybody’s head is going to be swiveling in a hundred directions and talking and –
[00:16:38] AT: Well, that’s not good. I mean, that’s not an appropriate response.
[00:16:41] NC: I’m not saying it’s good, but that’s when people do it, is when they know that’s what’s going to happen. They want to transition directly from putting their arms down to immediately yelling out the next part to start. That of course virtually ensures that no real information is going to –
[00:16:56] AT: Yeah, it increases our lack of focus, for sure.
[00:17:00] NC: Anything else?
[00:17:01] AT: I don’t know if this falls under time wasting, but we definitely don’t like comments that are geared to the worst players. I’m saying this as a person who plays in a section of players, so that it’s not just us. There’re 16, maybe, first violins. Our comment will come our way and it’s like don’t put a big accent on this note and it’s sort of – It could be that there is a little bit of an emphasis on the wrong note there. But I think the best conductors will find a much more productive way to phrase that, and it’s sort of the classic management thing. You don’t say, “Don’t do this.” You say what you want instead.
[00:17:44] NC: Right.
[00:17:46] AT: But I think it is, it’s effective, and that engages everybody, including the – I don’t want to say talented players, but it gets everybody interested. I mean, I find a big thing is like I feel like, “I can’t hear that,” and I wasn’t doing it myself and I find that frustrating after a certain number of those comments go by then everybody thinks, “Well, these comments don’t apply to me.”
[00:18:09] NC: Right. Yeah. Because, I mean, let’s say one time I put an accent on the wrong note, immediately the conductor stops and it’s like, “You guys are accenting this note,” and probably I already knew that I did that and then everyone else who didn’t do it, they’re like, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what I do, because I’m just going to get yelled at,” as long as anybody does anything.
[00:18:32] AT: We did have a colleague at one point who used to say, “I didn’t do that. Did you do that?”
[00:18:39] NC: Right. Yeah, pretty loudly.
[00:18:41] AT: Always found that really entertaining.
[00:18:44] NC: Yeah, sometimes in a string section it feels a little bit like the marines discipline or something, like in the movie, Full Metal Jacket, where the drill sergeant says, “All right, new tactic. From now on, whenever this guy screws up, you’re all going to run laps or have to scrub toilets or whatever.”
[00:19:04] AT: Yeah, it feels like that.
[00:19:05] NC: But there is another way, which is to, yeah, sort of holdout the – I was going to say donut. I guess it’s a carrot. Well, carrot is more of a reward, but –
[00:19:16] AT: Jelly donut.
[00:19:18] NC: Yeah, to say, “Here’s what we’re all after or what we should be after and let’s do what we need to achieve that.”
[00:19:26] AT: Yeah. Again, maybe that seems kind of obvious, but I do feel like it’s kind of consistent. It happens all the time and I really wish it wouldn’t. I think there’s also a feeling that – Again, I think this evaporates when we’re in the presence of someone who really is great and makes us not want to complain. But I think we have spent so much time with our instruments over our lives, that I think that we’re very sensitive to ideas that seem not particularly well-baked, musically, and we get a lot of those, I think, or some of those, anyway, in a less than ideal rehearsal and we’re with a less than ideal conductor.
Sometimes I’ll turn to you and say there’s a conductor who says something like – I don’t know, something that seems sort of rudimentary to me, and I think honestly if we were in a chamber music rehearsal who’s just four people sitting there playing music, I don’t think that this would even qualify as a legitimate comment to make about how the rehearsal is going. Because we’d be playing instead of talking – I mean, I think there’s a lot of instruction that goes on from the conductor that isn’t necessarily doesn’t have to be there.
I think that we love when the majority of things are shown or I think a big rule for us in chamber rehearsals is that instead of talking about it ad nauseam, you just say, “Let’s just play it again and see what works.” Certainly that’s not possible necessarily in such a large group of people, but I think that spirit should prevail over a lot of instructional rehearsing, which I think eventually you will lose people if you’re just talking, talking, talking.
[00:21:15] NC: Oh, absolutely. Some really enjoyable rehearsing that I remember was, for example, when Andrew Manze who was – I think I can say now at this point was a great violinist, because when I asked him he said he hadn’t performed at a long time. But he would often say, “I’m not sure which direction I want to go with this. Could we play it a couple of different ways and let’s hear how it sounds?”
Everybody was more than willing to do that. Ultimately he has to be the one to say, “Okay, I’m going to go with option B,” or whatever, and obviously you can’t make every decision that way. Some things should probably be thought out in advance. I found that a really great way to make a decision rather than coming up with, as you said, half-baked justifications for arbitrary things and not even hearing an alternative.
[00:22:15] AT: Yeah, I think that if you tell people to do something, I mean, you can write things down. You can write in sort of basic things. We’re not going to write down every word they’re saying into our music. It’s just not practical. You’re coming up with ideas that seemingly require like a paragraph of verbal explanation. It’s like this is just not going to happen. You have to find a way to put that into gesture.
[00:22:39] NC: Don’t you find words written in your music sometimes, like we’ll come to something and it will say ‘luscious’ in our part. I wonder which conductor use that word, because obviously that —
[00:22:52] AT: You mean like it’s been written in like as a joke, like a –
[00:22:54] NC: I feel like it’s probably a joke.
[00:22:56] AT: Yeah. There’s some of that. Then one of our very favorite conductors, I mean, he was not even a fan of rehearsing very much at all and that had its downsides, but I mean like what an incredible feeling it was to – that is one way to get everybody looking at you.
[00:23:14] NC: That’s true.
[00:23:16] AT: Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen.
[00:23:17] NC: They have to.
[00:23:18] AT: That’s incredible. There’re some amazing performances that happen. Sure, there are moments that — turns and the music that maybe a little messy or pretty messy. But the very best results are so much more musical than something that’s been planned down to the last –
[00:23:38] NC: Yeah. That definitely pulls focus. It always reminds me kind of like in an NBA game when there’s two seconds left and one team is down by one and they’re about to inbound the ball and they have like one great three point shooter or just one great shooter on the team and then the announcer, before the ball is thrown in there, like, “All right! You know it’s going to Philips. Everybody on that court knows it’s going to Philips.”
[00:24:03] AT: Has the longest arms doing jumping jacks in front of that guy.
[00:24:09] NC: There’s one famous example where that was the situation and then inexplicably the person who is in charge of guarding Philips or whoever it was, at the last second, ran away from them to like double team somebody else. So the guy who was obviously going to take the last shot took the last shot wide open and – Yeah, that’s like – Anyway, I’m imagining a conductor who didn’t rehearse at all and you basically have to be staring at them for this vital piece of information in the concert and you decide you’re going to look down and flatten out the page or something.
[00:24:49] AT: Yeah, we’ve certainly seen that too.
[00:24:53] NC: Yeah. Any other either time wasting or ineffective or just wrong actions from conductors?
[00:25:00] AT: Fake accents. We were complaining of the fake accents or something. That’s wrong and should not happen.
[00:25:06] NC: You’re talking about speaking, accents.
[00:25:08] AT: Yeah. We get some over pronunciation of – It can range from just full-on where are you really from to just over pronouncing certain words. That’s nitpicking. That’s sort of – It’s what the halo effect is, or it’s like you’ve already just kind of written this person off when they start doing that stuff, and that’s – Yeah, the fake accents. It’s a really petty one that we get annoyed with.
I think in the end, I think the resentment is partially because we’re kind of slaving away and it’s hard work up there in the podium too. Don’t get me wrong, but I do feel like we’re working very, very hard to produce something special and then it’s just the nature of orchestra players anonymous. They’ll take the credit and some of them are much too happy to take the credit and seem very pleased with themselves.
[00:26:10] NC: That was the very episode before this one.
[00:26:13] AT: Yeah.
[00:26:12] NC: Titled Orchestra Players Anonymous.
[00:26:14] AT: The double edged sword of anonymity there.
[00:26:17] NC: Well, yeah, and that really cuts across industries, right? I mean, no matter what your job is, if you feel like you’re working hard toward a certain result and the person in charge of you is not or does not give the impression that they’re also working hard for that result. I mean, that’s just instant morale killer.
[00:26:37] AT: Well, they’re still working hard. It’s just there’s no music without us playing. I think, again, veering into the great conductor thing, I think the great conductors do make their players feel appreciated even – You say what are they supposed to do? They can’t shake everybody’s hand. That’s true. But they don’t have to. There are lots of ways where appreciation is expressed in nonverbal or non-gestural ways. It’s just either the feeling or we can get more into it later.
[00:27:10] NC: Yeah. Well, let’s – Like you said, we can save a little of that so that we’re going out strong and positive. I know at a certain point you had some fun, and as you said, slightly immature things maybe that orchestras do when they’re faced with the bad conductor behavior. Is it time to get into those?
[00:27:32] AT: We could. I fear what people were going to sound like – We haven’t done these. There’s just things we know about.
[00:27:41] NC: Things you’ve seen, friends heard it through the orchestra, grapevine. Such as –
[00:27:49] AT: Number one, we’re not looking up.
[00:27:51] NC: Right.
[00:27:52] AT: Whenever someone comes up to us and say, “We really loved that conductor for the concert.” I think, “Geez. Did you notice that we weren’t looking up at all?” Because that’s something that we do. It’s not even an active thing that we are trying to do necessarily. It’s just that after a certain point we feel that we’re pretty tired and this person isn’t really giving us anything to – Any reason to look up. So we’re going to go ahead and just play the music to the best of our abilities without unnecessary input from the podium.
[00:28:22] NC: It’s like when you go to a restaurant and as soon as you pick up the menu, they come over, the server comes over and gives you the 5 minute speech at a certain where you can’t even crane your neck up anymore. You start staring at the menu and you just – It’s like I’ve gotten whatever I’m going to get. I’ve checked out. I haven’t heard a word you’ve said for the last three minutes. All of a sudden there’s silence and, yeah, it’s like the end of the piece. You suddenly look up and like, “Oh, is it done?”
[00:28:56] AT: Yeah, exactly.
[00:28:57] NC: Time to place my order.
[00:28:58] AT: After a certain amount of droning, you just start tuning out. That’s probably number one. We were joking the other day that if you really want to know, if the audience really wants to know how a concert is going, don’t bother trying to stare at the podium. Don’t scrutinize necessarily. Just look at the body language of the orchestra and that’s how you’ll know how good the week has been, how great the music-making has been.
[00:29:20] NC: Well, this really came back to bite me once when I was asked at an LA Phil concert, I was asked if at the end of the concert I might stick around, because there was going to be a post-concert Q&A with some audience members. Was it the two of us actually and the conductor.
[00:29:39] AT: I’m not sure.
[00:29:41] NC: Concert is over. We clear the stage. I come back along with the conductor and a moderator. The very first question came from the audience, “Now, I noticed, maestro, that for the first movement of the symphony you used the baton, and for the second movement, you didn’t use one. Could you tell us why?” Instead of just directly answering the question, the conductor actually passed it along to me and he said, “What did you think of that? Did that make a difference to you?” I actually laughed and I said, “I have to be totally honest. I didn’t notice that.”
[00:30:23] AT: I don’t remember this.
[00:30:24] NC: Yeah. It must have just been me on stage. But I mean, the audience laughed and I wasn’t trying to make any kind of a point and I actually was a little embarrassed, but I think I probably even was looking up and I didn’t notice that detail.
[00:30:38] AT: Yeah. That’s not too bad. That’s not too bad.
[00:30:40] NC: But at least I think the audience took it as –
[00:30:41] AT: They switched the conductor on you and you didn’t notice.
[00:30:44] NC: That’s true.
[00:30:45] AT: The hobo.
[00:30:47] NC: The audience took it as I hadn’t looked up for two solid movements.
[00:30:51] AT: Yeah. It didn’t make you look so great, as most of this won’t make us look very good. During rehearsal, one of the things that we do, and this sort of starts imperceptibly and starts rippling outward, the talking, the inattention manifests this sort of like people talking to each other, whispering and sort of shifting around your seat. There’re a lot of creaky noises.
There are people who will make those noises on purpose to be cute, funny. It is annoying. It does drive me crazy, for the record. But that is one of those things, trying to telegraph in a very immature and impotent way that we’re unhappy. Also some place where I’ve played, one of the sections at the strings would make a weird noise with their bow to express unhappiness with how time is being spent in rehearsal.
[00:31:48] NC: Oh, that’s right.
[00:31:51] AT: Yeah. It was a snapping noise that they would make.
[00:31:54] NC: That’s right. It was like the weird little plastic tubing on a cello bow.
[00:32:00] AT: I was trying to avoid which section it was, but –
[00:32:03] NC: Oh! You didn’t even say which orchestra.
[00:32:04] AT: I didn’t.
[00:32:07] NC: Yeah. I forgot about that.
[00:32:07] AT: It was like a piece of rubber that’s on the stick and they would pull it back repeatedly so it’d make a noise. We’ve seen open sort of – I wouldn’t say disrespect. Well, I guess maybe it verges on disrespect. I mean, once it starts to get a little bit chippy between a specific musician and the conductor, that definitely happens.
[00:32:28] NC: Don’t you wish we had referees sometimes? Again, I’m thinking of basketball or football too where, yeah, the announcer – Yeah, they’ll use that word chippy too, “And things are good and chippy out there. Refs really have to take control of this game before it gets out of hand.” Yeah, I’ve definitely felt that in rehearsals. We need a break. We need a timeout. We need someone to come on and take control of this thing before it gets out of hand.
[00:32:54] AT: Yeah. It’s happened a couple of times. Of course, we’ve actually witnessed the worst things have been between musicians, actually, where I really felt like somebody need to come out and separate the players and –
[00:33:06] NC: Yeah, like pro wrestling referee for that.
[00:33:10] AT: Yeah. That’s happened. But with regards to the conductors, yeah, we’ve seen – Maybe we’d mention the time that a conductor actually left after rehearsals over. Got in the car and told the driver to take me to the airport because he was so unhappy with the question that he’d gotten from the concert master.
[00:33:28] NC: Right.
[00:33:29] AT: Yeah. That’s happened and they had to be talked back to actually finishing out the week. Yeah, I mean, that was in response to what we felt was playing needlessly without any actual rehearsal.
[00:33:45] NC: Right. That was a situation where the orchestra started letting their displeasure be known. The conductor took the bait basically and said, “Oh, so you’re not happy? Then we’ll just play and I won’t stop you and then we’ll all be happy.” Then, yeah, that was at the end of that rehearsal that the conductor tried to leave town.
[00:34:07] AT: Yeah, these are all – Those are the big things I think, the big ways in which we express our unhappiness with a situation.
[00:34:17] NC: I mean, in less direct ways – I mean, there’s musical retaliation not in the sense that people try to play badly, but people perhaps stop trying to play their best. I don’t think there’s any way you can play your best when that’s the collective mindset on stage. Things really regress to sort of bare minimum, the baseline.
[00:34:41] AT: Sure. I think at the concert, I don’t really ever think of a time when we all shutdown playing-wise. I don’t really think that happens. I think that we are sometimes successful in shutting out what’s happening out there.
[00:34:57] NC: Yeah.
[00:34:59] AT: That’s unfortunate because that’s supposed to be a connection that makes the whole thing work. But I mean, the orchestra is like it’s some little organism. We can function with a bare minimum of information from up there.
[00:35:11] NC: I think too, I mean it’s hard for me to remember a time that a grudge was held in both directions, like all the way through the concerts too. I generally feel like even when rehearsals have been kind of can’t wait to get this person out of town. I feel like the concert starts and there’s something in the body language almost guaranteed. Somebody in the body language of the conductor that says, “All right, guys. You know everything that happened before. It was just kind of like – I didn’t mean any of that. We need each other now, so let’s –”
[00:35:44] AT: Yeah. I think it’s a feeling like let’s – Ideally, we’re all here just in service of this music. Let’s do that.
[00:35:52] NC: Yeah, I really do feel that does win the day. I mean, it’s like there’s no more fooling around. I mean, there’s people that are listening. We’re all going to spend the next two hours together and we do need each other. I mean, the players need the conductor. The conductor obviously needs the players. I the end, the necessity – Well, there’s probably some great expression that starts with the word necessity.
[00:36:19] AT: Necessity is the mother of ensemble.
[00:36:21] NC: Yeah. That works.
[00:36:24] AT: Let’s use the mother of getting through the concert.
[00:36:28] NC: Well, is this a good time to close out with what we love about great conductors, great ways of bringing an orchestra through a week of wonderful music?
[00:36:40] AT: Yeah. Do we always agree when our conductor is great? I mean, that’s a tricky one. I think it’s easy for me to say, “Oh, when a conductor is great, we do this or that.” Certainly there isn’t always 100% agreement on that.
[00:36:52] NC: I mean, if you mean we as in you and me, it’s easier for us to agree because I think we sit so close to each other and our perspectives are –
[00:37:01] AT: You’re scared of me.
[00:37:03] NC: A lot more –
[00:37:04] AT: You’re out of your mind.
[00:37:06] NC: That’s for sure.
[00:37:08] AT: I stink.
[00:37:09] NC: But if you’re saying we as in the orchestra, then no. Wow! There are some different perspectives.
[00:37:16] AT: There can be, but I feel like there is surprisingly a good amount of agreement, I would say. I know this partially because I was in charge of telling responses, actual survey responses for a while. I’d have to say it’s surprisingly unified. There’s always a few outliers.
[00:37:34] NC: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s always an understanding. If one person in the orchestra says this conductor is just fantastic, it’s rare that someone else who had been through those same rehearsals and concerts would say, “I just don’t understand where they’re coming from at all. There’s nothing great about that conductor.”
I mean, I think generally there’s at least the sense like, “Okay, they must be talking about this aspect. Even though I really didn’t like this person overall, I could see what – There’s something there. I can see what they’re talking about.”
[00:38:09] AT: Yeah. That’s true. I think that the great ones, they’re not conducting in a sense that they’re in-charge of us. They’re our medium for our focus to flow into the audience. That sounds sort of cheesy, but I think they’re conducting in a sense like a filament to conduct or something. It’s not dictatorial. I think the worst situations are you feel like that’s the case. Although there are different types of great conductors. We had one was extremely scary. Great musician and everyone’s focus was – It was like their way or the highway.
[00:38:50] NC: This person might still be conducting, which is why we’re not going to say who they are in case we play for them again.
[00:38:55] AT: There’s no change that this person is ever going to hear about this podcast, but it wouldn’t have worked without them being a great musician. That’s for sure.
[00:39:01] NC: Right. If you’re going to do things that way, then you have to be right 100% of the time.
[00:39:05] AT: Yeah.
[00:39:05] NC: Which they pretty much were.
[00:39:07] AT: Either you thought that or you could leave.
[00:39:09] NC: Yeah. That’s a tricky thing though. Yeah, to appear as though you’re helping all the musicians out. You’re channeling their music, but yet to remain really in control, because you have to be. That’s a tricky balance.
[00:39:28] AT: I mean, if everyone is thinking of this the right way, then we realize our energy has to go in that direction. I think that ends up lining everything up. It’s like a magnet that pulls all the little magnets into a line and go around and adjust each magnet by hand. That’s not going to happen, fish magnets or whatever.
[00:39:47] NC: Either a magnet or a fish.
[00:39:50] AT: Can’t swim next to a magnet and expect it to line up. I think we always come back to this, and this is also going to sound maybe kind of vain, but it’s like we love being appreciated, and you think it would not be possible to appreciate everybody in this situation, yet it’s sort of is.
I mean, we’ve seen great conductors that they sincerely say, “This is great. This is really wonderful,” and when they get what they want. I mean, they’re not happy when they don’t get what they want, but they don’t take out their anger in an unfocused way. It’s okay to get annoyed, but get annoyed at the source of the problem and in the service of fixing it. Don’t get annoyed just to vent some frustration. That’s one of the number one things that starts turning us off.
I think the great ones, they just know how to – They either make eye contact. They look pleased. I mean, it’s the very basic things that I think we really respond to. In the end, music-making is a visceral thing and we respond to visceral queues.
[00:40:54] NC: Yeah. It is weird how – I’m not even sure that flattery is the right word, but it’s weird. You’d think – or I would think, “Okay. I’ve been playing for 30 some years. I’ve been a professional for 20 years. It shouldn’t matter to me if some conductor I’ve never met before says to my section, “Oh, you have a beautiful sound.” That shouldn’t really mean anything. It just sounds like empty flatter. But somehow you’re right. In the middle of a rehearsal, you play a phase and the conductor says, “That’s just a gorgeous sound you make.”
[00:41:30] AT: It can just be as much as just like just saying yes and then –
[00:41:35] NC: That’s true.
[00:41:36] AT: That’s all they need to say or not even. They just have a smile on their face that you did it right.
[00:41:41] NC: It’s true. It really means something. You think, “Yeah. Yeah, I am playing well.”
[00:41:46] AT: Oh, it’s an animal thing too. It’s like you crave that positive reinforcement. It’s like when we were training our dog when we first got her and she was a mess. You don’t obviously zap them with shock collar. You don’t do these terrible things to them. You give them a treat when they do something right. We like the metaphorical treat.
Another goes hand in hand with things I don’t like, but we don’t like when a conductor just decides – Again, this is from string perspective. Conductor has obviously decided strings are always too loud, and they make a joke out of it. Oh, it’s already too loud before we start playing or something. That’s not really funny.
[00:42:33] NC: Right.
[00:42:34] AT: Then you spend the whole time – We say the hand and the face. We’re looking up but this person, one of the best ways to get a section and stop looking at you is every they look up, palms up stretched to suppress the glory of your sound and to –
[00:42:53] NC: Right. You mean palm down. Yeah.
[00:42:56] AT: Yeah.
[00:42:56] NC: Not outstretched, like give me more –
[00:42:59] AT: Yeah. That palm up. No, it’s palm down or to the side. Like stay over there.
[00:43:02] NC: Out of the way.
[00:43:03] AT: You stay in your corner. How dare you. Infringe on the glory of the rest of the orchestra here. Yeah, and I think that a great conductor – Part of feeling appreciated, clearly, because you don’t feel appreciated when someone’s hand is urging you to play less. They coax exuberant playing from you as well as asking for expressive softness. You’re being expressed of in all aspects. You never feel with a great conductor that you were just – You got music written there, but you don’t really want to hear it.
[00:43:37] NC: Right. Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, certain conductors have a way of making every dynamic seem as though you’re playing too loud. I mean, obviously pianissimo, that’s too easy. You can always tell a string section that a pianissimo is too loud. Piano, you have piano. Why are you playing forte? Mezzo piano and mezzo forte. Well, same thing. This is not forte.
[00:44:03] AT: It’s not forte.
[00:44:04] NC: Then you have forte, but, “Oh, please. You’re playing this like it’s an aggressive forte. This needs to be – Then fortissimo.
[00:44:11] AT: It’s like you may have forte, but guess what? The oboe has double forte.
[00:44:16] NC: Right.
[00:44:16] AT: Like, “Oh, okay.”
[00:44:17] NC: Fine that you get a fortissimo with accents. Why so aggressive? We have three fortes at the end of the movement. Right. You got to –
[00:44:27] AT: Let the brass lead there. Okay.
[00:44:31] NC: All right. Now we’re venting for sure. But we say we saved it till now.
[00:44:35] AT: We haven’t started in on each other yet. It’s tearing down the other sections.
[00:44:42] NC: Yeah. I mean, as long as a conductor gives you reign sometimes, then it makes sense. Those are the times when you can’t just run wild.
[00:44:53] AT: Yeah. I can’t think of my favorite conductors doing a whole lot of shushing, unless it was really warranted.
[00:45:01] NC: Right.
[00:45:03] AT: You don’t like to be shushed. That’s for sure.
[00:45:06] NC: What’s the final recipe? We build the perfect conductor in a lab. We program there. It’s kind of like Robocop. We have to program in there all their primary directives. They have to direct traffic well enough to keep things from falling apart, but I guess they have to manage rehear time in an efficient way. Solving problems quickly.
[00:45:31] AT: Quickly and in a targeted fashion.
[00:45:33] NC: While keeping everybody motivated and aligned toward the common musical goal, common musical vision. They help everyone feel valued for their contributions.
[00:45:46] AT: Yeah, I think they let you know when they’re not particularly pleased, but they also let you know when they’re happy.
[00:45:52] NC: Yeah. That sounds great. Sign me up. No. I mean –
[00:45:59] AT: Robo-conductor.
[00:46:01] NC: Robo-conductor. If you’ve not seen Robocop or haven’t seen it in a while, it is an awesome movie, and Robocop has a secret directive too. I don’t know if we have to put one of those. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but he’s programmed –
[00:46:17] AT: This movie is from like 30 years ago.
[00:46:19] NC: I know, but if someone hasn’t seen it, they should experience it for the first time. A bit of trivia, the bad guy from Robocop did come to an LA Phil concert.
[00:46:27] AT: It’s true. Beethoven Missa Solemnis.
[00:46:30] NC: Kurtwood Smith, if you’re out there –
[00:46:32] AT: We haven’t seen him since. I’m not sure that we –
[00:46:34] NC: Maybe he’s just – Missa Solemnis was Beethoven’s favorite piece that he wrote. At least he said it one point. Maybe that was Kurtwood Smith’s favorite piece and he goes to every performance of it that he can find. But when I saw that face out there, I was not looking at the conductor. I’m sorry Michael Tilson Thomas, because I loved playing for MTT, but I could only look out at Clarance Boddicker
[00:47:01] AT: Wishing. Wishing he were on the podium.
[00:47:07] NC: No. Robocop was programmed with not only the good upholding law and order kind of directives, but he had a secret directive that even he didn’t know about and I feel like we’d have to program our perfect conductor with some secret.
[00:47:23] AT: Believe me. Someone out there is programming in a perfect orchestra musician right now.
[00:47:28] NC: That’s true. They’re going to replace us.
[00:47:29] AT: With all kinds of directives.
[00:47:32] NC: Robo-fiddle. Yeah. All right. Whoever is out there working on that project, cease. Cease the work immediately.
[00:47:41] AT: Yeah. Send them an email.
[00:47:44] NC: Well, great. Remember to check out the podcast Every Little Thing, because yeah, I can’t wait to hear their episode on orchestra concerts.
[00:47:54] AT: Or maybe you should wait till I tell you how it went and then –
[00:47:56] NC: Okay. Akiko will tell us how it went at the next episode.
[00:48:00] AT: Then you can listen to that.
[00:48:02] NC: We’re so grateful that you spent this time with us. Can’t wait to invite ourselves back into your earbuds or car radio or wherever. Thanks so much and we’ll see you at the next episode of Stand Partners for Life.