Friend and mentor came over the other night and brought his viola. He played the second violin and the viola parts to the quartet I am preparing and we played several movements together.
He offered an exercise suggestion. It surprised me how mentally difficult it is. He said that I should practice a series of dotted eighths and 16ths by adding a lot of energy (not pressure or speed) to the short note and playing the long note quite softly, almost no bow and with absolutely no accent. I started on open strings. What a mind bender. He said to try it with different bowings. down down, up up then down up down up, etc.
The right hand is definitely the hardest and that is an easy exercise comparatively.
In the sense of performing with paid orchestra the headline isn't true. I have performed in paid orchestras a number of times but last week I performed with a professional orchestra for the first time. I'll be circumspect about the details for the sake of search engines etc. but you can just look at my last blog to know when and who etc.
The performances (3) took place in Mexico City. They were part of a two month summer festival of weekly performances. The musicians were mainly Mexican nationals but the winds were heavily augmented with non-Mexicans who I presume were mainly Americans.. I was an unpaid substitute member of a visiting (volunteer) chorus.
The quality of the orchestra playing was very fine. The solo wind and string parts were particularly well done. Some of the tempos were brisk and the string playing was quite virtuosic in general but I was surprised to see some faking in the first violins on one chorus I know well.
My real surprise was the conductor. He is clearly a bright up-and-coming performer but he has no down beat. He looked more like a boxer delivering a round house punch in the stomach. Once in rehearsal he was critical of the chorus rhythm so he conducted in a very four-square way. Surprise! We sang it quite rhythmically. Clear beat patterns (as opposed to podium choreography) have a function. Who knew!?.
I play in an orchestra that is directed by students (current or former) of Larry Rachleff who is the principal conductor at the Shepherd School of Music. You can say many things about Larry Rachleff but you may not say that he doesn't have a down beat. I have had veterans of orchestras say that the only conductor with a clearer beat pattern than Rachleff is Pierre Boulez. His students tend to conduct clearly.
Our director last week does not have a clear beat pattern and I believe that most of the weaknesses of the performance can be traced to that. When I complained to members of the chorus they told me that he was better than most of the many conductors they have worked with. Horrors!
The performance was actually quite good but I know that it could have been better. We spent too much mental energy on figuring out where entrances were or what tempo was. I was a newbie but my chorus colleagues were veterans of many professional performances. They can sing but they would have been much better served by a clearer beat pattern. They didn't need any histrionics to sing louder, softer or with more drama. In fact the clearer the beat pattern the more confidence we had to inject drama into the work.
So here is my advice for conductors.
1. Your function at performance time is to communicate the rhythm, mark the beat, and provide effective cues.
2. The rebound after the ictus of the downbeat is always away from the body. (Always always always)
3. The right elbow never rises above the right wrist.
4. The right elbow never rises above the head or for that matter the shoulder.
5. One hand is enough for 98% of the performance. The second hand rarely adds value and if it is used in synch with the right hand it only confuses.
Many years ago I was a part of a conducting lesson given by Joseph Rosenstock. This venerable conductor had retired from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and had taken some conducting students. One time he brought a conducting student to a youth orchestra I was playing in. The student tried to get dramatic but Rosenstock shot that down. He wanted a clear beat pattern. At the end he demonstrated. The difference was dramatic.
More entries: June 2009
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