WHY THERE WON'T BE ANOTHER CONDUCTOR LIKE ME
As Bob Dylan prophetically said, “the times they are a-changing.” I've occupied a space in time which witnessed so many dramatic changes. From flying transports, to jets, to the moon, and robotics beyond to Mars! From antenna to cable TV...from 3 or 4 stations on your TV to immeasurable cable networks! From party wired phones (ours was 2 consecutive rings!), to individual wireless cell phones. From no (conceivable) computers to a computer in every home. From regular postage to e-mail. From music on vinyl, to CD to mp3 to …? It's all been happening so fast!
So here am I. A child of the (19) '60's. Brought up by WW2 parents who experienced the “Great Depression,” Who insisted I “Clear my plate.” (For the other people starving in the World!). I never figured that out, and often told my Mom I'd be happy to package up those canned peas and mail them to those in need!
I had the privilege of playing under conductors like Moshe Paranov, Gustav Meier, Murry Sidlin and Ainslee Cox in high school festivals. I always studied what they did on the podium. I always observed my mentor John F. Burnett and later conductors on the Danbury scene like Robert Hart Baker and James Humphreville. I saw what worked, what didn't work, and I learned...on the job training!
So fast forward to a young musician. I'm studying with a European trained violinist (John F. Burnett) who becomes a second father. Ironically, he smokes cigarettes incessantly while my actual father develops Emphysema. He is a huge influence and I want to grow up to emulate him, until, one day, I walk into a lesson with him. I'm now in college and my music theory teacher has played a record of “The Winter Consort.” I assume it's a college recording of a “Winter Concert,” but she tells me “no.” It's a group. The tune I hear is entitled “Icarus” and it mesmerizes me. I hear classical, baroque, jazz, pop influences and it all swirls around me.
Not long after I go to my usual violin lesson. My teacher has a recording on. It's the same thing! That “Icarus” piece! I ask my teacher what he's listening to and he informs me that this guy who lives in Redding (just a town over from my hometown of Danbury, CT ) has asked him to put together a group to play a benefit concert.)
So suddenly I'm in a rehearsal with Paul Winter, who's presenting his arrangement of Charles Ives' “The Pond.” He tells us that his fellow Redding resident Mary Travers will sing the vocal line. I'm no dummy! She's the “Mary” of “Peter. Paul and Mary!” The gig is a mini-performance for the dedication of some land that Edward Steichen, the famous photographer, has donated to the local Audoban Society. Paul's percussionists hang instruments from tree branches. His cellist, David Darling is presented with scales to improvise on, recorded wolf calls are placed with speakers behind bushes where those in attendance are seated. To me, it is all incredibly beautiful. At one point, during rehearsal, Mary Travers says, “just think...these trees have never heard music like this.” And I had a moment. THIS is the kind of music I want to make! Music that moves people, and inspires!
Shortly after that I contacted Paul's cellist, David Darling, and we met for a couple of lessons. He was very inspirational, energetic, and very grounded in the classics (like myself) while open to exploring the new musical vocabulary. He was very gracious to me, teaching me aspects of improvisation and then hiring me to play violin tracks on a “Head East” recording project. I later tried to return the favor by hiring him to play with my band, “Solstice” at a couple of concerts. He complied, and commented before we played “Icarus” one time, “I feel like I've been playing this tune all of my life!”
David went on to develop a youth orchestra in Litchfield County, and asked me to sit in as a “ringer.” I studied what he'd done in the northwestern hills of Connecticut and applied it to my area in Danbury. Before long, I inherited an ensemble of 27 musicians in Danbury and proceeded to try to develop a bonafide orchestra program. Soon, the “Danbury Little Symphony” was renamed the “Danbury Community Orchestra,” the result of an “upgrade” from the Danbury Community Orchestra of primarily adults to the “Danbury Symphony Orchestra.”
I conducted that group for 20 years, growing an orchestra of primarily a few kids, to an ensemble of adults and young people who rehearsed once a week and performed concerts twice a year. Repertoire was chosen carefully to exercise the median level of the group. The group grew in size. Soon. 60 then more. We had to institute an audition policy to limit numbers and control balances.
Word got out about what was happening in Danbury. I was invited to audition for the Norwalk Youth Symphony and was eventually appointed their Concert Orchestra conductor. They had previously hired young Julliard students and had come to the realization that perhaps a conductor/teacher with more experience and less “formal training” might be be the way to go. I obliged them with 16 years of devoted service during which the quality of the Concert orchestra was unprecedented. The conductor of the Principal Orchestra, the group my students “fed” praised me for the preparation the students had coming in to her orchestra.
So we went to Europe, touring the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. And then it all fell apart. I developed an alcohol problem and was pretty soon having to ingest nearly a pint just to quell my shakes and sweats just to get to rehearsals. I tried my best to carry on, but there was no hope. They knew and just didn't know how to best dismiss me. They put me on “Probation” during which I cleaned up and attended every rehearsal. Then, during a dress rehearsal, I looked down and saw a young, female musician who appeared, from my perspective, to be topless! I implored her, “What are you wearing?” She impishly pulled her shirt from over her chair. I said, “thank you...from here that looked a little risque.” I then, probably to excess, said, referring to the adult “ringers” we had hired, “there's old guys back there!”
OK. The girl came up to me in tears after the rehearsal. I apologized profusely. Her “pit-bull” mom came in complaining about my indiscretion. I knew my days were numbered. Soon, I was informed that the group I had prepared would be conducted by the Principal conductor for the concert, I was “Ill.”
And so, my youth orchestra career ended. But I look now, reflect and see this...the conductors that are hired by youth orchestras now are just highly trained conducting students looking for a “gig!” They program for their own repertoires, always looking beyond where they are. I was very content conducting enthusiastic young musicians. But now it's all about the repertoire. “Oh. We did Bartok's 'Concerto For Orchestra.' What did you do? It's all BS! What did the kids learn? What did they bring to their next orchestral experience? Faking and misunderstanding, that's what!
When you conduct a volunteer orchestra, it's very different than conducting pro's. A professional trombonist, for example, will sit contently on stage for 3 movements of a Brahms symphony, then pick up his horn and make the most glorious, heroic, loud, brassy, sounds to bring the finale to a glorious end. They're the heroes, arriving to save the day!
But do volunteers have that kind of patience? Do they want to sit around, listening to strings and woodwinds engage in all sorts of discourse, while waiting to come in, like “Superman” to save the day?
I remember my first year in college, attending my very first orchestra rehearsal. I was seated in the first violin section along with all of the best violinists. As the rehearsal progressed, I realized that the second violins were struggling, with no one to effectively lead them. My own teacher, in the community orchestra I had grown up in, had often asked me to “help” a section or a stand partner out. I had always considered this a privilege and was always enthusiastic to help the common good. And so I approached my college conductor after the rehearsal and told him I'd be more than happy to play second violin and maybe help pull that section together. He looked at me, surprised, and said “Really?” I nodded. “Sure, that would be great,” he replied.
Years later I ran into that conductor. We chatted amicably but, to my astonishment, he remembered me most for that one gesture. I laughed and told him that was my upbringing, and that it was always about doing what was best for “the team.” He just shook his head.
When I moved into the competitive world of “youth orchestra” conducting, it was at first uncomfortable for me. 'Raised on community orchestra playing, the idea of annual auditions and performance placement was foreign and a little discomfiting to me. I wondered how a group could effectively play together in harmony after competing for seating. To me, the process seemed diametrically opposed to effective music-making. But I immersed myself in the process and tried to make every audition and every end-result seating as painless as possible.
I had long ago learned that humor was a great tool in the volunteer orchestra. By making rehearsals a fun experience, numbers stayed up and participation grew. I applied this to my youth orchestra, and with a stand-up comic's determination, sought to get laughs or smiles at every juncture possible. My ambition was never to compromise our artistic goals, but to make getting there as enjoyable a ride as possible.
Sometimes I got frustrated. Sometimes I was angry. I wasn't shy about letting a section know that I was disappointed in their progress or that they were holding the group back. I'd scold, but always with love in my heart and try to balance that seriousness with a light moment, or a flippant joke. For several years my “modus operandi” worked well for me.
But as Bob Dylan noted, the times, they do change. In addition to my youth orchestra, I had a primarily adult community orchestra where sometimes rather adult humor got everybody going. On one occasion we were called out when a high school student sat in and was uncomfortable with some of the remarks exchanged. I vowed to the parent that we would refrain from anything questionable in the future, but to no avail. The student left us and I had my first tarnished mark.
So it was probably inevitable that “political correctness” would creep up on me and eventually devour me. I have become a dinosaur. A relic of a time long passed. When conductors learned by doing, when interaction was key to sustaining relationships, when humor made hard work more sustainable.
I look around me now, and I see young conducting “students,” with the wide-eyed optimism of leading major professional symphonies vying for youth and community orchestra jobs because that's all they can qualify for. They are building repertoire and resumes. Their little amateur groups are run more and more like professional groups, with little heart and more demands. And the music? Do we need more bad or mediocre performances of the classical greats to sustain that genre? Can't we program for the ensemble instead of the director's ambitions?
And that is why I say there will never be another conductor like me. As egotistical as that may sound, my time has come. I couldn't get a job like that now. My competition would inevitably be music students with Masters degrees and Juilliard conducting training. With more students getting out of school and entering the job market than there are professional orchestra openings, the “trickle down” is to the volunteer youth and community orchestras. But nothing in their training prepares them for those jobs! And so it's on the job training. Some of them get it and adjust their skills to become very good at conducting these kinds of orchestras. But some still have their “eyes on the prize” and use their experiences to build their resumes and expand their repertoire. The result is the programming of overly ambitious works which many of the young people or amateurs simply can't play well.
A talented friend of mine related a college story which he credited with displaying the “ivory tower” of conservatory instruction. The class was studying a score, and the instructor pointed out that a long musical phrase by the solo clarinetist should be played in a single breath. A student raised his hand and questioned “what if they can't do that in a single phrase?” The instructor looked at him with obvious disdain and remarked, “you shouldn't be conducting that kind of orchestra.” Well, the reality is, that most everyone coming out of conducting school WILL start with that kind of orchestra! They'll be engaged as (at best) Assistant Conductors to professional groups, which means they study scores and never get to conduct them (unless they're as lucky as a hungover Leonard Bernstein was when Bruno Walter fell ill!). Most likely they'll find themselves conducting youth or community volunteer orchestras. So you are now in a duo role...INSTRUCTOR and Conductor! You can't just ask “play it more articulated.” You have to explain, “the bow needs to be off of the string between each note.” You need to demonstrate and inform. But that won't ever be happening again.
I have high hopes for new conductors. Some of my colleagues at Norwalk Youth Symphony I think will go on to wonderful professional things after successfully navigating the youth orchestra scene. Eckart Preu has already made a name for himself, Tara Simonicic has moved into her favorite area, conducting professional ballet, and Yuga Cohler is a star on the rise. But these folks all succeeded at the youth orchestra level first. They learned the rudiments and now can expressively lead a group of professional musicians on that magical mystery ride which is classical orchestral music.
So conducting students get off of your high horses! You need to put in your time in the trenches. You need to be able to explain HOW to do something, not just say “do it!” I know that I could never get a job now. And yet, I firmly believe that the students I worked with “got it.” They knew what the composer and the music demanded and they gave it their very best to accommodate that. And I am proud for that and grateful that I came along when I did. For the “Times they are a-changin'!”
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