My First Experience Performing with a Professional Orchestra

July 6, 2009, 2:55 PM ·

 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. 



July 7, 2009 at 04:13 AM ·

Congratulations on your first performance with a professional orchestra.  I'm sorry that you were disappointed with the conductor.

I would add some things to your list of what a conductor should do at a performance.  He should inspire the orchestra members and convey emotions to them.

I looked around Youtube to see how some famous conductors (Szell, Stokowski, von Karajan, and Maazel) placed the right elbow while conducting.  None except von Karajan ever had the right elbow above the right wrist.  Everyone had the right elbow at shoulder level sometimes.  Karajan sometimes had his right elbow above his head.  Karajan was not one to be intimidated by other people's rules.  Watch out for his crescendos.  Here is the link to Karajan conducting the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony 3: .  I'm including it because both the videography and the music are fantastic. 

July 7, 2009 at 06:02 AM ·

1. Your function at performance time is to communicate the rhythm, mark the beat, and provide effective cues.

Well, welcome to the real world...communicate the rhythm, mark the beat...only if his name is Seth Thomas. Many conductors might be accused of being  off in stylistic land perhaps, but if you require a time beater; buy a metronome

July 7, 2009 at 10:02 AM ·

 Last night a friend brought over a DVD of great conductors including Mengelburg, Erich Kleiber, Furtwangler etc. 

Many might characterize their beat pattern as pedantic but they got an energy out of the orchestra that was absolutely astounding and they did it with minimal podium drama. 

Here is the Kleiber example.:

July 7, 2009 at 10:10 AM ·

Pauline, I easily defer to the professional violinists who play frequently with today's renowned conductors. But speaking for my one experience I can say that we had rehearsed drama out the gills.  All that we needed was the confidence to fully activate it. My personal feeling is that it is insulting to thinking people to assert that  only a ballet performance on the podium will cause them to execute the ideas that were previously communicated in rehearsal. 

But I do agree that the conductor needs to communicate emotion. Here is Part 1 of a Furtwangler performance of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. He communicates emotion.


July 7, 2009 at 03:30 PM ·

Do you sing in choirs often? My experience has been that choir conductors tend to be hard to follow, often more so than orchestral conductors. Of course, this sweeping generalization may have no bearing in the actual, real life situation that you participated in, I just mention that because you said one of the singing veterans told you the conductor was better than the ones they work with a lot of the time. Maybe he wasn't quite so bad?

And I don't agree that the conductor's function is to beat a clear pattern, keep time, etc. I think with professional musicians it's a given that they can keep time themselves, so some conductors take liberties and work in other aspects of the music.

But then again, I don't play professionally yet so all this stuff may not be at all true.

July 7, 2009 at 06:25 PM ·

 I won't speak for all professionals but I assure you the few professionals I know well appreciate a clear beat. It frees their concentration for the real music. 

I certainly don't think that the conductor is a metronome. We didn't need conductors in the era of one tempo. one meter, no ritardando, rallentando or accelerando or rubato. I defy an orchestra to play together without someone clearly in charge of such things (whether playing or on the podium). 

July 7, 2009 at 07:17 PM ·

The longtime conductor of my alma mater's orchestra used to refer to a certain conducting style as "tossing of salad."  

July 8, 2009 at 01:16 AM ·

When I was playing in a community symphony orchestra, we had an unusual experience with a "guest conductor."  Our real conductor worked for a private school which had an annual auction to raise money for the school.  One year the conductor put up for auction the opportunity to conduct our orchestra in a rehearsal of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.  This item netted $600, more than any other single item in the auction.  The "guest conductor" knew very little about music, and his conducting was terrible.  Afterwards, when we orchestra members discussed it among ourselves, we all agreed that his attempt to conduct rhythm was very confusing, and we only made it through the selection by not looking at him.  A short time after he finished conducting, he waltzed back into the rehearsal hall carrying a bunch of roses, blowing kisses, and taking bows.  We all thought he really looked cute and he really had fun.

July 8, 2009 at 09:01 AM ·

 I've seen a conductor once stand stock still and twitch their left hand while making facial expressions...(was a fantastic performance)

But that's probably preferable to a bad beat pattern.  Even if the orchestra can play together they might start second guessing themselves and making a mess of things if the conductor is flailing.

watching the conducting lessons here and some interviews with conductors there seem to be a few basic points that make a good beat pattern

  1. The downbeat goes down, the upbeat goes up.  In 4/4 time two and three do not go down or up...
  2. the tip has to get there first
  3. the movement of the tip between beats has to be smooth
  4. less is more, if they listen that's better than if you try to control

It's nice to know since some of us instrumentalists will probably get called on to conduct community orchestras or teach in k-12 education where we will, again, have to conduct a little.  

I can't agree with what you say about the purpose of the conductor or the rules about how high the elbow should be, etc.  I think the conductor does much more than that and also that some great conductors have enjoyed lifting their arms above their heads and even doing things like hopping in place or falling off the stage (-_-)

July 8, 2009 at 10:25 AM ·

Joseph, Was the performance you observed with the twicthy conductor Ravel's Bolero?

I agree with all your numbered points. 

July 10, 2009 at 02:25 AM ·

No, I think it was a slow movement of Brahms (can't remember exactly which piece though) 

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