February 2012

Why did the conductor cross the road?

February 28, 2012 09:44

What is the difference between a conductor and a chimpanzee?
It has been scientifically proven that chimpanzees are able to communicate with humans.

What is the difference between an orchestra and a freight train?
A freight train needs a conductor!

So, my experience this past weekend prompted me to go and find some conductor jokes, as a way of dealing with extreme frustration.

I play in two orchestra...one is local-ish and one requires a 2 1/2 hr. drive for the concert weekend. This past Saturday was concert day for this orchestra, so I drove that direction on Friday afternoon, listening to Beethoven 2 (on the program) the whole drive. I was excited to play this concert, as my local orchestra had just 2 weeks prior played a brutally difficult concert. While there is no such thing as 'easy Beethoven', this is a very accessible piece and I was looking forward to playing a great and exciting work with a good group of musicians.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. However, also on the program was the Walton Viola Concerto played by a young artist concerto winner.

One last preliminary point...this conductor is one I'd only played for once before, as I'd taken a leave from this orchestra, and he's relatively new. When reading his bio, it all sounds great... but, for the life of me, I can't find a downbeat anywhere. Ever. In any meter. His arms sort of wave around in emotive circles, and I guess we're supposed to be divining some sort of guidance from them, but I sure can't find it.

So, the Friday rehearsal goes like this: A quick blow through of a Rossini overture, at high speed. It's sloppy, but on we go. Then, the Walton... 1st movement. 1st movement again. 2nd movement. 3rd movement. Break. 3rd movement again. Finally, a quick (no, not quick, BREAKNECK) blow through of some of the Beethoven. 3rd movement. 1st movement. 3rd movement again. 4th movement. Oops...out of time. First 3 minutes of 2nd movement. Done.

Saturday: Blow through the Rossini, badly. Walton: 3rd movement. 1st movement. 2nd movement. 3rd movement. 1st movement. Break. Beethoven: Hack up the 1st movement from top to bottom, badly, at supersonic speed, pausing only to play certain wind fragments in the introduction over and over and over. At times I hear 3 different tempos around me and stop to try to figure out who to go with. Play the 2nd movement, most of which we've not done the night before. Play the 3rd movement, badly (b/c it's going so fast). Play the 4th movement. Out of time.

After this rehearsal, I spoke to the concert-mistress. I told her I was having a terrible time even finding the beat and that the Beethoven seemed ridiculously fast for the amount of rehearsal time invested. She told me, "Oh, we don't even watch him anymore. No one can follow him...we just start and go". This is highly NOT reassuring to those of us coming in, especially since I cannot see her bow from where I'm sitting. She also told me that the rehearsal tempos may or may not be the concert tempos and that they vary every time.

So, concert. Rossini overture- not terrible, but totally not clean. The only thing that saved it is that it is not very difficult.
Walton: The audience was charmed by the soloist. We hardly knew where we were. (remember the 'no downbeat' thing? This is a difficult orchestral part with changing meters..). Beethoven: an absolutely sloppy, rushing mess that sounded like we were all falling downhill at high speed.

I'd never in my life played a concert where the result was so unsatisfactory, ESPECIALLY in light of the fact that the piece was very playable by the group. It would have felt stressful in a different sort of way if the piece were just too hard, but it wasn't. It was too fast, under-rehearsed and without any help (and a great deal of hindrance) from the podium. This is a piece that truly would have gone better without a conductor...at least, the orchestra would have chosen a playable tempo. It was so disappointing and so stressful.

My roommate was a woman who had a 20 year career at the Kennedy center. She said she'd never heard the Beethoven done so fast, and felt as stressed and unhappy as I was.

This is serious enough for me that I'm going to have to think long and hard before I sign any more contracts for this orchestra. To take something that could have been so good, and kill it like that seems almost unforgivable to me.

Sadly, this conductor has been given an extension on his contract. The orchestra is unhappy about this, but his manner with the audience is fun and engaging and they love him. So, the supporters are fans.

Why did the conductor cross the road? Who knows.....sigh.

9 replies


How am I doing?

February 14, 2012 17:15

Every year I go to chamber music camp, where I spend a week playing glorious music in the deep woods. I have a standing group and every year we play the Schubert cello quintet, Mendelssohn octet, Dvorak American, and the amazing Brahms sextets among other things. I play the 2nd violin, and that's the way I like it. I am a good 2nd violinist. I understand how the parts function and really enjoy the inner voice role.

However, every year at camp I come away with 2 things that I find myself chewing on. The first is that I am reminded that I'm really a pretty good player. That sounds self-evident, but I think that for many of us who teach a lot, it's easy to fall into a self-identification of 'teacher' as opposed to 'player'. But at camp, I catch a glimpse of myself as player, a violinist, in a way that happens rarely in the school year. And every year, I come home determined to feed that part of myself a bit better.

The other thing that happens is that I am getting a great deal of encouragement to break out of the self-imposed mind-set of being a 2nd violinist. Now, understand that we all understand how important and valuable a good 2nd is to a group, and no one is devaluing it in the slightest. Rather, I am being encouraged to push against my personal boundaries for my own development. And what is the main difference usually between 1st and 2nd violin parts? Range.... as a committed 2nd violinist (and substitute violist) I've gotten very rusty and a little afraid of the extreme upper range. My mental 'map' is shaky in anything above 6th position.

So, this year, I decided that it was time to take these two observations and really choose to DO something about them.
I decided that this was the year that I was going to focus on ME and my musical development again. And I decided that I was going to do that by playing 1st violin all season in our orchestra. My concert mistress usually uses me as the flex-er, to go where needed, but is happy for me to play 1st, so I explained what my focus was for the year and off we've gone (with the exception of that one concert where I was drafted as an emergency violist).

This orchestra plays 6 concerts a year. Our latest was just this past Saturday, and it was a Doozy. Liszt piano concerto, 1st of Mozart Haffner, 4th of Tschaik. 4, 3rd of Brahms 4 (a killer), Polyvetsian Dances, plus a couple of other things. The difficulty level was so great that it became a real stress to find that much time to practice at the level of focus that each piece required. I teach a studio of private students, conduct a youth orchestra, am a church musician, am in grad school and play in 2 symphonies. Time was at a premium.

I set this all up because I was reminded recently of Laurie's New Year's blog about recommitting to daily practice. As I chewed over things at New Year, I decided that that encouragement fit well into my year-long focus on my violin, even though I do not believe in New Year's Resolutions.

Juggling a very busy life, with all of the above components (added to a large family, many of whom are in crisis periods ) makes it easy to lose track. So, I decided to set-myself a self-monitoring device. I put a reminder on my on-line calendar and set it to send me a reminder email every 2 weeks. This email asks me simply, "How am I doing?" How am I doing with healthy eating, exercise and good life choices? How am I doing with keeping up on my studies, writing papers and preparing for my thesis? How am I doing on seeing people, and nurturing healthy relationships? How am I doing on being there for my kids, caring for my baby grandson whose parents are divorcing, or being a substitute mother for the motherless high school students I have and love? How am I doing on practicing my violin, on preparing my various orchestra pieces, on growing myself in confidence and ability in the extreme upper range? How am I doing?

And the answer, sometimes, actually is "Not so well, this week." Especially during the week that I have a giant paper due, or am accompanying my daughter on audition trips, or...or...or.

But, I got to listen to a recording of our orchestra concert from this past weekend. And I realized, while listening to us (and thinking, 'this is really US?') that the answer is also, "Wow!. I'm doing great!" Because,for adult musicians who are balancing work and family and health and spiritual and intellectual pursuits, there just will be times when "how I'm doing" could feel like failure, if approached perfectionistically. However, "How am I doing?" is simply a question I ask as I press forward...and the destination, and progress toward it is what really counts.

I have not come even close to practicing every day so far this year. In fact, being away from home this week, I won't be practicing at all the whole week. But having had a real world chance to measure my progress against the high-speed 1st violin part of the 4th movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th symphony, I know that I'm achieving my goal. For this musician, at this stage of life, I'm doing just fine.

4 replies


More entries: December 2009

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