Are Conductors Untouchable?

February 8, 2009 at 07:59 PM ·

For every good conductor there are thousands of bad conductors and even more horrible conductors... we have all had our experiences I'm sure.  Do you ever sit in a rehearsal and want to throw your bow at the conductor because you disagree from the pit of your stomach with what he/she is doing?

What are your experiences with bad conductors?  Careful, do not name names!

Replies (72)

February 8, 2009 at 09:41 PM ·

I probably can't say much here without someone reading it and thinking I'm talking about them.  So I will begin by saying I've never disagreed with my current symphony conductor.  He and I think pretty much on the same page, and when I don't have an opinion about the subject matter, his seems perfectly appropriate.  And I love my conductor for Oliver, too.

That being said, I've had conductors miss entire beats, plow through fermatas, and take off into a piece with no advanced notice, leaving the orchestra to pop the clutch two bars later.  I get this distinct feeling of "Hey, that wasn't fair!"  Like they were cheating at Red Light Green Light or something. 

February 9, 2009 at 05:47 AM ·

Yes, indeed! It seems I've had the misfortune of working under more bad conductors than good. I don't know if there's a certain personality type that is attracted to conducting but the ones I consider to be bad have all been a little too full of themselves, too sure-footed and certain of the rightness of their thinking and their means of expressing music. There is no reason I can think of that a reasonably coordinated individual can not give a clear beat and clear cues so that you don't end up having to ignore them, or pretend to do what they are asking, or taking charge when you prefer not to to save the performance.

I've had conductors who think the faster the better is the only way to make some supposedly tired warhorse come to life and ram through an expressive piece of music (like Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony) all for the sake of adhering to metronome marks with phrasing and expression falling  by the wayside. I've also dealt with conductors who do not believe in breathing before giving beats, who talk too much instead of show what they are trying to express, and who mistreat musicians as if their opinions and thoughts, the results of years of experience, are of little or no importance. Boards of orchestras rarely seem to choose the conductor the players prefer and yet they are often made up of people, who may have a passion and even some knowledge of music, but who cannot fathom that the musicians that make up the orchestra itself  should have any, let alone considerable, say in the matter.

Though outright temper tantrums seem to be less common nowadays than in the past, there are still plenty of conductors around who behave arrogantly, smugly, and condescendingly to the musicians without whom they'd have no one to conduct. I applaud the efforts of a number of ensembles to try to work without them and, even though there still may be a hierarchy in terms of section leaders taking over the role of interpretation and giving cues, I have seen it work to everyone's advantage because it feels more like real chamber music.

When something goes wrong in the ensemble,  I have noticed, more often than not, critics are quick to blame the musicians more often than blaming the conductor at the helm. A ragged unclear beat, an off-sense of timing is rarely the fault of the conductor but blame is put on players for not listening or following. There are doubtless members of orchestras who are not as good as they could or should be in these respects but when the majority of your colleagues agree with you and you know those folks know how  to play and pay attention, you have to wonder.

    Milstein referred to them as the enemy, and not without good reason.  Bernstein used to say that you should let your players play and not lecture them - show genuine passion and you will get genuine passion, but show  condescension and autocratic, dictatorial behavior, and you will get resentment and bitterness  in return.  It is possible to be demanding without being demeaning, and frankly, why would anyone with enough talent and sense of self worth want to put up with anything else.

    I don't want you to think I  complain without offering a solution though. I took action and started a new orchestra. Everyone gets paid the same, including the conductor when there is one, and we treat each other with respect and dignity because that's what you do when you care about your colleagues and are trying to make beautiful music together.



February 8, 2009 at 11:30 PM ·


well, its aklways been great to elarn from a wodnerful conduter but yes,  many of them do seem to have crawled out from the denizens of hell.  Mahler always seems to bring out the worst in complete idiots.



February 8, 2009 at 11:53 PM ·

About a year ago, the doctoral conducting students at my school performed in a master class with one of the conductors from Curtis. For so long, I had been used to deferring to conductors and assuming their infallability. It was refreshing to hear the clinician point out how often the students were not showing the desired articulation/dynamic in their movements or even how often their beat patterns were unclear. It goes to show that conductors are just as human and subject to mistakes and shortcomings as anyone in the orchestra. And I'm happy to say that I know conductors that understand that and are quite humble. Others...

February 9, 2009 at 01:35 AM ·

Some of the best conductors I've worked with are gold and copper. Aluminum works well too. Water can be shockingly good at times. Note to self: don't dry hair in the bath. Oh, and there was that conductor on Amtrak that helped me with a big, heavy bag. Saved my back.

But seriously, it seems to me that behind every incompetent conductor, there is a board that doesn't care. They bow down to the "maestro" and don't consider for a second those most qualified to judge: the first violins.

February 9, 2009 at 01:56 AM ·

My youth orchestra director "can't hear himself think" half the time if we have to discuss the music with stand partners, etc.,  always runs over time, programmed a concert for Valentine's Day (keep in mind this is a volunteer orch of HIGH SCHOOLERS).  I can't think of any other "bad" ones, but I've really liked all of my guest conductors from All-County and Tri-County honors groups.

February 9, 2009 at 03:54 AM ·

You know, this has got me thinking about half-qualified conductors. "Semiconductors," if you will. they just have such low capacitance. No imagination, no spark. And their style is never current. Sometimes when I'm suffering through one of said conductors' rehearsals, I find it really helps to repeat a mantra: Ohm. Ohm. Ohm.

February 9, 2009 at 04:08 AM ·

 My teacher says that if a real conductor ever appeared in front of an orchestra and told them what they needed to hear, he would be lynched on the spot. 

Teacher introduced me to old low fidelity recordings. I have conductors like Stokowski, Mengelburg, Thomas and many others in my collection. The performances of these conductors bear no resemblance to anything you can purchase today. Of course the virtuosity of their orchestras makes a huge difference.

February 9, 2009 at 06:11 AM ·

A lot of conductors forget the all important mantra: any time something goes wrong, he/she has to think to themselves: "It's MY fault."

Unless the players are deliberately disruptive, a perceptive conductor can make music with any group, big or small, at any ability level.

February 9, 2009 at 08:44 AM ·

What gets me are all those self-important conductors of the elementary and middle school groups with all their gyrations and absurd, unnecessary motions. Wise up! It's not the Philharmonic...Junior and Muffy have no clue what you are doing

February 9, 2009 at 11:59 AM ·

Riccardo Muti is one of my favorites.  I remember seeing him in concert once conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a Mozart Symphony.  He hardly did anything at all, in fact there were times where he was just sitting still listening to the orchestra play.  I thought YES YES YES!  He must have been thinking that there was no reason to conduct them at those parts, and just let them play (it takes a great conductor to realize that the Vienna Phil doesn't need a conductor in a mozart symphony)!

How about those conductors who mess up and then say "you're not following me!"  Or how about the conductors who make a huge gesture and then yell at you for coming in too loud?

February 9, 2009 at 02:15 PM ·

It is interesting to watch Toscanini conduct.  His films are on the youtube.  His beat is so clear!  After watching two generations of Lenny Wanna-Bes emote all over the podium, it makes you wonder why the style has changed, and if it has changed for the better.

I personally long for the days of Lully, where someone just stood on stage and banged a big stick on the floor.

February 9, 2009 at 02:22 PM ·

My first criteria (entry level) for a good conductor is a clear downbeat visible in the first violin section.   This is very very rare. 

February 9, 2009 at 06:02 PM ·

A clear beat is important for sure.  But any idiot can give a clear beat.  What I'm looking for is to be inspired, held accountable, and pursuaded to make music!

February 9, 2009 at 07:02 PM ·

But any idiot can give a clear beat.

Oh, Marina, if only that were true....


February 9, 2009 at 07:10 PM ·

Agreed, clear downbeats would be oh so nice. That said, I love my conductors (all three of them) anyway. :-)

I wondered why I found one of them so very much easier to read than others, then realized that it's because he conducts left handed, and I'm in the first violin section. I can actually SEE him. ;-)

February 9, 2009 at 07:13 PM ·

Have not any of you heard of Conductoral Infallibility?

February 9, 2009 at 07:46 PM ·

Anne - the problem with the Lully system is what happened to Lully.  While he was beating time, he moved the staff slightly, beat on his foot, tore it up a bit, and died of blood poisoning.  Not recommended.  I would settle for a conductor who gives a clear beat and makes clear which beat you are on; I have played under some who did not.

February 9, 2009 at 07:58 PM ·

Holzman, I am fully aware of Lully's tragic demise...

Actually, I hadn't thought about this guy in years, probably due to preserve-sanity-auto-brain-memory-blockage mechanism, but I once played an opera under a stick that conducted left handed.  Utter travesty.  I couldn't watch at all (Look Up, Mess Up, etc).  What a nightmare.  It was a shame too, because he had good hands and knew the score well.

(Still cringing at memory.  Must.  Eat.  Chocolate...)

February 9, 2009 at 08:09 PM ·

Yikes!  Left-handed.  That's probably worse than trying to follow Beethoven's conducting after he went deaf.  Hope you watched the concertmaster for cues as they did with Beethoven.

February 9, 2009 at 08:32 PM ·

Left handed?  That's not fair, violinists don't get to play left handed violins do they?

February 9, 2009 at 08:52 PM ·

I just think there's certain conductors (and soloists) that need to stop humming (Sir Colin Davis, you know who you are! LOL). I mean, passion is one thing, and a very good thing I might add, but not when it gets in the way of listening pleasure.

February 10, 2009 at 02:38 AM ·

What I hate is the conductors (many indeed) who, to not get tired, hardly move their hand to indicate the beats.  I know that it is seen as  "beginners method" and "non professionnal" to move all the arm (or at least move the hand with ennough amplitude so that it can be really evident for all) or to jump in the front but how fun is it to really know WHEN are the beats and not having to do anything because you don't see his or her hand that hardly moves!


April 2, 2009 at 02:23 PM ·

To Scott Cole -

Your post was hilarious.

April 2, 2009 at 02:46 PM ·

The current conductor of our SLCO is a superb conductor, he conducts emotions and phraises, not beats, per-se. I used to play under a very famous conductor who got lost all the time. LOL. Not that I, ahem, ever got lost.

April 2, 2009 at 03:32 PM ·

"That's probably worse than trying to follow Beethoven's conducting after he went deaf. "

At least we know he wasn't simply following the orchestra as many conductors do.

April 2, 2009 at 09:59 PM ·

...and Beethoven probably had a much better grasp of the score as well. :)

April 3, 2009 at 01:12 AM ·

 I won't name names, but my orchestra had a conductor who had an awesome bio, went to Juilliard, studied under Pierre Monteux and Leonard Bernstein, assistant conductor of the New York Phil, and all these other amazing things. But he was the WORST conductor ever. Maybe he was just really really old. No one could follow him, his goal in every rehearsal was just to run through the piece, not stopping to work on anything.

Thankfully he retired and we have a really great conductor now, whose bio matches his conducting.

April 3, 2009 at 04:57 AM ·


Your thoughts on conductors are enlightening. I once knew a super conductor, however for temperment (temperature?) he was an absolute zero...

April 3, 2009 at 12:57 PM ·

OMG - I probably shouldn't get myself started! To find a conductor that is a good musician, technically compentent (what I like to call 'a good traffic cop') and a nice person at the same time seems as rare as a hen's teeth, in my experience. It almost reminds me of 'the uncertainty principle' in physics. If you get one aspect, it seems to preclude the others in the same Universe! But to be fair, on rare occasions I've had it all - and what a pleasure!

April 3, 2009 at 03:07 PM ·

My experience has been that conductors who have experience conducting youth and/or student orchestras are the most likely to have all 3 of those traits.  Of necessity they have to be good at crowd control and be good traffic cops from working with the kids.  And then when/if they can really let their musical side out while working with your group, it can be a quite nice experience.  It's when they are only accustomed to or only willing to work with adults that they start to go off the reservation.

April 3, 2009 at 07:53 PM ·


Perhaps he was unfit to lead the charge, for positive or negative. Maybe it had something to do with his static left-hand technique. I think before conductors graduate from school they should undergo a thorough battery of tests. So many of them seem not to be grounded in the essentials. Maybe some new kind of conductor is required in these times-- a hybrid, if you will. You know, for those times at the end of a long rehearsal where they seem to run out of gas.

I've been reading a lot of conductor resumés lately, and they seem really good at putting spin on their careers. But what choice do they have? It's either spin, momentum, or position--you can't know them all at the same time. 

Which leads me to ponder: When the conductor turns to give my section a cue, is what he's doing with his baton considered a wave...particle...or both?


April 3, 2009 at 08:12 PM ·

What I don't like is conductors who don't really know how instruments work. Some conductors are very knowledgeable on string instruments, some know more about winds. I can only think of one occassion in my life when I played under a conductor who really understood the strings as well as the winds.

And then some conductors seem to have a particular preference that comes out in every piece. They like everything really fast, or really slow, or really staccato, or something...

April 3, 2009 at 08:38 PM ·

I'd like to turn some conductors' green rooms into Shrodingers cat boxes! ;-)

April 3, 2009 at 10:36 PM ·

Before this discussion goes any further (and because I've used up all my puns), I'd like to ask:

How many of you have actually conducted an orchestra? How many of you have stood on a podium and tried to make sense of the wall of sound coming at you?

Before you slam all conductors, you should try it. It's not as easy as it looks. 

April 4, 2009 at 12:19 AM ·

I've tried my hand at it a couple of times, including a performance in which I played and conducted. I have no formal training, which is something that I'd need if I were to get serious about it. Especially. I'd need a lot of work on score reading. In the real old days conductors would conduct from just a 1st vln. part, and I can certainly understand why. But I have been told that I'm a natural. I think that my strengths are strong leadership, w.o. being nasty, getting to the heart of the matter in sound, phrasing, balance etc. partly from years of orchestral playing, and of course, knowing how the string section ticks.

Don't you just hate it when a non string playing conductor presumes to give us a violin lesson? "At the tip. At the fingerboard". Why necessarily? Because someone told you that that's the invariable answer, and that we strings would be impressed by your knowledge? Just tell the concertmaster, and/or other section leaders what effect you want, and let them find the best means to try to give it to you. I would never presume to dictate from the podium how ww or brass players should tongue or breathe. I'd just tell them what kind of sound or phrasing I wanted and ask them if that was doable.

Another gripe: conductors are often sensitive to the chop limitations of the ww and brass. But they seem to regard us strings as beasts of burden, who should think nothing of playing say endless fortissimo tremulos at every rehearsal.

Of course, to be a thoroughly schooled and prepared, and highly competent conductor is much harder than it looks. That's why we appreciate the good ones so much. I'm very proud that an old friend and classmate of mine, Jo Ann Falletta, is at or near the top of her profession as a conductor. Yet I'm reminded of this story. Once Joseph Silverstein, the great BSO concertmaster, and an assistant conductor of the BSO, was asked on short notice to sub for an ailing William Steinberg in a Mahler symphony. The next day back Steinberg said to Silverstein "well, now that you have both played and conducted the Mahler, which is easier? No, on second thought, don't tell me or anyone else!"

April 4, 2009 at 01:16 AM ·

Which leads me to ponder: When the conductor turns to give my section a cue, is what he's doing with his baton considered a wave...particle...or both?

Hi, son, Berg-enning conductors can be detected by the uncertainty of the principal.  They have to be coherent holding such a super position.

I better shut up before I become a Bohr...

April 4, 2009 at 09:30 AM ·

Now, I actually couldn't claim to understand much about physics. But the fact that "string theory" holds an apparently important place in it just seems so very right!

Once an amateur violinist who did claim to know something about physics, named Albert Einstein, invited famed cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky over for some chamber music. Afterwards E. asked P. for an honest assesment of his playing. "Well Albert," P. said, diplomatically, 'you play relatively well!"

April 4, 2009 at 04:51 AM ·

I conducted "Camelot" my senior year in HS, at the local Arts School.  It is not "Rite Of Spring", but it was challenging, dealing with other students, pit orchestra, full chorus, and double cast.  I also had a piano book, so I had to memorize the orchestra part, and the spoken dialogue.

The trickiest number was "Guinevere", where the chorus entered from the back of the hall.  I was conducting the pit/stage with one hand, and the chorus behind me with the other hand.  I actually had to practice that...Still easier than the Tchaikovsky concerto though...

The run was for about 12 shows (?, 21 years ago) and it was fun.  It was physically tiring to do.  I remember flopping into bed at night, completely spent, but feeling as if I hadn't actually done anything.  It wasn't very fulfilling.  I felt so empty inside...

(The singing actors also made up the most entertaining and not-fit-for-posting words to all the songs.  "Camelsnot" was the least of it.)




April 4, 2009 at 04:53 AM ·

I did a gig this year with a conductor I liked.  He tended to start things off by saying "Ladies and Gentlemen, please open your hymnals to Act 2, #12".  Very funny...

April 4, 2009 at 11:59 AM ·

I believe it was in Oscar Levant's book, "A Smattering of Ignorance" (which is a great read) that he mentioned the anecdote that an aging Georges Enescu came to (I believe) the New York Philharmonic to conduct the Brahms 4th Symphony. He started the rehearsal by saying that there's no need for a rehearsal, because "you know the work far better than I ever will" (or something like that). According to Levant, the performance the orchestra gave Enescu at that evening's concert was brilliant, inspiring, and emotional.

Another anecdote concerned Otto Klemperer, who (according to Levant) liked to rehearse by going over everthing a million times and talking the piece to death. Apparently, the little old Italian oboist of the orchestra finally spoke up to Klemperer and uttered the undying words, "Mr. Klemps, you talk'a too much."

And, in an amateur orchestra I was in years ago, our frustrated conductor brought his hands together and wiggled all of his fingers like a ball of slithering worms, saying "If I conducted like you played, it would look like this."

:) Sandy

April 4, 2009 at 02:08 PM ·

Ooo I hate it when conductors who are not even string players dole out bowings.  Their bowings are so senseless sometimes that we end up working harder and fighting against our own instincts throughout the whole run.

April 6, 2009 at 04:41 PM ·

Text President Obama on his Blackberry and he'll replace the conductor or put a retroactive 90% tax on his salary. What's good for GM is good for America.

April 8, 2009 at 03:36 AM ·

Of course I have felt that way.  But the pill I've had to swallow over the years is that even when conductors are wrong (provided they aren't being physically or psychologically abusive), they are right.  That is the way it must be.  Also, you have to remember that he has the score and if he's smart, he will have analyzed it backwards and forwards -- show me a player who does that regularly. 

Scott: You're absolutely right.  I took lessons for about nine months and I now play for a graduate conducting seminar.  I can tell when someone with a loud opinion actually doesn't know jack about it. :)

April 8, 2009 at 04:13 AM ·

I'm right about what? There are so many right things I say.......maybe I should conduct? 

April 8, 2009 at 05:05 AM ·

Marina, I think I could live with the bad long as these same people aren't teaching children in the process!

April 8, 2009 at 05:30 AM ·

Conductors are a unique breed in themselves, it is true. Before the advent of the necessity of conductors, as we know them today, the orchestra was lead by the harpsichordist or concertmaster (first violinist or soloist). They were more like "directors" than conductors. The leaders were wont to pound a heavy staff on the floor to keep time. It produced a very unusual sound, to say the least, but no one can say that baroque music didn't have a "beat" to it in those days!  Lully was known to have used a large staff to direct a large group (this practice proved his downfall, as he struck his foot, it infected, and he died of the infection). The biggest difference between then and now, is that they would work closely with the players(or sections) and allow them to involve themselves in the making of the music through dialogue and logical reasoning, and this would naturally foster a better performance and relations, respectively. As orchestras became larger, and works more complex in form and structure, a single "interpreter" was necessary in order to pull the sound from a massive source in massive concert halls. This is the principal role of any conductor. Psychologically, egos can develop in some individuals who are in a position of "power", whether is be real or imagined. I have heard that Ormandy used to smash the instruments of players for not getting with the program, no matter how hard they tried. Sometimes he would strike the player physically. Stories such as these would end up in a lawsuit today courtesy of the Union, and I never found much entertainment in such actions, no matter how romantic or artistic they seem. 

It is true there are many conductors that do not really know what they are really doing, lack the historical insight of the work, and are often unaware of the chaos they are creating. This could apply to a great many different jobs people hold and one sees it  proven everyday.  A good conductor has experience in many areas, but the best quality they can possess is respect and honor to the performers, of without which, they would not have a job.

Strange as it may seem, I would think that conductors would offer some sound advice (to both players and other conductors) in the form of either an edition of a certain score or a manual of some technical advice to new conductors. This doesn't seem to be the case, but if the young conductor is lucky enough to study under a famous name, they will carry on the tradition. It is as if the art of conducting is so esoteric in nature, that it is impossible to put it into words. More likely it is the fact that conducting is very individual and personally interpretative, therefore a very unique art in itself. A good conductor will require quality first, and fame second. But in all essence, the worth of a conductor is always evident in the final product, that being the overall  performance at a given period and the reaction of the audience to that performance. This requires the one thing which creates a success in any endevour: unadulterated communication.

April 8, 2009 at 08:38 AM ·

April 8, 2009 at 01:01 PM ·

Hi, Jerald: I like you comment about conductors offering "sound advice." I suppose that's what they should stick to, and some are more direct than others (pardon the puns; I couldn't resist).
:) Sandy

April 8, 2009 at 07:52 PM ·

Just for the record: I've seen just as many bad bowings from concertmasters (concertsmaster?)

as from conductors.

April 9, 2009 at 12:01 AM ·

I'm not going to corrupt all the innocent youth on here by going into details (though I expect they know all this already!) but there are plenty of ways for an orchestra - and indeed soloists - to demonstrate to a conductor that THEY know he isn't good.

I've had the misfortune to play under several bad conductors including the worst one who simply could NOT start a piece together which began on an off-beat in the middle of a bar... it wasn't pretty...  The orchestral manager kept saying plaintively:  "But he comes from Italy, just like Toscanini...!"  We certainly laughed a lot during that gig.


April 9, 2009 at 02:17 AM ·


the great concertmaster Hugh Bean was once so fed up with a conducter`s bowing and criticsm of the result that he stood up,  thrust his violin at the condcuter and said `Please show us.`



April 9, 2009 at 03:47 AM ·

My Father ws a conductor and used to take me to Toscannini opera and orchestra rehearsals on a semi regular basis. One day at an Aida opera rehearsal I was attending with my Father there were lots of animals on stage. One of the elephants shall we say, made a mess on the stage. The Maestro stopped immediately, walked over to the offending offal, sniffed a bit, looked at it and walked back to the podium. He then turned to the ten or fifteen of us sitting in the seats watching and said in a loud voice, "A disgusting spectical ladies and gentlemen, but, God, what a critic.

April 9, 2009 at 04:55 AM ·

I believe not too long ago a Japanese orchestra flat out refused to play under Seiji Ozawa.  That would indicate to me that they're not completely untouchable. 

April 9, 2009 at 05:10 AM ·

Why WOULDN'T someone want to play under an evil Noh puppet on crack? 

April 9, 2009 at 05:17 AM ·

"the great concertmaster Hugh Bean was once so fed up with a conducter`s bowing and criticsm of the result that he stood up,  thrust his violin at the condcuter and said `Please show us.` "


I do believe that during a rehearsal, no matter how bad, the conductor must NOT be publicly defied. I have played in orchestras in which lack of respect was demonstrated by everyone--actually part of the community and university culture. As bad as the conductor was, engaging in such behavior, in spite of our own "tell-off-the-conductor" fantasies, is a detriment to the whole enterprise. Then, no one respects no one. 



April 9, 2009 at 05:32 AM ·


I agree but Hugh Bean was a gentleman`s gentleman so it must have been an extraordinary situation.



April 9, 2009 at 09:02 PM ·

 What's a "gentleman's gentleman"? Is that the same as a valet? What about a butler? I saw a movie about a butler starring Anthony Hopkins. It seemed to drag on forever, as one might expect of a movie about a butler. And he didn't even play the violin. 

The way the economy's going, we violinists should probably consider butler school. I knew my tux would come in handy. So I guess the guys here are covered--what about the girls? Perhaps you girls can become "women's women." I think that'll mean scullery maid, or maybe wench. Not sure.

April 9, 2009 at 10:36 PM ·


never watch movies with butlers. They are always the person who did it.  Unless they are Sherlock Holmes undercover as a butler in which case the violin playing is a give away.

Don`t hesitate to call if you need more tips.



April 10, 2009 at 02:55 AM ·

There's a book called "Who Killed Classical Music?" I hate to give the ending away, but wouldn't you know, the butler did it!

PS - I have a bow in need of a tip.

April 10, 2009 at 06:19 AM ·

I'd LIKE to add some pithy comments about those concertmasters who aren't all they are cracked up to be - but find that there are concertmasters amongst the contributors, including Scott C.

My limited experience in THAT role was leading a string ensemble drwan from the Hallé Orchestra, going round schools, playing under the baton of a Music Adviser.

One day the inevitable question came - "What's the conductor for?". Said adviser tried all the tricks, e.g. starting the band then walking off, making us start together without him, picking an unrehearsed piece form the "pad", etc. but without succeeding in making the band fall apart.

It took many minutes of waffle, trying to talk his way out of the hole he had dug for himself. Maybe, had he been really popular, we might have felt inclined to manufacture the requisite chaos.

I've witnessed a first-rate international pianist trying to conduct who seemed unable to intervene at the crucial points. The best conductors can identify the moments where they earn their money, and have the sense to "let it happen" for the rest of the time. Boult taught his pupils "respect your players".

April 10, 2009 at 06:42 AM ·

"Don`t hesitate to call if you need more tips. "

Didn't you see my case open on the sidewalk? I even seeded it with a dollar bill.

April 10, 2009 at 06:45 AM ·


Watch those cracks about "concertmasters who aren't all they're cracked up to be"--we know who we are. You don't have to rub it in.


April 10, 2009 at 12:00 PM ·

Well, I am one of those concertmasters. But I assure you that I'm quite cracked. No, wait a minute...that didn't come out right!

July 18, 2009 at 12:02 PM ·

Mention of Hugh Bean earlier - yes, what a player and what a gentleman. When I was young and playing in an amateur orchestra, Hugh came as a soloist in the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos. Played superbly, and was so brilliant to work with. Just as a little aside, he wouldn't take a penny as a fee - not even travel expenses. The orchestra had to buy a present for his wife as a way of saying thank you. Just listen to his recording of the Lark Ascending with Sir Adrian Boult - probably the finest performance of the music available.

July 18, 2009 at 10:22 PM ·

A huge pet peeve of mine is when conductors don't give the orchestra enough time to put up their instruments.  I've had several over the years do this.  They spend 10 minutes giving some inspirational speech to the french horns (who are never on time, as we all well know) and the rest of the orchestra sits around waiting to play. The conductor then quickly picks up his baton and downbeat!  "Why weren't you ready?!?"  He always exclaims.  Would it have killed him to wait an extra second for everyone to firmly place their instruments?

July 18, 2009 at 10:57 PM ·

I think I had mentionned it but I once heard a very famous maestro that everyone likes. He had been ask if he would dare going to restaurant after the concert with a few musicians from the orchestra.  He said no! That he though you must keep a distance to be professionnal!   What is this. Why not the two.  Good musicians and conductors are often seen together in places.  Many great musicians were great friends and steel remained professionnals when doing performances together!   I know it was not said meanly but to me you can have friends no matter from where they are or if they are "under" or "upper" than you.  I hate to use these words though since it looks like a hierarchy!!!


July 19, 2009 at 12:04 AM ·

Many years ago, I played in the orchestra for the Herbert Blumsteadt conductin master class. He was a master of translating the music into motions that descrinbed exactly what he wanted in terms of dynamics and phrasing. His objective in this master class was to teach the 20 or so conducting students to do the same. They were pretty much all college or university music instructors with conducting experience and responsibioities - but OH! what a difference.

I have also played under some of the graduates (or at least people who took his program - not all were able to graduate on the first pass through). There was more to it than just technique, but if a conductor had a real feeling for the music and sufficient physical coordination, it became possible to communicate like a "Blumsteadt Jr.."

Bad manners or social ineptitude on the part of a conductor is something else entirely. A competent conductor can still be an AH.


July 19, 2009 at 12:31 AM ·

Anne-Marie, I don't think it's a matter of "rank" or "class," it's just difficult to be buddies with people when you have to tell them what to do, and they don't necessarily like what you're telling them.  Some people can handle it and some can't.

Scott, I agreed with you earlier about experience changing one's perspective; I've had to endure watching myself conducting on video and my best friend/classmate's laughter because apparently I "make fish faces!"  Humbling indeed. 

Not surprisingly, you and I are on the same page again.  Embarrassing the conductor doesn't really make the player look better and can drag the entire group's morale down in the long run.  I've never been great at keeping my mouth shut, but the older I get the harder I try.  A teacher -- a former concertmaster, actually -- told me a story about one of his youth orchestra violinists who, when the conductor said they were rushing, retorted "No, you're slowing down."  Teacher took her aside and told her never to do that.

July 19, 2009 at 04:47 AM ·

 I remember an incident from my college orchestra years ago. We were playing the Liszt tone poem Orpheus. Two french horns start on an octave and the harp comes in. They conspired to play it a half step low at a rehearsal. When the harp came in the conductor looked at her quizzically and made a critical comment. He went on to have a bit of a non-academic career.

A story is told of young Andre Previn at a studio session. The orchestra conspired to start a half step low. he promptly stopped and said, "transpose it up a half step", and was applauded. I think he has their respect.

Professionals seem to have their ways of taking the measure of a conductor. 

July 19, 2009 at 01:11 PM ·

Corwin, we tried to do the same thing with Mahler 1, where the harmonics go on forever and ever...unfortunately couldn't get the whole string section in on it!

July 19, 2009 at 04:44 PM ·

A story I heard many years ago (and no longer remember the conductor's name, the orchestra, or the specific piece performed):  The strings, in order to "fool" the conductor, agreed to start a semitone [flat?] from the indicated pitch during their introduction during which the winds were not scored.  Without stopping, and without dropping a beat, the conductor looked at the winds and addressed them: "Gentlemen, the strings seem to have an intonation problem, and all their instruments appear to have dropped a semitone due to the heat of the stage lights.  As you are all experienced wind professional and used to transposing, would you please transpose down a semitone to accomodate them"  He then continued to conduct, expecting the winds to transpose.  The winds were not amused at having to transpose, but very impressed at his having caught the deception!

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