Playing games on conductors

July 1, 2010 at 03:17 AM ·

I'm sure we all know of games that orchestras have been known to "do" to conductors. I'd better start off - the conductor of our youth orchestra used to be a member of the LSO, and told the story of doing "Zampa". There's a sudden change in a new section - un poco piu vivo on page 19 of the score at

They put an extra beat on the top note of each of the first two bars, making them 5-4, and then back to normal. Executed perfectly, the conductor was totally baffled but coped very well sticking in an extra beat and looking relieved on the return to 4-4.

Years later, I was playing in a BBC orchestra for a less than loved conductor, when this piece appeared on the menu. Quick chat with the leader, and it was all set up. This one just didn't even realise what was happening and just started getting ratty. Very funny - and of course the fact that he hadn't even twigged what was happening didn't exactly enhance his reputation!


Replies (40)

July 1, 2010 at 06:09 AM ·

Not as exciting, but in two orchestras I've been a part of we got the whole string section to reverse their bows (i.e., hold them by the tip) when the conductor had his back turned and see how long it took the conductor to notice.  The first conductor, Dan Sommerville, noticed almost instantly and took it in good humor; but the second conductor didn't notice for several minutes and then got upset! 

It's fun to play tricks on the audience, too, sometimes!  In one concert we were playing a score where pp just kept getting softer, until at the end we had ppppp or pppppp - so, the conductor told us several bars before the end to stagger letting go of the string, so that by the last measure or two, we were all pretending to bow very expressively and softly, but really our bows were just moving a cm or two above the strings!  The audience was duly impressed at how well in control we had our softs, but never twigged!  (Smile)

July 1, 2010 at 07:17 AM ·

At a rehearsal taken by a hated and totally incompetent conductor the well know orchestra I was a member of, took my suggestion (which was made as a joke, I was new to the orchestra) - and the woodwind all played the opening of Ravel's Balero up a semitone. When the cellos came in the was a clash as some played up and some played the correct pitch. The idiot with the stick was not amused (and hadn't realised until the cello entry) and complained to the management.

Needless to say he was treated like dirt after that and eventually disappeared from the scene. Most people that know me are aware that I believe that most conductors should be exterminated... or at least have their batons broken or confiscated!! (OR inserted somewhere painful ...)

July 1, 2010 at 08:21 AM ·

 My violin teacher told this story, so it's second-hand, about her experience in a British orchestra where the players had had enough of a particular conductor and felt a statement needed to be made. It was agreed that all players would simply not play when the downbeat was given at the rehearsal, after which the leader of the orchestra stood up and said "Remember Mr X, THAT is the sound of a conductor's baton!


July 1, 2010 at 09:48 AM ·

Peter such an harsh opinion of conductors!


What gave you conductor phobia?

July 1, 2010 at 09:55 AM ·

Well, I am sort of known for conductor bashing!!

I have known a few good conductors and even some I like a lot. But for every one of those there must be twenty I can't stand.

The reason? Well about 30-40 years of having to work with them!

You have to be odd and rather wierd to even want to be one, and I haven't met one yet that conducts in tune.

Most orchestral players learn to ignore them, and just listen to each other. That means the conductor is carried, and gets all the plaudits at the end. It's an unfair world.

 The only real musicians out there are the players, the ones that deliver the notes. All else is politics and ego.

July 1, 2010 at 08:47 PM ·

I agree with Peter - to quite a large extent. One orchestra I was a member of had a procession of rubbish conductors, and eventually we twigged why - the all had their own orchestras, and our resident conductor (also not very good) did deals with them - you come and conduct my orchestra, and I'll get booked to conduct yours. It was tempting to think "I must take this up - I couldn't be any worse" but then you get someone like George Hurst or Bryden (Jack) Thompson visiting, and I'd think "let's just stick to the violin". Some are VERY good - George for example wanted the orchestra to listen to each other. Famous quote - "Why do people insist on giving a clear beat. If you give a clear beat, some idiot's going to play on it" George actually obtained a better sound from the orchestra than anyone else.

To pick up on an earlier story - when I was young, our county youth orchestra did that to Ray Leppard (who we loved - it was just fun, not malice) with the opening of Ruy Blas - brass chords. When the strings entered, it was awful - and he collapsed laughing.

That reminds me of another "happening" in Ruy Blas - the chords come back towards the end on the trombones - and it's pretty high! Our principal brought in an old battered trombone, deliberately split the top note, stood up and hurled this trombone at the wall saying "I can't take it any more!". Thos of us "in the know" were killing ourselves laughing, while some of the older ladies were about to run for it!

I think it's possibly that we're all dressed up on stage that audiences think everything's very serious and profound. If you didn't muck about a bit, you'd go insane. Doesn't mean that we don't enjoy the music or that we don't put everything into the performance.


July 2, 2010 at 09:17 AM ·

The Mendelssohn Italian Symphony begins with a swift repeated stacatto A major chord in the woodwinds, the whole string section joins in a measure later. The woodwinds all agreed to start the symphony with a staccato B flat major chord. After a few measures of this cacophony the conductor in a loud voice shouted "Strings you're flat !!! - Lets retune"

On the next try the wodwinds reverted back to A major; the conductor shouted "Strings well done !!!"  

Ted Kruzich



July 2, 2010 at 11:12 AM ·

I hope I'm allowed to post a link here, but there's a video on youtube that fits perfectly into this thread...



July 3, 2010 at 11:20 AM ·

Lisa - brilliant!

July 3, 2010 at 03:13 PM ·

Lisa, thanks. Haven't seen that for years. Of course, the audience think things like that could never happen. They're exaggerated, but grounded in fact. Rather like the famous "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister". It was years after they were first broadcast that I discovered that ALL the plots were based on real events.

July 3, 2010 at 05:27 PM ·



Malcolm, I can imagine an orchestra doing that! In fact, I would love to play that joke on our Conductor, but we played William Tell last year so ...too late! Once, we did play a trick on him during a concert in his home town. His birthday was the following day. We were playing some very stuffy serious program. But, when he raised his arms and gave us a very violent dramatic upbeat....we preceeded to play "Happy Birthday" as slowly and as badly as we possibly could. The audience went crazy laughing, it was alot of fun watching him laugh that much!

July 3, 2010 at 08:49 PM ·

thanks lisa - that is absolutely priceless...

July 4, 2010 at 01:57 PM ·

In my youth orchestra we play games with the conductor. Everytime someone needs a pencil he always starts throwing them around for people to catch so one has to be able to duck pretty quickly when a pencil comes flying :)

Also it is mandatory for everyone to laugh when the conductor tells a joke, no matter how bad or silly it is. But so far we haven´t played jokes on him. He is more the one to play jokes on us.

July 4, 2010 at 02:00 PM ·

Any conductor who threw penciils at the players would get something a lot bigger than a pencil thrown back at him from me, and he would have to pay for his own hospital treatment.

But I suppose laughing at conductors is pretty normal, even when they don't tell jokes ...

July 4, 2010 at 02:08 PM ·

I did know a good conductor in a professional ballet orchestra who used to do sudden unexpected pauses or rits in pieces to find out the ones who weren't watching, and some players subsequently played dominos. It was great fun. (This was in the shows as well!)

We got our own back though by adding a 3/4 bar in the intro to the Waltz of the Flowers in Swan Lake - even arranging it with the Corps de Ballet. Those were the days!

July 4, 2010 at 04:38 PM ·

There is a wealth of great (and true) stories of the tug of war between conductors and orchestral musicians in Oscar Levant's wonderful book, "A Smattering of Ignorance" (published in 1940). It is a highly recommended read (if you can find an old copy of it), not only because it is wonderfully written by a knowledgeable musician and one of our country's great unsung humorists, but because it paints a detailed (and extremely funny) picture of the often stormy relationship between famous conductors past and the violinists and other instrumentalists in their orchestras.

Example: There was the snare drummer, Schmehl, who played the opening solo of Bolero much to loud for the legendary Toscanini. When the concert ended, Toscanini cornered Schmehl backstage and began a classic Toscaninian tirade, complete with "Stupido...Shame...You play no more for me!" Schmehl - a New Yorker through and through - replied with the undying words, "You don't like my work? Get yourself another boy."

July 4, 2010 at 04:48 PM ·

Orchestras are so used to picking up the pieces ! When faced with a poor conductor players prefer to grumble rather than do the obvious - play EXACTLY what the idiot on the box is indicating. Someone at management level might then notice something's amiss, take the hint, and make sure the would-be Toscanini isn't booked again.

Alas. Cowards !! Fear that such action will rebound on the orchestra stops us doing that. Nice to try that sometime ?? 

July 4, 2010 at 06:31 PM ·

I'm not how to put this politely but I'll try. If my Conductor ever threw a pencil into a crowd of expensive violins, violas, etc...he's be out the door (not to mention unprotected eyes). We love our Conductor, he's got a sense of humor and also loves to show the audience the hyponotic control he has over us. So, even during a concert he could just decide to insert a fermata! But, it's usually in a spot where he knows we have our eyes on him, and he's done it often in rehearsals so we expect the unexpected. Once, we were playing in a foreign country, and he had this great idea that we'd play standing up (Radetsky March). So, during the first few measures he, without any warning, had us all stand up.The problem is, we couldn't see the sheet music while standing! Good thing most of us can play it with our eyes shut!

July 4, 2010 at 09:50 PM ·

I don't know anything about ladies titters ... but in an opera orchestra performance someone threw a piece of fluff at a lady cellist (quite a young one in fact) and she thinking it was a spider screamed and ran out of the pit.

Maybe we should have had a pit stop ...

July 5, 2010 at 03:24 AM ·


my spiders scream when I throw old ladies at them...



July 5, 2010 at 01:26 PM ·

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the old centerfold-tucked-into-the-score gag. If done exactly right, the centerfold will fall open when the page is turned! We got away with in twice-- but only in the rehearsals. The audience probably did not take notice of how the conductor gave his score a quick flip-through before a public performance-- every public performance!

July 5, 2010 at 01:30 PM ·

I, being a woman, would never put a centerfold in a score. The idea!

July 5, 2010 at 04:37 PM ·

The conductor interrupted the rehearsal and said: “The first trumpet played a wrong note!” One of the musicians told him: “Excuse me Sir, but the first trumpet has not arrived yet.” Feeling a bit upset, the conductor replied: “Then you should tell him as soon as he arrives!”

Someone asks the concertmaster what Mr. so-and-so will conduct today, and he replies: “What he will conduct I don’t know, but we will play Beethoven’s fifth.”

 I heard that once an orchestra played a trick on a renowned conductor to verify his skill: a trumpet player put a mute and played the national anthem in the middle of a symphony. It passed unnoticed…


July 5, 2010 at 07:46 PM ·

The conductor interrupted the rehearsal and said: “The first trumpet played a wrong note!” One of the musicians told him: “Excuse me Sir, but the first trumpet has not arrived yet.” Feeling a bit upset, the conductor replied: “Then you should tell him as soon as he arrives!”


Very good! lol! Are we going to start telling Conductor joke now? If so, I have one! What is the difference between a Conductor and God?

Ans: God knows he's not a Conductor!

July 6, 2010 at 12:32 AM ·

Yes - the centrefold gag DID happen to our principal conductor - in concert! He was good enough to quickly turn the next page and not bat an eyelid.

And yes - I know what David meant about following the conductor. We used to have to do some "educational" concerts - with the local music advisor (a schoolteacher) conduscting. Most of these were grateful enough to be seen in front of the orchestra - did their reputation with the kids a power of good = and let us get on with it. A real case of "follow my leader!". One guy decided to actually try and rehearse the orchestra, until there was a (loud) threat from the principal viola - "If this stupid ******* doesn't shut up, I'm going to PLAY on his b***** beat!"

Strange how some things seem to be universal. We all think we've invented them, but find they've been done elsewhere.

And as for the conductor "spotting" the duff note - we've all come across conductors who prewtend to hear one wrong note amid a welter of noise so they can "impress" with their ear. One (according to legend) actually changed a second woodwind part to introduce a bum note so he could "correct it" in rehearsal - only when he accused the player of playing a wrong note, he got the response of "No I didn't - it was so obviously wrong I corrected it".

Having said that, I did play for a conductor who WAS that good - Norman del Mar. Doing a modern piece - that is one where ALL the notes sound wrong - he stopped us. "Second clarinet " - and he corrected the part with the comment  " you've played this note wrong 3 times now so I think it must be a misprint". Lovely man. Could be a little long-winded at reheaqrsals, but some memorable performances,


July 6, 2010 at 05:54 AM ·

I must be very blessed with a great Conductor because he's not pretending when he hears false notes or dissonence. It's usually in the woodwinds or brass. He will stop the orchestra (and we've all heard a "canard", a false note) and have let's say, the 2nd Basson, 1st Clarinette and Oboes play together, for example. He will even send the woodwinds off to practice one chord they can't seen to play in tune together, and come back when they've got it. He will even stop the orchestra to have the Timpani change mallets. I respect him and his technique.

July 6, 2010 at 07:46 AM ·

 We used to have to do some "educational" concerts - with the local music advisor 

Yes, so did we. At "question time" a bright kid asked "what use is the conductor" or some such. Said conductor started us playing, then marched off the platform. We were supposed to collapse in disarray, but failed to do so. Sabotage !!

"Of course they can't START without me". Of course, we COULD. Trying another unrehearsed piece from the "pad" had the same impeccable result. 

The attempt to talk himself out of the hole took a considerable time, I recall.

Apologies to those who saw this tale on another thread.

July 6, 2010 at 10:00 AM ·

Here is a video of a very nervous orchestra being cued by the Concertmaster after the Conductor injured himself.

A Conductor is indespensable. It can be done with out him but it's not the same. We are not only interpreting the Composers ideas, but the Conductor's also. The same piece performed by an orchestra that had been conducted by Von Karajan, isn't going to sound the same as one conducted by Seiji Ozawa. A Conductor is part of the Orchestra and deserves respect. Well, except when we are playing jokes on them!

July 6, 2010 at 11:37 AM ·

"A Conductor is indespensable. It can be done with out him but it's not the same. We are not only interpreting the Composers ideas, but the Conductor's also. The same piece performed by an orchestra that had been conducted by Von Karajan, isn't going to sound the same as one conducted by Seiji Ozawa. A Conductor is part of the Orchestra and deserves respect. Well, except when we are playing jokes on them!"

Not sure I agree with that. Why are conductors so important? It's in many ways a pity that they exist and that they have got the power they now have.

The best are OK but most are a waste of space.

July 6, 2010 at 12:31 PM ·

"Not sure I agree with that. Why are conductors so important? It's in many ways a pity that they exist and that they have got the power they now have.

The best are OK but most are a waste of space."

I'm not going to respond to this message other than to ask: Have you ever played in a symphony orchestra?

July 6, 2010 at 12:48 PM ·

 Historically conductors were an important constituency of the orchestra, but that was when players were so incompetent that they really did rely on the conductor, but even hitherto most orchestras would have been able to follow the concertmaster or harpsichordist. This incompetence was mainly because of a lacking of sufficient education, as there were few good places to study music, but now that education has improved (with the exception of public schools in current times, where most students are incompetent--I know public school students that are 2-4 years older than I am that are not as well educated as I am--its awkward to for a freshman to talk to a senior from a different school about the periodic table and the senior barely knows what that is) orchestras and musicians individually have the competency to be without a conductor successfully.  

July 6, 2010 at 01:06 PM ·

...bows gracefully out of this thread.

July 6, 2010 at 01:30 PM ·

Lisa Fogla

"I'm not going to respond to this message other than to ask: Have you ever played in a symphony orchestra?"

I'm sorry to have to admit that I've played for many years in professional symphony orchestras, opera orchestras, and light music orchestras.

That's partly why I think conductors are very over rated!!

July 6, 2010 at 02:23 PM ·

I have to disagree partly with Peter's generalisation, because there really are very good conductors out there. On the other hand there are those who never learn when and when not to intervene - they can get in the way. Then there are those whose verbal explanations are like telling a grandmother how to suck eggs. Some have no musical competence whatsoever, and simply busk to their dim reminiscence of how their record sounded at home, and who are completely at a loss when asked the simplest technical question by an orchestral member.

One of my favorite stories:- a major symphony orchestra had a vacancy for a No. 2 concertmaster. An applicant was awarded a trial, leading the band at a concert, conducted by the Principal Conductor. The No. 1 Concertmaster was made to attend, and to report to the maestro afterwards.

Asked by the maestro "How did he do" ? The Senior Concertmaster replied "I thought he did very well".

"But how do you think he would be with a BAD conductor?"

"I SAID, I thought he did very well".

Only joking ???????

July 6, 2010 at 05:50 PM ·

"Yes, so did we. At "question time" a bright kid asked "what use is the conductor" or some such. Said conductor started us playing, then marched off the platform. We were supposed to collapse in disarray, but failed to do so. Sabotage !!"

On a number of occasions, in an out-of-town concert, I've had conductors who would start a piece then leave us to it and go down in the hall to have a listen. "Ha ha. I think it sounds better without me". They thought they were joking!

But with regard to "all conductors are useless" thoughts - a lot are, but the best ones can inspire and lift an orchestra with their own individual sound. Once in the pub, a colleague to Bryden Thomson - "Jack, why do you beat the opening like that?" "I don't know, I've just found that it gives me the sound I like"

Showing my age, but playing for conductors such as Boult, George Hurst, Andrew Davis, Meredith Davies, Jack Thomson etc. you get a performance each with an individual "sound" from the same orchestra. With a lot of others, you get a pretty routine play-through relying on the skill of the orchestra.


July 7, 2010 at 08:23 AM ·

I have heard tell of players deliberately making errors at rehearsal, in order to enjoy the smug look on the conductor's face when he has said just the right thing to put it right.

July 8, 2010 at 01:24 AM ·

I am only a student of music, not a professional so in a sense I feel totally inadequate to contribute to this discussion. However, I'm just going to voice my thoughts in the hopes of stimulating more productive discussion.

I guess I've just been really lucky but I've actually played with quite a few conductors who were really quite inspiring. My thinking is that the main role of the conductor is not to beat time and mark entrances and cues, but to bring a unifying concept to the preparation of a piece. I agree with the person who said that orchestras can play without conductors but it's not the same. For example, imagine that an orchestra without a conductor is rehearsing. The oboist plays a melody that will later be restated by the violins, but in a way different than the concertmaster has in mind. Now, whose idea of the melody is correct? If that were the case, and let's say that everyone would have to follow the concertmaster, how is that any different from having to follow the conductor? If at some point the concertmaster has to explain his concept of the piece to everyone, so that everyone plays the same way, hasn't the concertmaster become a conductor? Another practical example; I think everyone can have a different idea of what each dynamic represents. If there is no conductor, who decides what is forte and what is fortissimo? Who decides how soft a piannissimo should be? These are the little details that make a performance great. If someone has to lead anyway, what is the problem with having someone whose sole job is to lead? I realize that bad conductors can be a pain to work with, but good conductors also have to endure working with bad musicians. Not everyone is perfect. 

Of course the really good conductors also know when they are not needed and they can just let the musicians do their thing.

As an aside note, I believe the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields was founded by Sir Neville Marriner with the intention of having it be an orchestra without a conductor. He was the concertmaster and acted as conductor, and did so for a while. But I believe that now he has gone to conducting full time. This is just second hand information that I read elsewhere. Does anybody here know the complete story?


July 8, 2010 at 05:37 AM ·

I think the trouble with conductorless orchestras is that agreement on points of interpretation becomes impossible. Arguments break out. Someone has to decide, either concertmaster or conductor. As soon as everyone has forgotten what the last great maestro decided, the sytem collapses. Without leadership, chaos has to take over IMHO.

Playing well without, or sometimes DESPITE, a conductor IS possible, but only for the short term.

July 10, 2010 at 05:05 PM ·

David, you hit the nail on the head.

July 10, 2010 at 05:05 PM ·

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