Orchestras that play behind the beat
These days the practice could be dying out but I'm sure many of us have heard or played in orchestras, often very good ones, that habitually play after the "snap" of the conductor's beat. Somehow the players have developed a collective consciousness of how long they should delay before starting to play, and their attack remains remarkably unanimous. In the past most conductors seem to have accepted this and happily conducted on a half-second or so in advance of the sound that emerges but I have seen some, obviously unaccustomed to that particular orchestra, look distinctly uncomfortable. In my experience some conductors make a point of insisting from the start that their players play "on the stick".
I wonder if this practice evolved first of all as a bad habit, nobody wanting to risk playing solo? Why it should have been allowed to persist baffles me - did it become a way for the band to assert its independence and show the "maestro" he isn't all-powerful? Can anyone think of any musical benefits?
I have seen this in TV broadcasts and always assumed it was the result of either (1) microphones a long distance from the stage, (2) bad editing or (3) deaf conductors. When I have seen this in concert I can correlate it to distance I was sitting from the orchestra - but it was more like 0.2 second than 0.5 second.
We all play behind the beat. Otherwise we would have to somehow psychically know what the conductor intended.
Darn ... all along I thought that was the "Reiner Sound."
"I wonder if this practice evolved first of all as a bad habit, nobody wanting to risk playing solo?"
As Mary Ellen said, a good conductor understands that an orchestra actually
It depends how clear a technique the conductor has.At the Pierre Monteux School in Hancock Maine conductors are taught "one is down". With clear techniques like that(they are taught many many more) it was easy to be together with the conductor's beat patterns.
I've noticed this more with European orchestras. Like others here, I first thought it was just the recording/video sync. But when my wife and I saw the Czech Phil a few years back, it was obviously the "style" of conducting/playing.
That is a practice of classical orchestras. Passive string section players don't want to be the first to come in. This doesn't happen in commercial music or ensembles without a conductor (!). I am sometimes accused of coming in too early.
I remember being out of sync and not being able to figure out why, at a BSO Academy side-by-side, when my stand partner (the concertmaster) whispered to me that at BSO in their main concert hall (the Meyerhoff in Baltimore), the strings are behind the beat, and the winds et.al. are with the beat. That's done for synchronization purposes, and I found it really tough to get used to.
I noticed this when watching SF Symphony recently. I believe Mary Ellen that it's normal...but disconcerting to watch! And I'm not sure we noticed it with the guest conductor––more with MTT. So maybe that theory about following guests more closely is accurate? Guest conductor also seemed to have more classic stick technique.
I'm currently enjoying the youtube video of Mahler 2 with Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The initial fortissimo tremolando of the violins and violas comes I'd say at least a quarter second after I would have embarrassed myself, and at later points there is a similar although not so marked disparity between the stick and the sound. This, of course, is a great orchestra playing its socks off with a great conductor so there can't be much doubt that what we get is what Abbado wanted and expected.
One orchestra where I was a member, played well after the beat and some guest conductors were a bit fazed. There was certainly no agreement amongst the players, but I think the culprit was in fact the leader, he either played very early (i.e. a domino) or mostly, very late. Everyone got used to it and just got on with it.
I noticed it too, and the best I can come up with is that every one, it seems, wait for “the beat”! It’s too late, we all know, that to be on the beat you have to action approximately 0.2sec ahead of the beat, the limit of human reflexe. For e.g. Why does it take so long to move at a turning green light when there are 10 cars ahead of you? Simple, 0.2 seconds x 10 = 2 seconds (at the very least, often much more) as everyone await for the car ahead of them to move instead of starting to move when the light changes (also because the majority stopped too close from the car ahead of them). So add the inevitable “I don’t want to start ahead of the others” you get even more delay. Some how, when everyone’s behaviour is the same, the orchestra manages to be on time with itself and the conductor may as well just accept that it’s the way it is.
What is the situation when there is a soloist? A pianist can't really see the details of what the conductor is doing, whereas other soloists can, and frequently do, have eye contact with the conductor.
I don't buy a lot of this!
As Peter Charles has said, the sluggish response of a key player can eventually infect the entire orchestra with disastrous consequences. However in the case of highly professional performances like the one I mentioned earlier I believe the conductor deliberately conducts ahead of the music! This I believe is particularly important when there is a concerto to accompany - in order to get the orchestra in synch with the soloist the conductor actually has to anticipate what the soloist will do. I well remember a concert of my regular orchestra in which I sat in the audience instead of the violins. The conductor, very much a "play with the stick" man, stuck like glue to the pianist and consequently the orchestra consistently sounded late.
Here is how non-classical musicians see classical musicians:
An orchestra I was in had a guest conductor who had no beat at all and was vague in his gestures, being also quite old. The orchestra had no problems and we played through and recorded a lot of Wagner operas as well as many performances. There was a tremendous sense of rhythm and he was able to mould each phrase as if it was elastic. He was a great musician and the orchestra adored him. Only one player did not like his conducting. I think conducting and beat/rhythm have nothing to do with the baton, and in fact he didn't use one. It was also of course his incredible body language. You only get someone like that a few times in a century.
"Not quite my tempo..."
I remember Charles Bruck telling students who were flailing their arms to put down their batons and conduct only with their nose.It took many tries( I couldn't do it) but it does work by the players reading their body language.Try watching Pierre Monteux conducting The Sorcerers Apprentice on Youtube.Thats clear conducting...
At the other extreme, for many years I played in an orchestra with a multitalented conductor - a composer of national standing, a concert pianist, oboist in a major orchestra and a phenomenal sight-reader of complex scores. Unfortunately.. Whenever we got behind the beat the conductor would attempt to drag us along as if swimming through treacle with a heavy weight attached.
The suggestion that professional orchestras play behind the beat because insecure string players are reluctant to come in is particularly amusing. Tell that to the New York Philharmonic. I thought JoAnn Falletta
Yes, I agree that is a ridiculous suggestion.
Sorry Mary Ellen, I inexcusibly overlooked your crucial link. Interesting that this issue should have been discussed in depth as recently as last September. I haven't yet read the comments in detail and they are by no means all in perfect agreement but there may be some validity in the suggestion that all "real" conductors conduct ahead of the beat to some degree. So the "beat" isn't always what the conductor indicates with the stick or indeed the nose, but an invisible, inaudible ideal of how the music should go - maybe we should call it the "groove".
I am really curious to know in what professional orchestra the players do *not* play behind the beat in slow tempos. We're much closer to the stick in fast tempos. Videos please.
"We're much closer to the stick in fast tempos"
I read somewhere (probably here;) that when Gingold was concertmaster of Cleveland, Szell would use the second movement of Lalo to test guest conductors--in those circumstances, I wonder who was following whom through all those tricky rhythms.
If we all played ahead of or on top of the beat, what purpose would the conductor serve?
Playing without any conductor at all can be a mind-expanding experience. Having to get the program together on a single rehearsal is doubly demanding! However it's remarkable how quickly even quite modest players learn to pull together. After three conductorless concerts our little band was engaged to accompany a local choir in Messiah. It rapidly became apparent that we'd get no help from the conductor, and that survival depended on watching one another for every lead. Once each number got going we simply had to remember to ignore the stick and not to rush the singers. The conductor was equally hopeless at scheduling the rehearsal, so in the performance we were largely sight-reading. All went tolerably well until Alleluia, when the (unfamiliar) brace of young trumpeters decided to enliven proceedings by setting off at their own brisk tempo. All we like sheep tried to follow them but the choir didn't stand a chance.
My first ever experience as a section leader was when I joined an orchestra as principal violist under a conductor who, while normally clear enough, tended to look like he was just flapping his arms broadly in fortissimo passages. Within a couple rehearsals, I came to realize that the conductor's motions were for expression, and the best way to stay in time was to treat it like playing in a string quartet with the concertmaster, principal 2nd, and principal cellist.
Hummingbird or albatross?
Albatross. Anyone who tried to follow the baton would fall hopelessly behind the ensemble.
Just wanna weigh in as someone who has some knowledge of the ‘other side’, meaning the conductors’.
What do you do with a conductor who conducts every bar at a different tempo - in a classical symphony such as Beethoven?
I'm sorry, it seems crazy to me. It can never be very tight if you have to guess how long after the conductors beat you play.
This is one of the reasons why an orchestra's experience as an ongoing ensemble matters. They have a collective zeitgeist of how they respond to a conductor.
Drives me nuts!!
Not only as a performer but also as a composer, I prefer conductors who conduct ahead of the beat. It's not fear, it's attention to detail. It's the only way to make instant tempo changes as a large ensemble without errors. In a good orchestra, the delay is consistent. Playing with the baton is for low-level community orchestras that can't keep a steady tempo any other way.
Andrew has it exactly right.
By the way, when I say playing with the baton is for low-level community orchestras, that's exactly what I mean, at least based on my experience. I've played in orchestras at every level from lower-intermediate to semi-professional. The orchestras at or above upper-intermediate level consistently played behind the conductor's beat, and the orchestras below that level consistently played right on the conductor's beat.
Andrew - I don't think you can generalise so, er, generally about playing with the baton being only for low-level community orchestras. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear the LPO under their chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski in a programme including symphonies by Stravinsky and Shostakovich and they stuck very closely to the beat. The nature of the orchestra (both technical standard and tradition), the preference of the conductor and the complexity of the music are all contributory factors. And Mary Ellen - maybe fear and insecurity aren't entirely to be discounted either. There's nothing more likely to get a back desk player noticed and thrown out of an elite orchestra than a tendency to play dominoes.
So is the delay a matter of listening to the tempo around you? Seems you would have to follow somebody. What about steady tempo music?
Steve and everyone else who keeps harping on the idea that musicians in professional orchestras are coming in late out of fear, please read the article I have now posted twice, by JoAnn Falletta. You will find it quite informative.
I don't buy it.
It is instructive to note the various levels of experience in orchestral playing in this thread and then correlate with responses.
Classical musician are SO up-tight.
If you a pro, and you are not making clean, precise, entrances, you will not be invited back to play with the orchestra. If you're not the kind of player who can make a bold, clean entrances that are precisely synchronized with everyone else, you are not going to be playing professionally. (Learning to do this on a stage where there's delay, i.e., sound is not reaching your ears nigh-instantly, does require some experience and conscious mental effort.)
Don't tell me Toscanini didn't instill fear and insecurity in his players! Not the sole factor, but nevertheless a contributory cause of the delayed initial entry which nobody has yet produced an alternative explanation for.
He might have, but anyone who couldn't sound fearless and secure under pressure also didn't survive in his orchestra. You certainly can't hear it in the performances.
Here are some orchestral musicians who are alive.
Heh, the youtube video isn't available in the US...
Of course chamber music players quickly learn that responsibility for the "groove" is mutual, not individual. I notice in Sylvan's link that the leader (concertmaster) is still making large gestures to get the orchestra to start and end notes simultaneously. This will also often happen when a string quartet sits together for the first time, but pretty soon a collective consciousness develops. Someone (usually the first violin) has to make the decision about when to start but then only needs to do it, not semaphore it. After that it's all telepathy.
I think this will win as the thread with the biggest amount of BS yet seen. (Not from everyone but from a load of non professional orchestral players and beginners who seem to know it all. If you haven't played in a pofessional orchestra then you should shut up).
Well some of us are asking questions about how it works exactly and genuinely want to know. I can't envision a one-sided forum where people are just stating how it is without those who don't know questioning it.
Is this available in the US?
Christopher, twice I have posted a link to an excellent explanatory article. not sure what else I can do.
Mary Ellen - somewhere up there I apologized for initially neglecting your link. I found it extremely interesting and Jo-Ann Falletta's insights undoubtedly valid. However this issue is a many-sided one and I don't believe she nor any other commentator, regardless of their pedigree and experience as an orchestral musician, has a monopoly on the answers. I recall my own profession of scientist in which rather few of my colleagues, possibly none of them, fully understood every aspect of the business.
Mary -I read it the first time.
Adam Neely certainly has a point, but like everybody else by no means all the answers. To say that classical musicians only "react" to the beat is a gross overgeneralization. Likewise to say that their (our) "phase locking" is deficient is to forget that much modern, classical and baroque music demands a high degree of rhythmic precision and synchrony. But I'm inclined to agree with Sylvan that this skill is better acquired and performed without the agency of a conductor! One of my favourite examples would be the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing Appalacian Spring. Mostly Americans I expect, possibly occasional jazz players also!
I must confess that I don't watch the point of the baton. My eyes are usually on the paper. With peripheral vision I catch the body language of the conductor. It's the preparatory motions that give us the information that we need, not the place where the baton finally reverses direction. It only takes two beats to set a tempo. I think that string player-conductors have a natural advantage, the baton becomes an extension of their bow-arm, leading like a chamber-music player. (Toscanini, Barbaroli were cellists). The difference between a good conductor and a useless one is one beat; leading or following the orchestra.
The better the orchestra, the less important the conductor is to where the beat actually is. The conductor's baton does not make sound - it does not create the beat, it can not create the beat, it just maps out the character and time between beats. Most conductors will also fluctuate a bit with how far ahead of the orchestra's pulse they are - the good ones can control how far exactly they're beating to make musical points.
The "breathing together,moving together" is exactly right . This is so pleasurable in a group when they have been together for decades.
Adam Neely illustrates his clip with a video of Bernstein starting Mahler 5. He cites it as an extreme example of the conductor and orchestra not being "phase-locked", which is bad. Of course, Bernstein and the VPO understood perfectly well what they were doing. Neely also reckons orchestral musicians lack a sense of pulse!
Hmmm, "phase locking" is an interesting idea.
It is not just the "click" of the beat that matters, but also the preparation. Furtwangler devoted much of his career to figuring that out to the point that with orchestras he knew well, he would sometimes just prepare each beat and leave the actual pulse to the orchestra. It looked like he was holding a live trout by the tail, but he got good results.
Stephen - exactly...
Ok, I went ahead and watched the Adam Neely video and IMHO he is completely off base and not a good source to use to understand orchestral playing. He's confusing playing behind the beat with not starting notes together, and claiming that orchestral instruments / music doesn't have sharp initial attacks to explain it. Think about all the orchestral music with huge percussion sections, or where the glockenspiel, celesta, and harp are playing in unison - they have to perfectly coordinate those attacks or it will sound like his second midi example. I also think it's ironic that the only clip from an orchestral performance he uses is a solo trumpet and conductor - for one thing, the conductor doesn't make noise so there's nothing to be out of phase with. For another, this varies from conductor to conductor and orchestra to orchestra, but often in that sort of situation, the conductor will indicate roughly where he wants the sound to be, but the solo instrumentalist will "lead" it to ensure that they don't play before they're prepared and biff a note.
I think he is right sometimes and at the very least it's important to see how the Adam Neelys of the world see string players. Certainly bad string players will be timid in their attack and can get away with it in an ensemble. With other instruments it's make or break. I have mixed with horn players enough to know how they have to be strong and precise in their attack - often they are alone in their part anyway so they have to develop that precision and confidence.
I observed my orchestra last night, the string section was together, but within the rehearsal of one movement we managed to be on, behind and at some points ahead of the conductor's beat.
Irene thanks for your explanation (dated May 16, 2018, 1:03 PM)!
I agree, Irene has it spot on. I don't think Adam Neely understands the rhythmic issues of orchestral music and the role of the conductor any better than I understand jazz.
Yes, I agree too. Music is always listening. It is not a visual art form. The best orchestral playing is always when it is treated like chamber music.
This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.