Orchestras that play behind the beat

Edited: May 2, 2018, 9:57 AM · 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?

Replies (72)

Edited: May 2, 2018, 3:00 PM · 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.

When I have experienced this when playing in an orchestra it was because the conductor was trying to speed up the tempo (not always successfully, but then there are some conductors who should be ignored and definitely some who make motions that must be ignored).

Then of course there are the very youthful "beginner" orchestras who beat the beat by assuming it occurs when the conductor starts to move the baton downward.

And then too, there are the ignorant or careless conductors whose beat frequently drops below their podium desks - too low to really be seen. so as far as players instinctive reactions might be concerned the beat is at the desk top. Some of those are million-dollar conductors - probably trained as pianists who never had to follow a conductor!

Edited: May 2, 2018, 2:10 PM · We all play behind the beat. Otherwise we would have to somehow psychically know what the conductor intended.

https://www.wqxr.org/story/why-do-orchestras-play-behind-beat/

Most conductors know how this works and do not try to make a professional orchestra change the way they play. Problems do sometimes ensue with choral conductors, who are used to an entirely different response from an amateur choir.

May 2, 2018, 1:04 PM · Darn ... all along I thought that was the "Reiner Sound."
May 2, 2018, 2:03 PM · "I wonder if this practice evolved first of all as a bad habit, nobody wanting to risk playing solo?"

Yes, I think many do it out of fear.

May 2, 2018, 2:09 PM · As Mary Ellen said, a good conductor understands that an orchestra actually must play after his or her beat, it's just the nature of physics. A bad conductor will actually follow the orchestra; this is a real problem! A good conductor has to have the training and presence to give those cues a little bit before they happen in real time.
May 2, 2018, 2:46 PM · 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 also endured the misery of "maestros" who conduct like they're scooping ice cream (unclear elliptical circles) or waving their arms like they're falling out of an airplane.That's when we play slightly behind the beat..we just don't know where to come in and yes it's out of fear.
May 2, 2018, 3:29 PM · 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.
May 2, 2018, 7:28 PM · 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.
Some of it happens from defective baton technique. I am thinking of one conductor whose down-beat floats down slowly, like he is pulling it through water, then jerks it up quickly, so everything starts late. Then there is the delayed down-beat caused by turning the bar line into a little rest. Some you-tube clips are a little out of sync.
May 2, 2018, 7:58 PM · 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.
May 2, 2018, 8:13 PM · 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.
May 3, 2018, 1:55 AM · 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.

I'm sure all the above comments are partly right, but ultimately it's hard to define exactly what goes on. My interpretation is that the delayed initial entry is indeed a safety procedure tacitly agreed among the players and sanctioned by the conductor. After the first entry the conductor knows he can trust his orchestra to play in time. His stick doesn't function as a metronome but a means of giving his players advance warning (by a fraction of a second) of the dynamics, phrasing and emphasis he wants to hear.

This is what we get when all concerned are hugely experienced and trust their conductor, but as we well know every performance isn't necessarily like that!

Edited: May 3, 2018, 6:06 AM · 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 thought I would add that at a concert as audience one should never look at the conductor, they don't count. As an orchestra member you only need to look at the stick at important moments - just use your ears and play it all like chamber music ...

Edited: May 3, 2018, 9:09 AM · 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.
May 3, 2018, 9:51 AM · 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.
Edited: May 3, 2018, 10:33 AM · I don't buy a lot of this!

In my playing experience when one becomes familiar with a good conductor's technique one knows where the beat will be. I think it's kind of like learning to play a strange violin (or cello or viola) you get the feel of the bow on the strings and of the strings under your fingers and how the sound response and you can do a fair job of playing it very quickly.

I'll admit that many conductors are not that reliable or "reproducible" but I think the best are and have been. But then too there are conductors who have been extremely successful and orchestra musicians happily and enthusiastically play for them but seeing them from "behind" I have wondered what they are communicating to the players (and how). Rostropovich was one such. I have seen him conduct live in concert and on video and I consider his recordings of Shostakovich to be the gold standard. I have the advantage of having a friend who played under him when he conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony and he told me that Rosty was incredible to play under. (So maybe - what do I know??)

But I do know the one time I played under the conducting of Herbert Blomstedt he was incredible everything musical he could possibly communicate was done by his body language.

Edited: May 3, 2018, 10:53 AM · 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.
May 3, 2018, 11:39 AM · Here is how non-classical musicians see classical musicians:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEbUNDW9bDA

May 3, 2018, 12:14 PM · 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.
May 3, 2018, 1:06 PM · "Not quite my tempo..."

-Whiplash

May 3, 2018, 3:32 PM · 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...
Edited: May 3, 2018, 11:58 PM · 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.
Edited: May 4, 2018, 5:33 AM · 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
did a pretty good job explaining why, in the article I linked above.
May 4, 2018, 6:20 AM · Yes, I agree that is a ridiculous suggestion.
May 4, 2018, 7:24 AM · 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".

But I think we still lack an explanation as to why some (not all) superb orchestras make their initial entry deliberately late for some (not all) excellent conductors.

May 4, 2018, 7:28 AM · 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.
May 4, 2018, 10:12 AM · "We're much closer to the stick in fast tempos"

And what about 20th & 21st century scores, full of constantly changing measures, syncopations etc, incomprehensible to the individual player, but marvellous for the audience?

May 4, 2018, 11:54 AM · 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.
May 5, 2018, 8:42 PM · If we all played ahead of or on top of the beat, what purpose would the conductor serve?
However, as a poster noted, a well rehearsed orchestra will be familiarized and anticipate the conductor’s motions some. So to the audience it may appear that they are playing with the beat.

The acoustics of a hall can definitely have something to do with the appearance too. A lawn concert to the parts of audience very far away (or in some cases, amplified, oh horror!) will appear much farther behind the beat. Think of lightning and thunder.

In lesser quality orchestras I’ve had to lead so other players would enter more confidently. Yes, conducting by nose and head, upper body movement. (It’s also a great and fundamental conducting exercise.) In those cases, it’s a CM’s and the stronger players’ job to follow the conductor and soloist more closely or the rest of the orchestra will falter entirely, let alone be late. That is a less comfortable kind of “behind the beat.”

I found the comment, “there are some conductors who should be ignored and definitely some who make motions that must be ignored” very poignant, having played under a particularly horrid (tone deaf) conductor when very quite young. We learned to be self-conducting, like in an ensemble without a conductor. The conductor was there for adult supervision of rehearsals and at concerts, purely ornamental/optional.

May 6, 2018, 12:03 AM · 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.
May 6, 2018, 12:06 AM · 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.
May 6, 2018, 7:41 PM · Hummingbird or albatross?
May 6, 2018, 11:33 PM · Albatross. Anyone who tried to follow the baton would fall hopelessly behind the ensemble.
Edited: May 10, 2018, 8:05 AM · Just wanna weigh in as someone who has some knowledge of the ‘other side’, meaning the conductors’.

Firstly, it depends on the orchestra. Some orchestras have a tradition of playing behind the beat, while others play strictly with the conductor’s beat.

Then, it depends on the conductor’s technique. Behind-the-beat playing can be prevented by specific techniques, but some schools of conducting advocate beating ahead of the orchestra. It’s a matter of what one has learned. Some conductors ‘breath’ with their beats, some don’t for instance.

I know that some conductors who are used to the orchestra playing simultaneously with their beat, when confronted with orchestras who play behind the beat, will ask the players to play with them, which the orchestra usually does.

Finally, there will always be some amount of ‘waiting’ from an on-the-beat conductor when setting a new tempo. Once the tempo is established, with experienced orchestras at least and depending on the music, the players usually do not need the conductor’s help to maintain tempo.

And what one can often see happening is that, upon new tempi setting, the conductor will be slightly ahead of or waiting for the orchestra in his beat, but then, when a clear pace has been established, will go back to synchronicity with the music in his beat.

May 10, 2018, 4:41 AM · What do you do with a conductor who conducts every bar at a different tempo - in a classical symphony such as Beethoven?

Answer: either shoot him or ignore and play in time. Playing in time is less messy as it doesn't leave blood on the podium ...

May 10, 2018, 5:54 AM · 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.
In my classical training nobody ever said anything about this - I was trained to anticipate the beat from the upstroke and apart from that I just remember conductors shouting, "watch me"!!!. I remember playing in an orchestra after college and playing pizz dead on the conductor's downbeat - also I was listening to the tempo around me. I was the only one playing followed by b'donk - everyone else playing. I was quite confused. Needless to say my career has not been in orchestral music! Can somebody tell me how you get any accuracy with an indeterminate gap between the conductor's baton and about 80 players notes?
May 10, 2018, 6:08 AM · 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.

Edited: May 16, 2018, 7:02 AM · Drives me nuts!!

Roman - It is good to hear Roman that some conductors want to do it on the beat.
Really that is the thing that marred all so far performances of my orchestral music more than anything else. People playing compulsively behind the beat, and the treacly syncope getting ever longer.
Fear is my diagnosis. No one wanting to be wrong .
This is not music.
If you fear being wrong the impulse of that - instantaneously
imprints the playing. Even if it is subliminal that message always gets through. If you have music written now good chance it will not be 4-square or fitting nicely by bars. Rythms can come at you from any quarter. THe ONLY chance you have is using also your own finely honed and courageous sense of rythmn. Look up now and then to see the conductor is on board. Don't be scared because all are here to shine their light and their collective light - anyone who disdains another is a fool.

Unfortunately i had conductors - so far - unable/willing to break the terminal pathology of fearful-behind-the-beat., and I was too accommodating to take over myself. ( I have never conducted) .
But I hope to one day have another opportunity, and then I shall do everything i can to break the sclerotic hold of fearful-behind-the- beat and sprit-of-the-music-destroying miasma
Ayye oop !!

May 15, 2018, 8:30 PM · 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.
May 15, 2018, 8:45 PM · Andrew has it exactly right.

I posted this upthread but since people are still insisting that we play behind the beat out of fear or insecurity (how ridiculous), I'll post it again here. Highly recommended reading. https://www.wqxr.org/story/why-do-orchestras-play-behind-beat/

Incidentally a player who consistently comes crashing in ahead of the rest of the ensemble out of a stubborn insistence on playing "with the stick" is a player who is not going to get tenure (if a staff musician) or get called again (if a sub). That's just bad ensemble playing.

May 16, 2018, 1:03 AM · 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.

The contrast was especially noticeable when I was simultaneously a section violist in a semi-professional orchestra and principal violist in a lower-intermediate level community orchestra. In the community orchestra, the conductor insisted on playing every beat right at the ictus, which meant that every single tempo change had to be rehearsed endlessly, and even then it was almost impossible for that orchestra to change tempo without inserting a pause that the composer didn't intend. On the other hand, playing a little behind the beat allowed the semi-pro orchestra to sail confidently through big tempo changes without pausing, even when sight-reading. That's because we didn't have to anticipate the tempo change and risk being wrong, we could see it happen a moment before.

As Roman noted: "Finally, there will always be some amount of ‘waiting’ from an on-the-beat conductor when setting a new tempo. Once the tempo is established, with experienced orchestras at least and depending on the music, the players usually do not need the conductor’s help to maintain tempo."

And where does fear come into it? If a conductor really insists on playing on the beat, I'll do it... it's just that it will be much more prone to mistakes. It's easier to develop a consistent sense of an ensemble's normal delay than to read the conductor's mind before the beat.

Edited: May 16, 2018, 5:02 AM · 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.
May 16, 2018, 5:05 AM · 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?

Here is a clip of Diana Krall playing jazz with a tight rhythm section while the orchestra has a conductor (which the rhythm section are not looking at!)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQuDaIbpA1g

I'm sure they are all good enough musicians to just have a count in?
I have to say, non-classical musicians that work in fixed tempos almost exclusively, are often somewhat baffled when they see this sort of thing. For them, tempo is all about listening. Under a conductor it's more about watching - but now it's watching and adding an indeterminate gap??

May 16, 2018, 5:54 AM · 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.

Christopher, "tempo," by which I assume you mean ensemble, is certainly about listening as well as watching. For example I am always aware of where the pulse is--often, it's in the horns. It's important to know which section to be listening to at every point in the music. Another example: Beethoven violin concerto, first movement tutti. The melody is in the first violins but the second violins have steady 16th notes, so the firsts need to listen to us.

Edited: May 16, 2018, 7:36 AM · I don't buy it.
Orchestras should play more without conductors.
The psychic element can be HUGE. Darren Brown, the magician, once conducted an orchestra, who had no music. They warbled around for a bit then began to settle into the biggest theme from Beethovens 9th symphony.
(Many players know this by heart or can pick it out). This is what he was intending. His intention somehow got through.
There must be a way of changing speed and getting faster without always being behind the beat to have some elasticity.
Fear need not be conscious. If in fear you may be in (relatively) a TRANCE. You emerge from the trance and you can say - gosh, I see now I was in a trance , looking back.
Can whole orchestras be in trances? You bet. Compounded also of conditioning going back to music college.
But nobody has addressed my point about fear instantly being imprinted on the playing (even if trance-unconscious-fear). Because it is. And the effect gets through . ALWAYS. Even if sublinimally.
Presumably if you change tempo and the players are on your beat exactly at first there will be a disparity which will then be caught up - or down.
I see the point about changing tempos or speeds (not speedos) ,
but I hear the fear - INSTANTLY . It has an effect on the spirit of the music. And I hear it with professional orchestras too.
Its' like the bleeding ROYAL SHAKESPEAre Company who murder Shakespeare often ( in my opinion). Because they are so familiar with it and a certain way of doing it - it is no longer REALLY REALLY REALLY REAL
Which is what it should be. It becomes mannered. And everyone is happy with that because it is reassuring.
Yeah tempo is about listening and feeling and not hiding your light under a bushel and respecting the light not hid under a bushel of the collective . Who can know exactly when to play?
- the player, in the end , not hiding their light under dubious mouldy rain-rotted bushels.
Why do players hide their light? They sort of may think -
not sure about my contribution so I will soft-peddle, I will hold back
( like everyone else, and look here is even an article telling you why holding back in tempo is good) so as not to mess up the ensemble.
Problem is : Then THAT and THAT ATTITUDE is what does get contributed. Rather than failing to make a mistake ( be heard without wating for everyone else first) you end up contributing mushy peas to the meal.
You end up with timorousness, up-tightness, non-committment, ambiguity, "Oh woe is me life is terribly difficult" - being contributed.
That is not terribly good in my opinion.
Steve Jones - I went to that concert too with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing Russian music and
Vaughan Williams' 6th symphony I think.
String playing was amazing. No, I dind't- that was years ago.
Fear is a big element in my opinion. And disatrous. And mostly unseen. I would solve it by bringing a whip - just joking.

May 16, 2018, 7:30 AM · It is instructive to note the various levels of experience in orchestral playing in this thread and then correlate with responses.
May 16, 2018, 7:37 AM · Classical musician are SO up-tight.
Its' good too to correlate levels of aliveness with responses in this thread.
May 16, 2018, 8:00 AM · 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.)

I'll note that even good youth symphonies can manage this -- the knife-edge, precise start of an entrance, without the domino effect, as someone put it.

Edited: May 16, 2018, 8:21 AM · 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.
May 16, 2018, 8:19 AM · 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.
May 16, 2018, 8:20 AM · Here are some orchestral musicians who are alive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5DPe2dWewg

May 16, 2018, 8:28 AM · Heh, the youtube video isn't available in the US...
Edited: May 16, 2018, 8:42 AM · 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.
Edited: May 16, 2018, 8:54 AM · 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).
May 16, 2018, 9:14 AM · 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.
Personally I'm just a bit baffled that it's another one of those things they don't tell you in music college - at least they never told me. Also it just seems so alien to people working in locked tempo music. I would also point out that in the profession if you are playing more commercial music, it's more common for a conductor to conduct on the beat - so if you want that gig...
May 16, 2018, 9:34 AM · Is this available in the US?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgTqwzkAaeA

May 16, 2018, 9:34 AM · Christopher, twice I have posted a link to an excellent explanatory article. not sure what else I can do.
May 16, 2018, 10:00 AM · 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.
Edited: May 16, 2018, 10:08 AM · Mary -I read it the first time.
It's the gap thing though - the only explanation that's given to discern the exact gap for a large ensemble is that it's more of an intuitive thing. I can't speak for everyone posting but for my part I'm genuinely intrigued and not challenging anyone's musicianship. :) I do however think the idea can be challenged.

I'll post Adam Neely again then (also linked in that article) because I think it's important for classical musicians to know how they are perceived when they step into non-classical territory. I have encountered this a lot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEbUNDW9bDA

May 16, 2018, 11:07 AM · 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!
May 16, 2018, 11:53 AM · 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.
May 16, 2018, 1:03 PM · 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.

I feel like many of the amateurs and non-orchestral players in this thread are operating on the assumption that playing with the stick is, for whatever weird reason, the ideal. I think that's a false assumption; I find when we're forced to play "with the stick" - i.e. if we're doing a movie where everyone has a click track in their ear - the ensemble tends to be worse because everyone is reacting to their own interpretation of the click and where the beat is, instead of listening and playing with the people around them. If 80 musicians are trying to play exactly on the ictus of the stick, it's going to sound sloppy - everyone has a slightly different concept of where it is or when the conductor is going to get there. Playing behind the stick, you're instead listening to the people around you to tell where to play, breathing together, moving together - playing like a chamber group would.

May 16, 2018, 6:33 PM · The "breathing together,moving together" is exactly right . This is so pleasurable in a group when they have been together for decades.
I find this occurs automatically in our orchestra when we get a slew of guest conductors of varying skill levels and we have to "close ranks" and get the job done.
May 16, 2018, 11:40 PM · 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!

Bernstein had a few things in common with Toscanini but "phase locking" wasn't one of them:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNPzx-GLSKA

If you can watch past the first couple of minutes you'll notice that the NBCSO play precisely with the stick, or it could be the other way round. Joel, do you really think he was a useless conductor?

May 17, 2018, 3:43 AM · Hmmm, "phase locking" is an interesting idea.

I'd certainly agree that often we don't do it. Often a slight independence between the voices in a piece is an important part of the style - most prominently for Romantic music, but you can see the same in other styles (which bit of a rolled harpsichord chord should a solo violin be in time with, exactly?)

Equally, I wouldn't say we *never* do it. Take the fugue entry in Rachmaninoff's second symphony as one example. That has to be played absolutely tight in the orchestra (both within sections and between sections...) However, the orchestra might still be playing out of sync with the conductor's beat. ;)

May 17, 2018, 4:32 AM · 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.

You can also create a beat that lands at the bottom very predictably, making it quite possible for a group to play right with you.

May 17, 2018, 5:23 AM · Stephen - exactly...

Someone further up the thread said "you need two beats to set the pulse" - that's not right. A beat is a gesture, and you can indicate pulse through gesture - the fact that the gesture has an up point and a down point helps, but it is the movement we watch not the arrival...

May 17, 2018, 6:25 AM · 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.
Edited: May 17, 2018, 8:54 AM · 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.
Like it or not, string players don't have a great reputation as rhythmic players - certainly in the non-classical fields. A colleague was playing me a session they had done with top players at Abbey Road and they were surprised at some of the wooly playing when you hear each player track by track. Sounded good as a section though. With individual tracking you can't get away with anything. Not like you can with a live section in a big hall.
May 18, 2018, 3:31 AM · 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.

May 19, 2018, 2:25 AM · Irene thanks for your explanation (dated May 16, 2018, 1:03 PM)!
May 19, 2018, 4:31 AM · 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.
May 19, 2018, 5:46 AM · 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.

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