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request of the conductor


Rosie
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Today in rehearsal I was getting really mad because we were playing a piece with confusing rhythms and I couldn't

tell which beat the conductor was "on" because I could only see his conducting pattern from the side ( I am 1st

vln 3rd chair). I could tell when his arms were down and up, but because I was looking at his profile it was hard

to see the beginnings of measures without totally looking up from the music to figure it out. He was getting mad

because my section didn't play on the right beats. Would it have been rude to ask him to move his platform back a

few feet so we could see what he is doing?

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What difference would it make? If he knew how to teach and conduct the piece you would be able to see it now. Go home and figure it out yourself. Relying on a conductor for more than the downbeat (if that) is bad for your musical and mental health. First rule: conductors that get hostile are incompetent. Do not submit to incompetence.

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I remember doing a concert in Seville on a 3 hr rehearsal. I stood up in the middle of the rehearsal and asked for a few more leads. My question was directed at the leader not the conductor. He misunderstood and threw me out. I spent the whole day admiring this city and completely missed the rehearsal. What a result!

Seriously, only the leader should ask such a question and then it takes a lot of diplomacy to get it out right.

In a similar vain, I was trial-ing for an orchestra conducted by Tadaki Otaka. I was sitting on front desk and discovered a mistake in Stravinsky Firebird. I asked Mr. Otaka politely if he thought it was wrong, to which he replied yes and thank you as politely as I have ever heard. The leader said - 'we've been playing it that way for 20 years'.....rather strangely I didn't get asked back.

Don't risk upsets and try not to offend poor conductors - they won't thank you for it.

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Rosie,

It is a problem! Unless the conductor turns to to face the firsts (back to the cellos) you just have to endure it. I sat on that side for 40 years. Some conductors give a hint, many don't. One advantage of playing principal second fiddle now.

Sometimes a conductor who does not use a stick, but relies on hands and fingers gives clues to which beat it is.

Sometimes it is very subtle - but even with many very well know conductors (that I see on TV - and would hate to play under) it seems impossible to tell what they or doing (or in my opinion) why THEY are the ones standing there.

Others (quite rare, but Herbert Blomsteadt is one great example example) are absolutely clear - some even from behind.

I have never in my 53 years of playing in orchestras seen very much hope for the players to change the conductor. In fact the conductors who conduct the beat (like many HS band leaders) instead of leading the music can get a very choppy-sounding result.

Sometimes we "fiddlers" just have to "woodshed" it and be prepared to sustain the count ourselves.

Andy

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Yes, it is a problem sitting to the side that way. The best solution I know is simply not to depend on the conductor for anything but downbeats for attacks. The rest of the time I look anywhere but at the conductor. It is much less confusing that way, at least with most conductors. You are forced to rely on your ears, which, in my opinion, is usually the best way to operate anyway.

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Some of these comments brought to mind an incident when I was in the youth orchestra here in high

school.

Our conductor had gone to Japan to study conducting for about 4 years. I forget who he said he studied

under. One of our practices, on a fairly new piece, we were struggling to stay together. He finally

stopped and basically said that he must not be conducting this very well because we couldn't follow him.

(I can't remember his exact words, it was 15 years ago). Anyway, he changed the style he was using

for that piece and things went much smoother. I was always impressed that he would be willing to take

some of the onus for good quality sound on himself, that it wasn't necessarily always the players fault.

His motions were always very distinct, and he had a great variety of styles to use, depending on the

mood of the music.

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I remember watching Jerzy Semkow conducting the St. Louis Philharmonic. He was waving his arms wildly in a way that didn't seem to have anything to do with the music. I've played in a lot of amateur and semi-professional orchestras, but I had no idea what piece he was conducting. Some months later I asked an orchestra member about following Jerzy Semkow, and he said he was unusually clear. No problem. I have no idea what the moral of this story is.

Here's a dirty little secret that everyone knows. Sometimes you ignore the conductor. One particular time is at the end of cadenzas, if the conductor is reacting to the soloist. Go with the soloist. Another time is if the beat is of little help with a complex rhythm -- for example, beating every two beats, while you must play on every off beat. Then I just play with the orchestra, or if that fails, with the section, paying very close attention to the principal, whom you can hopefully trust completely. Sometimes you do what he says in rehearsals if he can tell the difference, but in the concert you play what he would want if only he knew what to ask for. (Caution -- don't try this at home. )

If you need to make musical suggestions, it's usually best to make them tactfully and sparingly in private. Principals have a little more leeway. It's only common sense.

The bottom line? You're out of luck.

Two little conductor jokes (I'm sure you all recognize some of these people):

1. No music on conductor's desk. Just a note that says, "Wave your arms until the music stops, then turn around and bow."

2. Have you heard about the music dirctor who couldn't conduct at all? He was so bad that they decided to give him the death penalty by electrocution. Of course, it failed because he was a non-conductor.

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One more. This post has absolutely no redeeming value, so I hope you enjoy it.

I was playing in an amateur chamber orchestra for a pint-sized conductor. I mean this guy was so short he had to reach up and out to tie his shoes. I think I was on the first or second stand, so I had a fairly good view of him on the ladder, er, podium. But then he dropped his hands really low so I couldn't see them above the stand. We were playing along, and I found myself not playing with my stand partner, who was not the strongest player. So I listened carefully to the orchestra, but I couldn't hear anything coherent except the excellent cellist I was sitting next to. So I went with him, and the next thing I knew, the conductor was yelling at me.

Er, what was the question again?

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I've had similar experiences, where the conductor works with the orchestra to make sure the baton waving matches up with the music.

The primary view of conductors seems to be that of the autocratic despot with some smatterings of benevolence. My take is that the conductor is the admin assistant of the orchestra. They coordinate between the various sections and make sure they everybody is on the same page but in the end the conductor is there to serve the musicians.

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Yup. Actually, there are some very good conductors around: folks who really shape the music and help/make the players play better. But in the amateur/semipro/2ndratepro arena in which I move, most of them are simply metronomes, and not very good metronomes at that. And some come with a tantrum attachment.

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Thanks for pointing out that not all conductors are useless. When you are fortunate enough to work with one who is an excellent musician and very clear about the beat and all the other aspects of the music, it's a wonderful experience. I learn my part well enough to get my head out of the music and pay attention to what our conductor is doing. It DOES make a difference. I play in an amateur orchestra and I feel that our current conductor has taught me as much about music as any of my violin or piano teachers have.

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Another little problem with conductors is figuring out when the beat is. Is it when the stick jerks up, when it's somewhere on its way up, when it hits the bottom, or none of the above. It varies a bit. Nothing beats ears.

By the way, in spite of our apparent conductor bashing, I think most of us have found most conductors to be competent and fun to make music with. I personally wouldn't stick with one who wasn't, unless it was a job I couldn't get out of.

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That picture brings back fond memories. Azeotrope, however did you know? For those who don't know, that's the late Margaret Hillis, conductor of the Chicago Symphony chorus.

She was great with amateur groups, and had great technical skill. Her multi-tasking was impressive: she was able to play through a passage medium length and recite a long list of things for different sections to fix (one problem for each of several players or sections). In her annual Do-It-Yourself-Messiahs, she was able to pull together an orchestra with players of widely varying skills in two to three rehearsals, some of whom who seldom touched their instruments, and then get them to play well with an unrehearsed walk-in chorus of thousands. She would face the chorus, with her back to the orchestra. The time lag (dragging plus time for the sound to travel) was incredible, yet the orchestra had to follow her, and definitely not what they heard from the chorus. Nevertheless, the sound was awesome. This picture is from another event ("In the garden live", perhaps?).

And oh, yes, we always knew exactly where her beat was. It had to be unmistakable all the way to the back of the hall.

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