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Conducting a piece that is falling apart


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I just ended a summer music program in which I was helping my friend out with his orchestra (which has kids from the ages of 8-16). Actually he was helping me out because, I have little experience conducting an orchestra and no experience conducting at a concert. Today was the summer concert and the one piece I was conducting fell apart. I didn't stop at all during the performance and neither did the kids, but the piece wasn't together at all. I wanted to crawl under a rock after the performance. There was polite applause at the end of the piece, more like pity applause. I only had 10/15 minutes in 3 rehearsals to put the piece together and with poor attendance from the group. I had one cello, 2 basses, a viola, and about 20 violins. Only half of the violins could play the pieces for the concert decently. My friend's remaining two pieces were much better, thank heavens! I am starting a new job as an orchestra director at an elementary school this fall and am really nervous about having a repeat performance of what happened today. This is my only concert experience and I don't have any others to draw strength from. How do you get over this? Also is it better to stop and start over in a concert if a piece is falling apart or is not together? Please give me some advice. Thank you.

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This might sound a bit rude and you probably know it already, but to begin with you should of course always choose repertoire that everybody can play more than decently. Never use an orchestra (or any kind of ensemble) to push technique for the players, but to use technique that is very solid and push (or maybe I should say encourage) musicality and interaction.

When you start with your new ensemble, I'd say start with really simple stuff and tell them you're trying things out to evaluate where you'll be going during the year. You can play scales in canon, or build chords changing one "voice" at a time, and work with a lot of dynamics and bowing techniques, before you decide on a specific "major" piece. To keep them enthusiastic, tell them a little about what you're looking and listening for and let them come to the front one by one to conduct a short phrase, listen, give instructions to the others and try again. That way they'll grow to respect each other and your work even more -- hopefully -- and be more involved in the process.

I don't know if this is something you can do in an elementary school where you are, since I'm sure we don't live in the same country :-), but that's what I would do to start with!

That said, I hope you'll crawl out from under the rock soon and feel confident again -- I'm sure a lot of us recognise ourselves in your situation and story, since these things happen now and then, and it's like the end of the world when they do, but then you fall in love with the music and the teaching process again ... All good wishes to you!

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