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Personal Essays

When the Crescendo Is the Least of Your Worries

After practicing with his iPod—and feeling pretty good, actually—a novice discovers the extreme fear of conducting a professional orchestra.

Easier Said Than Done by Josh Shaddock
Courtesy the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS

In the dozens of orchestral performances I’ve attended in my life, I’ve never once appreciated that the conductor does not stand in front of the orchestra; he or she stands amidst the front of the orchestra.

This difference is hard to even see unless you’re sitting in the very front of the audience, but it is distinctly apparent once I step onto the podium. It means that no matter where I turn, at least a third of the people I’m supposed to be conducting are behind my back.

Even more unexpected is that the member of the orchestra furthest behind my back is the principal violinist, who I had been given to understand was the most important person in the orchestra after the conductor. When I’m standing on the podium, the principal violinist turns out to be sitting somewhere behind my left shoulder (sort of in the blind spot of my elbow), along with all the other violins that I could easily see if I were sitting safely in the audience. Ditto the violas, cellos, and basses, who are now hiding behind my right shoulder.

Something else I’d never appreciated about orchestra conducting until the moment I raised my arms in preparation for the downbeat: The complicated and stressful business of getting the orchestra started. My first movement of the baton—a (now imminent) rise and fall that takes less than one second—has to communicate not just when to start but how fast and at what volume and with what sort of mood or feeling. It’s possible we could make this work after months of rehearsal, but in this first attempt we’ve literally nothing to go by except what I can feel is shaping up to be a tepid and indifferent gesture.

Indeed, my initial downbeat is almost certain to be woefully inadequate because—it further occurs to me, while my arms are hanging here—that what’s required is a gesture not only clear and impressively nuanced, but singularly cognizable to upwards of 60 musicians, each of whom has worked and practiced and studied with numerous conductors, each having had (it’s pretty safe to assume) a differently calibrated way of starting a piece of music.

And all of this, let’s not forget, must be communicated to people I can’t be certain are even paying attention, either, as a result of any number of distractions (such as a renegade mobile phone or somebody coughing or even just blinking twice), or simply because some of the musicians may not have a clear view of my upcoming and enfeebled downbeat because they are, as mentioned, seated behind my back.

Needless to say, none of this was an issue when I was practicing with my iPod.

Final unexpected discovery while my arms are (still) hanging over the orchestra: From the conductor’s podium, it is impossible to tell whether the musicians are looking at me or my baton, and does this even matter?

 

So I wondered, too little and too late, as I began to conduct a rehearsal of the Oxford Philomusica, the orchestra in residence at the University of Oxford. The O.P. is comprised of musicians who have played or currently play with the major London orchestras (the Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, and so on) or with other groups based between the university and the capital. The O.P.’s music director, Marios Papadopoulos, is a renowned conductor and world-class concert pianist.

On a cold December evening, I traveled down to London to join the O.P. in rehearsing Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D, Opus 73, which the group was scheduled to perform the next evening at a concert in Antwerp, Belgium. After eight months of dogged journalistic pursuit—such are the vagaries of an orchestra’s performance and rehearsal schedule—I was finally set to experience conducting a pro-caliber orchestra. This is not something most people, even most musicians, ever have a chance to try, and it turns out to be a strange mix of exhilaration and fear and just trying to keep your balance. (Especially when your musical training begins and ends with a few years of high school band-level trumpet, which, under the circumstances, is so laughably inadequate as to be not just embarrassing but also kind of obscene.) It further turns out that a big reason this is what conducting feels like is the nature of pro-caliber music generally, the features of which are on display during the O.P.’s rehearsal.

The purpose of rehearsal is not to learn the music or even how to play it together, but more to work out very specific details; for example, if the music indicates the violins should crescendo, just how much should they crescendo?

For instance, consider just the logistics of the Antwerp concert: The evening’s rehearsal, the final 15 minutes of which were sacrificed to your correspondent’s journalistic exploits, was the only time the O.P. would meet to rehearse the Antwerp program, which also includes works by Benjamin Britten and Robert Schumann. The rehearsal ran from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and the entire orchestra was due at London’s St. Pancras Station by 7:40 the next morning to take the Eurostar train to Belgium, arriving just in time to rehearse the Schumann with a guest pianist. Two days later, the whole team would be back in Oxford for its annual Christmas concert.1

Given how little time is available to rehearse—a single day-before or day-of rehearsal is standard—the purpose of rehearsal is not to learn the music or even how to play it together, but more to work out very specific details; for example, if the music indicates the violins should crescendo, just how much should they crescendo? This level of detail is hard to appreciate if you’ve never seen the score or previously listened carefully to a recording or performance, and thus goes straight over the head of most listeners. Combined with the musicians’ ability to ready a performance after so little rehearsal, the result is that a lot of people, including your correspondent (right up until he stepped onto the podium), think professional orchestras run on autopilot.2

In fact, I actually suggested as much to Marios at our initial meeting, when I outright asked him, “Why would I need any conducting experience?”

The high quality of the O.P.’s musicians also means the conductor must be doing something other than making sure everybody plays the right notes at the right time, which brings us back to standing amidst, not in front of the orchestra. The difference is immediately apparent when I step onto the podium because it means that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t conduct everybody at once. Marios likes to say that conducting an orchestra is like riding a thoroughbred racehorse, so try to imagine galloping along and checking your blind spots by physically turning around in the saddle.

 

The piece I am rehearsing, Brahms’ Second Symphony,3 is not the most friendly to the amateur conductor. The time signatures and individual parts are complicated, and the melodic line frequently jumps around different parts of the orchestra. When I asked Marios to suggest a portion for me to try during the rehearsal, his response was, “Choose whatever 10 minutes you like. It’s all difficult.”

The portion of the Brahms that I ultimately select, roughly the first half of the third movement, is thus a kind of compromise, something like the best that can be done under the circumstances. The time signature changes three times, but the melodic line is carried almost entirely by the winds (principally the oboe and the clarinet), or the upper-register strings (principally the violins). This means I can concentrate on just those two sections of the orchestra; in fact, my work is further reduced by the absence of any parts for much of the brass and all of the percussion, who for this reason have already departed the rehearsal.

Other than getting everybody started, my goal is a mixture of keeping up while staying out of the way, or in other words, behaving as if I were still sitting in the audience.

What Marios does with the O.P. is produce something greater than the sum of its parts. His confidence and vision mold more than 50 individual performances into something strongly coherent and distinctive. This is why a good part of the rehearsal, even while the rest of the orchestra is playing, is taken up by musicians making notes on their sheet music, and copying notes on other people’s sheet music, and even discussing these notes with stand-partners. (There is also a good amount of text messaging, but this is confined to sections of the orchestra that have either no parts in a movement or really long rest periods.) The musicians arrive with the music under control, and Marios spends the rehearsal communicating the emphasis, articulation, and character of his interpretation of the work.

Your correspondent, in contrast, has nothing to communicate to the orchestra. Other than getting everybody started, my goal is a mixture of keeping up while staying out of the way, or in other words, behaving as if I were still sitting in the audience. But since I am on the podium, this means that after a surprisingly competent beginning (due entirely to the competence of the O.P., since I basically just took a deep breath and “went for it,” as it were), I spend the first run-through waving my pencil around more or less in time with the music—demonstrating neither confidence nor vision—and the result is something that sounds more or less like the first half of the third movement of the Brahms, but no more than that.

In fact, what the first run-through sounds like is a nervous conductor making his musicians nervous. The problem is that I’m sometimes unsure where to find the downbeat, which is the first beat in a bar of music. If you think of a waltz, which has three beats per bar, the beats go ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, etc. The ONE is the downbeat, and it’s important because it sets the rate of progress through the music. (That is, the musicians can’t be sure when to move into the next bar until the conductor gives the next downbeat.) In the third movement of the Brahms, the downbeat moves around with the speed of the music, and changes with the time signature.

Unfortunately, the orchestra has no way of knowing what I’m doing with the downbeat: whether I’m just lost or late or this time going to nail it. Their best response would be to ignore me entirely, but for whatever reason—it’s probably hard to ignore someone obviously striving right in your midst—the musicians keep giving me the benefit of the doubt.

Just to be clear, the nervousness that I’m feeling has nothing to do with looking silly or strange, because there is no “right” way to conduct an orchestra. If you’ve seen just two professional concerts, you can appreciate the wide range of effective conducting styles. Marios, for example, rarely conducts from a score, and I’ve even seen him lead the orchestra from behind a grand piano, conducting with his head and shoulders while playing along.

But the fact that there is no “right” way to conduct still allows for some ways to be better than others, and what I’m worried about is that most other ways are better than my way, a fear that Marios confirms after the first run-through. At first, he says, “Just let it flow,” and then, “Stop over-conducting,” both of which refer to classic mistakes for novice conductors. His final advice is to “Just do it in one,” which means to conduct just the downbeat (i.e., just the ONE-), leaving the orchestra otherwise free to make its own way through the music (…two-three).

The orchestra has no way of knowing what I’m doing with the downbeat: whether I’m just lost or late or this time going to nail it.

This is Marios’s very patient and polite way of reminding me that the conductor’s job is not to play the music for the orchestra. When I watched him earlier in the rehearsal, he spent most of the time listening, getting really active only when he wanted to encourage greater emphasis here, or a lighter touch there. To explain by way of contrast, what Marios is not doing is behaving like a drum major: That military-style baton-waving is primarily about directing marching, not music-making, and the O.P. isn’t going anywhere; at least, not until tomorrow morning.

But so all of this makes sense in theory (and, it goes without saying, in retrospect), while in the moment I’m left standing on the podium wondering what to do with my arms. It turns out the only way I can follow the score is to conduct every beat, which fact becomes immediately clear in the second run-through because Marios’s advice to “just do it in one” goes straight out the window. After a marginally less-agonized start (I still feel like I’m going to step on somebody’s toes or something) I begin waving my pencil confusedly at the orchestra, to the point where Marios actually grabs my arm and tries to calm things down. This feels utterly bizarre, because he seems to be following an entirely different piece of music. If what Marios is conducting is just the downbeat, I was never going to find it.

What’s really strange about my being nervous is that it should have such a noticeable effect on the orchestra. Even with Marios lending his hand, we still sound like a machine held together with loose bolts. (Only slightly loose, but that’s the level of refinement in professional anything.) Despite the O.P. knowing the music, and being able to play it just fine without any direction, it turns out that whatever happens on the podium is going to matter, which means that the conductor is clearly integral to a performance but in a different sort of way than the strings or brass or percussion.

It’s this integral role that makes conducting a professional orchestra so exhilarating and frightening. Professional musicians operate on a level most of us can barely imagine—reached after years of nurturing preternatural talent—and for this reason they deliver up to the conductor a piece of music that is fully formed. All of the parts are accounted for and executed as written by the composer. The result is that the conductor is responsible not just for preserving this ability (which feels like just trying to keep your balance) but transforming it in some meaningful and providential way. What begins as a collection of individual performances—of so many strings and winds and brass and percussion—becomes a single interpretation of the work as a whole. Out of many, one.

Needless to say, this transformation is the exclusive purview of professional conductors, which is the reason it felt so strange when Marios was guiding my hand. He interacts with the music, like his musicians do, at a level that’s basically impossible for an amateur to comprehend or even really appreciate. This is why my whole experience ends up being kind of obscene, because professionals and amateurs just don’t belong on the same stage; there is a reason the latter pay money to see the former. This is also the reason Marios was merely bemused when I wondered aloud at our initial meeting, “Why would I need any conducting experience?” It turns out that it wouldn’t make much difference; even the front-row seat is miles away from the podium.

Footnotes

  1. I learned most of this from Max, the O.P.’s stage manager, himself an alumnus of the Royal Philharmonic (stage management department). Max is compact and wears all-black athletic-style clothing, and when not chatting amiably with your correspondent hops around the orchestra (while it rehearses), packing up instruments that will travel separately to Antwerp via overnight truck.
  2. Something else that a lot of people seem to think about professional orchestras is that they rehearse under the same conditions in which they perform, including wearing formal dress. For the record, the O.P. does not rehearse wearing white tie and tails. The sartorial standard at the rehearsal is unbendingly casual, featuring a goodly amount of denim (exclusively in the trouser department), a lot of button-up shirts and blouses, some athletic-style clothing, and one tired-looking blazer.
  3. Factoid: Brahms composed his Second Symphony in just five months, after spending almost 15 years composing his First Symphony. The historical consensus re: the First Symphony is that a certain Ludwig van Beethoven cast an enormously long shadow for subsequent composers, from which the young Brahms felt uncertain he could emerge. After his First Symphony was widely acclaimed, Brahms strode forward with understandable confidence.

Christopher R. Graham writes freelance in Toronto, Ontario, and runs a David Foster Wallace reading group. Visit him at alifedisported.blogspot.com. More by Christopher R. Graham