“Conducting is a complex job.”
Thus begins Max Rudolf’s treatise The Grammar of Conducting (Thanks for the tip, Max!). This droll understatement emphasizes a hard truth about the profession: in addition to your musical abilities, conducting involves a great deal of practical and logistical considerations that don’t always come with the manual.
Most of what makes the job so ‘complex’ takes place behind the scenes during rehearsals, so I wanted to put together a practical list of do’s and don’ts that I think are important in rehearsing a symphony orchestra. This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but who knows, you could find yourself standing at the front of an orchestra some day, and these tips might come in useful.
1. Be Prepared.
The boy scout’s motto applies to much more than knowing the music. The specifics of learning a symphonic score is a (large) subject for a different day, but there is a lot more that goes into planning a rehearsal week than just notes and rhythms.
To begin, the Librarian is your best friend. Find him or her and immediately serenade them with chocolates, cash bribes, leather goods, whatever it takes to attain BFFL status. According to Erich Leinsdorf (former BSO Music Director and general know-it-all), this kind of preparation is “the single most time-saving and productive activity a conductor can engage in.” Everything that can go wrong will go wrong if you don’t check your parts to see if they match the same edition. I guarantee it. It is frustrating and embarrassing to say to the orchestra “Ok, let’s start at at measure 50,” and lo and behold, the orchestral parts don’t have measure numbers, only rehearsal letters. Your score on the other hand, has measure numbers but no letters. And now you are going to waste huge amounts of rehearsal time just getting everyone in the right place. There is no passing the buck – the conductor alone is responsible for avoiding a mess like this, and it reflects poorly on your leadership skills.
2. Manage time like it’s your job (it is).
I make sure to put measure numbers in every single measure of my scores, because time is a brutal mistress who knows no safewords. Counting from the first line of every page wastes precious minutes, and can make you look indecisive when directing a rehearsal. Whenever possible, add measure numbers to the orchestral parts, even if there are already rehearsal numbers / letters in place. The time it takes to count from a reference # or letter adds up to quite a lot, and is wasteful. This may seem needlessly OCD, but you have to make the best of your (always limited) rehearsal time. Besides, if you finish early you can end early, which results in people liking you.
Wear a watch. There might not be a clock on the wall, or it could be inaccurate. It takes far too long to fumble for your phone, and it looks unprofessional. Unexpected delays (both logistical and musical) will force you to adjust the timing of your rehearsal, and you can’t waste time fumbling for your phone every 5 minutes.
I always make a detailed schedule for what to rehearse, and when. For example, I’d make a list and tape it to my music stand that would look something like this:
- 7:00 – 7:30 Beethoven Movement I Exposition
- 7:30 – 8:00 Beethoven Movement I Coda
- 8:00 – 8:30 Beethoven Movement 3
- 8:30 – 8:45 BREAK
- 8:45 – 9:15 Debussy Opening to Rehearsal #9
- 9:15 – 9:30 Karlheinz Klopweisser
Wearing a watch will allow you to check and see if you are on schedule. Setting goals like this will also make sure that you don’t get caught in a rut. Notice that I didn’t even try to bulldoze through the entire Beethoven symphony on this rehearsal – it would be spread out during the week. Some conductors like to read through a complete piece on the first rehearsal, but I don’t think that is as helpful in the long run if time is limited.
3. Anticipate problems and have solutions in mind for when they arise.
This separates the adults from the children and will make you look like a goddamn genius.
In this example from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the flute player is already used to hearing this tune in a particular rhythmic pattern. Suddenly, without warning, Copland changes it up. While reading through a score, take note of unusual compositional choices like this, and listen for them in the first runthru. In almost all cases, the flute player will rush through the first two quarter notes circled in the second excerpt, since he or she expects it to be syncopated like the first time.
4. Be Diplomatic
Take care in how you talk to an orchestra. This is a room full of professional musicians (and human beings) – NOT an inanimate instrument. This calls for the utmost professionalism and respect. The little things matter a lot: don’t lose track of when the breaks / ends of rehearsals are. You’re showing them that you respect their time. If your rehearsal will take place in a church or basement, make sure you talk to their custodian to ensure that the heat or air conditioning will support human life. Ensure that there will be adequate lighting. Don’t rehearse strenuous passages over and over if you can’t find a fix right away (listen to the tape, come back with a battle plan for the next rehearsal).
Don’t be sarcastic. No orchestra member should ever be the subject of a joke. Little barbs or quips that you use among your friends or in smaller chamber music settings may seem funny in the moment, but are a very quick way to alienate a large portion of the orchestra.
Finally, DON’T FAKE. Sometimes it happens…you lose your place, you forget to take a repeat, etc. etc. Politely acknowledge your mistake and begin again. Do not pretend that it was the bass section that screwed up or some other excuse. The orchestra member that you scapegoated will most likely smile and apologize, but inside they will be plotting your murder, as will everyone else in the orchestra. Orchestral musicians have an uncanny ability to detect bullshit, and once you’re known as a bullshitter, it is hard to lift that scent from your reputation.
5. Don’t wear a white shirt / top. The musicians cant see the baton against it you dummy.
6. The ‘syntax’ of correction
There’s no way to sugar coat it – it is your responsibility to constantly adjust and reorient the playing of the musicians in the orchestra, with very little back and forth communication. It is best to develop a vernacular that you can use to make these corrections in a way that is nonjudgemental, and reflects a collaborative spirit, as opposed to one of “that’s wrong – do it my way.” After all, your way might not be ‘correct.’ It might just be different than the conclusion the orchestra player arrived at.
Stop the orchestra at the end of the nearest phrase (not in the middle). Do not tap the baton on the stand to get attention unless you are bugs bunny.
Here are two possible responses to the same situation, which is an approximation of a real event that happened in a recent rehearsal I led (Rehearsal #19 in Mahler’s Totenfeier): The violas did not come in together, were ahead of the winds, and did not have the character I was after.
Option #1: “Shhh. Violas, you’re too loud in that spot where you come in. Also it’s not together.”
Option #2: “Thank you. Violas, at Rehearsal #19, let’s be aware that you’re doubling the horn and bassoons in this passage, so try to give the articulation a more vocal quality.”
Lets analyze those two approaches.
Option #1: Clearly, this was a bad way to go about it. First of all, it’s borderline rude, because the language seems more suitable for scolding a child than addressing a peer. It is also ambiguous. Maybe not everyone knows what location you are referring to? Much better to specify the exact measure number before making your comments. Finally, telling a musician that they are too loud might solve a problem, but it doesn’t give any clues as to why it was wrong in the first place. Over the course of rehearsals, by spending some brief time explaining your reasoning, you give the musicians the chance to anticipate your comments in similar situations, thus saving time.
Option #2. This response is calculated to confer the most information in the fewest words. The music in question is actually a quote of the Dies Irae from the Roman liturgy, and is used in many works referencing death or the afterlife. This clearly calls for a vocal approach, which typically means a more rounded and blended attack (the way the note begins). An added benefit is that the music will automatically sound softer without having to explicitly ask for it. Note that I didn’t launch into a history lesson in front of the musicians in Option #2…once the passage is rehearsed again, the musicians will recognize the Dies Irae tune for themselves and be more aware of how to play it stylistically. Keep it brief!
7. Have fun!
This seems trivial, but your attitude is infectious, and keeping things positive is crucial. Smile, enjoy yourself, and don’t get stressed out if things don’t go perfectly smoothly. By fostering an atmosphere of insightful and ambitious music making, you will make a strong case for yourself and your qualifications to the musicians in the orchestra.