Authored by Loz


This kind of domination of the orchestra by the conductor—widespread, if not the norm, fifty years ago—is less common today.But vanity and tyranny are prevalent in the music world even in these enlightened times, and the picture of orchestral musicians as infantile and submissive, caught between willful conductors, insensitive management, and hypervigilant unions, is not as rare as one would hope.I began to ask myself questions like What makes a group lively and engaged? instead of How good am I? So palpable was the difference in my approach to conducting as a result of this silent conductor insight, that players in the orchestra started asking me, What happened to you? Before that, my main concerns had been whether my interpretation was being appreciated by the audience and, if the truth be known, whether the critics liked it because if they did it might lead to other opportunities and greater success.In order to realize my interpretation of the work in question, it seemed all I had to do was to gain sway over the players, teach them my interpretation, and make them fulfill my musical will.Now, in the light of my discovery, I began to shift my attention to how effective I was at enabling the musicians to play each phrase as beautifully as they were capable.This concern had rarely surfaced when my position appeared to give me absolute power and I had cast the players as mere instruments of my will.But how, actually, could I know what the players were feeling about my effectiveness in releasing their power?Certainly I could tell a lot by looking into their eyes—the eyes never lie, after all—and at their posture, their whole demeanor, and I could ask myself, Are they engaged? But at some point, I found I wanted more information, and more relationship.I wanted to hear what they had to say.It was completely impractical to attempt to be on speaking terms with a hundred players at every rehearsal, however, and anyway, there was no precedent for it.Traditionally, all verbal communication in an orchestral rehearsal is directed from the podium to the players and almost never the other way around..Virtually every communication from the musicians to a conductor in a rehearsal is phrased as a question, even when it is really a statement of fact or belief, wrote Seymour and Robert Levine in an article in Harmony magazine.One of [us] once heard the principal clarinetist of a major American orchestra ask the conductor whether he wanted the notes with dots over them .But to fit the myth of the omniscient conductor, the comment had to be phrased as a question, for how could a musician possibly inform an omniscient being?The myth dictates that a musician can only tap into that well of knowledge, not add to it.2One time, as we were rehearsing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, I made a seemingly routine apology to the players of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London.You see, I had shouted out after one passage, Cowbells, you didn’t come in! A few minutes later I realized that the cowbells weren’t supposed to play at that moment, so I called out to the percussion section, I’m so sorry, I was wrong about that entrance.I realize you don’t play there. After the rehearsal, I was amazed that no less than three musicians came to me separately and in private to say that they couldn’t remember the last time they had heard a conductor admit his own mistake.One player commented on how dispiriting it is for players when a conductor, as often happens, gets angry and blames the orchestra when he himself made the mistake, in the vain hope that nobody will have noticed.Many corporate heads and managers I have spoken to have since let me know that the orchestra is not the only hierarchical setting where this dynamic occurs.The players are invited to write down any observation or coaching for me that might enable me to empower them to play the music more beautifully.At first I braced myself for criticism, but surprisingly the responses on the white sheets, as they have come to be called, rarely assume that form.Initially, out of habit, players confined their remarks to practical issues, such as the agreement between the parts and the score.Now that the white sheet practice is familiar and accepted by all the orchestras that I regularly conduct, the comments, which are usually signed to facilitate further discussion, are most often practical ones about my conducting or about the interpretation of the music.Musicians do not hesitate to ask me, for instance, to conduct a certain passage in two rather than in four, so they can better fulfill the sense of the musical line.Frequently I receive comments that are deeply insightful about the interpretation, comments that I almost always take on board and that affect the performance.An orchestra of a hundred musicians will invariably contain great artists, some with an intimate or specialized knowledge of the work being performed, others with insight about the tempo or structure or relationships within the piece, a subject about which no one has ever asked them to communicate.Whenever I take on an idea from a member of the orchestra, I try to make some eye contact with them at the moment the passage is played, sometimes several times during the rehearsals and even at the concert.Magically, that moment becomes their moment.One of the most supremely gifted and accomplished artists I have known sat for decades as a modest member of the viola section of one of America’s leading orchestras.Eugene Lehner had been the violist of the legendary Kolisch Quartet, and had coached the distinguished Julliard String Quartet as well as innumerable other ensembles.Many of Boston’s finest musicians considered Lehner to be a seminal, formative influence on their musical lives.How often I have consulted him on thorny points of interpretation—to have the scales removed from my eyes by his incandescent insight into the music!Yet, had any conductor visiting the Boston Symphony ever consulted him or called on his profound knowledge and understanding of the particular piece they were performing together?Indeed, I believe such a notion is almost unthinkable.One day, during my very first year playing with the orchestra, I remember an occasion when Koussevitsky was conducting a Bach piece and he seemed to be having some difficulty getting the results he wanted—it simply wasn’t going right.Fortunately, his friend, the great French pedagogue and conductor Nadia Boulanger, happened to be in town and sitting in on the rehearsal, so Koussevitsky took the opportunity to extricate himself from an awkward and embarrassing situation by calling out to her, Nadia, please, will you come up here and conduct?I want to go to the back of the hall to see how it sounds. Mademoiselle Boulanger stepped up, made a few comments to the musicians, and conducted the orchestra through the passage without a hitch.However, in the meantime, I haven’t had a single dull moment in a rehearsal, as I sit wondering what I would say to the orchestra should I suddenly be called upon to lead.Then, in the middle of the rehearsal, I suddenly turned to one of the violinists sitting in the fourth stand of the second violins, whose passion had been evident to me from the very first rehearsal, and said, John, you come up here and conduct.I want to go to the back to hear how it sounds. That day on his white sheet he wrote that I had enabled him to realize a lifelong dream.Suddenly, the full extent of the resources of the orchestra presented itself to my view, and I leapt to offer some of the other musicians the same gift.The conductor decides who is playing in his orchestra.When he sees instrumentalists who look listless, he can decide that they are bored and resigned, or he can greet in them the original spark that enticed them into music, now dimmed to a flicker.He can say, Of course!They have had to go against their passionate natures and interrupt the long line of their commitment on account of the many competing demands of the music profession.They want to be recognized as the true artists they really are. He can see, sitting before him, the jaded and the disaffected—or the tender and ardent lover of music.How much greatness are we willing to grant people?Because it makes all the difference at every level who it is we decide we are leading.How can this leader know how well he is fulfilling his intention?He can look in the eyes of the players and prepare to ask himself, Who am I being that they are not shining? He can invite information and expression.He can speak to their passion.He can look for an opportunity to hand them the baton.Today was exceptional in that I learned leadership is not a responsibility—nobody has to lead.It’s a gift, shining silver, that reminds people huddled nearby why each shimmering moment matters.It’s in the eyes, the voice, this swelling song that warms up from the toes and tingles with endless possibilities.Things change when you care enough to grab whatever you love, and give it everything.On our 1999 tour to Cuba with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, we decided to begin a concert in Havana with two pieces to be performed in combination with the National Youth Orchestra of Cuba, a Cuban and an American sitting at each stand.The first piece to be played was written by the outstanding conductor of the Cuban orchestra.It was colorful and brilliant, and contained many complicated Cuban rhythms.I had decided not to prepare our orchestra in advance because I thought it was a rare opportunity to start work on a piece under the direction of the composer himself.Maestro Guido Lopez Gavillan began rehearsing his work, but it soon seemed evident that the complex Cuban rhythms were so unfamiliar to the American kids that the piece was beyond them.They simply couldn’t play it.

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