Notes to young conductors

Us old farts sitting in front of you really do want you to succeed. And our definitions of success are not so different from yours. The major difference is that, while we want the orchestra to sound good every bit as you want it to, we also value efficiency (which is not quite the same as saying we’d like to the get the hell out of here as soon as possible, although that’s generally true as well). And, of course, we also have our ideas about how the music should go, and can’t help getting annoyed when a conductor has different ones and insists on them – especially one who really hasn’t earned his/her maestro/a stripes yet.

So remember that, while authority is granted, respect is earned, and pay attention to your elders, even if they’re sitting in front of you, bound by the terms of the labor agreement to do what you tell them to.

Conductors should be seen and not heard

Conducting is physical, not verbal. The perfect conductor would say nothing between “Good morning” and “see you tomorrow.” Every word you say is essentially an admission of failure, generally yours.

OK, so no conductor is perfect. But, if you have to talk, don’t use 500 words when five will do. Tell me what the problem is as concisely as possibly and let me fix it. I don’t need to know why it’s a problem (I can guess that) or that it’s wonderful except for the problem, or multiple rephrasings of the nature of the problem so as not to hurt my feelings. I need to know what the problem is and whether it’s fixed.

And please don’t enlighten us with your insights into the music, or your characterizations of the composer’s intentions, or anything else unless you’re really, really good. And, because you’re a young conductor, you’re not that good. You’re standing up there to conduct, not to lecture.

Don’t let us guess what instrument you play

If you’re a pianist, please don’t spend any time telling the poor pianist how to play the piano. If you’re a wind player, keep your insights about breathing to yourself. If you were as good as the people in front of you, you’d probably have an orchestra job. And it’s boring as hell to sit in a sectional for another section. All you’re going to do is to is convince us  that you don’t know anything about our instruments. We probably suspected that – but why spend time confirming it?

Keep your interpretive insights to yourself

As a young conductor, 9 out of the 10 really good ideas you have regarding phrasing and pacing will be stinkers. Even worse, you won’t know which of them might be the one good one in the pack.

So concentrate on getting what the composer wrote out of the orchestra. Not only is that plenty hard on its own, but until you’ve grown up and are able to recognize when you have a good idea, that’ll produce better results. And when you have grown up, you’ll find that you like the composer’s ideas better than yours anyway.

Don’t tell us we’re wonderful

We know when we play well. We assume that young conductors don’t know anything, so we’re not going to believe you anyway. Orchestra musicians like to be treated with respect, but obsequiousness is not respect. It’s manipulation, and orchestra musicians get enough of that already. It also looks like you’re trying to be liked; a surefire way not to be.

Update: by an odd coincidence, I bought a book this morning (for $1) at my library’s coffeeshop/library deaquisition outlet called On and Off the Record, a collection of writings by and about the great British record producer Walter Legge. In is there is a chapter about Herbert von Karajan, whose career was intertwined with Legge’s to a remarkable degree. He quotes von Karajan as saying about rehearsing:

If I don’t raise my voice, they’ll listen to what I say, and the less I speak, the more important each word is.

So follow his advice, even if you don’t want to follow mine, and you too might leave an estate estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.


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