Conductors

Moz

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I have watched many orchestras, some on line, some on the tv and some live. I watch the conductor and I listen to the music but sometimes I find it difficult to equate the conductors movements with the way the orchestra plays.

Am I missing something or can I just not recognise a beat when it jumps up and hits me in the face?

I'm sure everyone at some time or other has conducted a CD orchestra (while no one was looking) and I'm sure if I watched them (or a video of me even) I would see a correlation between the music and the the conductors movements but in real life it just doesn't seem to work that way.

Anyone got experience of conducting and could free up some of the mysteries therein?

Cheers

Mart
 

kevgermany

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I'm not a conductor, but have been through the same process as you're going through.....

Beat - the conductor is often ahead of the orchestra so they know what to do. They may conduct in beats, or in bars... There are 'official' patterns for the strokes/notes, but they don't always get followed. Beginning/end of bars are usually there. At points where the orcehstra must come in together/finish together, the conductor will slip back to be exactly in time with the orchestra.

Expression - generally from the left hand, although the right is there as well. Body language from the conductor is important as well, even if some conductors are not very expressive. Head is important, especially for brining in an instrument after it's been out for quite a few bars. The bringing in is usually half a bar or so in advance. What you don't see is the rehearsals. There much of the expression/timing is sorted out and on the day it's fine tuning, telling the orchestra it's going well - or that they're slipping and need to correct. Energy often comes from the right hand.

A good conductor to watch is Leonard Bernstein, very expressive, very thorough and really high standards. Not sure if you can find them on DVD, but there were some recordings made of him leading a conducting masterclass. And also doing rites of spring with the European Youth Orchestra, where a lot of this comes out. There are also recordings of conductors rehearsing an orchestra - fascinating and you can learn a lot about conducting from them. .
 

stefank

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There is often also a big difference in the way professional and amateur ensembles are conducted. The amateurs are just about always "on the stick" - the professionals don't need that most of the time, so the conductor can worry about higher level artistic stuff (or maybe just showboating).
 

TomMapfumo

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Certainly most of the Conductor's art is performed in the rehearsal room, and dependent on their communication style/skill, such that a language already exists with the particular orchestra. An apparently random wave of the hand may well be an agreed cue for a certain musician or section to get ready, followed by a final cue, say, 4 beats beforehand. It is not very different from the behaviour of certain football managers on the touchline. Obviously their main input is on the training ground, but they may perform certain hand actions, not all of which are expressions of frustration.

I would conclude, therefore, that you will often only see an eccentric mix of actions on the part of any given conductor during a performance, most of whose work will have been performed in the relative privacy of the rehearsal room. No different to players running to embrace a football manager
after an important victory on the field. The managers actual contribution during a match, apart from the half-time team talk, is minimal and generally random.

Kind regards
Tom:cool:
 

Pete Thomas

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I have always wondered about this too, and I have done a fair bit of conducting. One time I had booked some players for a recording session and I was the MD (not that it was too necessary as there was a drummer with a click track). What I noticed was that all the musicians looked at me except the string players (used to playing together as a section), who just looked at their leader.
 

kevgermany

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The strings go back to the days when conductors were often not used - and the leader was responsible for the whole performance. The leader of the first violins is known in German as the Konzertmeister (concert master, it's also a ranking of playing ability) which better describes the role, and the string players have to bow identically with the Konzertmeister. As much as the conductor, the Konzertmeister makes an orchestra. And it's the reason the conductor always makes a big fuss of the Konzertmeister - he knows the orchestra's perfromance depends as much or more on the Konzertmeister as himself....

Sometimes you'll get the situation that the soloist is also conducting/leading, and it's a very tight relationship between the soloist and concert master under these conditions. A good example of this is Kristian Zimerman's recordings of Beethoven's first and second piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Top orchestras like the Berlin Phil, Vienna Phil, Bayerische Rundfunk will usually have more than one Konzertmeister, although only one will be in charge on the day.
 

Andante cantabile

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I have noticed that the style of conducting depends greatly on the proficiency of the performers. Amateurs at the lower level seem to get straight counting. No mistaking where in the bar the music is. (this also seems to be true for army bands, but there is no doubt there that the musicians are indeed very good).

It seems to me that professional musicians don't actually need a conductor when they perform a Mozart or a Haydn symphony. They simply follow the concert master, as Kevgermany says. The music isn't all that complex as far as trained musicians are concerned. And in many ways it is quite predictable.

Recently I looked at the scores of a couple of the Mahler symphonies. These need much bigger orchestras, and the structures are rather more complicated. Only the conductor has the full score. All the musicians are of the highest quality. I think in these cases the role of conductor assumes quite a different character. It is, in a manner of speaking, taking on the responsibility of ensuring that the performance expresses what the composer may have intended. The conductor has to concentrate heavily on expression. This in my view is a huge challenge, partly because rehearsal time is often limited.

The situation gets more complicated when choirs are involved, as in Mahler's second or third. The choir and the orchestra quite possibly only come together for rehearsals shortly before the performance. Much then depends on the extent to which the conductor can impose his or her will on the performers, and on the extent to which the concert master is able to foresee what may be required.
 

old git

Tremendous Bore
Go back a bit further and they used a guy with a mace like affair who used to beat time on the floor with said apparatus, probably why good orchestral players do not tap their feet. One of these mace wielders, struck his own foot by mistake and died of blood poisoning and you think playing saxophone is dangerous.
 

stefank

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Go back a bit further and they used a guy with a mace like affair who used to beat time on the floor with said apparatus, probably why good orchestral players do not tap their feet. One of these mace wielders, struck his own foot by mistake and died of blood poisoning and you think playing saxophone is dangerous.
That was Lully - not a bad composer up until then.
 

kevgermany

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Go back a bit further and they used a guy with a mace like affair who used to beat time on the floor with said apparatus, probably why good orchestral players do not tap their feet. One of these mace wielders, struck his own foot by mistake and died of blood poisoning and you think playing saxophone is dangerous.
Are you saying that members of an orchestra are like galley slaves? >:)
 

RedBottom

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Moz, you don't say whether you've worked with one or more conductors or not. I've worked with, perhaps, a dozen or so in different situations and I can honestly say that you probably 'understand' conductors more when you've worked with one (or two, or more). I've learned to watch mine like a hawk, especially if I have a short solo, some tricky patterns or off beat entries because, as Tom says, probably 90% of the work is done in rehearsal.

For instance, at strategic points on my part I have scrawled the word, 'WATCH' in big letters. It means that the boss is about to slow us down, speed us up or cue me in with a look, and he's spent a long time in rehearsal jumping up and down and shouting himself hoarse, getting us into the habit of watching him closely at that point. Things like this, a spectator will probably never see - it's a little code we've worked out beforehand in practice and I'm sure we're not the only band or orchestra that does this sort of thing.

Of course, they're all different so once again, the secret's in rehearsal, getting to know one another and learning how different conductors approach a piece. I sat in with a 'new' band a few weeks ago. First time I've ever depped, but I wouldn't have considered it if it had been an alien conductor rather than my old boss whom I know and understand and can communicate with across the stand, so to speak.

Interestingly, our sax choir conductor is a fresh graduate with a style all of his own. That he's predominantly a jazz player perhaps influences this. At a recent concert of all the various ensembles supported by the recital trust, one of the flute choir commented on how difficult our conductor looked to follow. I hadn't really thought about it until then, I suppose because I've rehearsed with him and got to know more or less what he's doing, unconventional though it may be.

I find it helps, though, with any conductor at the helm, to remember this - the difference between God and a conductor is that God only thinks he's a conductor!:)
 
OP
Moz

Moz

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My my, such knowledgeable people, I knew you wouldn't let me down. I now have quite a few things to observe about conductors and shall visit youtube to find some examples. I begin to see the difference between the amateurs playing 'to the stick' (a good self-explanetary term) and the professionals being led by the conductor.

Thank you all for your responses. I have played with a conductor once or twice but usually I was so busy trying to hit the right notes I just played along with the person next to me.

Cheers

Mart
 

Andante cantabile

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The Cambridge Companion to the Orchestra (2003) has a chapter on the history of direction and conducting. It is well worth reading.
 

stefank

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I've just taken part (chorus member) in a couple of performances of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, conducted by Paul Daniel. He sometimes gives a very clear and precise beat with his right hand, but at other times is obviously in "pot-stirring" mode. The problem was that there was also a "transitional" phase - it looked like a beat but wasn't. I found at times I just had to keep my eyes on the music and my ears on the orchestra.
 

tenorviol

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I sang that (again asa chorus member) a few years ago with a fully pro orhestra - there are some tricky time changes. I once sang the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony with another fully pro orchestra. We gave two performances in different venues. At the first, the conductor (a well known American conductor) did a major allargando and time signature change (4 to 3) completely differently in the concert to the rehearsal. The orchestra nearly lynched him afterwards as it nearly came off the rails. He did not repeat that at the second performance two days later...
 

Richard Perks

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I have made it a policy NEVER look at the conductor!! over the years I have had the misfortune of a number of these people.... and as I told a flute player once just listen to my foot it is never wrong>:)>:)>:)
 

kevgermany

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I think most conductors should stick to buses.

There are some exceptions - Simon Rattle & Leonard Bernstein spring to mind.

I recently had the pleasure of watching an excellent swing band, ably led by it's 80+ year old boss, who spent a lot of his time conducting. But as far as tempo/timing went, the drummer was in control....
 

Andante cantabile

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I think most conductors should stick to buses.

There are some exceptions - Simon Rattle & Leonard Bernstein spring to mind.
What are we to make of this? Aren't there any others? Would Pierre Boulez, James Levine, Leif Segerstam, Klaus Tennstedt, Herbert von Karajan, Sir George Solti, Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel and Leopold Stokowski (just to name a few) have been better employed on the trams? What about all the lesser-known names who ensure that orchestras are ready for a great conductor?
 

rudjarl

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A good conductor needs a good orchestra like a good orchestra needs a good conductor to perform well. When it happens the conductor plays the orchestra like an instrument. A lesser orchestra only needs a steady hand (or a metronome)
 
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