…but I’m with the conductor!

So what?! It doesn't matter a pile of feathers if it's not together. Many musicians, good ones, don't understand this basic fact of life in an orchestra. You have to factor in delay time for acoustics and human response time. So staying with the conductor is not the blanket solution. But it's not rocket science, either.

There's a clear hierarchy of leadership in the orchestra. The concertmaster leads not only the first violins, but also has some leadership of the other string sections. Within each string section, its principal is leader. So, 1st and 2end violins, violas, cellos, basses, have their own leaders. The same applies to every other section. In the woodwinds, the oboe is usually the leader of the whole section, while each section leader is responsible for that section. The brass are similar, with the trumpet leading all the other leaders of the various brass sections. The French Horns tend to be their own section, influencing both the brass and woodwinds.

So how do all those leaders stay together? Well, the conductor leads the way, giving the musical gestures and tempo and style indications. Then each section leader must interpret to make sense of it for their sections. The section leaders moderate and codify the conductor's lead. For example, if the conductor's tempo is simply too fast or erratic for a section, the leader may take the sensible path and lead a steadier, more playable tempo. The other sections will follow suit.

Within each small section, the players must follow both the conductor and their section leader. In other words, they get information from both and make sense of it within their group. It's easier in the woodwinds, where there are only a few players in each section. The second oboe will always defer to the first oboe, no matter what the conductor does. And when the flute and oboe play together, since they are both leaders, they will work out their own hierarchy of leadership.

The leaders have to develop courage and tenacity to lead their sections in times of crisis. Occasionally a conductor will get lost or befuddled, and the section leaders have to become conductors, literally swaying in time to show where the beat it.

All this processing takes some time, so there's an inevitable delay from the time a beat is given by the conductor and the resulting music follows in the orchestra. As a kid seeing a live orchestra or the first time, I thought it was rude and lazy of the orchestra to play so far behind the conductor's beat. Now I know why. In order to get 80-100 people in lock step doing a subtle ballet of ever changing music, it takes time.

Like a huge, delicate machine, the orchestra undulates in subtle response to the various leads within it. Like a flock of birds or a swarm of insects, the group will stay together no matter what. At least it should, if the professional hierarchy is intact. But that's another post.

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3 comments for “…but I’m with the conductor!

  1. Kent Keller
    October 3, 2008 at

    I could not agree with your more David. Listen with your ears. The better the conductor gets, the harder it is for the rest of us to follow him. I always thought it should be the opposite. The conductor’s gestures will tell you whether he wants faster tempo, more legato or whatever. Don’t try to just mechanically follow the ictus of his beat. It will always be off. Sometimes, way off. If you follow him and everyone else is lagging, it will sound horrible. It will just throw you into musical hell. Let your ears do the real work. I think they should make a law against conducting ahead of the beat. I understand the reason, but it is very counter-productive giving the variou interpretations that will result.


  2. December 7, 2006 at

    Jennifer- It doesn’t make sense to not play with the other people in the orchestra! That’s the bottom line. If one player begins a new phrase, while another player has not finished, it sounds awful. There has to be an organic meshing. I’m not saying we don’t follow the conductor. There’s just a delay. Call it a safety net of time.

    There is another rule I didn’t mention in this post. The front has to follow the back. It’s the only way. I do play a bit ahead of the front, and that’s mainly because of our bad stage acoustics. However, playing ahead of what I hear feels like stepping on someones toes while dancing. See how gracefully you can dance that way! Yes, the back needs to be on top of the beat, but the front must listen back. A good conductor will help with that. Our new MD conducts the back of the orchestra often and it helps us a great deal. But if the back and the front both play WITH the conductor, it will be chaos.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  3. December 7, 2006 at

    I hate hate hate when there’s a big lag between the conductor’s beat and the orchestra’s response (when I’m playing, that is). The cognitive dissonance just drives me nuts. If you have a good conductor, do you really have to take so much responsibility away from him? Maybe my perspective is different being a non-professional, but I still don’t understand how people could stand to even watch the conductor if what they’re playing is not in unison with what he’s doing with his hands (and how can the conductor stand to conduct them?) Why is playing together with the conductor any different than playing together with the concertmaster? It’s like playing a duet with somebody but purposefully playing everything a fraction of a second later than them. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Unless the conductor just has no clue, or doesn’t even try to give a clear beat, in which case you have no choice but to forge ahead and play pure chamber music on a large scale. Is that what happens? When conductors make it big they figure they no longer have to worry about the beat and can just stand there and emote and let the orchestra figure out the details?

    You say you have to factor in delay time for acoustics. But isn’t this a huge reason to follow the conductor instead of what you hear? Since if you’re sitting in the french horns, for example, you’re probably hearing things later than they are, so you have to rely on the conductor’s beat instead of your ears.

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