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Do your job, part 1

In The Beat Stops Here, there is a chapter devoted to expectations, from and of both the ensemble and the conductor, of each other and of themselves.  Built around a worksheet entitled “Orchestral Bill of Rights and Responsibilities,” I attempt therein to design a framework for a long overdue discussion to occur, about what our actual jobs are, how we perceive them and how our neighbors in the orchestral community perceive them, divisions of labor, and what we have the “right to expect” from each other.  That noted, it is time to take the next step, a step prompted, for me at least, by a situation in which every assumption I have made about orchestral playing has been challenged.

I am working presently with an orchestra in China, a group of fine players individually, whose expectation of me is totally different from anything I have experienced up to now, even after some 35 years on the podium.  In this situation, the orchestra is performing a work they have never done from a set of new, unmarked, unbowed parts. The tradition of the orchestra is that they do not prepare in any form for the first reading; they do not listen to the work, they literally sightread their parts at the first rehearsal.  Their basic concept of rehearsal differs from mine; for this ensemble, “rehearsal” is repeating a passage over and over again, slowly, then more quickly, until it is “learned.”

Expressing surprise and some dismay over the state of the parts and the bowings (or lack thereof), I dove in to the first reading following my usual method, go through the work and then start rehearsing.  It soon became obvious that the orchestra had no idea how the piece went (Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat ballet, complete), and they expected me to stop every time a tempo or meter changed and explain what I was going to beat in and what the tempo would be.  I suggested, gently at first, then more forcefully, that I wasn’t going to work that way; that the language of my conducting, assuming people were looking at all, would readily be apparent if they just looked up.  This assumption was faulty, as it did not take into account the 2nd of one of TBSH’s immutable 3-part truths: “If the orchestra doesn’t know the piece, it doesn’t make any difference where you put your hands.”

Furthermore, this orchestra was unusually vocal about what they expected of me.  The question, “How can we play if we don’t know what you are beating in?,” came up, from a principal wind player.  And it was not posed politely, I might add.  I demonstrated (a bit snarkily, I confess) what 1, 2, and 3 patterns looked like, and said, “This is what conducting IS.  Just look at it.”

That didn’t go over well.  The response was, “Well, we are just sight reading it for the first time!”  Worse.  My response, “Why?  What would you think of me if I came into the first rehearsal sight-reading the score?”  And worse.  The remainder of the first rehearsal was, well, chilly.  My assistant urged me to reconsider my choice not to tell the orchestra what I was going to “beat” in, and I said no.  To have done so would have violated my core beliefs about what my job is, what the orchestra’s job is, and what conducting is.

Later on, in a relatively simple passage, the strings were not together at all.  I said “Let’s play together, please.”  The concertmaster responded, “Maestro, this is our first time seeing the piece,” and I said, testily (by this point, I was frankly ticked), “I don’t see how that is my problem.”  The rules of orchestra playing don’t change – looking, listening to the person next to you, communicating with the principal stands, keeping in touch with the conductor.  UNLESS.  Unless the “rules” are broken from the outset; unless the “rules” never existed in the first place, which clearly they didn’t here.

Ah.  They weren’t breaking any rules; the rules with which I am familiar, under which I function, literally never existed here.

What to do?  How can we move forward with mutual respect and purpose?  How will we resolve the impasse?

The saga is not over, it is playing out day to day.  I am happy to report that yesterday went much better; we will see what today holds.  But I leave it to the reader to consider the scenario offered above; it is neither hypothetical nor theoretical, it is part of the here and now.  It is a situation that every conductor may face (or have faced).  How will you respond?  How have you dealt with it?

Part 2 of “DO YOUR JOB” is shortly forthcoming, as soon as I figure out how “art” emerges from our process this week. In the meantime, consider the scenario and ask yourself, “What would I do?  What is my job under these circumstances?  How and where do we find “art” under these conditions.”

Back to work.

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