Wednesday, 21 October 2009

How not to get on in an orchestra

When I was about 15, the much-loved conductor of my local youth orchestra retired. He was an inspiring character, and managed to get us unscathed through some quite complex pieces such as Delius' Paris:Song of a Great City, and Kodaly's Hary-Janos Suite.

Unfortunately his successor wasn't nearly so good. We were rehearsing Brahms 4 for our first concert under him, and making pretty heavy weather of it. The problem was that this conductor had no rehearsal technique. He talked a lot rather than letting us actually play through things, and he didn't talk very loud, so only the front two desks of strings could hear him for most of the time.

On one occasion, he endlessly repeated the strings in some passage in the slow movement. The wind had all pretty much gone to sleep. When he finally continued, without having given any warning to the wind that this time we would be going on, the horns didn't come in for their entry, which didn't please him.

By this time, I was getting really, really pissed off with him. So after the coffee break, I decided to time him. I had a stopwatch feature on my wristwatch, and so I set it running whenever he was talking, and stopped it whenever we played. In the 50 minutes of the 2nd half of the rehearsal I timed him talking for 32 minutes. The remaining 18 minutes included a complete run through of the 3rd movement (about 5 minutes) at the end.

So at the end of the rehearsal, I went up to him, in front of all the other kids, and told him that he had been wasting everyone's time, and that he had been talking for about twice as long as we had played, and that it was no wonder we weren't making much progress. I told him that I had been timing him and gave him the figures I had collected.

In retrospect, I'm mildly surprised he didn't hit me, I got him that cross. While I didn't swear at him, I'm sure I made it perfectly clear that he didn't have my confidence or respect. In turn he complained that I had wasted time in the first half of the rehearsal not being ready for my entry. I told him that I had given up all hope of us ever reaching it, since he had been endlessly repeating the strings without there being any obvious improvement, and that he had warned nobody that we were going on that time. I told him that we were all getting thoroughly bored with this piece. He asked me to write down what I wanted to play instead and to write down my complaint and bring it in to rehearsal next week.

I told my parents about it when I got home, and they advised that I simply write a list of pieces I would like to play, and not make any reference to the other part of the complaint. This I did.

He was most put out that I hadn't put in a formal written complaint. It turned out that he had complained about me to his boss, the County Music Advisor, and requested that I be thrown out of the orchestra.

I already knew the County Music Advisor a little, his son also played horn and was second horn to me in my school orchestra, and so I had met him at school concerts. I suspect that this was critical to the subsequent turn of events. I learned afterwards the he had dealt with the matter with exemplary efficiency. He asked the conductor whether I was right in what I had said about him spending a lot of time talking. On getting equivocation for a reply, he simply said "Well, you had better make sure he has no reason to complain about it again." And that was the end of the matter.

The conductor did improve his rehearsal technique, though he never managed to become all that good. But our performance of Brahms 4 at the end of term was pretty dire. But I don't think he ever forgave me, and he avoided rehearsing the horns at all in full rehearsals - he left it to the brass section coach to rehearse anything that needed improvement.

It took me some years before I began to like Brahms 4, because of its association with my experience of playing it in the youth orchestra. I only started to like it again when I next played it at university, and had to my astonishment been made 1st horn of the University of London Orchestra. But that's a story for another day.

The quality of the conductor really can make all the difference to how a group performs, but if you are stuck with a bad one, be a bit more circumspect about how you deal with him than I was. I was right in that he was rehearsing us extremely badly. But it was because I was right that he couldn't cope with me being there and tried to get me thrown out. If things get really bad with a conductor, you shouldn't tackle him alone. See what others think, and if you can get support, have a delegation of several of you approach him. That way, he can't pick you off one by one.

In the case of my youth orchestra conductor, I now realise that there was a much better way to handle the issue. I should have kept my lip buttoned until I got home. My parents were both experienced amateur musicians, and it would have been a simple matter to have one or other of them arrive early to pick me up the following week, come in and listen for themselves to the rehearsal for a while, and then write to the County Music Advisor describing their impressions. A letter from parents could not have been wished away as easily as a complaint from a child. But I was young and foolish, and I acted without thinking things through.

As it happens, it all turned out well, but if the County Music Advisor had not known me, or had shown a bit less backbone, I would have been out.


  1. Great story. Your immediately realizing you could time the talking vs. playing, and deciding to so do right then and there is a wonderful example of that analytical mind of yours cutting right to the core of the problem. Your taking on an adult at age 15 sounds in character as well, because it was based on your thorough understanding of what it takes to make music which trumped (for you) the age roles.

    Most directors seem to get really comfortable with the power they wield and react badly to that power being challenged, without even considering the musical merits of the challenge. Learning to work within the dynamic of a large ensemble has been sometimes more difficult for me than the horn.

  2. Hi Lyle
    By the time I was 15, I had been playing in youth orchestras for 6 years. I know from direct experience what it was supposed to be like.

    The previous conductor had been good, but he wasn't the only other conductor I had played under, and so I had other experiences I could use for comparison, and I knew this wasn't how it should be.