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A Symphony Player Looks at Conductors

Kurt Loebel | June 2018

    The following comments and observations are based on over twenty years of playing in the first violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra, for the most part under George Szell but also under the leadership of a great many other conductors. In some instances my experiences with a conductor involved periods of several weeks or perhaps just several days. The personal and cultural background of each conductor varied, but the conditions such as rehearsal time, rules of conduct, acoustic conditions and orchestra personnel remained basically the same.
    The list of conductors begins with Felix Weingartner, under whom I played while still a student in Vienna. Later, as a professional in the U.S. (with the Dallas Symphony 1945-47 and the Cleveland Orchestra 1947-present), I played under Ancerl, Ansermet, Beecham, Bernstein, Dorati, Goldovsky, Golschman, Karajan, Kletzki, Krips, Kubelik, Leinsdorf, Markevitch, Monteux, Munch, Ormandy, Paray, Rudolf, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Shaw, Steinberg, Stokowski, Susskind, Van Beinum, and Walter. Among the younger generation, there were Abbado, Barenboim, Ceccato, Craft, Fruhbeck de Burgos, Haitink, Kertesz, Lane, Levine, Maazel, Ozawa, Pretre, Previn, and Schippers. Composer-conductors have included Boulez, Chavez, Copland, Enesco, Foss, Hanson, Kodaly, Maderna, Schuller, Stravinsky and, Villa-Lobos, and violinist-conductors were Goldberg, Menuhin and Oistrakh. Franz Allers, Leroy Anderson, Victor Borge. Duke Ellington, Arthur Fiedler, Andre Kostelanetz, and Henry Mancini, known in the world of lighter music, have also led the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to these famous names there were countless other wielders of the baton, all of whom contributed to my understanding of this hard-to-define profession called conducting.
    The requirements of mastering the art of conducting are such that few can hope to attain a high level. A rare combination of musicianship, discipline, charisma, psychological insight, ruthlessness, business sense, and acting ability, as well as unusual physical and mental strength are essential. To be able to command orchestra and audience alike, additional non-musical considerations enter into the picture, such as good looks and knowledge of many related fields, including art, literature, politics, history, and a world outlook acquired by travel and social relationships.
    A conductor cannot live in an ivory tower, and a complete knowledge of the score, obtained by continuing and relentless study, is only the beginning. A monastic and lonely existence, at least in part, must be taken for granted.
    In working relationships with other musicians, one must find a middle ground between comradeship and distance, friendliness and firmness, humor and seriousness, inspiration and calculation, emotion and intellect. The conductor must display authority without suppression or capricious, dictatorial manners. He must be able to hide his weaknesses, yet be humble enough to admit a mistake. The words chosen in such an instance should never be apologetic, but phrased in a simple, human, perhaps humorous fashion. There can be no faking in front of trained musicians; an orchestra will instinctively make a fairly accurate appraisal of a conductor’s ability in a comparatively short time.


    The remarks made in this article are based on experience in a professional orchestra and may need some modification in the case of student and amateur groups. But the basics remain the same for all situations involving the relationship – artistic and personal – between conductor and players. The player must be convinced that the conductor is involving himself in a common, artistic endeavor and not using the musicians for purposes of self-glorification or choreographic exhibitionism for the sake of audience approval. If the conductor demands of himself as much or more than he does of the players, there will hopefully be no more than a small degree of opposition to his demands. It is necessary that he know more, however, than those he attempts to direct, guide, teach, cajole, inspire, or collaborate with. If he cannot measure up to this requirement, his effectiveness will be minimal, discipline will be non-existent, and music making will become impossible. His convictions must be strong enough to be transmittable to musicians and audience alike, and his courage must outweigh the critical comments by insiders and outsiders, as well as professional advice offered by overly ambitious players. In other words, he must remain his own man, avoid favoritism, and not falter from his position of polite but flexible authority.
    For the purpose of learning how to conduct, a poor orchestra will be of greater benefit to the conductor than a fine, highly professional one, because a poor orchestra will offer far greater opportunities for self-analysis, experimentation, and correction. The highly polished orchestra will only prevent the conductor from becoming aware of his shortcomings and do for the conductor what he should learn to do for himself. Although the old cliché “There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors” is an oversimplification, there is some truth in it. The better the orchestra, the more apparent the personality of the conductor. However, it is often obvious that a fine orchestra will play well in spite of the conductor. An uncommitted orchestra can drag the standard toward mediocrity in a matter of hours, while a dynamic, knowledgeable, and strong conductor can elevate the same body of players to great heights in the same amount of time. It takes a long time to build an orchestra but only hours to destroy it – unless the idealism of the players is so uncommonly high that their pride and self-esteem prevent such disintegration.
    There are no steadfast rules that assure success to a conductor. One can, however, offer a variety of Dos and Don’ts based on observation and experience. These must be molded to the conductor’s individual personality so that they reinforce his basic nature and character, instead of appearing as inflexible, calculated tricks.
It has been said repeatedly that conductors are born and not made. This may be so, but if you want to be a conductor, remember that you too are mortal and perhaps born with a slight birth defect. Surely this kind of humility, however well disguised, may be the wisest attitude to take if you hope to be taken seriously as a leader of men.

Don’t Talk Too Much
    Your job is to make music with your hands. There is no point in stopping to tell the orchestra about making a crescendo that they can already see in print. If you conduct it, chances are they will do it. If it isn’t printed (and you still want it), you should still conduct it. Talking about it will make the musicians doubt your ability to conduct; they will be annoyed by unnecessary stopping and become angry about your underestimating their intelligence. Be economical; do not live from hand to mouth.
Don’t Whisper
    Because you want to be efficient and in a position of authority, your announcements should be clear, audible, and to the point. If you whisper, the players in the back will think that you are indulging in a private flirtation with the players in front. This will contribute to their already deflated egos and minimize their contribution to the orchestra’s performance.
Don’t Sit Down
    It impairs the player’s view of your beat, detracts from your physical image as a leader, and invites mental laxity. Besides, it looks lazy and some players feel that you are being overpaid anyway.
Don’t Repeat Ad Nauseam
    If you stop to repeat measures, sections or movements, be sure to explain your purpose. Meaningful repetition or even sheer mechanical drilling will not be resented if it is justified. Should you ask for repetition for your own practice, say so. The orchestra knows instinctively that practice is for those who need it.
Don’t Neglect the Downbeat
    Remember that there is only one downbeat in each bar. Should your downbeat move up or sideways by mistake, you will cause much unnecessary confusion. When a player has several bars of rest to count, your downbeat remains his only guide; without a clear downbeat he is sunk, unless he can absolutely count on your cue. But because you are busy conducting, you cannot possibly indicate all the cues. This should encourage you to think, however, that you will not get a precise and convincing entrance, especially of an entire section, by relying on the counting of individual players.
    Once you have conducted for a while, you will be in danger of believing that you do not have to conduct clear beats any longer – that you are only “making music” and interpreting. You may believe that the orchestra knows the music and no longer needs your beat. Unfortunately, you cannot hear their complaints in the dressing room, and they will hesitate to tell you that your beat is unintelligible; nonetheless, it still pays to conduct a clear, standard pattern.
Don’t Be Surprised If . . .
    When the rehearsal has gone on for a while, the musicians look at their watches instead of your beat.
Don’t Hide the Beat
    Your beat is the most vital thing you have to offer. It must be visible to everyone, no matter where they sit in the orchestra. Its purpose is to express clarity and precision for the guidance of the musicians who are trying to express your ideas via their instruments. The fact that your podium choreography might excite the audience and mislead the rational thinking process of the critics is only an unfortunate concomitant.
Don’t Knit
    It is true that Toscanini used circular motions. Unless you are convinced that you are another Toscanini, try clear, straight patterns. Incidentally, contrary to your emotional inclination, if you want the orchestra to play faster, use smaller instead of larger motions.
Don’t Conduct the Melody
    All the musicians know the melody. So does the audience. Where the orchestra needs you is either for rhythmic control, proper balance, logic in contrapuntal textures, exact attacks and releases, and control of dynamic gradations.
Don’t Make Faces
    You will not impress the orchestra by staring at the players or by inspirational facial expressions directed at the ceiling as if you were in direct communication with God. Nor should your head be buried in the score, even if the score isn’t buried in your head. It is equally pointless to memorize for the sake of impressing everyone that the cello passage begins three measures before letter K. Let your face honestly express the emotions the music arouses in you.
Don’t Scream, Threaten, or Throw Fits
    It serves no purpose. You will be ridiculed and become the victim of artistic hostility, which might lead to sabotage and resentment. If the orchestra is not making the effort it is capable of, do not threaten to cancel the concert or walk out, because they will let you. An unruly, frustrated, and lethargic orchestra can be changed suddenly to an attentive, cooperative, and motivated group by a calm remark such as: "Sometimes I wonder whether you care about your work!" The old traditional, temperamental, autocratic, prima-donna type of conductor is on the way out. The Union and/or Orchestra Committee will give you a hard time, and it is questionable whether you can really carry out your threats. If you are attempting to achieve your goals by instilling fear or guilt, you may see some temporary results. In the long run, the disadvantages for you and the orchestra will outweigh any temporary triumphs.
Don’t Believe That Musicians Aren’t People
    There is no evidence that musicians are in any way different from other people. Contrary to popular belief based on romantic fiction, there is no mode of human behavior by which musicians can be categorized.
Don’t Belittle Players
    To embarrass, belittle, or criticize musicians in front of the entire orchestra is a poor investment. So is the habit of calling a few key players by their first names or “my dear,” while you address the others as “you there in back.” If you want the orchestra to work for you or with you, this is a sure way to get them to work against you.
Don’t Encourage Advice from the Faculty
    The best place to learn is from well-intended musicians, but do so in the privacy of your studio. Allowing verbal advice in front of the orchestra members, be it from key players you respect or self-appointed experts, will reduce your effectiveness. In addition, it causes confusion, wasted time, jealousy, and orchestral malaise.
Don’t Show Off Your Knowledge
    It is worthwhile to understand that the musicians basically resent having to conform to your “authentic” interpretation. They each have their own and think they know better, so don’t rub it in. They are likely to be cynical about any display of theoretical knowledge on your part. They know that it is easier to talk about it than to do it on the instrument. This should not convert you, however, to docile humility, breast-beating, and apologetic self-accusation.
Don’t Say “You’re Out Of Tune!”
    Good players are constantly trying to play in tune. Good intonation is not an absolute thing, but a matter of compromise. There have been many instances of top musicians disagreeing on the exact pitch of a given note. It is not enough for the conductor to tell the players to fix it. The conductor is the fixer and is responsible for tuning of such things as woodwind chords or brass chorales by asking the players to conform to his concept of acceptable intonation.
Don’t Be Misled by Ovations
    It is possible to be deceived by premature success. Critics and audiences are fickle. A performer can be a hero one day and a bum the next as far as the public is concerned.
Don’t Take Solo Bows
    If your achievements are legitimate and honest, you will not lack approval, especially with the conductor’s image in today’s concert world. However, with rare exceptions, the stick makes no sound, the musicians make the sound. To share with them the recognition for your labors will assure their good will and enthusiasm. The solo bow will do the opposite; besides, the orchestra may even be impressed enough to stay seated and give you a hand all on their own.
Don’t Use Clip-On Ties
    If you are a good conductor, you’ll get excited by the music and may move a lot. Clip-on ties fall off. There is nothing more comical, pathetic and helpless than an un-tied conductor.
Don’t Conduct Music You Don’t Believe In
    For political reasons and other strategic considerations, you will not escape the fate of having to perform certain pieces against your will. However, by and large, you won’t be able to make someone believe in something unless you do.
Don’t Think Conducting Is Easy
    . . . nor playing easier than conducting.


Do Get to Know the Orchestra
    This poses a serious problem, because at the present time few conductors are able to spend more than a few days with an orchestra. They will frequently step off an airplane, have a few rehearsals and concerts, and then embark for their next engagement in some other part of the world. It is questionable whether music making of significance can ever be achieved by such a method, which corresponds to a parent bringing up a child by monthly visits.
Do Know How to Rehearse
    To avoid tedium and routine, some of which is unavoidable, treat every composition as if it were new – in rehearsal as well as in concert. Each rehearsal is a new performance, just as each concert is a rehearsal for the next performance. This means constant re-study of even the most familiar score. New compositions should be sightread and checked for mistakes well enough in advance. This will also give the players an idea of which passages need practice.
    Rehearsing seems to divide itself into two opposing methods, rather than a combination of both. It is either playing through the work with no attention to detail except for an occasional outcry of delight or disgust or the drudgery of minute assembling of each part. In such a case, you ask the piccolo, double bass, and fourth horn to play the few measures they have in common, and after that the violins and harp several other such measures. While all this goes on, the orchestra gets bored and restless, talks too much, and waits for the rehearsal to end. The concert then provides the first opportunity to put the whole thing together. It is like repairing a watch and returning it to the customer before winding it to check whether or not it is actually running. Only by experience is it possible for the conductor who has never played in an orchestra, or possibly never played an instrument at all, to learn what needs rehearsing and what doesn’t. Therefore, there is no better training for the conductor than to play some instrument in the orchestra. Many fine conductors begin as instrumentalists.
    Traditionally, and mostly for good reasons, there are sections in string parts which are meant to be “faked,” usually for some coloristic purpose. It is important to know where these are. It wastes time and causes unnecessary antagonism to demand that these be played letter perfect. Serious players will try to play them anyway because they feel unclean having to fake. On the other hand, it demoralizes a player when no attempt is made to rehearse a difficult but playable technical passage. I know of one conscientious musician who, after two and a half hours of sloppy rehearsal, said "I’m going home to play a Bach chorale and take a shower!"
Do Say “We” Instead of “I”
    It is important for the musicians to be made to feel that they are part of a common endeavor. Because it is inevitable that a good conductor will impose his musical ideas on the orchestra and thereby reduce their individuality as performers (if not completely erase it), the only choice left to the conductor is to convince the musicians that he shares with them the aim of putting their combined efforts at the service of the composition. If the conductor can earn this degree of respect for his integrity, he might hope to successfully dominate 100 egos confronting and constantly challenging him.
Do Demand Perfection
    Demand perfection, because you won’t get it. First, it doesn’t exist. Second, the benefit of personal recognition to the player, with the exception of a few solo players, is not worth the sacrifice and effort that perfection demands. However without the specific insistence that at least an attempt at perfection be made, mediocrity will be the end result. Don’t demand unreasonably or capriciously, and be sure to set a fitting example by demanding equally much of yourself. Should the quest for perfection be strictly technical, guard against defeating your efforts by creating undue nervous tension or emotionless, mechanical, chrome-plated replicas of notes. To perfect perfection, make it unnoticeable.
Do Know Your Transpositions
    If the orchestra ever finds out that you don’t (and some conductors go for years without being found out), you’ve had it.
Do Know How to Mark Parts
    One of the most laborious but necessary preparations for a good performance is a well-marked and legible part. Be sure all the parts have the same letters or numbers, because much valuable time is lost in confusion if they don’t. More often than not, markings on photocopies of handwritten manuscripts are not legible. This refers especially to bowings, since no person other than a string player could possibly understand how many problems, frustrations, fights, and misunderstandings can result from the primitive choice of either going upbow or downbow. Should you not be a string player, let your concertmaster initiate you into the fraternity of bowing specialists. You won’t go wrong by asking your string players to make their bowings fit the music, instead of the other way around.
Do Know How to “Do Something”
    Many times the score says nothing – no crescendo, no diminuendo, no forte, no piano. Just little naked black notes. However, just because it says nothing doesn’t mean you do nothing. The magic seems to lie in not doing too little or too much. If you do nothing except be a human metronome, the musicians will also turn into metronomes, and so will the audience. If you turn into a choreographer, you don’t provide the technical guidance needed by the players. Finding a meaningful balance between inspiration and perspiration – between being a traffic cop and a poet, a scholar and an exhibitionist, a preacher and a disciple – is what produces a good conductor.
Do Know How to Play the Piano
    The most obvious and practical reason for this is the need for preparatory piano rehearsals with soloists. You will probably want to coach them – and come to an agreement with them before rehearsing with the full orchestra. The experience of playing piano or celeste in the orchestra is indispensable; there you can observe other conductors and get the feel for being a player. You will learn about how other instruments are played, what the problems are and how to solve them. You will learn that players who have long rests sometimes read magazines or even listen to a transistor radio if their favorite ball club is playing. You will also learn that most inside-chair string players are tempted to play to the last note on each page, instead of turning in time for the outside player to see the top of the next page.
    As a pianist you can also play chamber music and accompany others, all of which teaches you how to follow and adjust. Strangely enough, if you are going to be the authoritative leader, one of the best things to know is when to do nothing and follow the orchestra. There are moments when doing nothing is more profitable. And above all, as a pianist you can play the entire literature and acquire a well-rounded musical outlook.
Do Know How to Ignore the Recording
    Only the strongest can resist the temptation to listen to conductor X’s recording to either confirm, imitate or reject. Orchestra members suspect that some conductors are walking around the living room learning next week’s program by proxy and on some occasions, conductors have been caught in their studios in the middle of an illegitimate relationship with the record player. Records, in a sense, are a falsehood. They have been spliced together from little crumbs of good takes, while the bad takes end up in the garbage can. One movement might have been recorded Friday and one on Saturday. A couple of out-of-tune notes might have been mysteriously replaced by correct ones weeks later by recording editors. Even the authentic recording with the composer himself conducting may have to be taken with a grain of salt, because he may have been sick, aging, or performing under less-than-optimum conditions over which he had no control. Your live performance will have no such protection and will have to be given without the aid of electronic flattery. So back to the printed score!
Do Know Languages
    There are instructions to be read in foreign languages, and if you cannot understand them, you’re licked. What is worse is not being able to pronounce them properly. The musicians are lying in wait to prove that you really aren’t superior to them and they won’t miss an opportunity to catch your slightest weakness. Don’t say Tschaikowsky (as in cow) or try to fake a Russian accent, which might prove that you are as phony as the orchestra thinks you are.
Do Beware of the Strauss Waltz
    The unrehearsed Strauss Waltz has been the cause for many a catastrophe. The repeats and da capos are confusing, and the parts are traditionally a mess, because each conductor uses different repeats. Just because you gave a triumphant performance of the Beethoven 9th does not guarantee that in a Strauss Waltz one part of the orchestra won’t still be playing after-beats while the other half is on the introduction to the next waltz – unless you rehearse it as seriously as the Beethoven 9th.
Do Know That an Orchestra Is Not a Chorus
    Choral conductors, either by accident or design, are a different breed. The problem could be solved by their awareness of this fact. They have been trained to conduct words and phrases, all of which is most natural, musical, and artistic. However, orchestral music is written only in measures with bar lines that impose symmetrical conducting patterns, often in the manner of a Prussian Army formation. The musicians want to know what bar they are in (not knowing drives them to drink), and only a clear beat keeps a player in the musical bar and out of the neighborhood bar. If you are a choral conductor working with an orchestra and you can take time off from singing the words with the chorus, remember the downbeat has also an upbeat.
Do Know How to Treat Musicians
    Within each orchestral musician is buried a conductor, frustrated soloist, or both. The antagonism
they feel for the conductor is traditional, implacable,
and part of the routine. To a few musicians, the check
will be more important than the music, but that doesn’t
mean they would quit music for more money. It only
means their enthusiasm for music needs to be rekindled
by an inspiring conductor, a demanding one, or preferably by a combination of both. The conductor can learn from the players, and, if he is tactful and shrewd,
it can be done in such a way that the newly acquired
information can be presented by the conductor as if
it were his own. How to make the player feel important without flattery is an art in itself, and this particular artform is still in its infancy.