This web site is pretty neat. The Google Cultural Institute set up a couple 360 degree cameras up on the stage of Carnegie Hall during a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. You can choose which camera you want to use and also drag around the angle to watch what you want to. Click on the image below to visit.
I ‘ve watched this several times now. I tend to focus mostly on watching the conductor, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I think that conducting is much like performing in that it’s necessary to watch and absorb how great conductors express themselves through their gestures and facial expressions. When you’re performing with an ensemble you have to watch the conductor closely, but my mind is always focused on performing rather than studying the conductor. With a video like this you can simply watch.
When I conduct I ask the ensemble to play on my beat. Band conductors, for some reason, seem to be more likely to want their groups to play on the beat, rather than behind the beat. Orchestral conductors, on the other hand, seem to more universally prefer their ensembles play behind their beat. It’s interesting to look at the different reasons (or excuses) for these practices. Here is one, by a cellist, Yvonne Caruthers.
In practice, nearly every conductor gives a beat before the orchestra plays. The conductor gives the beat, but there’s a tiny lag while it’s processed and executed. Most likely, the audience doesn’t even notice. There’s also the fact that one of the conductor’s roles is not to tell the orchestra where they are “now” but to indicate “what happens next”….so being slightly ahead works better.
This is true, the conductor’s responsibility is to “prep” the ensemble so that they are ready to play what’s about to come up. The most obvious version of this is the “prep beat” the conductor gives to indicate the starting tempo. The conductor can’t hold his or her baton up and then just drop it and have the musicians ready, there needs to be at least one beat patter so the musicians understand the tempo and style they are to enter with.
Unless you are sitting in the front few rows, there is a delay in the sound. Speed of light being faster than that of sound, you see the motion, the orchestra plays to the beat, but you hear the sound slightly later than you see the motion. This is especially noticeable in long halls or concerts played outdoors where crowd is sitting on a long area of grass and they are a long way from the source of the sound.
If you’ve ever performed antiphonal music you’ve experienced this phenomenon. The skill of following the ictus of the conductor’s pattern, rather than listening and reacting to the sound is essential when the distance between performers/conductors is great. Marching band is another situation where this is particularly true. That said, it’s not really clear why the delay that entire orchestras fall into in playing behind the beat is necessary or desirable due to distance. The brass and percussion, typically furthest away from the conductor, usually don’t dictate the delay, it’s the strings, who are closest to the conductor.
The low and loud sections of the orchestra – cellos, basses, and brass – seem especially susceptible to dragging. A commonly hear explanation is that these instruments ‘speak a little late’. However, this absurdly implies that players are unable to take this effect into account.
I agree with the above author’s assessment. If a band can play on the conductor’s beat (or, for that matter, if a trumpet and trombone section in a jazz band can play squarely on the beat without a conductor), there’s really no excuse why an orchestral brass section can’t also adjust their instrumental technique so they don’t “speak a little late.” Not to mention that I don’t buy that these instruments do this. Maybe a pipe organ, but not a brass instrument.
“I don’t think it would work as well, because the phenomenon has its roots in the string section,” Falletta explained. Because string players tend to be in sync when they bow their instruments, playing behind the beat comes naturally to them. “They have time to say ‘OK, here we go’, and then get into the beat.” And that sound should have no point or edge; the music should just flow. Rigidly sticking to the downbeat makes the music a bit sharper, even when that isn’t the intention of the conductor (or composer, who knows?).
So some folks feel it’s because low and loud sections speak late, but others state that it’s related to the string section.
Another explanation for lag is that the sound produced by instruments at the back of an orchestra takes longer to reach the front. This theory also collapses with a little observation. For example, I once heard the opening bass pizzicatos of the Passacaglia from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra sound exactly with the conductor’s beat. Sitting in the back of the violin section, at the opposite side of the stage, I expected the different speeds of sound and light to make even precisely played notes seem late to the visual cue. But my impression was of exact synchronsiation. In contrast, the slow sections of the Berlioz Corsaire Overture, on the same programme, oozed far behind the beat. The laws of physics are irrelevant. Musicians can play with a conductor when it is really necessary, as in a particularly exposed and brittle passage. But when there is more margin for error, they easily abandon the beat.
Exactly. Ensembles are perfectly able to play with the conductor, but choose not to.
Here’s the simple response: When an orchestra plays behind the conductor, it has the room to produce a more expressive sound. “It works so well because the musicians can take in a great deal more information before they play,” said Falletta. Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. “It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that.” The result? More beautiful music. However, orchestras don’t do this for the duration of a piece; the sound behind the beat is most pronounced in slower movements, and as the music gets faster and rhythms more complex, orchestras may tend to attack the downbeat along with the conductor.
Again, I don’t buy that this is the case. As I noted above, it’s not the ictus of the beat that dictates the tempo and style the conductor communicates, it’s the preparation of that beat.
In my college orchestra, it seems like the conductor conducts ahead of the beat. I know that it’s a common thing, but I’ve never played with a conductor like that so I’m a little confused. It seems like everyone knows exactly when to come in on beat 1, say at the beginning of a piece, but to me it looks like the conductor gives a big downbeat, nothing happens, and then we come in seemingly randomly… And then it’s hard for me to keep the pulse in my head because I don’t really have anything to refer to except for listening to others because the conductor is doing something else.
This question, asked on violinist.com, is curious. It’s possible that the conductor simply isn’t being clear with the beat, but I don’t know how a conductor can conduct ahead or behind the beat. The conductor’s beat patter IS the beat. It’s the ensemble that collectively chooses to play ahead, behind, or right on the conductor’s ictus. It’s the conductor’s responsibility to tell the ensemble where to play.
Adam Neely’s points in the above video are quite good. I think that the most likely explanation is stylistic convention combined with the collective decision of the ensemble and conductor. Be sure to watch Neely’s followup video.
What do you think? When you perform (as a musician or conductor) do you prefer playing directly on the beat or slightly behind? Leave your comment below.
Sorry for the late notice, but if you’re in Asheville this evening, Saturday April 30, 2016, I’d like to invite you to come to the Smoky Mountain Brass Band’s 35th Anniversary concert. The concert is at the Asheville Community Theater and starts at 7:30 PM. Tickets are only $8 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. We’ll be joined by the Triangle Brass Band for this concert too!
Here’s another list of rehearsal etiquette, mainly geared towards the orchestral string player, but as always, much of what is in there applies to all musicians and in any rehearsal situation. Some of my favorites:
Arrive early—at least 15 minutes early, or with enough time to both get your instrument out and warm up. There is nothing more awkward than shuffling through a crowd of seated musicians in the middle of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. If you are late (it happens), try to avoid taking your seat while the musicians are playing; if you can, wait for an appropriate break in the action to slip in.
And I would like to add that you absolutely must be there early for the gig. As a band leader, I am frequently frustrated when I ask musicians to be ready for a sound check at a particular time and folks are still arriving and getting their stuff in order when it’s time to start. Often the sound check is the only chance one of my groups will get to “rehearse” a chart before the gig (we sight read on the show a lot). I don’t want the audience to hear the “sausage being made” because we’re still trying to get the mic levels set and practice that tricky passage before the show.
Bring a pencil. This one gets its own paragraph. Attending rehearsal without a pencil is like sitting through a university lecture without a taking notes. Even if you think you’ll be able to remember every direction the conductor gives, every dynamic change, every cut, and every ritardando, really, you probably won’t. Keep a couple pencils in your instrument case so they’re always on hand.
And use it. Often times I hear musicians, particularly student musicians, tell me they already know what I asked them to mark. Or sometimes they tell me they are confident they will remember. That may be true, but we all have mental lapses and it’s best to be safe than sorry. And if that doesn’t convince you to properly mark you music, consider that sometimes players have issues that require a sub to play a rehearsal or performance for them. If your music isn’t clearly and cleanly marked your sub will not have a chance. Be prepared.
Leave your arrogance at home. Members of the orchestra are all equal; everyone is contributing. Don’t gloat if you have a solo, and don’t bust out personal solo concertos and performances pieces just to show off. Everyone will be more annoyed than impressed. Also, don’t practice another orchestra member’s solo to demonstrate that you can play it better.
This goes to jazz rehearsals too. I don’t feel it’s cool to jam on someone else’s changes between charts and show off how hip you are. It’s also rude to hog solos. By all means, if you’re not blowing many solos on the gig and want a chance speak up at the rehearsal and ask for one if something gets opened up. Sometimes the band leader will be receptive if you jump up and blow a chorus when it’s not specifically asked for in the chart or fill in behind the vocalist, etc., but remember that other folks like to solo too and if you’re already blowing a lot on a gig or rehearsal that those times are better for giving other folks a taste.
Check out more common sense, but often overlooked, advice for how to behave in orchestra rehearsals here.
We put a Carnegie Hall orchestra in the middle of New York City and placed an empty podium in front of the musicians with a sign that read, “Conduct Us.” Random New Yorkers who accepted the challenge were given the opportunity to conduct this world-class orchestra. The orchestra responded to the conductors, altering their tempo and performance accordingly.
Wendy sent me the following question about how to communicate your musical directions to a jazz band.
If I’m going to sit in with a trio for the first time at a club, and I want to do Autumn Leaves the “first time around” very slow (do you say rubato in jazz lingo?), but then the second time upbeat, how do I communicate this to the trio? Thanks!
I’ve written a bit before on suggestions for counting off the band on tunes. There’s nothing really difficult to learn in there, but it’s a somewhat neglected topic that most people learn intuitively over time. Read the above link for more details, but in a nutshell you want to be confident with your tempo and also make sure that your count off also reflects the style and groove you want.
I think most jazz musicians would understand “rubato” just fine. From your description, my assumption is that you want to sing (or play, if you’re an instrumentalist) the first chorus rubato with maybe just a piano accompaniment and then go into tune with an upbeat swing groove. Just explain that to the trio and they will be familiar with this common road map.
One of the nice things about Autumn Leaves is that the melody has a pickup into the first measure. This pickup is long enough that the band can easily get your tempo from how you start the 2nd chorus, rather than needing you to count in your tempo. To make it easier on the band explain before you start that you’re going to play the first chorus rubato with piano and your pickup into the 2nd chorus will set the tempo. If they know the tune (and they probably will know Autumn Leaves) you probably don’t need to also warn them about the style (swing, latin, etc.), but you can’t always leave this to chance, so it’s best to explain the groove you want too. It might also be helpful for you to even give them an example of the tempo you plan on going to on the 2nd chorus before you start in case they are feeling it differently than you ahead of time.
You will want to be certain that your pickup is solidly in the tempo you want and don’t embellish the rhythms to the point of where it’s not obvious where the beat lies. It’s worth practicing this on your own (and in rehearsals with other musicians too). Sometimes a rhythmic embellishment we think is cool makes it harder for the rest of the band to follow your tempo. Simpler is usually better in this case, but you can take this too far and sound corny or confuse your band if they’re expecting something hipper.
How old are you? Did you know that your abilities to hear higher pitches are dependent on your age? Check it out and see how closely your high frequency hearing matches your expected age here.
If you’re a fan of the London Symphony Orchestra or Ravel’s Bolero go take a look at the LSO’s interactive video performance. You can change camera views to many different sections and view multiple camera angles at once. All I want to know is why Valery Gergiev using a toothpick to conduct?
And lastly, although this isn’t really very musical, check out coin magician David Roth performing his routine called “Tuning Fork.”
In The Modern Conductor Elizabeth Green offers some exercises to help conductors keep gestures along the correct horizontal and vertical plane.
Short-Summary Quick Review (Horizontal)
1. Cross hands on diaphragm,
2. Hands point IN.
3. Move outward in straight line.
4. Stop: Order palms to face front.
5. Palms face outward all the way.
6. Return on straight line to diaphragm.
7. Reset hands and repeat.
Short-Summary quick Review (Vertical)
1. Arms hang full length at side.
2. Palms toward the rear.
3. Raise arms vertically, hands hanging down.
4. Stop at top.
5. Palms to front, fingers point straight up.
6. Down in straight line to lowest point.
7. Hands point up all the way.
8. Reset hands and repeat.
I had the honor of sharing the podium at a recent concert with Dr. Bill Bryant. During our warmup I noticed him with his wrists connected with a rubber band. He explained that this was an exercise he picked up to do something similar to the Green exercises, keep your hands in the correct plane for conducting. Here’s a short video of him demonstrating.
About a month ago I posted a new resource I discovered that I recommend for music educators called FreeMusicEd.org. The podcast covers some great topics, such as iPad and iPhone apps for band directors, dealing with limited instrumentation, brass mouthpieces, marching band arrangements, and much more.
Stephan Cox, the brain behind FreeMusicEd.org invited me to come onto the podcast and interviewed me about a number of my favorite blogging topics, including teaching jazz improvisation, brass embouchures, teaching composition, and other odds and ends. It was a great time talking with Stephan and he was an excellent host who asked great questions. The podcast is now live and you can download it here or by searching for FreeMusicEd on iTunes (best to type it in as one word to find it easily). Be sure to go through and listen to his other podcasts and poke around the website some too!
Putting together a concert or set list is as much an art as performing the music in the first place. If you’ve never programmed a concert or chosen a set list for a band to perform, the first time you do this can be a challenging experience. However, if you approach it with the right attitude it can be a fun and creative venture. While there are many approaches to how to select music for a performance (or album project), here are some of the basic rules of thumb that I personally use to select a program or set list.
Consider the Concert or Set as a Whole Entity
It’s tempting to sometimes look for neat pieces to perform and simply throw them together, but sometimes this makes for a performance that is too redundant. As you start thinking about which compositions to include you want to think about whether there is enough variety to be interesting without getting disjointed.
One thing that helps me to organize a concert or set list is to think about certain key points in the performance that I’ll want to program something specific. For example, here is a generic outline for a set or concert including 8 compositions (well, 9 actually, but that’s with an encore) that might go about an hour.
Opener – Something exciting and accessible for the audience to get everyone settled in and in the mood for the performance. I almost always like to segue directly into at least the next piece (and sometimes the next two pieces) without pausing for announcements.
Lower the intensity – Frequently I’ll put in something slow and lyrical here, but sometimes I’ll instead program something just less intense than the opener and save the lyrical piece for third. For example, in a big band set I might program a bossa nova here and then follow with a ballad third. Other times I’ll program a ballad here and save the bossa nova for third.
Keep the intensity simmering – See #2 above. It’s worth changing styles here and having some ebb and flow to the second and third pieces, but don’t get too exciting here. Save it for later and it will have more of an impact.
Something weighty – If you’re going to program something that is not as accessible as the rest of the set or concert, this is a good place to do it. Don’t do it too late or else your audience will be less attentive.
Something accessible and fun – After challenging your audience you want to reward them with something easy to listen to. In a big band set, for example, I might program a funk or rock chart here. For a concert band or brass band performance I like to put something pops oriented in here.
Lower the intensity a bit again – After #5 calm things down a bit with something that will help you build to the peak that is your final piece.
Build intensity – Not too much, save it for the closer. Something that is lighter in style or familiar to your audience is good.
Closer – A final piece that ends with a bang. Something familiar to your audience can be good here, but sometimes I prefer to program something that the ensemble really enjoys playing more than worrying about the audience.
Encore – I like having encores in my concerts and final set. If there’s a particular piece that your audience is waiting for, this is a great time to program it.
With an outline like the above in mind, I’ll start going through the music library and find pieces that can fit these different roles and start placing them in order to see how I imagine it will sound. That’s not to say that you need to stick to this guide absolutely. As you find pieces that you want to perform you’ll discover different ways that you can play around with this programming concept. For example, the Stan Kenton Live at Redlands University concert starts with a ballad, rather than a barn burner (check out the introductory clip of Kenton explaining this decision on that link). Your main concern really shouldn’t be plugging in music, but that you’re pacing the performance in an interesting and enjoyable way.
Consider Your Audience
I’ve already alluded to this above, but you will want to think about your target audience and what they want to hear. That’s not to say that you need to “sell out” and only program music that is familiar or popular. Some audiences are particularly hip and some performances cater specifically to an educated audience while others are going to have a mix of people, maybe leaning towards patrons who are attending on a whim. For example, consider the difference between a concert at a contemporary music festival and an outdoor concert just before a fireworks display on Independence Day. You can’t program one like the other without disappointing and alienating your audience.
Consider Your Ensemble
As your thinking about what pieces you want to perform you need to think about the capabilities of your ensemble. Do you have a section in the group that is particularly strong or have some outstanding soloists you can feature? Do you have a weaker section or a budding soloist that you can challenge a bit for improvement without getting too difficult (particularly important if you’re working with a student ensemble)? How difficult will brass parts be? Will your brass players have chops at the end of the performance? If the closer is particularly rangy for the brass consider programming a piece or two just before that are easy on the brass players so they can rest a bit and get ready to blow hard on the final piece. Be sure to program something purely for ensemble enjoyment, regardless of how you think it will go over with the audience. I feel that when the band really is having a good time it rubs off on the audience, even if the piece might go over their heads, as long as you don’t overdo this.
Program Something For Everyone
I like a wide variety of music and prefer to program a lot of different types of pieces in my concerts and sets. Along with considering your audience, stick in some pieces that will appeal to the high-brows and find something that the Philistines will enjoy too. Again, make sure that your ensemble is having fun and being challenged as well so that their energy feeds the audience’s.
Consider Length of the Concert or Set
When I’m putting together a set list for a big band, for example, I keep each set to about 8-10 charts because I know that that will take about 45-60 minutes to perform (obviously you have to adjust if you know something is particularly long or short). Programming for a concert band performance, in contrast, is a little more tricky because pieces can have different lengths. I will usually write down the approximate length of time each piece takes to perform and add them up, allowing for time between numbers. If you’re going to make announcements during the performance consider how long it will take to get through them.
Personally, I think the maximum length of a performance without an intermission should be 75 minutes. Any longer than this and you should split up your program into roughly half and stick in an intermission. If I’m programming a concert with an intermission I try to go 2 hours maximum (including intermission), and closer to 90-105 minutes if possible.
Club gigs are a bit different as you usually have a set amount of time to fill. A typical approach is to play for about 45-50 minutes and then take about 15-20 minutes for a set break. If you’re filling a two hour night, for example, you can play for 50 minutes, take a 20 minute break, and then come back for a final 50 minutes, give or take.
Learning how to pace a concert or set list is a skill much like learning to compose or arrange a piece of music. It’s actually pretty easy to practice this by putting together a playlist for your MP3 player. In fact, if I’ve got recordings of all the pieces I’m thinking of programming I’ll sometimes do this to see how the performance will feel after listening to it all the way through. You’ll get a great idea of how the flow of the music fits together and sometimes catch some odd things about your program that you might not have noticed otherwise. For example, is the last chord of one piece the same as the first chord of the next? Are the tempos of two consecutive pieces too close for variety? Do two consecutive pieces feature the exact same soloist? When you discover things like this it doesn’t mean you need to change your order, but it might inform how your introduce the pieces during the performance or whether you’ll segue directly into the next number without any introductions.
A lot of this is pretty intuitive for many people and I know many directors who have their own philosophy of how they program concerts. There are many different ways to think about music selection and sometimes special events require a different approach. If you have a guest soloist, for example, you’ll need to program around the soloist. A themed concert celebrating a particular composer or event can be a fun way to build a program too. Study programs and albums you really enjoy and see how the flow of pieces fit together and borrow what you can from those.
Do you have any additional thoughts or disagreements? Please share your ideas in the comments here.