Tag Archives: orchestras

Another conducting course

Well actually, the same conducting course. The one I blogged about two years ago in Opening the Envelope and How the conducting course went.

Twice a year for the last few years, I’ve played in a small orchestra for a course which trains choir conductors. Students are typically on the course for several years, and attend several weekends throughout the year at different locations around the country, plus a one-week summer school. Sometimes I’ve led the orchestra, and sometimes I’ve led the second violins. Today, I was leading the second violins.

Orchestras are not choirs

Choir conducting and orchestral conducting are very different things. For example, a choir conductor can typically maintain eye contact with the singers most of the time they are singing, mouth words to them, and so on. The gestures used when conducting are different. The player’s needs are different from those of a singer in a choir. A player in a string section, for example, needs to be able to follow the conductor with their peripheral vision while simultaneously reading the music, watching the principal of their section, and watching the leader of the orchestra (or concertmaster if you’re American). So the shape of the beat is very important. The orchestra layout amplifies this: some players see the conductor from the side, rather than from the front, and it must be clear for them too. A choir conductor will typically conduct without a baton. An orchestra will typically start grumbling if a conductor doesn’t use one. (The baton makes the beat larger and more visible, which is important for peripheral vision.)

Choirs, however, often perform pieces accompanied by orchestras. Typically, the orchestra is a small one (because it’s being paid), and will only be there for one or two rehearsals (because it’s being paid) or even only the concert day (because it’s being paid). So the conductors are suddenly thrown in to having to conduct an orchestra. This happens with varying degrees of success, as any orchestral player who plays for many choir concerts will tell you . . .

Thus, someone learning to conduct choirs also needs to learn at least some orchestral conducting.

The course

The day I described two years ago was part of the summer school. It  mainly involved preparing some choir pieces with orchestral accompaniment for a concert that evening—the kind of situation a choir conductor would typically have on their concert day. Today’s course was rather different: much more a tutoring event.

The orchestra was small: strings only, comprising

  • 5 or 4 first violins
  • 4 or 3 second violins
  • 2 violas
  • 1 cello
  • 1 double bass.

(The numbers varied because two of the conducting students also played in the orchestra.)

There were three sessions of tutoring, followed after a short break by a very informal concert. The music was Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart, and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. Both are basic pieces in the string repertoire (though the Holst has some challenges to make things more fun both for the players and the conductor). During each session, the students took it in turns to conduct a movement of one of those pieces, with the course tutor stopping them every so often to comment on what was happening, demonstrate different aspects of technique and so on. Imagine an instrumental lesson, but with the orchestra as the instrument, and you’ve got the idea.

For a player, this is quite fascinating. Normally we’re just conducted one way by one person, and it either works or it doesn’t. Certain entries are easy or difficult; we forget that the reason some of them are difficult may well be that the conductor did something wrong, not us . . . In the normal rehearsal situation we’re not really aware of the conducting in detail; mostly just of things which go wrong or which require special attention, such as resuming playing after a pause. When it’s going well, we’re focused on playing the music. (And if the conductor makes a mess of something, we’re probably familiar with the music and will do our best to rescue it.) For the purposes of this course, though, we have to put a lot of our instinct aside. We’re not just being an instrument, but being one which answers back: the tutor will frequently ask us to comment on what the conductor has just been doing, why it worked or didn’t, what we need but aren’t getting, etc. Also we have to do our best to resist our “rescue instinct” and follow whatever the conductor is doing, even if they get it wrong—so they can learn how to put it right.

This time there were ten students. Previously there have been around seven, so I was startled at there being so many. Each got only a very short time slot each session in which to conduct us. This worried me initially. But they still managed to work on quite a lot in the time, and one of the them told me that he felt he learnt as much from watching the others being tutored as he did from his own conducting slots. Partly because when he was watching the others he could concentrate more on what was being said, and less on being terrified . . .

As ever, the music varied in difficulty from movement to movement. And as ever, a good job had been done of matching the music to the conductors; I felt that the tutor had a good grasp of who was capable of what. Several students were new to the course (they’re generally on it for about three years, progressing through the different levels). The one who said it was her first time in front of an orchestra did fine; and it was good seeing familiar faces from previous years, and seeing how their conducting had progressed since they first started the course. That’s one of the most satisfying things about playing for this: you go away feeling that you’ve helped make a real positive difference for someone. They’ve enjoyed the learning experience, you’ve been part of it, and an orchestra and audience somewhere are going to benefit from it.

The mini-concert at the end was very informal. Our contribution was to play one movement from the Holst piece and one from the Mozart one, with the two conductors chosen according to how the earlier sessions had gone.


Here are a few observations from this day and previous ones.

Every detail matters

One thing these courses bring home is that everything a conductor does affects an orchestra’s playing. I mean everything. If the conductor appears confident when walking on, the orchestra plays confidently. If the conductor moves stiffly, the orchestra plays less freely. If they smile, the playing lightens up. The way they stand has an effect. So does where they’re looking: if the conductor looks at a particular player, that’s who you’ll find yourself listening to.Suppose a wind player has a solo but the conductor is looking at the cellos: everyone will listen to the cellos and not realise that they’re drowning out the wind solo. If the conductor looks at the wind player, everyone will listen to that and back off to accompany it.

It fascinates me that these effects happen even when they depend on detail you don’t think you’re aware of while playing. Maybe you don’t think you can see the conductor’s facial expression, say. Yet when they change it, it still affects the way you play. It seems that the brain takes in a lot more information than we’re conscious of.

Daring to conduct

I’m not a conductor. But it struck me today that the less experienced conductors had a certain reluctance to wholeheartedly make the various gestures required. For example: loud passages require a larger beat than quiet ones. Small movements mean you should play quietly. I think all the conductors were aware of this, and all were trying to use it to differentiate between loud and soft passages; yet virtually all of them only adjusted the size of the beat by a small amount. When the tutor encouraged them to make a clearer distinction, they made the difference a little bigger—but in most cases nowhere near as big as it could have been, and not quite as big as it needed to be. (There were a couple of exceptions, and it was noticeable that with those conductors the orchestra felt much more confident to do the dynamics and phrasing that were wanted.)

This seems to me rather like what happens when first learning a new language. Many people feel an initial reluctance to pronounce the words properly. They use their own accent, rather than that of  a speaker of the language. I’ve experienced this myself. When starting off, you feel as though you’re being asked to impersonate a German accent, say. And it feels a bit silly, because you know perfectly well that you’re not German. So, you’re tempted to say the German words in an English accent. But then at some point it clicks with you: you realise that you’re not impersonating a German accent; you’re speaking German words in the way that Germans do. Or to put it another way: you’re not pretending to speak German; you’re speaking German.

I think something like that was happening with the conducting students. Because the gestures are new and not instinctive, they feel unnatural. A kind of acting. Conducting technique is a new language which they are learning, for communicating musical expression. At some point, it will click with them and it will become their language, which they are comfortable to use and which orchestras will instinctively follow.

The size of the group

One thing which I think often receives far too little attention in planning an event is the effect of group size on the interactions and atmosphere. A while back, I played in a course for symphony orchestra conductors. The arrangement was similar: several sessions, a number of conductors, and a tutor guiding them through the process. But it was a full-size symphony orchestra. It was stressed over and over again that anyone who had any feedback for the conductors should give it. But would they? No. Because the group was simply too large; everyone went into well-behaved orchestral musician mode and wouldn’t say anything. At that event, students I spoke to expressed frustration that they didn’t get more feedback from the orchestra. But everyone’s experience of being conducted is important: if someone at the back of the second violins can’t see properly, they’re probably the only person who’s aware of the problem, and hence the only one who give that feedback.

I think this course works vastly better from that point of view. With only around twelve players, everyone who  has a contribution to make can be free to make it. This makes for a much more interactive atmosphere, in which everyone can contribute to the learning experience. From past years I get the impression that this interaction is one of the things which the students most value about the sessions.

I may be tired out, but I enjoy playing for this course. 🙂

How not to write violin fingering

Where I live, we’re fortunate to have a good, publicly available music library within easy reach. Most of the amateur orchestras in the area make it their first stop when finding sets of parts to play from.

Normally the music arrives with bowings, fingerings and other markings inherited from previous users. Often this helps: it saves you from having to work everything out from scratch, and sometimes someone will have come up with just the right solution to make something work. I don’t normally rub the markings out until I’ve established whether they’re any good.

Sometimes, though, you wish the previous user had left their pencil at home:

Part of a page of violin music, with fingerings written over virtually every note

And that’s what the music looked like after I’d started erasing the fingering.

You can learn a bit about the player by seeing what they’ve written in. This one had probably had a teacher who at some time stressed the importance of knowing what finger you’re going to use for every note in a piece, and of writing it in the music. And you certainly know precisely what finger they’re using for each note in the passage. Every single note. This is a player who follows their teacher’s instructions. Also a player, I think, who finds second position demanding but is nevertheless determined to use it where appropriate.

And in fact it’s good fingering: it works well, and is pretty much what I ended up using in the concert.

But actually, a part which has fingering written in like that is a nightmare to use. More on that in a moment.

Let me explain a little about basic violin fingering. In general (there are exceptions), it’s based on the concept of positions. These simply refer to how far up the neck of the violin the left hand is. For example, in first position your hand is next to the scroll, and your first finger plays the next note up from the open string. As you move up the scale, each next note up simply uses the next finger. For a semitone the fingers are close together; for a tone they’re further apart. When you run out of fingers, you move to the next string.) In second position, your hand is one note further up the violin. And so on.

So, as far as basic fingering goes, once your hand is in a given position, the fingers to be used are already known. Same note, same finger. And there’s definitely no need to do this:

“4 2 2 2 1 2″—once you’ve put your 4th finger down on the E, what other fingers could you possibly be using for those notes? And if you’ve got three identical notes in a row, is there really any doubt what finger you’d use for the second and third ones? The finger doesn’t even move—it just stays on the string for those three notes while the bow plays them. As far as the left hand is concerned, it’s just one note.

I think I understand what the player was doing. Many violinists have a great fear of playing in second position. I think that’s partly because it’s traditional to learn first and third positions before moving on to second. This makes second position quite a shock, because you’ve become used to the idea that odd-numbered fingers play on the lines and even-numbered fingers play in the spaces. With second position it’s the other way round, so it feels quite wrong and very confusing. And this particular player probably found it confusing for every note, so wrote the finger in for each one. Which I suppose is just about OK for purposes of slow practice. But for some reason they continued writing them all in, even when they were back in much friendlier first position.

Does this overkill matter? Well yes, actually.

When you read a piece of music, you’re taking in information. The more information there is, the harder that is to do. A finger for every note is simply too much to absorb, especially at speed. The redundant fingering gets in the way of reading the music. The stuff you don’t need to know (or rather, automatically know) conceals the stuff that’s important.

Occasional fingerings in the passage have been circled. Those are the position changes; the player presumably circled them to notice them and remember to do them. And the circling proves my point, really. They’re the ones that actually matter, and they were getting lost in the sea of redundant ones. For me, even the circling doesn’t help much: to read the fingering comfortably I need to get rid all the others. That lets me see where the position changes are and be ready for them. I can see that they’re coming up well before they arrive.

The other basic problem with filling the music with fingerings like that is that there’s no room to write anything else in. Bowings, for example. In this extract, there are several places where it’s crucial to know what bowing to use: the “4 2 2 2 1 2” bar is one such place. The slur in that bar means you’ve got to do something to avoid having “upside down” bowing in the next bar, and you need to mark just what it is that you’ll do.

What you should write in a part are the essentials: where to change position, what dynamic the conductor has asked for, little tricks of fingering that depart from what would happen automatically, whether a particular note is to be played as an open string or with the fourth finger, and so on. Bowings that depart from the instinctive ones. The less clutter there is in the part, the clearer your picture will be of what to do when playing. But also, the kinder you will be being to the next person to play from the part. They’ll be able to see what you did, rub it out if they don’t want it, and write their own essential markings during rehearsal without the stress of frantically erasing yours in the few seconds they have before playing resumes.

Rehearsing with Stravinsky

I know what it’s like to rehearse Stravinsky’s music, because I’ve played in some of it—most notably The Rite of Spring a year or two ago. It was hard work and involved learning a lot of tricky rhythms.

What would it be like to rehearse with Stravinsky, though? Here are some videos which perhaps give some idea. In all of them, Stravinsky comes across as someone who absolutely loved music and the process of making it.

First, an extract from a 1967 TV programme in which we see Stravinsky rehearsing the Troronto Symphony Orchestra in the Scherzino from his ballet Pulcinella (without a baton, I notice):

A 1955 film from Columbia Records, showing part of a rehearsal and recording session for The Soldier’s Tale:

(By the way, if anyone knows of a version of this video in which “Enter your text here” doesn’t pop up several times, please let me know.)

The final clip doesn’t actually have any video, only sound and some still pictures, but for me it gives the clearest idea of what it would be like to actually experience one of his rehearsals as one of the players. It’s a 1962 rehearsal of his Symphony in C with the CBC Symphony Orchestra in Toronto (also including a rather entertaining exchange between Stravinsky and the recording engineer):

Unconscious musical memory

There’s a weekly programme on BBC Radio 3 called Discovering Music. It involves a studio, an orchestra, an audience, a presenter, and a piece of music. The presenter talks in depth about the piece and how it works, illustrated with extracts played by the orchestra. Finally, after the talk is finished, there is a full performance of the piece discussed.

Today, the programme startled me with a phenomenon which seems to happen quite regularly, so I thought I’d blog about it. It’s about time I wrote something about music.

I spent the afternoon upstairs, NOT listening to any music but preferring silence and space. When it came to teatime, I went downstairs, where the radio was on, playing what I thought was some quite unfamiliar music. I didn’t pay any attention to the music, since I still wanted quiet. By the time I got to the radio, ready to turn it off, the music had changed to speech. I wasn’t listening to that either, but a “tune”—well, a snatch of Violin 2 orchestral part of something—was going through my head. Some symphony I’d played in years ago. Maybe ten years, maybe more.

Then I heard the word “Prokofiev”, and thought “Oh! Well I think this tune in my head IS Prokofiev! I wonder . . . ” and started listening to the radio instead of turning it off. After about half a minute, the radio presenter stopped talking so the orchestra could play their next extract. What they then played was almost exactly what had been in my head: the same tune, but from a different part of the movement. What was in my head was in fact part of Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, and it they happened to be discussing it on Discovering Music.

The point is that I didn’t think I knew what the tune in my head was, if you’d said “Sing a bit of Prokofiev 5!” I wouldn’t have had a chance, and if you’d said “Sing another part of the music that’s just been playing!” I wouldn’t have been able to do that either—but nevertheless, the right tune presented itself.

The next extract they played was from the last movement. That hadn’t been in my head, but my instant reaction to it was “Oh, good grief, I remember how fiendishly difficult that was!”, together with a vague feeling that I needed to go and practise that passage some more.

A few other fragmented memories of the piece surfaced: handwritten music on large, rather yellow paper; inaccurately-spaced leger lines, so that notes which at first sight appeared to go up or down actually went down or up; and a bizarre situation at one point where a correctly written pair of notes actually moved in the opposite direction to the way they looked. There were a few bars’ rest between them, and I can’t remember the precise notes, but it was similar to this: play a B sharp, then after the rest, start again on a C flat, which looks higher but is actually a semitone lower. Or it might have been a B-double-flat going up to an A sharp. Something along those lines.

I find this happens quite a lot: maybe I’m talking to someone, a composer’s name or a piece of music is mentioned, and shortly afterwards I realise that music by that composer, or an extract from the piece mentioned, is going through my head. Often if you asked me to consciously remember how the piece goes, or to think of a tune by that composer, I wouldn’t be able to. Or if you asked me what a particular piece of music was, I wouldn’t know. But it seems there is a part of my brain which does know, and gently presents it to me almost without my noticing.

A related phenomenon happens when I’ve been rehearsing a particular piece at orchestra, then find that what’s going through my head isn’t what I was rehearsing, but tunes from another work by the same composer.

I’m quite tired at the moment and don’t have the energy to start getting all analytical about this, or even all editorial about it, so I’ll just present it to you as it is. I’d be really interested, though, to hear whether other people have similar experiences of “uncoonsiously remembering” things which you thought you didn’t know, or unexpectedly remembering little details about a piece of music. So if you’ve read this far, feel free to comment! 😉

Some thoughts on hearing

More ear problems

This week it turned out that although I may have had catarrh, my ear is definitely blocked on the outside too. So I’m going to make an appointment as soon as possible to have it syringed.

The blockage got worse early last week, so on Thursday I found myself at a rehearsal with a left ear which was significantly more deaf than it had been for the concert which I recently described. I’m writing about it because although it was extremely unhelpful for playing, I found the reasons for its being unhelpful quite interesting. They’re suggestive about the way hearing works in an orchestra.

The difficulty

Of course, as at that concert, it was hard to judge my playing volume. That’s not at all surprising. But also, it was much more difficult to play in tune, which led to some thoughts about how I normally do this.

Obviously if you can’t hear another instrument you can’t play yours in tune with it. But that wasn’t the difficulty; I could hear the other instruments, but couldn’t easily make the fine adjustments needed to home in on the required pitch to blend with them. I’m not sure whether the problem was that I was hearing my violin from a distance, out of the “wrong” ear, or whether it goes further and the lack of binaural hearing was the obstacle.

I don’t believe that merely hearing how far your pitch goes up or down will guarantee that you’re in tune with other instruments. For one thing, for mathematical reasons, the required pitch of a note can vary according to context, and there’s a continual conflict between the pitches which provide smooth melodies and those which provide clean harmony. (The theoretical difference can be quite large: a fifth of a semitone or even more.)

How do you tune your instrument at the start of the rehearsal? Ideally, like this: the oboe plays an A; you play an A on your instrument, quietly enough to hear the oboe you’re tuning to, and you adjust the pitch until the sound of your instrument blends in with that of the oboe.

Hearing, blending and intonation

If two notes which are nearly but not quite in tune with each other are played together, one hears beats: pulsations in the volume of the sound. This is because the sound waves from the two instruments get in and out of synch with each other. When they’re in synch, the sound is louder; when they’re out of synch, they cancel out and the sound is quieter. The more nearly in tune the two are, the slower the beats; when they’re completely in tune, the beats disappear.

What I mean by “blending with the oboe” is that you can’t hear any beats between your instrument and the oboe. Furthermore, at least with a violin, if you play it very quietly, you can no longer tell which is you and which is the oboe; your sound disappears into that of the oboe.

On tuning at the start of the rehearsal, it was clear that I couldn’t judge this blending very easily. I had, however, tuned carefully to an electronic tuner which indicates the pitch visually. Why couldn’t I hear it? Partly, I think, because I could hear everyone else tuning just as loudly as myself; but maybe also because of another phenomenon I’ve noticed, also to do with beats.

It’s well known in acoustics that if two pure notes are played simultaneously, a third one can be heard along with the other two. For example, an A at 440 Hz played with an E at 660 Hz will produce an A an octave down, at 220 Hz. Its frequency is the difference between the two being played, and it’s the result of the beats I was talking about earlier. They simply happen fast enough to become a musical note themselves.

When playing two notes at once (unaccompanied) on a violin, I can normally hear these “difference notes” surprisingly loudly. Some people have trouble hearing them at all; I think that’s probably because they’re listening in the wrong place. I realised this several years ago. The third note doesn’t sound as though it’s coming from the violin. It sounds as though it’s coming from just inside the ear. Which is, in fact, where it’s generated. And I experience a feeling of actual vibration in the ear. That’s where you have to listen for it.

How do you tell whether your tuning is blending with the other instruments around you? Again, it seems to me, by hearing beats, though you might not be conscious that that’s what you’re doing. The feeling of shrill dissonance when a note is horribly out of tune is actually the feeling of hearing beats at a particularly unpleasant speed.

I think what was missing, with my blocked ear, was the sense of sounds interacting in my ear. Instead of feeling pressure vibrations, I simply have a sensation of slight pressure from the blockage.

So my scientifically untested hypothesis is that playing in tune in an orchestra depends not just on hearing pitches from a distance, but also on the physical sensations occurring in the ear as the different sounds arrive and interact.

And I might not have realised that without a blocked ear! But now I’ve realised, I’m looking forward to having normal hearing again.