Orchestra Musician’s FAQ

Why do you need to have a conductor up there?

Many musicians would joke that we don’t. But the fact is we rely on the conductor greatly for tempi (i.e. how fast does it go?) and musical direction. In my mind, the most basic task of the conductor is to provide a clear beat, so there is no question as to where the beats lie and what the tempo is.
Beyond that, it is the conductor’s job to unify the orchestra’s interpretation. When left to their own devices, you can be quite certain that 85 professional musicians will interpret a piece (or even a short segment of a piece) in 85 different ways. While this speaks greatly to the creativity and individuality required to play one’s instrument well, performances work much better when the orchestra is unified in its vision. The conductor communicates his or her ideas both through the way they move on the podium, and verbally when leading rehearsals. In the end, the success of a performance relies a great deal on technical and artistic collaboration between the conductor and the orchestra.

What if you have to sneeze onstage?

A colleague of mine (Joel Gibbs, viola) taught me a trick to deal with this. Once I feel a sneeze coming on, I press on the roof of my mouth with my tongue. It’s an easy little technique to remember, and surprisingly effective.
That being said, sometimes it is impossible to suppress a sneeze or cough, in which case, you have no choice but to let it rip. Hopefully it’s during a loud part of the concert. We try to minimize extraneous noise coming from the stage, but we’re all human…

-Alex Martin

How much before a concert do you begin rehearsing?

Usually we rehearse the music that same week. That only gives you part of the story, though. When the season is announced people begin by getting recordings loaded onto iPods and getting to know music that we have never played before. In my case this helps me enjoy the experience of playing the music more, and is not something I do for purely practical considerations. A few weeks beforehand we can get the music from the library, and people get music even for pieces which we have played many times. You can always play a little better, and we want to. By the first rehearsal, even of an unfamiliar work, we usually have a pretty good idea of how to play it. If you’ve practiced something at one speed and the conductor wants to do it faster, well you do the best you can in that first rehearsal, and then go to the woodshed that evening and get the tricky part to where you can play it faster the next day in rehearsal.

How long do you have to play before you can get into a symphony?

After you get out of school you usually need to begin your symphonic education if you are looking for a symphony job. If you were lucky you had teachers who taught you how to play the stuff you need to win an audition, but that is not always the case. Usually you spend a few years going from audition to audition. Sometimes really good musicians never get any symphony job. Maybe they freeze up in the audition, or perhaps they have some odd quirk which knocks them out, perhaps a tendency to rush in 16th note passages or something like that. I knew a guy who took 19 auditions and didn’t pass the first round until audition #18, where he got into the finals. In audition #19 he got the job. I took a bunch of auditions while I was in my first job and got into the finals in one, and got the job in the next one, but then didn’t get tenure, so I had to go get another job, and then another one, which was here. What a relief to end up in a beautiful place like this!

-Carl Johansen

What do you musicians look for in a conductor?

I have often been approached by patrons while walking to the parking garage about my thoughts on the conductors. “We liked the concert. What do you think of this conductor?” I am reminded of an adage of seasoned musicians—A good conductor has the score in his head– not his head in the score!
By canvassing my colleagues as to what they look for in a conductor, I gained the following responses:
“I look for someone who is clear, confident, and with musical integrity. They must be efficient and inspire,” says a fellow violinist.
“I look for someone who can clearly convey will thought out musical ideas as well as inspiration “–Cellist
Another cellist states, “ Dedication and humanity.”
According to Larry Zalkind, Principal Trombone, a conductor must be “musically inspiring and clear.”
Another colleague writes: “Musicianship, technique, personality.”
Other colleagues expressed the importance of a civil atmosphere in rehearsals. A conductor must be a collaborator, and there must be mutual respect with the musicians.
Gary Ofenloch, Tuba, states, “I look for a conductor who understands the composers intentions, and is able to clearly convey that to the orchestra.”
A colleague writes: “Clarity and vision.”
And “ It is important that he/she is a great musician and trusts the players”
I consider three basic factors that go into my judgment of conductors: One is audience rapport, the second is rapport with the musicians and the third being does this conductor convey what the composer wanted from the score? Sometimes the latter factor can be conveyed by a simple choice of tempo (how fast the piece is played) to feel “ in the groove” of the piece.
A conductor may feel the music, but may be a bit shy, or just can’t seem to connect with the players. There is a talent for connecting with the players. When that talent is there, musicians would say he or she is a players’ conductor.
Eric Hopkins, Associate Principal timpanist, states, “ Great conductors express the human experience unabashedly.”
Another colleague sums up what I have heard almost universally with many musicians, “ It’s mostly about what they say/do in rehearsal that is most important. I like when they get out of the way and in concerts and let the music happen.”
Performing with a conductor who knows the score, who feels the music and who can convey it to the players and subsequently, the audience, is an exceptional treat for everyone, and creates extraordinary concerts.

-Lynn Rosen