Distributed responsibilities

  • Blog

In my position at South Texas College, I conduct the large Symphonic Band, a medium-sized group called the Chamber Winds, and the small Brass Ensemble. I had done some conducting before, but never as such a large part of my daily activities. Prior to my appointment at the college, I was primarily a performer, with teaching a secondary occupation, and conducting when I could get it. Needless to say, this elevation of conducting within my professional portfolio has given me a whole new perspective on ensemble music making.

In the back row of the orchestra, I spend a lot of time worrying about ensemble, blend, and cohesiveness. My primary concern is that the low brass section attacks notes together, plays in tune, and then releases together. Every note is an opportunity to create a sublime moment of beauty within the ensemble. I sometimes think about each section producing a series of exquisite chords, and each cluster of sounds bursting in the ears of the audience like pomegranate seeds in a salad. There is value in this concept; the great orchestras of the world have sections that produce those kinds of sounds and entice me to sit on the edge of my seat, just waiting for the ecstasy of each new sonic revelation. In all honesty, I think this kind of playing is what makes music like Bruckner work. The weak formal structure and thematic development could allow a listener’s mind to wander except that the sheer depth and power of each chord is arresting — if performed with this attention to detail.

As a conductor, though, there’s little I can do about some of these issues. Many times, I’ve had players stop me to ask if I wanted to work on the intonation discrepancy in a certain bar. This is code for “the person sitting next to me is badly out of tune, I can’t stand it, and I can’t believe you’re just going to go on like you didn’t hear it.” To answer this and every other similar question: yes, I heard it. The conductor is not producing any sounds, and therefore has a much clearer set of ears to notice this kind of issue. And, if I think it sounds like something I can help with, I will. If there’s a linearly shifting harmony going on, I can help players understand their role, itemize their intonation tendencies, and learn how to transition from chord to chord. If, however, it sounds like a lack of agreement (or conscientiousness) within the section, all I can say is “you all need to take a minute by yourselves and figure that out.” The conductor cannot create that sectional unity. The responsibility for the small-scale detail-level work lies within the section. And, in hindsight, that’s why I’ve been so focused on these kinds of issues as a player. That’s the aspect of the performance that I, as a trombonist, can positively influence, so that’s the part I’ll worry about.

The conductor, by contrast, must concern himself or herself with the bigger picture. No trombonist sitting in the back row can shape the momentum of a whole movement. Not even the concertmaster can do that. Too many individual people are involved in that project for anyone on the ground floor to have the necessary influence — or, for that matter, the relevant information. If the trumpet section is (for instance) thinking about transposing from trumpet in F, worrying about what that transposition suggests about the appropriate timbre, tuning the octaves between the two parts, and trying to listen backward to be in time with the timpani, those players have less mental real estate to devote (for instance) to thinking about whether the dominant pedal in the viola is adequately preparing the recapitulation — if they can even hear the violas over their own notes. That’s the conductor’s job. And that’s why the conductor can’t allocate the time to talk about whether the second trumpet’s articulation is precisely matching the first trumpet’s.

One of the conductor’s main jobs is setting and preserving tempo. That’s not just a hold-over from marching band; the conductor isn’t setting tempo by default. When a conductor informs the back row that they’re late, there’s a reason that matters. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter; in the middle of a chorale in the quiet section, maybe it’s ok to let the tempo relax a little. But if the brass are wallowing in the beauty of their own sound while the violins are trying to build up to a key change, that undermines the efficacy of the music.

Similarly, the conductor is tasked with balancing the various forces of the orchestra. As a trombonist, I relish the warm glow of obliterating fifty or sixty string players at a time. And, I firmly believe that if their sixteenth-note passagework is only there to provide texture to the glorious pronouncements of the brass, maybe it’s ok sometimes for us to overshadow them. But sometimes, the woodwinds have intricate filigree that references thematic material and foreshadows later harmonic development. Sometimes the strings are playing elegant ornaments that provide context and sophistication. In times like these, it is the conductor’s responsibility to maintain each section at an appropriate level.

These two responsibilities are clear. But, the conductor has a more enigmatic responsibility as well. The conductor is tasked with bringing a score to life. A dish of pomegranate seeds is not a salad; it takes artistic direction and careful planning to turn raw ingredients into a plate that patrons want to order again.

As a trombonist, I try to put my stamp on the 8 or 16 bars in a symphony when the trombone section is driving. And, it is the combination of all those individual stamps that make an ensemble’s individual style recognizable. But while we can hear the difference between the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, we can also tell the difference between the Chicago Symphony with Solti and the same orchestra with Reiner. Why? Because those two directors found different ways to interact not just with the orchestra, but with the repertoire.

The person on the podium must find the life and the humanity in each score. The conductor searches for each piece’s identity, its shining moments and also its soft underbelly. Rehearsals, in the mind of the conductor, are not about making sure the ensemble will “get through” the performance with a minimum of errors. Conductors really don’t want to have to mediate tempo and balance disagreements. The great task of an ensemble rehearsal is to communicate the conductor’s understanding of the music’s soul to the performers so they can render that vision during the concert.

As a trombonist, I am obsessed with precision and intonation. As a conductor, I do everything I can to not have to address those issues. They are most effectively handled internally within sections, and tangential to the scope of my role. It’s not that I think the mechanics aren’t important; in fact, I think they’re prerequisite. It’s just that orchestra musicians are not robots. If I wanted to sequence a synthesizer, that’s far easier — but lacks the sincerity of a real human performance. The job of producing truly moving artwork on an orchestral scale is too large for any one person. Instead, the ensemble is a coalition of musicians, all of whom are responsible for their own facet of the final product. The only way the show comes together is if all members of the orchestra (including the conductor) can focus on their own responsibilities, trusting that the other aspects of the job will be covered appropriately.