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Sunday 6 January 2008

Conducting the Music School Orchestra - 3 Pros, 4 Cons and 5 Ways to Make the Most of It!

My first experiences in conducting were with amateur and student groups - I worked for a long time in different music schools conducting their student orchestras before I entered professional conducting studies in the St Petersburg conservatory. While I had some real benefit of my experience, in some ways it was also a problematic background! And I don't mean the pointless prejudice about "College Conductors" vs. "Real Pros". I mean mostly technical and motivational issues, which I am now going to dissect for your benefit and pleasure! As always, I am really curious to read your comments!


You will be paid for conducting, and not the other way round. This is self-explanatory. Many people pay thousands of € just to get the chance to be in front of an orchestra. When you are still trying to figure out the patterns you could as well burn your money! With a student ensemble of your own you will be paid for learning how to do it (and after working hard for a year you can go to a masterclass with the money and the experience you got out of it).

It's podium time, stupid! With a music school orchestra you will have several hours of "weekly podium time" as opposed to the 20-40 minutes per week you get if you study, for example, at the Sibelius Academy. It makes already a big difference in your overall conducting experience. In acquiring a new skill the experts speak about "10 000 hours of practice" before mastery. Though in conducting it means you can still spend plenty of time in front of your mirror and metronome!

You are always in a position of authority This is the biggest positive thing I got out of the years I dedicated to educational work. When I worked with amateurs who struggled to play the right notes, rhythms and dynamics, I had to be there always to help them. They were literally counting on me in helping them to play better! Nobody ever questioned my authority and I felt always totally in control of the situation. I can tell you, it is a nice feeling!

I stepped in front of professional orchestras only when I already felt comfortable and natural on the podium. I did not have any need to boost my ego, nor I felt any need to run or hide. Just imagine the difference to a person who got a couple of lessons and is "thrown at the wolves", so to say. When you are on the podium and a little nervous, everything gets magnified. You feel the players' big expectations in a good case, or their utter disdain towards a newcomer in the worst case... A student orchestra could give you a "soft landing" before the hard times start!


It is simply bad for your technique! With non-professionals you will feel like nothing you try to show matters to them. You show smaller, bigger, faster, slower - and nothing happens! You will be tempted to use two (or even more) preparatory beats, or count aloud when you start the piece. You will need to use different crutches to keep them together - loud singing, tapping the music stand with your stick, stomping your foot... You will exaggerate all your gestures in the vain hope someone would understand them! Do I need to go on?

Conducting amateurs can really destroy all the hard work of your conducting teacher if you are not extra careful. On the other hand in my opinion even amateurs have the right to see (and learn to understand) good conducting. Watch yourself!

Mozart syndrome With the slow progress of an amateur orchestra you get easily frustrated. You will start to doubt the meaningfullness of it all and end up with the Mozart syndrome (not to be confused with the "Mozart effect" which is another thing entirely). Mozart got that when he was working for Emperor Joseph II - he said about his salary "I get paid far too much for what I do, and far too little for what I could do." This feeling can be really deadly for your motivation. Beware!

You are not only a conductor! No! Far from it! You are as minimum the stage manager and the music librarian too! You will be the person to call after players (or their moms) who missed the rehearsal, and probably you will write the program notes too. If you want something to be done, make sure to do it yourself! You will also need to be the string pedagogue and probably a child psychologist too.

Nobody else gives a damn. In a music school the orchestra is usually the last thing your teacher colleagues care about. Most string teachers see playing in an orchestra as "bad for your technique" (you know how they feel, don't you?) and some of them would like their best students to skip it altogether. Their attitude easily catches on the little princes and princesses of the orchestra who think they are too good for the rest of the bunch. There are exceptions of course, but I have found out this to be the prevailing trend. As a conductor in a music school you might find yourself in a position where you are trying to swim against the current.

How to make the most of it

Prepare thoroughly before the first rehearsal (you will save everybody's time). When you have decided the repertoire you will give your players, learn it right away yourself. If possible, get all the bowings ready before the first rehearsal. If you work for ten hours before the first rehearsal and really know what you want with the pieces, you will end up having efficient rehearsals and saving many more hours during the term. It is easy to think "they are only amateurs - I will just go to the rehearsal and see what comes out". This might work - but it is also a way to lose all the other benefits you might get out of this work. Just read on!

Learn to conduct sectionals (the only guaranteed way to raise the level). When working with young players and amateurs, you will soon notice that you spend half of the time rehearsing one section while the rest of the orchestra is getting bored. This is inevitable, but you can make things a little better by scheduling sectionals. You will also notice that people are playing "wrong" in so many different ways simultaneously that the "tutti" rehearsal really is no place to fix all of them individually. In my opinion sectionals are THE ONLY WAY GUARANTEED to raise the level of an amateur orchestra. When listening to a single line you also will suddenly be aware of many things you did not notice on the score page. This experience will be very important to you when you start to work with professionals. Even good orchestras sometimes need sectionals, so learn how to lead them and be always prepared to do them.

Rehearse yourself! This is the only antidote against what these orchestras do to your technique! The good thing is, that amateurs need a lot of repetitions for the sake of just learning the notes. You don't have to give a big lecture as an excuse for another repetition of the same section of music. Just say "let's take it again and violins, please this time listen to the bass line" (they never do, BTW). NOW, this time when you play again, concentrate on making your conducting look as professional as possible. Is my beat SMALL enough? Am I conducting the phrasing? Is my posture good? Forget about the players, they rely on their ear anyway! For those who really follow you, give the cues with your eyes as a courtesy. Concentrate on a couple of things this time, and during the next repetition concentrate on some other things. While the playing might sound crappy, set the standards high right away on how your gestures look like.

Conduct by heart. There's always a first time, and what is better chance to try it than in the rehearsal with your amateur band! Keep your score there but don't turn the pages. It's not the Rite of Spring so you can feel relaxed while doing it! Again, rehearse yourself in a couple of other things. For example, while conducting and NOT watching your score, watch the very LAST desk players of the string sections. Or watch the bows of one of the sections - is everyone using the bow in similar manner, playing at the same spot and using as much bow? These are things you will do with professionals, why not start getting the good habits with amateurs?

Start building your own orchestral library. If your orchestra is capable of playing "real" repertoire, this tip might be really valuable to you when you later plan your professional repertoire. Also if you have several beginners' orchestras it will benefit you a lot if you save one set of clean parts of every piece for yourself. Maybe the piece you played with that orchestra two years ago is exactly what this orchestra needs now? Make notes about the difficulty level and other things that might make your work easier the next time. Pencil in the bowings and review them before next time. This is just one way of working you should be familiar with if you want to be a professional conductor. Many excellent conductors (for example Paavo Berglund and Yuri Simonov) come to the orchestra with their own materials that are already bowed and marked to correspond with their interpretation - and they save a lot of time and effort this way! Another habit worth thinking of.

Thursday 30 August 2007

Leonid Korchmar master class, day 5/5

Maestro Tarupiano
Aaltonen Davies Elo
Grasbeck Hiekkis Komulainen
Murdvee Makila Rombach Seppanen

The master class is finally over, and everything went perfectly! I have been resting for two days now after we finished everything, but still I am exhausted and overwhelmed by everything that happened during the past week.

On the last day everyone was working as hard as ever, and because of my coming competition in Zagreb I even had to give our faculty pianists some prima vista to play. Professor Korchmar insisted I should try the pieces out now that I have a chance!

After the last lesson we went to Manfred's place and had a great masterclass finishing party. I gave everyone a diploma and there were some nice speeches, and of course a lot of food, drink and informal chat... All the participants were enthusiastic about the new experience and eager to plan the next master class already! Professor Korchmar was also happy with all the arrangements and promised to return soon. It seems like we are establishing a tradition here! I am very happy for everyone who participated, because the style and quality of teaching we received during past five days was so different and refreshing compared to what we usually get in Finland. The Russians really know how to make studying interesting - and demanding...

Monday 27 August 2007

Leonid Korchmar master class, day 4/5

Today I had invited a singer to my master class session, to try out the Leonore's aria from Fidelio. The session was very helpful, and at the same time proved me how very difficult it is to be a good accompanist! You have to be aware of the singer's breathing all the time, never unnecessarily hurry her or hold her back, be always relaxed yourself to provoke relaxedness and good breathing in a singer etc. etc. Practically you need to know the score by heart to be with the singer 100% of the time!

Maanantain kuva

Everyone else seems to be learning a lot too. The Russian style of teaching in general works with multiple levels at the same time: Each students gets helpful advice to his specific problems. The people with tension get more and more relaxed, the people with phlegmatic hands conduct more focused and energetic. Sometimes the emphasis is on the accompaniment and the rhythm, sometimes in the melody and building the line. Sometimes Maestro Korchmar talks about breathing and transmitting energy from the center of your body. And all of this is been combined all the time, fluently moving from one topic to another! The intensity of the teaching is something quite different from what we are used to in Finland, and that is the fantastic side of it. After a short master class like this we are left with a lot of impressions, a lot of fuel to use during the following weeks and months.

Sunday 26 August 2007

Leonid Korchmar master class, day 3/5

Today I realized that making a master class is work! Yes, I used to think that the persons who are just hanging around master classes as a some kind of a "secretary" are there really for no reason. Today I understood that, really, there has to be some person who is ready to answer all questions, organize schedule changes, take care of finding a place to have lunch, etc. and this person has to be available all the time!

The bad thing is, that this time this person had to be me at the same time as I am trying to learn some new repertoire. Studying your own things has proved to be pretty much impossible during the past days. Here is a little video clip that shows what happens when someone calls and wants to come and listen to the lessons...

Phone rings during the conducting master class

Otherwise everything has been really perfect and I even started to feel a bit proud of myself for finally organizing this event instead of whining to the people working in the Sibelius Academy for not being interested enough. I want to encourage everyone: If you know a good teacher (especially a conducting teacher - good ones are so rare today!), invite him to teach, make a small effort to do everything by yourself. It will pay off!

Saturday 25 August 2007

Leonid Korchmar master class, day 2/5

Taru, LK, Jari
Our faculty: Professor Korchmar in the middle, between the course pianists Taru and Jari

LK, Petri LK, Petri 2
Petri getting "hands-on" instruction

LK, Heikki
Professor and Heikki: "Relax your arm, keep on moving..." LK, Heikki 2
"Give a cue with your eyebrows only..." LK, Anna
Discussing Beethoven's second symphony with Anna

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