As a musician, it's not often that a conductor makes me a little nervous anymore, but it happened this past week when the USC Symphony began working on a concert featuring the 5th symphony of Shostakovich with Maestro James Conlon as the guest conductor. I have performed movements of this work before, so it wasn't a matter of my not being familiar with the work - I just don't think I was taking full liability for what was going on around me and my section. Being in an orchestra is often compared to being on a team, but it is so much more. On a basketball court, someone else can play your position if need be, but if you drop the ball on the concert stage there isn't anyone else there to do it for you! You also have to be aware, as a principal musician, of what your section is doing, and do everything you can to assist them. After some concentration, and a cigarette or two (I know, bad), I got into the groove, was more aware, and stopped relying on the conductor to do it all for me. Everything felt great. Conlon does such a great job of showing the music that's in his mind and in his heart, and I think doing the same from my seat helped the bassoon section, and maybe even other sections in the wind family.
Maestro Conlon, for those of you who don't know, is the conductor of the Los Angeles Opera, and has lead many orchestras world wide. His body of knowledge on music is limitless, and working with him was a great honor. It's one thing to be famous, but it's another thing to show a group of musicians WHY you're so famous, and he did just that on his first day in front of us. He began rehearsal by explaining his beat patterns. I've never thought that it really matted much, as long as you're counting, but it ended up being very helpful, as the music on this concert was very complex in nature. Whenever we lead a group of people in anything we do, it's probably best to lay out the plan of action ahead of time, as to save time later. When he finally dropped the first down beat, the energy was so high that it took me by surprise! He showed us what was inside of his head and transferred it throughout his whole body - not just the baton. He tended to stay away from the traditional "floor door wall ceiling" sort of beat pattern, but what he DID do made perfect sense in the context of the music. So often we're afraid to do what we want artistically because "the rules" say differently, but that philosophy clearly was not a concern of Conlon's, and it ended up being amazing. What I learned from this, though, was that I needed to be THOUROUGHLY familiar with the work, so that we didn't have to, in his words, "rely on a cue".
After about 30 minutes of rehearsal something beautiful happened - the orchestra began to rely more on each other. In this world we tend to look at a boss, parent, or teacher for all the answers. Superiors are definitely there for a reason, but sometimes we have to be liable for ourselves and other people, and that's what Conlon did for us in that rehearsal. I found myself taking more explicit breaths, even if I didn't have an entrance (to assist my section), and to also help "hold the tempo", as Conlon instructed the wind section to do. I even took physical cues for time and rhythm from other sections not near me, like the violas - something I've never really done in an orchestral setting. Being more liable for ourselves and others and not "relying on a cue" is something I think we all should think about in our various professions. Take more initiative. Go above and beyond. Help others do a better job.
Take a listen to a movement or two of Shostakovich 5 this week, and think about your own liability. The next time you're at your job and you're given the opportunity, help "hold the tempo", proverbially, and practice this in things big and small, for in the words of Conlon, "the smaller the note, the more important".
My most favorite thing about Conlon, though, was the he didn't allow the trumpets to play at 4 f's all the freaking time! :-)