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New Horizons in Conductor Self-Awareness
27 Feb 2012
Inside the Classics

It’s been quite a while since we in the Minnesota Orchestra have had ourselves a good, old-fashioned train wreck. Like, years, I think, unless I’ve subconsciously blocked a particularly traumatic concert from my memory. Which is all to the good, of course, since people pay good money to listen to us play music, and while we might consider train wrecks to be hilarious story fodder, they’re often pretty jarring and unpleasant for the audience. (Apparently not to local critics, though – the last major catastrophe I can remember was described in one of our dailies as “…the performance [getting] briefly off track…”)

Interesting side note: the Minnesota Orchestra is, so far as I know, the only major American orchestra which can claim a literal train wreck as part of its franchise history. I don’t have the details handy, but if memory serves, there was a pretty serious passenger train derailment back in the days when the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra used to criss-cross the nation by train, touring for months at a time. Pretty sure no one in the orchestra was seriously hurt, so as with our figurative train wrecks, it’s just another good story for later use.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about train wrecks is that, unlike with most aspects of orchestral performance, it’s generally pretty easy to discern what happened and whose fault it was. Because it’s pretty much always the conductor’s fault.

I mean, think about it. There are 95 musicians on that stage, and we’re all trying our very best to keep things running smoothly. So if one or two of us stumble, even in a particularly audible and embarrassing way, the other 93 of us will generally keep charging right along and make the tiny adjustments necessary to keep the situation from snowballing. Happens every day, no big deal, part of the job, blah blah blah. So the bottom line is that it’s nearly impossible for a single musician, or even a small cluster, to cause the rest of the orchestra to falter badly enough for a train wreck to occur.

But when the conductor, the one person on stage to whom literally everyone is paying attention all the time, screws up, we’ve got ourselves a situation. Most times, even a conductor miscue can be smoothly sorted out on the fly, and no harm done (other than to the conductor’s reputation in our collective memory, since orchestra musicians mercilessly catalog such things.) But if it happens during a complicated passage, or in the middle of an extended run of compound meter, or at a crucial point where the entire orchestra has to change tempo or something, well… there’s your train wreck. Even if you somehow muddle through without having to actually stop and restart, the jig is up, and everyone in the room knows it. It might be the most mortifying thing a conductor can endure.

Enter my pal Jen Strom, top-flight violist and regular substitute player with both us and the Chicago Symphony. Jen, being a helpful sort, has recently devised a groundbreaking flowchart to assist the conductors of the world in recovering from their latest train wreck. Behold:

Click for full size...

Simple, to the point, and devastatingly accurate. By the way, Jen’s also been hard at work on a little pamphlet for conductors looking to improve their standing with orchestra musicians. The title’s unprintable on a family blog, so I’ll say no more about it here, but on the off chance that one of our readers owns a small, independent publishing house and enjoys satirical pokes at obscure industries, I’d be happy to put you in touch with the author of your next bestseller…

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