Only Beating Time? A Gentle Guide to Classical Music Concerts


September brings the beginning of a new school year as well as the opening concerts to the Minnesota Orchestra’s new season.  And it has been about a year since I began writing this blog for the Perceval novels and Evan Quinn.  I was trying to remember this week the first time I ever saw a conductor on a podium.  I suspect it was a community band concert at a summer ice cream social in my hometown.  As children do, I imitated the conductor and thought he was a rather funny guy, his back to us, waving his arms around.  At times, I understood he controlled the music, how loud or soft, how fast or slow, but didn’t pay much attention beyond that.

In elementary school, I experienced conductors as a performer in both the choir and school orchestra.  And I also watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on television.  I don’t know if it was my experience as a performer or not, but I’ve never been one of those fidgety, coughing, snoring audience members who applaud at the end of every movement in a symphony.  I sit as still as possible, breathe quietly and concentrate on the music.  I don’t consider myself an “elitist” either, simply someone who loves to attend live concerts.  For a hilarious take on how to be a concert snob, please check out Sam Bergman’s “How to be an Elitist Snob in 20 Easy Steps.”  As a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra and long-time musician, he definitely speaks from the experience of a performer….

For a gentle guide to watching a conductor at work:

You’ve arrived with hundreds of other people (it’s a “good house”) at a concert hall to attend a symphony orchestra concert.  The people around you wear suits or sport jackets, dresses with diamonds or a casual pantsuit.  Open your concert program and find the section that encourages the audience to turn off all cell phones and pagers (please, please do this!) and that taking photographs is forbidden (please respect this!).  If you tend to cough or have a cold, the ushers can help you with cough drops, or bring your own.  If you do cough during the music, please cover your mouth with a handkerchief (or cough into your arm) to muffle the sound.  In most concert halls, the acoustics are extremely sensitive and a barrage of coughing is not appropriate accompaniment for the orchestra, especially during the really quiet parts.

The musicians begin to come onstage to take their seats.  They wear formal black attire, continue their warm-up on their instruments or wait quietly, watching the audience (yes, you!).  Three minutes or so before the concert is scheduled to begin, the concertmaster walks onstage.  Greet him/her with polite applause.  The concertmaster by tradition “tunes” the orchestra to the principal oboe’s “A” and takes his/her seat at the front of the first violin section.

When the stage door opens again, the conductor walks onstage.  Pay attention to his demeanor and pace, how the musicians react to him.  A purposeful walk, confident and relaxed manner, whether or not he smiles, signals a conductor in control and the concert will go well.  Usually.  (I love it when a conductor behaves as if he can’t wait to get to the podium to share the music with the audience and runs onstage.)  The musicians should be relaxed, attentive and respectful.  No fidgeting, frowns or glares, please.  The conductor will bow and smile to the welcoming applause, and gesture to the orchestra to include them in the applause.  He’ll shake hands with the concertmaster before stepping onto the podium, his back to the audience.

If a conductor stands for a moment before raising his arms, he’s preparing for the downbeat, waiting for the audience (you) to quiet down, for the musicians to focus on him (usually they already are) or focusing his concentration.  When he raises his arms, the musicians ready their instruments.  The conductor drops his right hand holding the baton — the downbeat — and from this moment until the music’s end, he is responsible for keeping the orchestra together.

His right hand keeps the beat and tempo, his left hand signals changes, phrasing, dynamics and any necessary cues for the musicians.  Musicians know also to watch his face for cues and encouragement, shoulders for the beat, and so on.  Each conductor has his own unique way of expressing the basic vocabulary of gestures conductors use to communicate to the musicians during the concert that he’s learned and practiced and perfected over years of experience.  Clarity and consistency are essential for this body language to be effective.  A conductor’s gestures will reflect what the composer wrote in the score.  Watch his hands and listen to the sound that follows.  What did he do to make the music louder or slow the tempo?  At the end, his right hand, often with the left hand, will “cut off” the music.  It will be clear, whether it’s a downward slice of the baton or a small circle traced by the baton’s tip.

Conductors also move on the podium, although I’ve seen a few conductors who stand and only move their hands and arms, and use their faces to communicate.  This stillness tends to intensify the attention on their hands.  But for the audience, it’s not quite as much fun to watch.  Does the conductor lean down to the first violins for emphasis?  Has he lowered himself to a half-crouch to decrease the volume?  Movements like these can signal emphasis, guide the audience through the music, and is part of the “showman” aspect of conducting.  These movements are like a living, physical representation of the music.  The wise and experienced conductor moves as he’s comfortable doing in the service of the music and his orchestra, however, not to call attention to himself.

When the music is completely finished — at the end of each section or movement, the conductor remains facing the orchestra and the audience needs to wait quietly for the next section — the conductor puts down his baton.  Simple.  But wait for the conductor, especially after an especially emotional piece of music, like the Verdi Requiem, before expressing your appreciation with applause.  Sometimes, the silence after the cut-off is part of the music….  The conductor turns to the audience and bows, steps down from the podium and shakes the concertmaster’s hand, waves for the orchestra to stand and bow with him to receive your applause.  He then exits the stage.

For more detailed and specific descriptions of conducting technique, I’d recommend Max Rudolf’s The Grammar of Conducting which covers how to beat different meters to controlling dynamics or tempo to rehearsal techniques.  Knowing what a conductor does and why opens wider the window to understanding and enjoying the music and concert experience.

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2 responses to “Only Beating Time? A Gentle Guide to Classical Music Concerts

  1. CY: “The concertmaster by tradition “tunes” the orchestra to the principal oboe’s “A” and takes his/her seat at the front of the first violin section.”

    I played oboe in high school. One of the more terrifying moments was the realization that the band was going to be tuning to me. It being a small high school, we were lucky to even have an oboe 🙂 It was the very beginning of seriously learning how to tune my instrument.

    I find it interesting how “field conductors” work with marching bands. I never really understood how they could do all of what you describe, since the musicians were marching, and likely not even looking in her direction. After playing in a marching band, I realized that she stands & directs so that whomever is facing that side of the field at any given time has direction. She then relies on that subset to keep the band together. In this case, though, it becomes critical during rehearsal that one learn the expected directions, so that if not facing the conductor, one can still keep up with everyone else.

  2. I was in the junior high band (and orchestra) and the only marching we did was in parades. Difficult enough when one can’t see the drum major in front…. I had to quit the French horn in junior high so I never had the experience of being in a marching band during halftime.

    If a conductor loses his place — yes, it can happen and does — the concertmaster keeps the orchestra going and together. They all watch him/her until the conductor is back with them. The most common cause for losing his place? Loss of concentration due to some distraction…like excessive coughing in the hall….

    I say “by tradition” because nowadays everyone tunes backstage. It’s a nice ritual that serves to focus everyone for the concert’s beginning. And weren’t you lucky, Elizabeth, to be the only oboe! (smile)

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