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Don't Fix It

On the evils of overreaching

And now for an unpopular opinion! This one could bring all you music directors down on my head (I almost typed “heads;” who do I think I am, Zaphod Beeblebrox?). Nevertheless, it is a pet peeve of mine, and as I recently bore witness to horrific example I’m getting up on my soap box for a bit.

Okay, here it is: I think some music directors don’t recognize the limitations of their musicians and overreach when selecting concert pieces.

I’ve seen it: a couple weeks ago I attended a school concert. I won’t say what school (since, um, I won’t be complimentary), but I will say it was above high school level. The chamber music ensemble came on and began to play a piece by Haydn, and I’m SORRY but it was so bad I almost burst out laughing. I had to hide behind my program and silently convulse until I had composed myself. I know! I know! Unprofessional and downright mean! But it was a visceral reaction!

Their next selection was almost as terrible, but the last two were palatable. They weren’t great, but they were palatable. And I thought to myself, if the music director had chosen four pieces on that level, things wouldn’t have been nearly as embarrassing.

I’ve lived it: in undergrad I had a string ensemble director so heinous he drove me right out of the program. Was it because he looked almost exactly like Richard Simmons? … Okay, maybe a little. But mostly it was because he turned our little orchestra into the M****l S****s Orchestral Vehicle For Self Promotion.

A violist, he had us play a Hindemith viola concerto so that he could do the solo. The strings program at my college was not robust, and the Hindemith was so far out of our league that we weren’t even playing the same sport. There was one other cellist besides me, and I remember us in rehearsal being on two completely different measures. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: Where are you?

Her: I don’t know. Where are you?

Me: I don’t know!

THAT SHOULD NOT HAPPEN. Honestly, it makes me so mad that we were even playing it in the first place I still want to find the man and strangle him. His solution was to bring in his own string quartet to lead the sections in the concert. Don’t even get me started on that one.

I can see the value of a challenge. Sometimes if you ask your musicians to rise to the occasion they will pleasantly surprise you; sometimes it will inspire them to work harder and bust it out against the odds. Twelfth grade orchestra, one week before Music in the Parks at my one true love Walt Disney World, O’Bryan pulls out an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and says hey, let’s just give this a shot. No pressure. We tried it, we practiced the heck out of it in the next four days, and we played it that weekend for a jury. But, see… we sounded pretty good. If we had sounded crappy, WE WOULD HAVE PLAYED SOMETHING ELSE. (Incidentally, that strings program was also pretty anemic. Small numbers is not an excuse.)

I know what every music director tells you before the concert: “Don’t worry if you make a mistake! Nobody out there knows the difference!” All my conductors certainly have, every time. And I would think to myself: Ha! My mother is in the audience AND SHE KNOWS AND SHE WILL TELL ME. Which didn’t bother me, because if it sucked it sucked and we’re honest about music in my family. But I guess it makes me… maybe a little hypercritical?

But still! How can you go out there on stage and smile and conduct when your ensemble isn’t just a little pitchy but downright bad? Is there something I’m not getting?

(Disclaimer: I recognize that not all music directors are guilty of these sins. Don’t feel like just because you’re a music director I’m automatically lumping you into this group. I’ve just noticed it an awful lot of this sort of thing.)

About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


16 thoughts on “On the evils of overreaching

  1. I feel ya! I’ve had the same problem as a percussionist in my youth. Fortunately, and I don’t know why, as a conductor I am very sensitive to an ensemble’s ability and am often told by players I program just the right balance of playable, easy and challenging repertoire.

    You know, it’s impossible for me to say this without blowing my own trumpet (which I sold a few years back, anyway), but the vast majority of incompetent players-turned-conductors – whether professional soloists or failed career junkies – make those who are actual “leaders” (as in, they could be a CEO as much as an MD) look really bad: we all get a bad rap (your disclaimer is noted). Playing for a conductor who talks less than they wave, chooses repertoire that’s mostly playable, and earns respectful silence when stopping in a rehearsal sometimes seems like a dream, but these folk are out there! Very rare, and usually completely dismissed by the establishment (speaking from experience).

    So, take heart, dear unbaroquen one. Most sheep are followers who don’t know where they’re going yet assume they can lead their herds in the same direction, but there are some actual real leaders who enable quite brilliant music-making to take place at every rehearsal and every concert. They never seem to forget: There’s more to music than music!

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | May 26, 2010, 12:57 pm
  2. Ah, Jenn – One coin, 15 sides…

    The issue of programming is something I’ve researched, completed my dissertation on, lectured at conferences, and continue to research in my career.

    To me, programming is the CURRICULUM of the ensemble – meaning what I choose to program is what I choose to educate with. (Obviously, I did NOT choose proper English as my vehicle to educate, but moving forward…) One step further, Literature is the curriculum I choose to educate my students, my audience, and yes, myself.

    Some 10+ years ago, I was as guilty as the next person in OVER-programming (either in length, or depth, or both!) because I was coming from such strong University programs that I figured “EVERYONE must be able to play Gorb, Maslanka, Hindemith, and Holst on their program. I mean, I just did AND it’s such beautiful music! How can I go wrong?” Answer: easily.

    Usually, after the first (200+) time(s), you finally realize that YOU have made an error. Whether you receive feedback in the form of adjudicators, parents, audience, students, colleagues… you will get the message as long as you have that awareness and fortitude to admit “I’ve made a mistake”. For some, that’s a hurdle they can NOT jump… and everyone suffers.

    The next point is where many conductors/directors/educators make a conscience choice. I must either (a) choose literature to ensure success of the ____________ (the “blank” can be many things, and possibly a combo of things, such as ratings at a festival, my students, my audience, myself, my job, etc… OR (b) choose literature to impress others (for self-gratification, for “resume-stuffing”, etc…)

    Now, the counter-counter-revolucion (sorry, terrible “Robot Chicken” sketch reference… yes, I am THAT nerdy…) That is to say, on the other-other hand, there are some who will over-program on purpose. I am currently in that stage with my University group.

    In the Fall, I programmed Morton Gould’s Jericho Rhapsody*. This was just beyond our collective reach. Some of the musicians could handle it, but the majority where overwhelmed with intonation challenges (especially) as well as endurance (particularly, the brass). And that was 1 of 8 works on the Fall concert – BUT – this was intentional. When we reconvened this Spring, we were “battle tested” and I consciously reduced the overall level of difficultly (not quality!) of the Spring concert – and we had the best concert to date.

    Quick side note: The Clayton State University Wind Ensemble has completed its 5th year of existence, so I can truly say, this is the best concert performance (in every way imaginable) since its inception.

    Now does that “excuse” what we did in the Fall? Does that mean I should continue to OVER-program one concert for the sake of developing my program long term? Will over-programming HURT or HELP (audience attendance, student participation, educational goals, etc.) in the long run? That’s a personal question all conductors/directors SHOULD face, but some choose to ignore OR are simply unaware.

    Now to answer your questions, “How can you go out there on stage and smile and conduct when your ensemble isn’t just a little pitchy but downright bad? Is there something I’m not getting?”

    The answer is, of course, yes.

    Yes, you’re not getting to experience the starting point to the end result (perhaps it was positive!).

    Yes, (in the case of the Chamber group mentioned above playing Haydn) you’re not exposed to how that group was formed, music was selected, and if there was quality “chamber coach” or even a “coach” at all!

    Yes, you’re not getting the educational and/or musical values instilled from conductor to students/performers in every rehearsal.

    Yes, you’re not getting to see/hear the reactions of the students who continued to come to rehearsals.

    Yes, you’re not getting whatever the conductor apparently is (personal satisfaction, a “notch on the conducting belt”, joy of providing the opportunity to his/her students, the blind faith that he/she is doing something wonderful, etc)

    What you ARE getting is the end product – that’s it. And of course, that is ALL you can judge. Music is a 100% correct art-form. In math, science, social studies, etc – if you get an 99%, and I get a 92% – we BOTH receive an A. However, if I play 92% correct & you play 99% correct – you get the JOB, and I get to “try again when you improve”.

    Now, on my final other-other-OTHER hand, all of the above does NOT, in NO WAY, excuse a conductor/director from ignorance. You must understand limitations and make informed decisions on literature selections. This is important at EVERY level, elementary – professional ensembles, otherwise growth will not happen. You must understand the literature you are selecting – even literature that others, no matter how celebrated those others are – have pre-determined for you as “quality” may be OVER-programmed for your ensemble.

    Are you stating an “unpopular opinion’? Perhaps an unWANTED opinion, but certainly not unpopular. It is quite known among those who study the craft that literature IS the “it” – the cool kid in school – and if you choose a bully (or bullies), you risk damaging your program BEYOND the performance. Look what your bully did ( the Hindemith viola concerto so that he could do the solo) to you – how much damage was done to you? 😦

    I’m sincerely glad your 12th grade orchestra director had more insights! πŸ™‚

    And you continue to ask the “unpopular questions” – it’s the only way music will continue to live as the 100% quality art-form it deserves to be!

    And…step down from soap box, curtsy left, curtsy right, and retrieve. πŸ˜›

    Peace out –

    Dr. Carney

    *(If you don’t that work, here’s a quality recording:

    Posted by Dr. Carney | May 26, 2010, 1:56 pm
    • I was awaiting your reaction, and I am not disappointed. I do have a question. I had never thought of using a piece as a sort of musical boot camp and I can see the benefits. However, do you think it would have been effective if you hadn’t performed it? Why did you choose to do so even though it was not, technically, concert ready?

      Also, I’ve been listening to my Four Parks – One World CD and have come to the conclusion that you should orchestrate the Soarin’ soundtrack for your winds. Meanwhile I shall orchestra Reflections of China for cello ensemble and we’ll meet right back here at half past a small world after all.

      Posted by Jenn | May 26, 2010, 9:32 pm
      • We performed the Jericho Rhapsody because those musicians i did mention – the ones who could handle it – would be challenged enough themselves AND be able to “carry” the rest of the ensemble through it. It wasn’t an “awful” performance, but clearly not our best. However, it did expose my students to the flaws the individually & in some cases collectvely have/had (I hope HAD!)

        There is no doubt I could’ve chosen different literature to ensure a fine performance, but that is not my sole purpose in being a music educator – it is to indeed TEACH music. By using literature that pushed us to the edge of our ability, I illustrated what CAN be possible through practice & sacrifice, as opposed to finding their ceiling and staying under it.

        Make no mistake, these are tough choices, but – and I can’t stress this enough – the key is I discussed this very issue with my ensemble. They knew I was challenging them to rise up – some did, some didn’t – and the end result showed them. Some of these students want to be band directors, and I feel it’s vital they understand that these moments have to be part of the GROWTH process, and not simply “settle” because they know they’ll receive a 1 at district festival by playing less difficult music (which doesn’t challenge them to grow as musicians/conductors either!)

        I planned, prior to unleashing Jericho on them, how we could rehearse and meet the challenge, but I can only provide so much. University students HAVE to make choices, but that’s an entirely other soap box and it’s late…

        Peace out –

        Dr. Carney

        Posted by Dr. Carney | May 26, 2010, 11:47 pm
  3. Jenn – Dr. Carney appears to be a conscientious educator with a solid instinct in progressive expectation and sensitivity towards balancing individual vs. collective motivation (gained through experience, as noted). I applaud his explanations and whilst I’d like to think he and I read the same page as strong musical leaders, I can only aspire to attain an equal consistency and eloquence that he seems to have achieved through his sharing music with others…
    Enjoy all he can depart!

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | May 27, 2010, 1:35 am
  4. Thanks for sharing one of your older postings, Jenn!

    Just so you know, you haven’t heard the absolute worst school band/orchestra until you’ve heard the band at Queens Lutheran School circa 1979 performing the Sunrise movement of Also Sprach Zarathustra! It was truly the sound of life dying in front of you.

    Posted by Chris McGovern | May 15, 2011, 8:13 pm
  5. As a violist, I feel compelled to point out that there *is* only one Hindemith viola concerto, Der Schwanendreher. Hindemith also wrote Trauermusik, which is a suite not a concerto (sorry for the pedantry). Which was it that your director forced you to play? Did your ensemble not make him aware of the obvious issues, or was he too egotistical to notice anything? I guess dialogue between the ensemble and director has to always be present to prevent issues like picking pieces which are too hard, which oes happen all too often.

    Picking up on your recent post as well, I don’t know whether it’s a UK-US thing, but I have never, ever been told by a conductor/director before the concert to not worry about mistakes as no-one in the audience will notice. That seems to me to encourage a lack of responsibility in the players and a desire not to even want to play the best they can, even less reach their potential. And in many cases in concerts I’ve played in, there have been people who know much more than the performers about the music. I always find it safest to assume there are experts in the audience, and try and pretend you are playing to them. Obviously everyone makes mistakes, but it is learning to cover and recover from them that is the most important lesson to learn, not the ‘it doesn’t matter in the first place’ attitude.

    Oh, and I find your series of ‘viola joke’ posts rather offensive, even though I know you were a viola player. Do you still find them funny?

    Posted by jesswyatt | May 28, 2013, 12:18 pm
    • Oh, interesting – I believe it was Trauermusik, but I could be wrong. It was the one that was written as a memorial. I believe we registered some half-hearted complaints, but you’re correct in the idea in that we should probably have approached him directly and told him exactly how much trouble we were having, as opposed to expecting him to hear it.

      Would you mind if I took your response to today’s post and added it as a comment there? Or you could do it, if you prefer! Either way, I would love it if your response sparked some discourse. It’s even possible that I’ve just weirdly had the one string of conductors that do it and no one else in the world does.

      Actually, I’ve never been a violist, although my brother just got his BA in viola performance. Viola jokes are not meant to be offensive; they’re a recognized trope that most violists I know enjoy in that same perverse way that lawyers enjoy lawyer jokes. In fact, a lot of viola jokes ARE lawyer jokes with violists swapped in! I’ve played the violin, though. Try these on for size:

      Q. Why are viola jokes so short?
      A. So that violinists can understand them.

      Q. Why are violas larger than violins?
      A. They aren’t; it’s an optical illusion. Violinists have bigger heads.

      See, nobody is safe. πŸ˜‰

      Posted by Jenn | May 28, 2013, 12:27 pm
      • Haha, those are quite good! I like it when they are reversed – in fact, take almost any viola joke and substitute the name of any other instrument (sometime it has to be strings to work) and you’ll find the joke works just as well!

        Sorry, I’ve now read your about page and discovered that you play violin, cello and piano, oops. I guess the ‘take my viola’ thing in the header mislead me!

        Just looked it up and it must have been Trauermusik you played, which was written in memory of King George V.

        Of course, repost my comment (I’m not sure how to) – I’m rather flattered that you want to πŸ™‚

        Posted by jesswyatt | May 28, 2013, 12:34 pm
    • Dear JessWyatt,
      As someone who regularly traverses both sides of the Atlantic since I was a teen some 29 years ago, I can assure you it is entirely a US/UK thing: no-one in the UK dare mention that an audience member may be ignorant to what’s going on musically, because as you mention, many of them probably aren’t. I’ve only ever heard it said States-side (and usually by Educators, too), much to my dismay. I just wish US performers would stop kidding themselves, and US audiences stop keeping quiet about their actual experience and knowledge – it would make for a MUCH healthier live music environment.
      That’s all.

      Posted by www.stephenpbrown.com | May 28, 2013, 1:31 pm


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