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Don't Fix It

Epic fail?

And now, as promised, a Blog About Blame.

Okay, two weeks ago I wrote that post about overreaching, and it generated a small but healthy discussion that I very much enjoyed, so I thought I’d try to stretch that. Whatever, I do what I want.

Today’s topic at hand is quasi-related, as it again deals with poor performances and poor ensembles. My question is: if the concert is bad, who is at fault?

My high school orchestra teacher once asked us this question, and then strongly averred that the blame lies with the director. It is the job of the director to select music that is suited to the group, to teach it to said group effectively, to motivate the musicians to want to succeed, and to light a fire under the butts of those who are not performing to the best of their ability.

However, as everyone likes to lament when talking about the state of our educational systems, there is only so much you can do with a student (formal or otherwise) who simply is not there to learn. The music director cannot be expected to follow every musician home and personally ensure that they both practice and practice properly.

Therefore, who is at fault in the case of a poor performance? The music director for bungling the handling of the group, or the musicians for being unable or unwilling to rise to the challenge? And I don’t want any of that namby-pamby “it’s all about the experience!” “Every performance is a success!” crap. Don’t lie. You can debate it all you like – I too tend to see every situation in shades of gray – but I want you to come down on one side or the other.

Me? I come down on the side of pinning the blame on the music director (I know, I’m really currying their favor lately, aren’t I?). In the words of Horace Mann: “A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron.”

Is it entirely fair? No. I can only imagine the hell a large group of uninterested musicians would create. But that is, in the most literal sense, the music director’s problem. If the creation of music required no leader, and if the implications of the term “leadership” required no real, well, leadership, what would the music director be for?

All right, go ahead. Rip me a new one.


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.


8 thoughts on “Epic fail?

  1. Sorry, can’t come down on one side or t’other: Tis both the conductor’s fault AND the players’ fault. (BTW, most conductors are musicians as well, except those generally found on moving multi-passenger vehicles).

    They both have specific responsibilities and sometimes one or both fail – all too many times the conductor doesn’t help/ inspire players & singers, though. Of course, one must also consider ability… in a community orchestra for example, would you play a grade 2 arrangement of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture without any semi-quavers (16th notes), or try the original and let the local deli cook’s chunky fingers move as quickly as they can up and down the fingerboard? In most cases like that, I tell players to aim for (or even just play) the first note in each group of four! Sacrilege! I hear folks scream.

    So, now we’ve added ‘purpose’ of the ensemble’s existence to the mix, and neither player nor conductor is to blame. What else…?

    Well, the luxury of fully motivated, perfectly practiced full-time musicians is only available to a handful of the world’s politically-astute personalities, and the rest of us must encourage and challenge enthusiasts of varying accomplishment and dedication as much as possible: A terrible rendition of a difficult piece CAN end up far more effective and inspiring than an easy piece played perfectly. Occasionally.

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | June 9, 2010, 11:27 am
    • Awww, I wanted to make teams! Oh well, you get a pass because you explained yourself so nicely. 😀 I agree that there are many vagueries involved in the term “bad,” so that does muddy the waters a bit.

      Posted by Jenn | June 14, 2010, 1:25 pm
  2. I’ve experienced both. Most recently, an entire chorus of unresponsive people. Different people attending/not attending every rehearsal, so it was not possible to know who knew the music and who didn’t. This group was, with the exception of maybe 2 people, total impossible to inspire. 99% didn’t even participate.

    So I’d say that belongs w/the chorus this time.

    Posted by Gretchen Saathoff | June 9, 2010, 11:53 pm
  3. I’m grading AP Music Theory exams… because I love education that much. (Insert large amounts of sarcasm here). I say that to let you know Jenn, why my response has been lagging… 😉

    Let’s start here: (Quoting) If the creation (I’m assuming you mean “performance”) of music required no leader, and if the implications of the term “leadership” required no real, well, leadership, what would the music director be for? (End Quoting)

    Nothing. Of course, that’s assuming the musicians performing can assimilate the nuances and indications the composer presents – as one, without a single leader – then sure, a director or leader, would indeed be obsolete. Although what I just stated reeks of arrogance, this is why a ensemble needs a single leader.

    This also goes to strengthen your point as well. In your absolute world, a poor performance – since the leader must lead – means he/she is “at fault”.

    However, you know – everyone knows – there are a HOST of factors to determine the “fault” of a poor performance. Furthermore, there are several levels of “poor” performance too. (I”m sounding very “Clinton-esque” with this answer… I did NOT conduct with that poor performance…” WAY off track, I apologize…)

    OK, so my brain is FRIED. This may not even make sense. YOU grade the same question on the AP exam – SIGHT-SINGING question, at that – and YOU try to make sense!

    Extra peaced out –

    Dr. Carney

    Posted by Dr. Carney | June 13, 2010, 6:05 pm
    • Makes sense to me – and you have my sincere apologies. If it helps, speaking as a former music theory student, your students were pretty soundly tortured leading up to/during the test. (Mostly self-inflicted, that’s the worst of it.)

      Posted by Jenn | June 14, 2010, 1:27 pm


  1. Pingback: “I’m going to tell you now the secret – something that conductors want to hide” « If it ain't Baroque… - November 15, 2012

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