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June 18, 2007

Musicians and engagement

by Robert Levine

Greg Sandow wrote:

...Suppose classical music was played now the way it was played in the 18th century. We'd see an orchestra on TV, and it would be full of personalities. The musicians -- and the music, too -- would just about jump off the screen. Bill would have no trouble following the progress of a piece, because the musicians would be dramatizing it for him, with their faces and their bodies. The entire audience, I'd have to think -- both the concert audience, and the people watching on TV -- would be jerked awake. I'd love that, for my own sake. I'd be jerked awake.

I hope I'm not the only person old enough to remember Peter Schickele's color commentary on a performance of the Beethoven fifth. That's exactly what it was like. And it was so funny because it was so unlikely and yet so right somehow.

Molly Sheridan wrote (and William Osborne echoed):

...I also had the opportunity to ask an orchestra executive once to estimate the percentage of the musicians in his orchestra he suspected actually wanted to be on stage on any given evening. He shot back, somewhat proud of the difficulty of his job, "Maybe 25%." Ack! $60 to watch miserable people? Sadly, the studies that have been done on orchestra musicians job satisfaction seem to indicate this situation is frightenly wide spread.

Yes, we keep talking about how miserable orchestra musicians can get, how crushed down their creativity, and then we talk about how bored they look on stage and how that alienates the audience, and then we do...what? Before we just start trying to make up experiences we hope the public will be seduced by, let's start with the people on stage.

Fair enough. My father and I wrote an article on the reasons for this about 10 years ago. I think what Molly writes is a little harsh, though. There are definitely days I'd rather be at home than on stage. But, most of the time, the musicians in my orchestra are committed to the performance, when given a fighting chance. More important, if the question was "what percentage of the orchestra would rather be doing something else for a living," the answer would be a pretty low number. I always wanted to be a pilot, but I can well imagine that I wouldn't enjoy sitting on the ramp for hours in the middle of a snowstorm. But I'd still enjoy being a pilot.

Greg also wrote:

If we watched an orchestra, the players would be doing what Oliver Perez couldn't quite manage -- hiding their personalities, looking blank. We wouldn't see them smile at each other, or at the music. We wouldn't see them move with the rhythm, or express themselves in any way with their bodies and their faces. That's forbidden! Quite literally so -- my Juilliard students tell me that their teachers forbid anything like that, even in solo playing.

Absolutely correct. Quartets are a lot more fun to watch because they have to move and be involved. Rock musicians seem to understand this best. I'm always amused when I see a rock bassist land on some pedal point and look so proud of himself - like he's just solved world hunger. But that's part of the gig. The fans want it, so they do it.

Could orchestra musicians be more involved? Yes. Could they show their involvement more? Absolutely, and they should. But it's going to require a culture change and a fair amount of time.

Posted by rlevine at June 18, 2007 7:14 PM


Though it is rare among orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic encourages its members to move when they play - by that is meant swaying around in their chairs. It is rumored that you can't pass your trial year there if you don't wobble enough. They stress that it is important for the members to show enthusiasm. New members are judged by whether or not they are "begeisterungsfähig" which roughly translates as "capable of being enthused." In Germany the orchestra is sometime nick named "The Wobblers." Catch a video of them sometime. You will likely see what I am talking about.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at June 18, 2007 7:57 PM

Robert, are you talking about Schickele's faux baseball commentary version? That's a great recording.

Posted by: Eric Lin at June 18, 2007 8:17 PM

I work in a concert hall where many different orchestras perform, from first class orchestras with mediatic conductors to young amateur orchestras. From my experience I must say that you do not need very enthusiastic musicians in an orchestra to experience the most exciting concert. However, when you see musicians smiling to each other, glimpsing with complicity through the performance and moving and breathing with the music, the audience tends to respond with much more enthusiasm. Therefore, the task of the public performance linked to joy and amusement is easily fulfilled.

Posted by: Jose Sanchis at June 19, 2007 1:20 AM

Greg Sandow continually uses the example of the orchestra as the starting and ending point for most of his views concerning the state of classical music and certainly one cannot argue with many of his observations as they apply to that institution. But as you point out, quartets (or any chamber music group with one-to-a-part) are more fun to watch, because the music demands that sort of interaction between them. If they're bona fide musicians, they're not moving around for the sake of moving around, though.

Which brings me to a couple of other points: this belief that movement-for-its-own-sake is essential for classical music to reach its audience has resulted in many performers who substitute a lot of dramatic-looking thrashing-about for actual expressive content. We can all think of many examples of this phenomenon.

Secondly, I find it extremely hard to believe that there are very many examples of teachers at the level of Juilliard or other top music schools who actually forbid facial expressiveness or moving in any way in relationship to the rhythm of the music. I know an enormous number of teachers at that school, other conservatories, or other major university music schools, and I have never encountered one who takes that draconian view. The student(s) who related this to Mr. Sandow may have misunderstood the directive. Many teachers, myself included, may direct the student away from extraneous motion that makes them LESS able to expressively convey what they would like, towards physical motion that enhances their expressive goal.

Posted by: Phillip at June 19, 2007 9:06 AM

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