Concerto for baton, false teeth and knees

There are a lot of really terrible conductors out there. Seriously. Truly hopeless. I sometimes think musicians would be better off without them, except we’d have to play in baroque orchestras and wear Birkenstocks.

Anyway, I reckon there are 3 basic rules for conducting and they all boil down to the same thing: how to avoid making a musician look like a twat.

I ought to put my cards on the table at this point and confess that I’ve only played with a couple of conductors who do it as a day job. You know, famous names. One of them (let’s call him Fred, to save embarrassment) had the disconcerting habit of jiggling his false teeth during the fast bits. The viola section found this particularly off-putting. But he could get away with it because he was brilliantly, wonderfully (and famously) good.

Fred, incidentally, isn’t the only conductor who jiggles his teeth. One of our local choral conductors also does it, whilst simultaneously muttering instructions to the orchestra. We gave a unique performance of Fauré’s Requiem recently. Unique because it began with a clearly audible “Two, three, four – now!”

Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to rule number 1 for conductors:

1. Don’t witter on

Musicians can work out how you want it played from what you’re doing, not what you’re saying. At its most basic, if you wave big we’ll play loudly. If you wave small we’ll play quietly. If your baton goes quickly we’ll play fast and if it goes slowly – well, you get the picture. I’m not going to go on about it.

2. Don’t faff about

It’s a baton, not a paintbrush. Look, this is what I mean:

First beat of the bar, you see – the downbeat. We need to know exactly where it is. Otherwise we get confused.

Richard Strauss, who knew about these things, once said, “You should not perspire when conducting”.

He’s right. The best conductors hardly move at all. It’s all very well showing off to the audience with your twiddles but this is the thing: it’s us musicians that look like idiots when the downbeat drowns in a sea of artistic swirliness.

Another of our local maestros is infamous for the vagueness of his downbeat. We’ve discovered, from a whole series of embarrassments, that the most effective way of following him is to watch his knees. He bobs up and down. Provided we catch him at the lowest point of the bobbing, we’re fine. He also has an irritating habit of blaming the orchestra when we fail to follow his knees.

Which brings me on, rather messily, to…

3. Respect your musicians

  • Don’t blame us when you go wrong
  • Learn the music before you get to the rehearsal, not during it
  • Please notice if we fail to follow – and ask us how you could be clearer. Because we know, you know
  • Allow wind players time to breathe in. We have a tendency to pass out if you don’t

Most importantly, remember that we’re the ones who have to make the music. You’d look like a right plonker if we didn’t, wouldn’t you.

We don’t particularly mind the teeth thing by the way. RIP, Fred.


Fantasy for bassoon, chorus and music stand

There are two really annoying things about being a bassoonist. The first one happens when people ask what I play. “Ooh, that’s very unusual”, they say. “There can’t be many of those around”.  The second one involves choirs.

My face sometimes has an unfortunate knack of revealing exactly what I’m thinking.  And when someone expresses amazement that there are actually bassoons in an orchestra, well, I’m thinking “idiot”.  It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it.

I usually explain nicely that there are 2 of us in most orchestras, the same as the clarinet section and the oboe section. And the flute section. Actually, I sometimes wish I played the flute. No one ever says to flautists, “What’s a flute?” or “What does a flute sound like?” or “Is that like a clarinet?”

But getting back to the point, there are quite a lot of us out there. There are at least 2 bassoons in pretty much every piece of classical music you know.  It’s just that it’s not a famous instrument, or glamorous, and Nicola Benedetti doesn’t play it. And you have to listen properly. First 8 bars of the Mozart Requiem. (Idiot.)

Anyway, choirs. The life of a freelance musician involves a lot of choral gigs. I did one in Arundel a couple of weeks ago – Haydn, The Creation. Nice tunes, great words (“rolling in foaming billows” – sounds rather comfortable). Lack of space means the choir has to stand quite close to the orchestra, the sopranos often immediately behind the bassoon section.

Imagine a lady of a certain age, smart florals with an elasticated waist, husband at home with the Telegraph, secret passion for the conductor, ensemble tittering. That’s a soprano. I call them Giggling Glorias.

Occasionally there’s a tenor nearby but tenors are a bit hard to come by so they’re called Billy Bellow – because they compensate by coming in over-enthusiastically and slightly too early on every entry. But look, this is the point about choirs…

They rest their music on my head.

On my head! While I’m trying to play. Words cannot describe how maddeningly irritating this is. I AM NOT A MUSIC STAND!

Next time you go to a choral gig, check out the back row of the orchestra. There’s a war going on. (We call the altos Whooping Wilmas, in case you were wondering. Especially in anything by Brahms).