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How to Make Dozens of Musicians Play as One

What are you listening for when you're conducting?

\r\nAlan Gilbert:  Well, both.  I mean, I try to hear everything \r\nthat's happening, and that can be very, very difficult, and someone that\r\n tells you, “Oh, I hear everything that's happening onstage” is lying \r\nbecause there's almost no way, I think, to really do that.  But as an \r\nexercise, I do try to identify, okay, What is that musician, the third \r\nflute, playing?  And I try to make sure I can hear that.  You have to \r\nhear what's going on because if you're... there's a way... I've used the\r\n analogy...  It's like a ball, a very big ball.  You can affect the way \r\nthe ball rolls, and you can change the direction that the ball is \r\nrolling if it's already in motion, but you can't suddenly have it turn \r\nan abrupt angle.  There's a natural way that the ball can be guided, so \r\neven though you're steering the ball there's a natural momentum the ball\r\n has that you can't interfere with. 

If the orchestra has a \r\ncertain flow, you can affect the flow, but there's a natural way to do \r\nthat, and there's a way that actually would interrupt the natural flow. \r\n So it's not that you can just do whatever you want.  You have to take \r\ninto account what is happening and what is being offered from the \r\nplayers.  So that means really being in touch with they're doing and \r\nhearing them as well as you can.  It's surprisingly difficult to really \r\nidentify, not even with two, or three, or four lines, but even just one \r\nline, to really hear what the will and the sense that the players are \r\ngiving to one line, to really listen to that and to actually be able to \r\nreact to it in a meaningful way is surprisingly difficult.

When you hear an instrument that is out of sync, how do you steer it back without throwing everyone else?

Alan Gilbert: Well, that's difficult, and what happens is\r\n if there's more than one current, if there are conflicting currents \r\nonstage, then you have to make a choice.  You have to either give in or \r\ninsist.  For the other musicians onstage, if they sense two currents, if\r\n they say... for example, if I show one thing and they hear a response \r\nto that that is not in sync, then they have a dilemma; they have to \r\nchoose, “Do I go with what I see from the conductor or do I go with what\r\n I hear?”

So I very often tell orchestras, even the New York \r\nPhilharmonic,  say, “You know, I really want you to play with my lead.  \r\nIt's not that I care about your following me that precisely, it's just \r\nthat I want to take the element of choice out of the question” so that \r\npeople are not forced to decide Do I follow him or do I not follow him? \r\n There has to be just one current.  Of course, mistakes happen.  \r\nAccidents happen.  If something goes wrong, then you just have to use \r\nyour sense and that's based on experience.  Either you give in - \r\nsometimes it's better to give in and allow it to sort of right itself \r\nover time.  Other times you sort of dig your heels in and say “No.  This\r\n is where it is.”  And it creates a discomfort and uncomfortable moment,\r\n but you try to use your best sense, and I couldn't say it's always one \r\nway or it's always another way.  You just have to figure out what's the \r\nbest way to get out of those situations, and hopefully they're not too \r\nfrequent.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

An orchestra has a momentum as it plays. Its flow can be affected and redirected, but the conductor must do it in an natural way to avoid jarring turns.

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