Joshua Weilerstein: On a Conductor’s Journey, and Why It Might Be Awesome if Every Musician Spent a Day in a Conductor’s Shoes

I’ve always enjoyed a good all-you-can-eat buffet. Not so much for the all-you-can-eat part, but for the opportunity to sample lots of different things.

In a similar way, one of the things I enjoyed most about the summer festival I attended for many of my formative years, was the wide range of repertoire that the orchestras would play over the course of a summer. In nine weeks, we’d have nine concerts, with nine different programs, nine different soloists, and nearly always a different conductor.

At the time, I was mostly focused on getting the notes into my fingers, and wondering if that week’s conductor would be nice or scary.

But in hindsight, it was a really cool experience to be able to experience not just a rich diversity of repertoire, but of conductors as well.

Different conductors, different experience

Because even though the members of the orchestra were the same from one week to the next, I remember rehearsals and performances feeling different each week. Some weeks just flew by, while others seemed to drag on and on, and some performances felt like walking a tightrope, while others felt free and joyous. Even decades later, I still remember how some of those weeks felt surprisingly vividly.

Perhaps it’s a little like that quote often attributed to Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What’s it like for the conductor?

At the time, of course, I was only ever really thinking about myself. Like, do I have my part learned well enough to avoid any embarrassing slip-ups? Do I have all the right bowings in the part? Why are we spending so much time on this section and can we take a break already?

I never took time to imagine what the conductor’s experience of us might be. Like, do we make them nervous? What’s going through their mind during rehearsals and performances? Do they get stressed out if they sense the orchestra is fatigued, can’t seem to produce the kind of sound they’re asking for, or if the soloist starts to get frustrated with them? How aware of human psychology or group dynamics or communication are they?

I have some sense of what happens in the minds of the musicians in the orchestra. But I was curious to learn more about what’s happening in the mind of a conductor. So I thought I’d reach out to a conductor and see if this was something we could explore.

Want to see what it’s like to think like a conductor?

Meet Joshua Weilerstein

Joshua Weilerstein comes from a musical family, and started out life as a violinist, pursuing graduate studies in violin at the New England Conservatory before he began to feel drawn to conducting, and won First Prize at the Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen. He was subsequently appointed as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and then served as the Artistic Director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne for seven years.

Joshua is currently Music Director of the Boston-based Phoenix ensemble, maintains an active guest conducting schedule, and also hosts the popular “Sticky Notes” podcast, which has over 2 million downloads in 165 countries.

In this episode, we’ll explore…

  • 1:53 – The problem that Joshua initially had with the whole idea of conducting…and the specific moment when all of this began to change.
  • 5:46 – Joshua describes some of the under-appreciated challenges of being a conductor. For instance, the challenge of keeping every member of the orchestra engaged.
  • 14:43 – How does a conductor balance being in control without being overly controlling?
  • 17:21 – In the same way that a musician has to get better at switching from practice mode (analysis/critique/evaluation) to performance mode (creating freely without judgment), does a conductor’s mindset also change in some way from rehearsal to performance?
  • 22:16 – Breathing is essential to peak performance for athletes and musicians. What role does breathing play in conducting effectively?
  • 25:36 – What does practicing look like for a conductor?
  • 28:49 – We talk a little about conductor mistakes, and as an example, Joshua identifies a certain movement in a certain symphony, where apparently, if you don’t start off at the right tempo, there’s just not much you can do but resign yourself to finishing the movement at that tempo. 😅
  • 30:41 – How do you deal with the perception that an orchestra just doesn’t like you?
  • 38:18 – Joshua describes what changed in his violin playing when he began studying conducting.
  • 39:34 – I float the hypothetical of what things might be like if conducting were mandated in music schools, and Josh cuts in to say…
  • 40:44 – Joshua describes some of the things he learned from Hugh Wolff, which provides some insight into what conductors have to worry about and plan for during rehearsals…
  • 43:47 – I share a story of the time his father (a violinist) asked me to conduct during a lesson, and Joshua describes some of the things he learned from his parents (his mother is a pianist) over the years, and how this has become integrated into his approach to conducting.
  • 47:28 – I’ve always wondered about that mysterious lag between the conductor’s movements, and when the orchestra actually responds. So I took this opportunity to ask him what’s up with that. 🤨

Subscribe to the weekly podcast via iTunes | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher

Noa
So I imagine that many listeners of this podcast will already recognize your name and know that you come from a family of musicians, which I bring up right at the start, because I’m guessing that being surrounded by music in this way from literally the time that you were born, must have had some influence on the path you’ve taken. But I’m actually especially curious about a particular part of your origin story that occurred slightly later in life. And this is the transition from violin to conducting, and no idea where the best place to start might be. But I do have to say that I’m particularly intrigued by this Carlos Kleiber DVD that I understand played some role in the early stages of this journey. And is that a reasonable place to begin? Or does the story really need to start a little earlier than that, perhaps?

Joshua
I think that’s a pretty good place to start. I had been vaguely interested in conducting before the Kleiber experience, but I didn’t really think of it as realistic actually, mostly because I, I kind of had a problem with the whole idea of conducting. There was something so authoritarian about it, I felt like. And I had not…the funny thing is, I had not worked with authoritarian conductors, but that was the reputation of, you know, for conductors, and it still is. And so, I was talking to Ludovic Morlot, who was recently the music director of the Seattle Symphony, and he recommended just watch a bunch of videos. And I remembered that I had always loved this Beethoven 5 recording of Carlos Kleiber. And I was like, Oh, are there any videos Carlos Kleiber. I was, I think it was 19. And I went to the sort of CD and DVD library. I’m dating myself by saying that I think, and I checked out a DVD, it was called Carlos Kleiber, The Legend, it was a set of DVDs. And the first thing I watched was Brahms Second Symphony. And a guy was standing next to me who I didn’t know. And he said, have you seen that before? And I said, No. And he said, Well, it’s gonna change your life. And I thought that was pretty big praise for, you know, a DVD I was about to watch. And so I went in, turned it on and watched it. And then I saw him about a week later. And he said, What do you think? And I said, you were right. It was the first time that I saw a conductor just sort of feel like they were merged with the musicians. And now that I know much more about Kleiber, he was actually quite authoritarian, and that now that I know more about conducting, I could see how he was controlling in a way, every note while not seeming like he was controlling things. And I found that really astounding. And so you know, he still is my, my hero, my idol of conducting, because of that ability to sort of just be so immersed with the musicians and letting them feel like they are doing it all, while also having his hands on the dials.

Noa
Is it possible to say more about that? And maybe there’s another question that I’m curious about, too. I mean, I can’t even imagine, as a freshman, I think in college, going up to a conductor, and even having a question in my head that I could even ask aside from the logistics of orchestra. Before we get to Kleiber thing could I ask like, what sorts of questions did you even have at that point in your head that you would go up to the conductor of your school orchestra and ask?

Joshua
Well, I think I remember. We, I had played one concert with him, and I just I love Ludovic, he was such an inspiring musician. And I had worked with Ben Zander in my youth orchestra, who is I mean, he’s the reason I’m a musician, Ben. But also, you know, Ben wasn’t sort of like a technical wizard as a conductor. And then, when I met Ludovic, who was so clear, and sort of elegant as a, as a conductor, I sort of felt like I got two really interesting perspectives on conducting, so I just thought, why not ask the source. And I think, you know, I grew up around musicians, people walking in and out of the house and go, you know, going to music festivals with really prestigious musicians. And so I didn’t have this sort of sense of intimidation, which I felt I feel very privileged that I didn’t, I just was, you know, I felt like, oh, I can just, you know, he’s the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, I’ll just ask him about conducting, what’s the big deal? And so I went up to him, and he said, Well, I don’t really teach. But his attitude was that the best conductors are like, coaches of a string quartet, which I still believe and I still really hold dear, what he said there. And I think that’s really true. Or he said, also, like a coach of a football team, you know, you don’t actually do the action, but you’re, you’re sort of influencing everything.

Noa
One of the things that I wanted to ask you about today was what some of the maybe underappreciated challenges of being a conductor are. And that seems like a nice way into that maybe if you could say a little more about what it is that this manipulation of dials that you came to understand Kleiber was doing that gave musician space it seems but also he was very much part of making all those things happen.

Joshua
Yeah. I don’t think it’s a secret. But I think sometimes it surprises especially non musicians that orchestral players tend to not be very happy. And that to hopefully not make this too long of an introduction I, I just want people to imagine you’re the best violinist in your school. When you’re growing up. You’re the big star, you play concertos with the school orchestra, you’re really like thought of as this genius of the violin. And then you go to conservatory and you’re still like one of the top players in the world and are in the conservatory and you win a competition, you play with the best people. And then after school, you audition and get a job in X orchestra, let’s say one of the top 20 orchestras in the US. And you’re placed in the sixth stand of the second violins and all of the autonomy that you have had throughout your childhood, being creative, playing a concerto playing in a string quartet, working with a teacher, you know, on how to develop your own voice as a musician, that is gone in a flash, because if you’re not a principal player in an orchestra, you really don’t have any say in what happens on stage. Either it comes from the conductor who makes about 99% of the decisions, or it comes from the principal player who’s leading all the time. And that can really create a lot of problems. And I think what I loved about Kleiber, and what I tried to do in my own work is he somehow, I never I mean, there’s of course many other conductors who did this. I think Bernstein was famous also for making every single person in the orchestra feel like they were important. I think a lot of especially section players can feel interchangeable. And if I get sick tonight, it’s no big deal. No one’s gonna notice. And the best conductors are able to make that person feel noticed and seen and that they’re an integral part of what’s going on on stage. And so it’s not something that I know specifically about Kleiber’s work. But when I see the way he looks around the orchestra, when I see the way he sometimes just stands back and allows the orchestra to play. And then he gets involved and he the joy on his face as people are playing, or agony if it’s a you know, a darker piece, I think that is really extraordinary. And that’s the way to get everybody really bought in.

Noa
Is some of this, like eye contact and appearing engaged with individual members and so forth, part of this as well, I wonder?

Joshua
Yeah, definitely. Um, it’s not, sometimes it’s not easy to have a string player to get a string player to look at you. Because they’re very focused on the music. And I actually I often tell orchestral musicians in orchestras. I’d much rather you listen, then watch, because a baton does not have a fixed point. There’s nothing we hit that you know, is that’s the beat. It’s it’s all in space. And so the orchestra has to interpret that and the best way that they can do that is to listen to each other. And so in you know, even that encouraging orchestras I think Claudio Abbado was famous, like all he would tell orchestra is just listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, listen. And I think, listening, so if you tell the fifth stand first violinist, or let’s say, you tell the violins to listen to the cellos, and I say, even in the back, you know, where it’s impossible to listen, even if you imagine that you can hear the cellos, it’ll be better together. And that, just that little bit of engagement, another thing that has been often really helpful, that I learned from Jaap van Zweden was to encourage the backs of the string sections to play much more, and to lead, actually, and I’ve come up with this thing of, you know, the, basically that the front of the section drives the direction of the phrase, and the back of the section drives the sound. And it’s pretty extraordinary the transformation that can happen there. And you can see, I mean, I was literally just conducting last week. And there were a couple of musicians in the back, who were pretty disengaged and out of it. And once we started working on leading from the back, by the concert, they were some of the most engaged people on stage.

Noa
Yeah, I was gonna use the word engaged, because it sounds like that would give them something to be focused on, that kept them in the present and kept them engaged in trying to achieve something that otherwise might not have been happening. Which kind of maybe goes to, I mean, I imagine that being on the podium, there’s a lot of psychological aspects of you just managing your own aspect of the performance and the rehearsal and so forth. But my understanding is that to a degree you are also I don’t know if responsible for the right phrase, but you have the ability to affect the psychology of the ensemble as well. And I wonder if you can just say more about your piece of things and then the ensemble’s part of things and how you’re able to try to get everybody kind of on the same page in a way that’s meaningful to everyone.

Joshua
Yeah, I mean, it’s, obviously it starts with preparation. And if I feel very prepared, then I will be more confident in telling people, things that I know about the piece or things that I can hear I find if I’m better prepared, I listen better. And I can address problems more easily if I’m too worried about what’s coming next, or did I hear this did I not hear that, then, then it’s harder for me to rehearse and in kind of an efficient way. And I mean, there are varying definitions or are varying percentages, and some conductors think that connection is 90%, psychology, some, some think it’s 10%. And some everywhere in between, I think it’s pretty high. I think there are conductors who one would not describe as great conductors, who nevertheless get remarkable results out of orchestras because of the power of their personality. And I remember a musician telling me about Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who would never have called himself a great technical conductor, that he would give you so much knowledge and so much sincerity, about the music, and also be quite open about the fact he’d say, you know, don’t watch me here, just listen and breathe together and make it together, which gave the musicians the agency to do that. And he would, you know, he could create magic in his performances. And then they’re the opposite. There’s technicians that are so extraordinary that give the orchestra a feeling of security and stability. And so what I’m trying to go for, it sounds like a cop out, but I think there’s there’s such value in both things, the inspiration and the stability that I try to go for both and try to find a sort of middle ground at something Kirill Petrenko, the music director of the the Berlin Philharmonic says about finding the middle path. And that there’s, there’s a point where so much inspiration turns into chaos. And there’s a point where too much security and stability turns into boredom. And there’s that middle ground where you can really create magic, while people feel also secure and a little unsafe, at the same time. Going back to Kleiber, there are those moments where he just stops conducting. And I’ve done the pieces that on, you know where I’ve seen those videos, and he chooses the places to not conduct where he doesn’t have to do anything. But he he, he doesn’t tell the orchestra that and the orchestra then feels this kind of sudden, you can see them almost all leaning forward, and they’re taking control. And that can be that’s really remarkable. So you’re, it’s a, you have a huge responsibility as a conductor, not only for the music, but also for I don’t think it’s about keeping people happy. But keeping people engaged and really passionately involved in what they’re doing.

Noa
There’s some research on psychological safety, and how in working groups, having a sense of being able to take risks and take chances and not getting in too much trouble, if things don’t go the way that you want them to is an important part of that sort of creative movement towards disrupting the status quo and so forth. And this sort of seems to align with what you mentioned about there being a sort of traditional authoritarian model of conducting, which does not seem to inspire so much psychological safety. And I’m just curious, like, what are some of the ways in which conductors do successfully create the sense of psychological safety, but without everything falling apart?

Joshua
Well, I think it’s partly a function of experience where you know, what you can let go of, and I’m obviously still learning that. But you know, certain solos, certain, certain transitions, where, honestly, it’s easier if the orchestra just takes it themselves, working with soloists. And also, I think this is not only the conductor’s job, but it’s also the orchestra’s job. And there’s real different cultures in orchestras. When somebody plays a wonderful solo, some orchestras, the entire group sort of stamps their feet and claps for them, and some are silent. Even when I say, like, bravo, that was beautiful. There’s still kind of a silence, which I think can engender a lot of a lack of confidence. And you know, when somebody feels like their colleagues appreciate them, then I think there can be really something powerful about that. So yeah, the risk taking thing, it doesn’t only come from the conductor, it also comes from the culture of the orchestra. If the culture of the orchestra is this needs to be together at all costs, then it’s very hard to take a risk. And when, by the way, when a conductor takes a risk, and it doesn’t work out, that the orchestra can very quickly turn on that conductor. Because the conductor disrupted that sense of stability that was so important to them. And then other orchestras, if you don’t take a risk, they think what will what did we rehearse for the concert? Here’s the place to take a risk, why are we not taking a risk? I remember one time an orchestra complained that in both concerts that I had done, I didn’t do many things very differently. And I thought, but I have this interpretation I’ve we’ve we’ve worked on it, let’s perform it with obviously an extra sense of excitement with the audience. And that’s not what that orchestra wanted, but another orchestra would have loved that. So it’s, you know, every orchestra is different. And I think the job for me is, especially with the amount of guest conducting I do is to try to very quickly figure out what they’re looking for. And then basically, you know, you’re not going to reinvent the wheel in one week of guest conducting, but you can sort of add your seasoning to what they do. And if it’s an orchestra that wants a lot of stability, then you can provide that while also pushing them a little bit to try to take a risk. And the and the opposite way, too. So it’s it’s kind of, you have to be very much…a conductor has to be in the past, the present, and the future all at the same time.

Noa
Is this something that represents a mindset that you’re in, both in performance? And in rehearsal? Where you’re kind of thinking in all these directions? Or is it is it different when you’re rehearsing versus when you’re performing?

Joshua
I think I try in performing to mostly look forward with some in the present. In rehearsal, you have to be, you’re juggling so many things, you’re juggling the time management, which with American and British orchestras, in particular is a huge issue because there’s so little rehearsal time. You’re juggling, who’s playing what, which movement you’re going to next, because are the trombones just going to be sitting there doing nothing which can suck the energy out of the room? You’re thinking, how many times have I stopped? How much have I talked about something? Is this worth stopping? Will this just correct itself on its own? Is this something you know, and it’s a case where something is maybe not expressive enough? Will that just come in the concert when they’re excited for the audience? Or will it not? And once you get to know an orchestra, you know, in Lausanne, I would sort of know the answers to these questions. By the third year I was there. But when you’re guest conducting for one week, you don’t know. And I remember once in an orchestra, I told a brass player, can you play more? And she said, I’ll do it in the concert? And I said, but I don’t like I know, I’m sure you will. But I don’t know you. So can you do it once for me so I can hear what it sounds like. And then feel free to relax. So you’re kind of constantly thinking like, what have I done? What’s happening now? What do I need to get accomplished? In the sort of functioning of the rehearsal, and then in the concert, you’re really trying to just think of like, what’s happening in this moment. And then what’s happening? What’s going to be happening down the road, especially with a big, you know, Mahler symphony or something where you’re thinking about the structure and, okay, let’s not overplay this passage, because the next one has to be more. But you know, you also have to react to the ambience of the room, I just did a concert on Wednesday with the Guildhall School Chamber Orchestra, who are amazing players. And we did Appalachian Spring, which has a tendency to have a really special impact on the audience and sort of change the atmosphere of the hall. But that piece ends very quietly, and I cut off the orchestra. And there was this just heavy silence. And it was pretty remarkable. And I usually try to hold it for a couple of seconds. But in the moment, I was like, Oh, my God, this is, you know, how often do you get this kind of silence, and I just sort of held it there. And it was wonderful. And so you’re, you’re really like trying to be in the moment and in the future at the same time, which obviously, sometimes one fails at doing but that’s that’s the goal, anyway,

Noa
is an example of risk taking, basically, varying things and changing things up in a way that maybe hasn’t happened in rehearsal? Or I wonder if you can say a little bit more about what what risk taking looks like from the podium?

Joshua
I think, I think there’s on a very basic level, yeah, sure. It’s like taking a passage a little faster than you did the night before, or taking time, somewhere where you didn’t, but that it’s funny, like, I think that can only happen if the orchestra feels secure enough to do it. And I also have learned and actually, funnily enough, since the pandemic that I’ve been conducting, I felt myself taking more risks in the music and being more free. I’m not sure why. But I think I’m, I’m leaving behind a little bit this idea that things need to be really stable, and that the comfort of the musicians is what matters and performing is performing so hard, and I’m not making any sound. And if the horn player splits a note because I did something differently, that’s on them not on I mean, in terms of the audience’s mind that’s on them, not on me, even though it’s my fault. But now, I mean, it’s partly also experience, I’m doing pieces now for the fourth or the fifth time, and I’m thinking, Oh, I can try this here and or I’ll try something in rehearsal on the first day and then never do it again. But it’s sort of like deep in the subconscious of the musicians that that happened. And there’s other things too, there’s letting the orchestra just play by themselves, all essentially stopping conducting. There’s trying to play more with dynamics, doing more extremes of dynamics. But I think all of these things, it’s very important to not make them into a kind of a gimmick or into something that’s not genuine. One of the most fun things to do is sort of early Classical era repertoire, like Haydn and Mozart. Because there’s so many different options for things, that if you’re, if you have an open mind, you can take things in a totally different direction in the performance and it’s still very convincing, because if it’s a genuine desire, you know, oh, you know what, we played this slower every time. But now let’s go, let’s let’s go through it. And that can be really exciting. I do think sometimes the idea of risk taking in concerts can be a little bit fetishized. And it’s it sort of becomes all about the risks rather than about the music, which it only…the risk taking only works if you’re making music with it, and the music still is effective and convincing to the audience.

Noa
You spoke earlier about listening and breathing together. And the breathing thing kind of caught my attention. Because I know for a lot of musicians, well wind/brass players/singers, like they have to breathe, to be able to perform. But you know, a lot of string players, pianists, it’s easy under pressure to forget to breathe, or to not really have a concept of how breathing is integrated into playing effectively. And yeah, I imagine for a conductor, breathing is, and I don’t know this, but I’m guessing is maybe integral to just the fluidity of your movements and your ability to communicate effectively, I mean, is breathing something that that you think about or work on as it relates to the craft of conducting?

Joshua
Absolutely. It’s so important, you know, when you’re cueing a wind player breathing with them, is an almost guaranteed way to make them come in with confidence. For your listeners who are not musicians or who are not a brass player, a horn player basically has to squeeze their lips together very tightly, and like throw a dart at a dartboard. To play a note. I mean, it’s really hard. And I’ve just been starting to learn the clarinet and to have the confidence to breathe and play is very difficult. And if you imagine someone just sort of like dropping their hand and expecting you to play in an exact moment precisely, it’s almost impossible. But if the conductor beathes with that person, then that can make it very easy. So I always give a little (breath) when I’m giving an entrance for the winds. Or I try to, I’m acting like it always happens, I sometimes forget. With string players, I think is just as important, more physically than in terms of like, technical precision. I was just doing a piece with the Guildhall School orchestra. And it had extremely soft beginning. And these are incredibly talented, but young, inexperienced musicians. And so their shoulders, I could see them going up and up and up and up and up as they started to play. And I just, you know, since it’s a youth orchestra, I can talk about these things a little more easily. I said, you know, just try to relax your shoulders, put your feet on the floor, breathe, and it will sound better and you won’t get sore after the concert. You know that that’s really hard, though, to remember. And especially in a performance where you get nervous, I used to have terrible shoulder problems from being tense. And I’ve tried to really learn how to breathe better in my conducting, which also, of course, has the added benefit of making the orchestra breathe better. The one problem that I do have with my breathing is that I tend to slightly hyperventilate with fast things, you know, something that’s very motoric I’ll tend to go kind of (makes breathig sounds) which over the course of a few minutes has the effect of making me quite light-headed. And it’s I’m really working on trying to stop doing that because it doesn’t….it’s it’s a tick, it doesn’t help. And it just has the effect of making me dizzy. But I’m trying to work on not doing that because it also even even in something motoric where you think you need to control things. Sometimes letting go of that control can really…it feels scary, but it can help.

Noa
What’s cool about you is I mean, you had to practice as a violinist and so you understand what preparing means in that instrumental sort of context. And I don’t know how much score study you might have done in your violin years. But but you know, I don’t know that I or a lot of folks really have a clear concept of what a conductor does when they’re practicing or preparing. I wonder if you could just paint a bit of a picture of like what is practicing look like?

Joshua
It’s a lot of sitting at a desk. I have I have a sort of structure of how I study, you know, working on, on structure of the piece, the framework, the internal structure, phrasing, dynamics, harmonic analysis, you know, sort of basic stuff. I’m a conductor who does listen to a lot of recordings. I know some of some of my colleagues don’t agree with that. And they’re, they’re probably right in some senses. But I also like to get a lot of different perspectives on music before trying to sort of create my own look at it. The downside of listening to recordings is obviously you can kind of bake yourself an interpretation without realizing it. So what I try to do is listen to a different recording every time I listen to the piece. So I’m doing Sibelius 7 next week in Denmark, and I’ve listened to 25-30 recordings of it. And I don’t really have a favorite one, there’s many that I adored, there’s some that I didn’t like as much, but I learned a lot from all of them. So I do that. And then there’s physical practicing, just sort of, if it’s something very technically difficult, it’s just sort of going through it with, you know, with your hands, some some people practice gestures of phrasing and things, I don’t do that as much. Some people practice in front of a mirror, I’ve done that sometimes, I think more helpful for me is watching videos of myself conducting, which I hate doing because it’s excruciating, but you learn a lot from it. So, you know, there’s like post-concert study into where you’re preparing for the next one by looking at the previous one. And lots of singing, I play, I play a lot of passages on the violin, I’ve started to play some things on the clarinet now, just to get a sense of those things. There’s talking to colleagues, there’s doing a lot of reading. This is something that I admire so much about someone like Harnoncourt, where he just knew everything about the composer, he basically had their life story and the story of the piece and the story of their style, and just all of that, doing so many fantastic in a few weeks, I’m reading Berlioz’s memoirs, which just give you such an insight into this man’s wild mind. And, you know, none of that necessarily has a tangible impact on the performance, but it all together, it can create something,

Noa
Is there some similarity in how you approach mistakes? And I don’t even know if I would know what that would look like for conductor. But you know, like, as a violinist it’s very clear like, oh, that’s out of tune, or it’s rushing…like, mistakes are quite tangible. But given that no sound is coming out of you, are the mistakes as apparent in, in practice, like the video? Or do you kind of have to see how things play out with the orchestra? Or how does that work?

Joshua
Well, I think there are different kinds of mistakes with conducting. There’s, there’s a mistake of like giving a wrong entrance or doing a beat, pattern wrong in a difficult piece, you know, conducting a bar that’s in three in four, or something like that. And what is great about being a conductor. And what often creates a lot of resentment among musicians is that the orchestra often saves a conductor from making a mistake. And I’ve definitely been saved before there was a time once when I was very inexperienced, where I made a mistake and didn’t even realize and the orchestra just saved me and I afterwards found out about it, which was humiliating to say the least. But yeah, there’s those kinds of mistakes, which, as I said, often the orchestra will save you from. There are mistakes of pushing the tempo too far, or holding something back too much. There’s the less tangible mistakes to the audience and even to the orchestra. They’re more like internal frustrations of like, Oh, damn, like, I didn’t get that to be the right tempo. There’s, there’s certain movements, I don’t know why it is exactly. But say like the last moment of the Mendelssohn Scottish symphony, that if you don’t start it at the right tempo, it’s never gonna change. So you’re stuck with whatever you start with for 10 minutes. And that can be really infuriating for yourself if you start at the wrong temple. But you know, at the end, we’re, we’re not doing brain surgery, and there is a sense of, and I think it’s funny, maybe my desire to take more risks post pandemic is also been mirrored by orchestras being more open to be flexible, because I think we’re, we’re so grateful to be back in playing again, that, you know, it’s sort of like, Alright, let’s try some stuff. You know, let’s see what happens which is, which is very exciting to have that kind of atmosphere on stage.

Noa
For whatever reason that makes me think of, and I don’t know that I ever had any, like conductor friends growing up for whatever reason, I just, I just saw them as like a different group of people like aliens had no … different species. Right. So maybe I missed out on on getting to know some of this, but I would imagine, I mean, you know, I remember even in just summer festivals, the sort of grumbling that what happened wasn’t the conductor wasn’t around, I would imagine it being kind of difficult to look out into the orchestra and see people who seem disengaged or unhappy. And of course, the reality is that a lot of times just like giving a talk to a group of people, a lot of times you’re wrong, like the people who look disengaged, and like they hate your guts might actually be some of the people that come up to you afterwards, most enthusiastically about your experience there. But I’m wondering, like, have you had to learn over time to manage in such a way that you don’t? I don’t know, like, how do you manage this perception of not being liked, or dealing with people who look a certain way in orchestra and so forth,

Joshua
it’s probably the hardest thing that I’ve had to deal with. I mean, I guess it’s hard thing most people to deal with is realizing that not everybody’s gonna like you. I think I’ve gotten much better at realizing it’s not personal. Because there’s such there has been built up over time, such an adversarial relationship between conductors and orchestras, that it’s really hard to break through that. And to really, just like, sort of break through that completely with an orchestra in especially in a week, it’s quite difficult. But it I mean, it happens, definitely happens. And I’ve had very few really bad experiences with orchestras. But sometimes it just doesn’t click, you know, the way you make music doesn’t work for the orchestra and the or the way that they make music doesn’t make work for you. And the way you try to work with them, you know, you say something doesn’t really change, you say you try something else. There’s actually, you know, if Carlos Kleiber is sort of the theme of this interview, like he, there’s a fascinating video of him rehearsing when he’s, I think he’s 40, with Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. And many people have commented on how wonderful that rehearsal is. And I think it’s extraordinary what he is asking them for. But he doesn’t really get a lot of it. And I’ve, as I’ve gotten more experienced, I start to see, I’m starting to see the desperation in his eyes, where he’s, he tries so many different avenues of getting this result. And he uses these beautiful analogies. And the orchestra. I don’t think they were resisting them. I don’t think they were being jerks. They clearly had a lot of respect for him, but they just don’t get it. And it’s not working. It works in the concert, the performance is unbelievable. But I find that rehearsal really fascinating. I watch it a lot to sort of see his, you can see his mind working like, Okay, that didn’t work, how else can I communicate this to them. So sometimes it just doesn’t click, there was only one experience in my life where I felt like it was really personal. I mean, it was extremely personal. They just hated me. And they were not shy about it. And it was, and it wasn’t everybody, it was a small, small group of unhappy people, honestly. And I, it took me a long time to get over it, for sure, I will happily admit that, I guess unhappily. But that’s, that happens very rarely. And usually when I have a run-in with a musician, these days, I can tell that one, it’s not personal, maybe they just don’t like young conductors, which I understand. Somebody has been in an orchestra for 30 years. And I’m 34 or 33. And, you know, telling them how to phrase something, maybe they don’t like that. And I understand that. But I try to show the musicians a lot of respect too and say, you know, I’m here to present my ideas. And also to learn from all of you, I don’t say this, but I try to sort of project that to them. But it’s the nature of the job, that you’re never going to have 100% approval, the best you can do is to convince the orchestra in the week that you’re bringing them something interesting to chew on, and to play, and you’re trying to get the maximum number of people to buy into what you want to do that week.

Noa
That also makes me think of charisma. And, you know, I remember coming across a study where they, they had a charisma, inventory or scale or assessment that kind of measure a person’s level of charisma. And what they did is they took one person who was high in charisma, and put them in a room for a couple of minutes with two people who were lower on the scale. And they measured everyone’s moods before and after just sitting in the room for two minutes. And what they found is that without saying a word at all, or interacting or engaging at all, the people who were lower in charisma, their mood, rose or fell to wherever the highly charismatic person’s mood was, and and I feel like even in rehearsals to a degree, it must be a bit like a performance you know, the conductor’s role and job and and you know, life happens and you have good days and bad days and the weather and stress and traveling like is it kind of in your mind to find ways of getting into the right headspace or mindspace? I mean, how do you kind of stay where you need to be? What does that look like? What’s the process look like?

Joshua
Yeah, it’s difficult because you know, if you’re tired, the orchestra is gonna sound tired. It’s, it’s amazing. It’s kind of a weird phenomenon. I am just because it’s so fresh. In my mind, I keep bringing up this example. But it was GuildHall at our dress rehearsal, I decided to stay seated on a stool for the dress reherasal, because I didn’t want the musicians to sort of give everything they had in the dress rehearsal and then be tired for the concert. But I was also really tired. I slept really badly the night before. And so I think I gave off kind of like, I was like, a little like, down, you know, and all of a sudden, all of these mistakes, in the Appalachian Spring, which is famous for being very difficult to play and to concentrate, all of these mistakes started happening, that had never happened in any of the other rehearsals. And I was like, Oh, this is this is my fault. Like, like, even though I was conducting kind of the same, you know, I wasn’t I wasn’t personally making technical mistakes. But something something about the way I was projecting, definitely made people screw up. And so I like, got up and just like, tried to get right back into it. And it did, it helped. Maybe they thought I was angry. I don’t know. But it was I wasn’t, but it was that that was something for sure. I mean, yeah, basically taking care of oneself. For not just to be healthy, but to be able to be working at a high level, especially with traveling. I’m trying to, I’ve changed my diet completely over the last five years, I’ve I do a lot more physical activity a lot more working out. Lifting weights has really helped me kind of like give me it gives me a lot of energy, actually, I think it’s really important, but I can certainly feel it. If I haven’t slept well, or I’m not totally on top of things. I think the orchestra feels that they I mean, there’s so much energy going back and forth with a conductor in an orchestra, just by virtue of the way everything is set up. I’m much higher than them on standing. Most of the time, the orchestra sitting. They can feel everything. And they can sense everything.

Noa
This goes back to when you were maybe just first starting to conduct but I imagine that the schools I went to offered conducting as a class but never even entered my mind to consider signing up for such a thing. I wonder if you remember how your playing as a violinist might have changed? I mean, did it change as you started conducting? And just curious what that might have looked like?

Joshua
Yeah, I had much more interest in what other people were doing. What I was playing, after I started conducting, getting a sense of the whole score playing more off of scores being much more aware of when I was playing that concerto like an orchestral, like the piano reduction, being much more aware of that. I always adored chamber music. But there’s there’s a difference between being engaged with your fellow quartet mates, and then really knowing what they’re doing, what their parts are. And so you know, rehearsing off of scores, doing actual score study of a string quartet, which is just I mean, in case of late Beethoven, it’s probably more complex than 90% of the music that I do. And really learning. You can’t just be responsible for your own part. You’re also you have to be aware of everybody else’s,

Noa
If, let’s say conducting were to be mandated, in all music schools or conservatories…

Joshua
I think it should be, by the way, I think it should be just, I mean, sorry to interrupt you. I just think that a lot of orchestral musicians, you know, there are a lot of bad conductors for sure. I mean, I’m not I’m not denying it. There’s, you know, there are a lot of complaints that musicians have about conductors are absolutely valid. But sometimes orchestra musicians, as I am not aware of a trumpet player’s struggles, an orchestra musician who’s never conducted an orchestra often doesn’t know what a conductor is thinking or doing. And, you know, an orchestra musician can tell 100% when a conductor is not prepared, or when they’re being nasty or unhelpful, but in terms of the physical act of it, and the time management, and that sort of all the juggling that goes on, I think every orchestral musician should have to conduct their orchestra for a half hour a year, not just because I want them to empathize with me, but because I think it would just it would help everybody so much to have understanding of each other. To just walk in each other’s shoes a little bit, basically.

Noa
It reminds me of, I spoke with Merry Peckham a little while ago, and she was talking about how, yeah, one of the things she’ll encourage is for each of the members of a quartet to have a little bit of time where they run rehearsal. And it sounds like it’s similar sort of thing, just understanding what goes into everyone being on the same page and so forth. Kind of along the lines of what might have started changing as you began conducting in the early days, you’ve spoken about score study a little bit. And I listened to a podcast I think you did previously where you mentioned that you learned a lot from Hugh Wolff about how to study a score. And I wonder if you could say a little bit more about like, what did you learn from Hugh Wolff about how to study a score, what to look for, and what that process might look like,

Joshua
I learned everything about studying a score from him. Everything. I mean, I was, I was completely clueless, when it comes when it came to transpositions. I was clueless when it came to. I mean, I knew sort of basic forms, but how to draw a map of how a piece works, key relationships, down to who hasn’t played in 42 bars, that you might need to help out and give an entrance to, to orchestration problems. I mean, that was a huge thing is learning how to balance things, and being able to look at a score and say, Okay, well, in this part, the horns are going to be too loud. And to mark them down a little bit, and to be ready to tell them to play a little bit less, to understanding, like motivic development, to, you know, again, like sort of in rehearsal strategy, things of, you know, writing down the order of movements by largest to smallest, so people can go home, and writing timings of sections. So, you know, especially when you’re working, when you’re first starting to work, often you’re doing these kind of one-rehearsal concerts, and you know, to have in the score at a certain spot, “five minutes to go,” it’s really helpful. Because if you have six minutes to rehearse, you know, before the clock stops in, and you know, everybody gets up and leaves and you have six minutes for five for five minutes left of music, you shouldn’t stop anymore, you better just keep going right to the end. Unless you’ve decided, okay, I don’t need to get to the end. And that’s again, like that’s every every sort of stop, you have a you have a decision to make, like, Okay, I have five minutes left, there’s four minutes left in the piece, should I really try to get to the end? Is that important? Do we need to, have we done it? Or should I really work on this one thing that I wanted to work on, so Hugh would talk to us about that kind of thing a lot. And in terms of learning structure, you know, saying, We have this, you know, you work a ton of the exposition, so that the recapitulation, you can leave a little bit or unless there’s something different. He, he basically just gave me, essentially an intellectual backing to like instinct, which is what I was operating on completely before.

Noa
Speaking of instinct, I still remember when I was relatively young when I studied with your dad, but I remember a time when he made me conduct in a lesson. And I had no concept of conducting I didn’t know how to conduct in three or four or what upbeats looked like or anything, and essentially just me waving my arms around, feeling kind of silly. But talking with your mom also gave me a sense that this sort of physical internalization of phrasing in movement and music-making, you know, is a the thing that I think they’re both cognizant of, and thinking about. And, and I don’t know if that’s universal, probably should be universal, if it isn’t. But did you ever have little informal lessons with your dad? Or did he or your mom make you conduct at some point in your life, like did this maybe partly instinctively, it’s sort of baked into the way in which you were trained or absorbed what was happening around you?

Joshua
I think so. Yeah. I mean, I never did conducting with them. I practiced with my dad a lot. I practiced with my mom, a lot as a younger child, and then my dad more when I started getting more serious about the violin. And yeah, they, I mean, they talked about that kind of thing all the time. I mean, they talked about it when they came home from teaching. And this student was doing this and they were saying, you know, that, you know, I had them conduct, I had them do this. And that worked, or that didn’t work. And I got a real education just sitting at the dinner table on that kind of thing. And of course, I watched them teach sometimes, too. I know my dad’s philosophies and my mom’s philosophies quite deeply of how they work. And I’ve taken in so much of their attitude, especially towards physical things. I think about a lot of things my dad tells his violin students when I’m conducting, about being sort of grounded in the floor, and to feel sort of power coming from the, from the stronger parts of your body, so that you’re not putting all of your attention in your upper body, which is just as helpful for conducting as it is for string playing. Because if a conductor is tight, you know, same as it was conductors, tired, the orchestra is going to be tired, if the conductor’s tight, the orchestra will sound tight. And I was reading a wonderful book that had an interview with Jonathan Nott who is a fantastic conductor. And he said, and I, I’ve experienced this too, that if if he’s giving a difficult entrance to a horn player, and he says to himself, Relax, it’s gonna be fine. It is always fine. And the moment he gets worried they’re gonna miss it. They miss it. And it’s an amazing kind of telepathy that goes on.

Noa
Are there things that I should have asked that I didn’t even know to ask?

Joshua
I think conducting is. It’s very mysterious to people. It’s mysterious to me sometimes how things just either when they click or they don’t, if I have this unbelievable week with some random orchestra, I’m like, How does this happen? Why did this happen? You know, what was it? What was in the air? What was it about our backgrounds that took us into this space and made it really work, and the opposite sometimes when it doesn’t work. But I think it’s something that every musician should try. If only to just get a sense of how to breathe together and how to engage people and to be responsible for that kind of music making. It’s, I think it’s, it’s a skill, and I interrupted you, when you asked if you could mandate conducting classes for everybody, but I totally would, I would, I think every conservatory should have not that everybody is going to become a conductor. But that you get a, just some hours a week in front of a group. It doesn’t have to be a big group. But it’s so helpful.

Noa
That’s probably a great place to end, but I’m going to ask one more question because I’ve always been embarrassed to ask this and hesitant to ask it. And now I have an opportunity. So I always remember, you know, like, you go to Aspen or somewhere like that every week, it’s a different conductor. And, you know, I sat in the back of the seconds so I didn’t have to worry about it. But there is that like, little lag between when it seems visually that the beat has happened and when the orchestra actually comes in. And it’s different for everybody. But like consistent for like the music directory who conducts a few during…. Yeah. But like, how does that… How do people know when to actually come in? Like, because the ensemble seems to know, and it’s different. But I don’t understand tangibly like, what’s happening? Do you have this sense of that?

Joshua
I don’t. But obviously, there are different countries where this is more prevalent than others. German orchestras tend to play pretty far behind the beat. I remember the first time I connected Beethoven 5 in Germany, I went, you know, I gave and, and then I heard bu bu bu bum. And I thought, Oh, my God, this is so behind, you know, and you but the problem is, if you start waiting for them, they get slower and slower, because they’re, you know, and then I remember reading this wonderful, hilarious and very sweet book by Anshel Brusilow, the former concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a great conductor. And he said, When he first played in Philadelphia, he couldn’t believe how far behind the beat they played. And he asked one of his colleagues, and he says, Yeah, we just wait to smell the sound before we play. And I don’t know, it’s very funny. Again, like that’s orchestral culture that’s just developed, Philly plays a little bit behind the beat, New York plays right on top of the beat, the German orchestras tend to play behind. London orchestras play behind the beat. But orchestras outside of London in the UK don’t play so much behind the beat. It’s very funny, but you kind of just like, you figure out pretty quick what that orchestra’s personality is with that, and you just have to go with it. You can’t change that very fast.

Noa
Okay good to know. Yeah. So it’s, it’s not something that the conductor carries with them necessarily.

Joshua
It can, I mean, I think I think some conductors, the way they move is sort of it, it happens naturally. There are conductors who say don’t play right with me play after the beat, like, take in the information, and then play. I just can’t I much prefer orchestras playing on my beat. But when they don’t, unless I was their chief conductor or something. I wouldn’t say anything. But there’s been a couple times where I was doing West Side Story, I think with a German orchestra, I was like, Look, I’m not trying to change the way you play. But for these moments, it’s got to be like, whip crack precise, play right on the beat, and they could they were fine with it. But it’s it was definitely not what they were used to doing.

Noa
Because I imagine it would be sort of disorienting. It’s a little bit like when you’re doing like a zoom chat and you hear your voice a little bit after you’ve spoken. And I imagine it’s hard. This maybe speaks to the idea of you. In your head, when you’re performing like yours, you’re focused on moving forward and also be attentive to the present, but not letting your mind get too far backwards. Otherwise, yeah, things start to slow down.

Joshua
Absolutely.

Notes

More Joshua

If you’d like to hear more of Joshua’s thoughts on music from a conductor’s perspective, Joshua hosts a podcast for musicians and music lovers alike called “Sticky Notes,” where he does a deep dive into various works and composers. From how to listen to and enjoy atonal music to Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (which holds the Guiness record for longest symphony scored for the greatest number of musicians), to a 10-episode series on the nine Beethoven symphonies (here’s no. 1):

 

He also has a Patreon page with more goodies and live hangouts and such: 

 

You can also connect to Joshua at his website:

 

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

BOGO pricing is now in effect! (through 11:59pm Sunday)

Sign up anytime now through Sunday (Dec. 4) at 11:59pm Pacific, and you’ll receive a second bonus Beyond Practicing account – at no additional cost – that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, or teacher (i.e. a practice buddy to explore the course with 😁).

Click the red button below to learn more about the course and get the holiday buy-one-get-one-free offer.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

15585

Join 48,000+ musicians!

Get the latest research-based tips to level up in the practice room and on stage, from one week to the next.

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.

Share73
Tweet
Email
Hello. Add your message here. Learn more
Beat nerves with a friend, with BOGO pricing on the Beyond Practicing course Join Today