A reply!

25 05 2007

A few weeks ago, on a somewhat desperate whim, I emailed conductor Kenneth Woods, asking for advice on how to conduct pieces with a choir accompanied by an orchestra, and how he studied contrapuntal music. I wasn’t really expecting an answer, given that he certainly seems to be a very busy man – but today, he did.

He writes,

You raise some very good points, and I wish there were easy and neat answers to all of them, but I’m afraid the real answer is trial and error, experience, preparation and self-assessment.

Where to direct one’s energy and who two cue are certainly issues in almost all repertoire, and especially in very contrapuntal music. More often than not, when doing choral/orchestral works, I tend to err on the side of sticking with the singers. They’re likely to be that little bit more insecure than instrumentalists. One thing that is important to remember is that singers not only need help getting started, but also finishing- much more so than instrumentalists. A choir can’t place a final consonant unless you show them where it is, and that’s an important part of making the language intelligible to the audience.

That said, you should never look at the orchestra as simply accompanimental. The main thing is that your focus and your energy need to be constantly making little adjustments. It’s just like driving- you don’t just set out for another town and turn at all the junctions. You’re constantly, intuitively adjusting to all the minute changes in the road. You feel the violins are a little too soft, give them an eyebrow, you feel the basses are late, click the point of the stick nice and crisply in their direction.

Even when instrumental sections are not doubling the choir, you can create more cohesiveness by showing a really compelling musical shape that everyone can sense and follow. Everyone on stage should be feeding off your sense of purpose and shape- when you start a phrase you should know where it’s going (same for the whole piece), and if the players can sense this coming from you, they then have that sense of inevitability that helps them feel solid and confident.

As far as very contrapuntaly music goes….. I basically study very slowly and very carefully. You can mark every entrance and have a little short hand for what’s going on. For instance, if I have four imitative entrances of the same idea, I mark them each with the abbreviation of the instrument and their place in the order, ie


If I know something important about what is happening, then I can include that, so if the second and fourth entrances are in inversion, or retrograde or whatever, I’ll include that


I’ll also have analytical names for all the motivic cells, and bracket out bits of motivic material so I can see how everything is combined

Then, you have to practice memorizing the sequence of cues and entrances, but if you understand the logic of them, it doesn’t take that long.

Awright! Finally, an answer I can work with! Of course, I still need to define what he means by showing a “really compelling musical shape” and “retrograde”, but this is by far one of the clearest (if not the clearest) answers I’ve ever been given on the subject. Ha!

Now if only I can get some advice on my tone production on the violin and viola…




2 responses

26 05 2007

that’s easy
1- keep the bow perpendicular to the string, not parallel to the bridge
2- don’t ever let your thumb lock
3- always hold the bow as loosely as possible
4- practice open strings every day
5- breathe like a singer, before the phrase and as you play

26 05 2007
Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » And you call yourself a quasi-conductor?

[…] GTI has already turned this into a blog post here…. Gotta love […]

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