My Initiation – Orchestras That Play Behind The Beat

One of my nervous-est moments as a conductor came when I first got on the podium to conduct the Kansas City Philharmonic. There were plenty of reasons to be anxious. Every conductor is always aware that 100 or so highly opinionated musicians are about to judge his/her professional competence, artistry (if any) and musicianship (if any). Then 1,000 or so audience members will do the same. Then, various critics will enshrine their verdicts in print for the rest of humanity to see. This period of intense professional scrutiny only lasts 60 years or so.

But this was different. I had never been in front of such a prestigious professional orchestra, and, coming from a musical family, I had known from an early age that orchestra musicians size up any new recruit up in front of them in about 30 seconds. But more to the point, I also knew that professional orchestras have a different way of responding to a conductor’s beat from how student ensembles play.

My first live-fire experience with this was brought to mind when several colleagues mentioned a recent post on the WQXR blog: Why Do Orchestras Play Behind the Beat? (http://www.wqxr.org/story/why-do-orchestras-play-behind-beat/)

Professional orchestra all play behind the beat – which is to say that when the conductor provides the click in the gesture to denote the “beat,” the orchestra will invariably play that sound a bit later. How much later depends on the orchestra, but it can be quite a lot. No conducting teacher I had worked with had mentioned this, but it was obvious for all to see at any concert.

It was (and mostly still is) in the realm of orchestra lore – you have to experience it yourself; it is a kind of an initiation rite; you have to get the “feel” of it on your own, and make it work for yourself. This is true for orchestra musicians and conductors alike.

I had had little experience with professional orchestras, certainly not with one of the quality or reputation of the venerable KC Phil (I had several of their recordings). But I was well trained as a conductor and I knew what was in the musical scores. I had observed this playing-behind-the-beat phenomenon closely from the sidelines, and hoped that I had a grasp of what was about to unfold. I had studied, practiced, and prepared myself mentally (or so I thought).

In the WQXR blog post, JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony orchestras says, “Waiting a tick allows the ensemble to take in the trajectory, speed and style of a conductor’s beat, which helps them determine what kind of sound the conductor is hoping to achieve. It gives them a chance to prepare that sound. So the downbeat comes, and the sound opens after that. The result? More beautiful music.”

It seems more complex than that to me. Playing behind the beat gives the conductor a chance to make last-moment changes in the information being conveyed before it’s too late. And it gives the orchestra time to absorb that information, process it, and react appropriately. It’s not just the “sound.” It’s the articulation, the color, the energy, the loudness or softness – everything that makes the music distinctive and meaningful.

So, what happened that morning in front of the KC Phil? It’s pretty much a blur in my memory. I knew the music well, I kept going and I didn’t collapse. They played superbly, and I kind of let it go. The music happened. They played in their accustomed manner, and I adapted. I’m sure I missed a lot. Hearing absolutely everything that happens, sizing it up, and fixing it is the primary work of a conductor, and I’m sure I came up short in many respects. But, they played for me, and I was relieved.

I’ve seen “green” conductors respond to this by perpetually “chasing” the orchestra, which only makes them speed up and not play together. There are times (when meter changes and/or split-second timing are the issue) when orchestras tend to stay closer to the beat. It tends to be the orchestra that makes this decision, by a collective energy that’s hard to quantify. When an orchestra has established its own very effective style and technique, conductors generally want to employ those skills rather than discourage them.

I have had this same talk with every Assistant Conductor who has apprenticed with the Peninsula Symphony. Conducting teachers still don’t seem to mention this (or haven’t experienced it themselves). But it is an essential tool for every conductor. You learn how to incorporate this into the technique of conducting and it becomes second nature. But it takes experience and time to get comfortable with it.

When I took over the Peninsula Symphony, I worked with the musicians to respond as a professional orchestra would (many of them already had – and have – plenty of experience in professional orchestras). This orchestra doesn’t play as far behind the beat as some orchestras – many of the legendary European orchestras play WAY behind the beat – yikes!), but it works well for us.

 

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