Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

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MoominDave
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Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by MoominDave » Tue May 15, 2018 4:35 am

The Mozart Requiem is a wonderful piece, and the trombone parts to it are an absolute joy. If anyone here doesn't know it, they follow the choir parts for much of it - the alto-tenor-bass trombone trio weave fugally in and out of each other in gloriously written counterpoint, often at some velocity.

I am sad that this glorious music provided an annoying playing experience last Saturday. An amateur choir whose dynamic abilities aren't strong (but aren't puny either) is directed by a minor friend, a horn player, who had booked me and a couple of other players I'd recommended to make up the trombone section in return for some moderate financial compensation.

So far so good - we've all played the piece many times in similar situations; we know exactly what's needed from the trombones - some moments of mild warm projection when the choir aren't singing, and discretion when they are, mixed with a constant awareness of how well the vocal line one is bolstering is managing at staying on trend - e.g. are the basses a bit wayward? Then they might benefit from a little more bass trombone volume as a guide to help stay on track.

So we began the rehearsal, playing in the usual sensible fashion. Midway through the acrobatics of the Kyrie, the conductor stopped: "Trombones, you're going to have to play a lot quieter". Ah, that's a shame, we thought, and proceeded to play a lot quieter. But nothing from us was quiet enough for the conductor, who gave us the hand over and over again as we whispered ever more timidly into our instruments, and alongside us trumpets and bassoons merrily played away at the original volume. Exasperation mounting, after a while we mimed a movement - and got the hand again!!

So we completed the rehearsal in bemused fashion, using it to practice our extreme pianissimo playing. And then just played the concert in normal fashion. And were complimented by the conductor afterwards. In fact, she's just sent me an appreciative email along with an invite to next year's gig - and rather than write in my reply to that how annoyingly ridiculous it all was, I've written it here. Sorry about that. This is basically an exercise in preserving a gig and a friendship by allowing the steam to escape elsewhere.

tl; dr: Some not-well-trained conductors think the only way to control orchestral volume is to turn the trombones down. They are not enjoyable people to play for.
cozzagiorgi
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by cozzagiorgi » Tue May 15, 2018 5:09 am

I once got complimented by a conductor for my great bass trombone playing.

In that particular piece wasnt any bass trombone. I wasnt even on stage... i dont play for that stick waver anymore :-)
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FeelMyRath
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by FeelMyRath » Tue May 15, 2018 5:16 am

I think you were too diplomatic, Dave. I'd have got the section to down tools mid-section to show her the issue, but then again I'm not exactly subtle when MDs p!$$ me off!
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boneagain
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by boneagain » Tue May 15, 2018 8:39 am

FeelMyRath wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 5:16 am
I think you were too diplomatic, Dave. I'd have got the section to down tools mid-section to show her the issue, but then again I'm not exactly subtle when MDs p!$$ me off!
I think Dave got the right approach in many levels. Not actually HEARING what the ensemble (both instruments and voices) is doing shows a very big lack of competence on the part of the MD. VERY few MDs would be so incompetent that they did not KNOW they lacked that competence. So, you have someone with huge security issues up in front of you, and in charge of the next hire.

Dave's approach is most likely to give him a chance to help the MD grow musically. Embarassing an already insecure MD in the middle of a rehearsal is likely to take things in the opposite direction.

I regret to say I have done it both ways. Dave's way worked MUCH better overall, but it's hard to overcome the desire to "get even!"
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by JohnL » Tue May 15, 2018 9:22 am

MoominDave wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 4:35 am
Exasperation mounting, after a while we mimed a movement - and got the hand again!!
That's the breaking point. Wanting the trombones to play really soft is musical interpretation. But not noticing that the trombones are not actually playing?

But tempting as it is to deep-fat fry the conductor in front of the entire ensemble, it's not really something you can do. Even resolving to never play for said conductor may not be an option. Politics and/or economics may well dictate that you'll have to take the next gig, no matter how frustrating.

We knew the job was dangerous when we took it.

PS: I really wanted to come up with a funny line about miming your part and using an old Marceau trombone, but it's just not flowing today.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by Jimprindle » Tue May 15, 2018 9:46 am

2 stories:
1. Played the Requiem many times (on bass), one time we were called to play and a free-lance friend of mine, new in town, was excited to play alto on his newly acquired Minick alto. At the rehearsal the conductor (who we long time locals knew was a musical fool, even though he had the local college orchestra and a chamber orchestra) told the trombones "whenever the choir is singing your parts, tacet" (insert horrified emoji). My friend was incensed but did as asked. The next time the personnel mgr called him he said to tell the conductor that he would never play for that nincompoop again. (He later won a principal trombone audition with a full time orchestra).
2. Why are instrumentalists put in front of the choir when balance is an issue? One smart conductor I played under with the Requiem put the orchestra on the side facing the choir. The people in the audience said the balance and blend was phenomenal.

Another short story about another boob conductor: the only time I played 2nd on the Mozart the idiot asked me to play Tuba Mirum with exaggerated slide vibrato. "My father loves Tommy Dorsey!"
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by Kingfan » Tue May 15, 2018 11:27 am

Boob conductor on a lower level. We had a joint concert with another community band, we were on first. 10 minutes before the downbeat the 1st tbone in our band got a phone call - father in law was in the hospital, major heart attack. I asked if I could cover. I told him go take care of family. The conductor was nowhere to be found, so I took charge. A friend of mine played tbone in the other band, and I roped him in into sight reading my second part, and I played first.

The conductor had no idea we were missing the first tbone, I moved parts, and we had a stranger on second. I told him after the concert what happened, and he said "Oh, OK." No "thanks for handling it", nothing. That, along with the poorly disciplined rehearsals (it was at a community college and the students taking it for credit did not take it seriously at all, walking in late and spending the bulk of rehearsal time on their phones or chatting), pushed me over the edge. I never went back.
I'm not a complete idiot, some parts are still missing! :D
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by timothy42b » Tue May 15, 2018 12:59 pm

Dave's diplomacy not only worked best for the situation, but generally you feel better later having done it that way. Not easy though.

On the subject of volume, a director I had a couple years back claimed there was evidence that most of what an audience perceives from the band is just how loud the drums are. From recordings I've made of community band performances there seems to be something to that.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by FeelMyRath » Tue May 15, 2018 2:37 pm

But will the conductor now know the error of her ways? I'm guessing not unless Dave has a quiet word in her ear
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by BurckhardtS » Tue May 15, 2018 11:54 pm

I have a conductor for our university wind ensemble who is a fantastic musician with a VERY good set of ears, especially in terms of ensemble cohesion, but relegates the low brass to play nowhere near the dynamics printed (not even timbrally speaking) because we are have 5 players in our section as opposed to 3 (tenor parts doubled), all of whom are VERY strong players, and we also have three tuba players.

I understand that logistically, our studio is too large (in comparison) to support one-on-a-part in any ensembles except the orchestra, so it's no ones fault really, but it can be frustrating. Double that with the fact that our concert hall has some serious time-warps and hearing problems: conductor hears nothing but back row brass section, audience can never hear anything but percussion and high register clarinets, and it's nearly impossible to listen across the stage because you can only hear the two people directly next to you and everything else sounds like it's far away.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by MoominDave » Wed May 16, 2018 1:59 am

cozzagiorgi wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 5:09 am
I once got complimented by a conductor for my great bass trombone playing.

In that particular piece wasnt any bass trombone. I wasnt even on stage... i dont play for that stick waver anymore :-)
I know a brass band whose bass trombonist was once awarded the Best Instrumentalist prize at a contest - on a day when they played without a bass trombone...
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MoominDave
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by MoominDave » Wed May 16, 2018 2:04 am

FeelMyRath wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 5:16 am
I think you were too diplomatic, Dave. I'd have got the section to down tools mid-section to show her the issue, but then again I'm not exactly subtle when MDs p!$$ me off!
Oh, it was tempting on various occasions. But tact ruled the day. The alto player went for a furious walk after the rehearsal in order to calm himself down (the end of the rehearsal also involved having us wait around through several tacet movements of another piece), and we were all chuntering away to each other throughout about how bizarre it was.

It was in an old church building, and the conductor kept retreating down the aisle to see what the orchestra/choir balance was like from the back. Which is a sensible thing to do... But not if the trombones stop playing while you're back there, and the message you return with is that the trombones are too loud for the choir...
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MoominDave
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by MoominDave » Wed May 16, 2018 2:14 am

boneagain wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 8:39 am
FeelMyRath wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 5:16 am
I think you were too diplomatic, Dave. I'd have got the section to down tools mid-section to show her the issue, but then again I'm not exactly subtle when MDs p!$$ me off!
I think Dave got the right approach in many levels. Not actually HEARING what the ensemble (both instruments and voices) is doing shows a very big lack of competence on the part of the MD. VERY few MDs would be so incompetent that they did not KNOW they lacked that competence. So, you have someone with huge security issues up in front of you, and in charge of the next hire.

Dave's approach is most likely to give him a chance to help the MD grow musically. Embarassing an already insecure MD in the middle of a rehearsal is likely to take things in the opposite direction.

I regret to say I have done it both ways. Dave's way worked MUCH better overall, but it's hard to overcome the desire to "get even!"
I genuinely don't understand what she was thinking. She's a decent musician who plays regularly in a wind quintet and is head of music at a secondary school, so she's not a numpty. While we (the section) were sitting in the stalls chatting between rehearsal and concert (partaking of the excellent tea provided by the choir), she came over, all smiles and friendliness, but with the very specific purpose of telling us to keep it down further; "I know how frustrating this is because I'm a brass player too". She mentioned that her young niece would be there, and that the little girl would be paying attention to us because she's learning trombone. At which point I grew dangerously tactless: "We'd better make some audible noises then", which elicited a rather wary smile from her, and "Oh, you're audible".

Hard to decipher. I mean, she made her intentions clear, but they didn't seem at all of a piece with what I know her musical abilities to be. Her brother, the young trombonist's father, was coincidentally sat right behind me in the choir, and was extremely complimentary to the section. It's all quite confusing. What I think was going on is that directing the orchestra was stressing the conductor out (this was perceptible - the assignment was a little out of her comfort zone as a stick wagger); she had in advance decided on some hard-and-fast guidance that may or may not have fitted the playing situation, and stuck rigidly to that regardless of the facts. At least that's my best guess at the moment. Maybe we'll go back next year and I can refine my hypothesis...
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MoominDave
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by MoominDave » Wed May 16, 2018 2:17 am

JohnL wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 9:22 am
MoominDave wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 4:35 am
Exasperation mounting, after a while we mimed a movement - and got the hand again!!
That's the breaking point. Wanting the trombones to play really soft is musical interpretation. But not noticing that the trombones are not actually playing?

But tempting as it is to deep-fat fry the conductor in front of the entire ensemble, it's not really something you can do. Even resolving to never play for said conductor may not be an option. Politics and/or economics may well dictate that you'll have to take the next gig, no matter how frustrating.

We knew the job was dangerous when we took it.

PS: I really wanted to come up with a funny line about miming your part and using an old Marceau trombone, but it's just not flowing today.
The next gig's a year away. I'll have forgotten how wearing this was by the time it comes round. Money's no object, playing-wise - it isn't my job. But still, it's funny how half a normal days's wages for playing makes one automatically say yes...
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MoominDave
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by MoominDave » Wed May 16, 2018 2:26 am

Jimprindle wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 9:46 am
2 stories:
1. Played the Requiem many times (on bass), one time we were called to play and a free-lance friend of mine, new in town, was excited to play alto on his newly acquired Minick alto. At the rehearsal the conductor (who we long time locals knew was a musical fool, even though he had the local college orchestra and a chamber orchestra) told the trombones "whenever the choir is singing your parts, tacet" (insert horrified emoji). My friend was incensed but did as asked. The next time the personnel mgr called him he said to tell the conductor that he would never play for that nincompoop again. (He later won a principal trombone audition with a full time orchestra).
2. Why are instrumentalists put in front of the choir when balance is an issue? One smart conductor I played under with the Requiem put the orchestra on the side facing the choir. The people in the audience said the balance and blend was phenomenal.

Another short story about another boob conductor: the only time I played 2nd on the Mozart the idiot asked me to play Tuba Mirum with exaggerated slide vibrato. "My father loves Tommy Dorsey!"
If the conductor explicity wants trombones tacet when the choir sing, then they should hire the version of the piece that has this in the parts already... Seems obvious... You know, the version that makes your heart sink when you're called for a Mozart Requiem and that's the one on the stand... The version that makes you keep parts for the full version in your case in order to offer the option to the conductor if they've accidentally hired the disappointing one...

The balance/location idea is a very relevant one, and one I have raised many times with various people. I have played this piece sometimes in a similar configuration, and it works well. Why on earth put the weaker choir behind the stronger orchestra? In fact this is how I shall tackle things in my email response - I'll say "Yes, next year's in my diary, thanks for that. Regarding last week's concert - might seating differently help? Choir in the middle, orchestra to the side or behind?"

In fact, one time when I played the Requiem sat in this fashion, the conductor (of quite a different school of musical thought to Saturday's) suggested that the trombone section could sit separately from the orchestra, in the front rank of the choir pointing down the nave of the chapel at the audience! Then he thought better of the idea - it was very difficult acoustically to make work when we tried it in the particular boomy room we were in.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by ronnies » Wed May 16, 2018 4:29 am

Did you see the Proms performance of the Mozart Requiem where the small chorus sat in amongst the orchestra? The trombones then sat next to the appropriate chorus section and not together. Can't remember who it was playing.

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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by boneagain » Wed May 16, 2018 5:59 am

FeelMyRath wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 2:37 pm
But will the conductor now know the error of her ways? I'm guessing not unless Dave has a quiet word in her ear
Couldn't agree more. Should have made that explicit in my comments. Especially considering Dave's later posts below.

Chorus with instruments is, in my experience, among the most telling conducting work. People who have plenty of "ear" to nail a single line in a quintet, or who can do "well enough" rummaging thorugh the basic four parts of an orchestra string score get sudden full exposure when faced with BOTH voice lines AND independent or collaborative wind lines. And in settings like this, if the players do NOT provide quiet feedback away from the crowd, well, we get what WE pay for.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by hyperbolica » Wed May 16, 2018 8:06 am

I had an experience like this recently, although the situation was a bit different. I sometimes sub in an orchestra where I could play regularly, but choose not to because (its a bit of a drive) and the conductor won't use a standard beat pattern. He's a good musician, but more for the pop styles than orchestral styles. We were playing some Bernstein piece with some challenging parts, and he called out the trombones for dragging. I'll admit, I can sometimes drag if I'm concentrating on something else too much, but after my attention is called to it, it doesn't continue to be a problem. I made sure I was tick-tock with the percussion, but he went on, like 6x through this one passage, and I'm sure my face was expressing my disbelief. He later (at a later rehearsal) came up and said I wasn't the one who was dragging, but there was only one other trombonist. I'm not sure what exactly was going on, but I suspect it wasn't related to our playing at all. The conductor also has had an ongoing issue with the bass bone player for showing up consistently 10 minutes late to rehearsal. Maybe that was it, but he had to annoy two other trombonists and waste a lot of ensemble time to get his revenge.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by timothy42b » Wed May 16, 2018 11:53 am

MoominDave wrote:
Wed May 16, 2018 2:14 am
What I think was going on is that directing the orchestra was stressing the conductor out (this was perceptible - the assignment was a little out of her comfort zone as a stick wagger); she had in advance decided on some hard-and-fast guidance that may or may not have fitted the playing situation, and stuck rigidly to that regardless of the facts.
I sang for a choir director who in his later years frequently stopped and corrected mistakes of a special type: those we hadn't made, but where one could logically expect it. His hearing was less acute than formerly, and he assumed the mistake he'd expected had been made.

Nice guy most of the time. When I mentioned once I'd broken my ankle parachuting, he asked if I'd got one. Hmm? Turned he'd misheard it as "bear shooting."
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by sf105 » Wed May 16, 2018 12:51 pm

Wasn't there are story about how Harry Glantz (1st trumpet NBC Orchestra) finally retired from the business when his section ended up miming in front a big-name conductor with the hand.
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Re: Conductors that use trombones as scapegoats

Post by 2bobone » Wed May 16, 2018 12:54 pm

" In the early 1970’s Douglas Cooksey, working for the BBC, sat in on a rehearsal of the Schubert Eighth and Ninth Symphonies with the Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow where he [the unnamed conductor] "made very clear his displeasure with the slightly raucous trombone section in t