Orchestra 101: Overtime, Young Conductors, and the Temperature Clause

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Another big pet peeve in amateur/school settings are services, especially rehearsals, running long. They run long because conductors have the luxury of not using their time efficiently; there is no financial consequence to the organization if they run long.

Any time a rehearsal or concert that exceeds 2 ½ hours not excluded specifically already (such as the dress rehearsal for an opera, which could run 3 hours) creates a “state of overtime.” In the Nashville Master Agreement that I have been referencing in this series there was an initial 5 minute overtime payment then from there it went up to 15 minute segments with a guaranteed 5 minute break if the service ran to two overtime segments.

In a professional situation there is a big financial incentive to not run overtime and really, rehearsals should never run long, conductors just need to manage the time they have. In relation to that, I appreciate very much the honesty of this quote from an article of advice for young conductors in Abu Bratsche, the blog of Robert Levine, principal violist of the Milwaukee Symphony. [Update: this blog seems to no longer be online]. Professionals do value efficiency.

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Us old farts sitting in front of you really do want you to succeed. And our definitions of success are not so different from yours. The major difference is that, while we want the orchestra to sound good every bit as you want it to, we also value efficiency (which is not quite the same as saying we’d like to the get the hell out of here as soon as possible, although that’s generally true as well). And, of course, we also have our ideas about how the music should go, and can’t help getting annoyed when a conductor has different ones and insists on them – especially one who really hasn’t earned his/her maestro/a stripes yet.

So remember that, while authority is granted, respect is earned, and pay attention to your elders, even if they’re sitting in front of you, bound by the terms of the labor agreement to do what you tell them to.

As to temperature, I quote the temperature clause in the Master Agreement in this prior post. The short version is indoors the temperature had to be 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit and outdoors 65-100 degrees. A vivid memory of my time in Nashville is the Shop Steward with his thermometer before services making sure we were in the range allowed. If we were just out of the allowed range the Orchestra Committee and Management would confer. I recall a couple situations where it was under the minimum temperature outdoors and the orchestra committee agreed we would play a shortened concert. Also I recall concerts being delayed due to direct sunlight–we could not perform in direct sunlight unless some very specific criteria were met. Our contract language was

Musicians shall not be required to sit in direct sunlight or rain. It is understood that filtered sunlight which does not present a danger to instruments is acceptable, particularly after 6:00 P.M. A performance may begin in direct sunlight if it is after 6:45 PM and if the temperature is eighty (80) degrees or below.

In short, if the performing venue is not comfortable you should not be performing and services should never run overtime for free, especially due to the conductor using the time in an inefficient manner. I will let Abu Bratsche have the last word, quoting from the same article of advice for young conductors as earlier in this post.

Conducting is physical, not verbal. The perfect conductor would say nothing between “Good morning” and “see you tomorrow.” Every word you say is essentially an admission of failure, generally yours.

OK, so no conductor is perfect. But, if you have to talk, don’t use 500 words when five will do. Tell me what the problem is as concisely as possibly and let me fix it. I don’t need to know why it’s a problem (I can guess that) or that it’s wonderful except for the problem, or multiple rephrasings of the nature of the problem so as not to hurt my feelings. I need to know what the problem is and whether it’s fixed.

And please don’t enlighten us with your insights into the music, or your characterizations of the composer’s intentions, or anything else unless you’re really, really good. And, because you’re a young conductor, you’re not that good. You’re standing up there to conduct, not to lecture.

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