Not long ago I was observing a rehearsal and at one point was in a position where I could see all the players from nearly the perspective of the conductor. During that time I had quite a shock actually, those conductors are not crazy, people hardly looked up at all!
Principal players observed with solo passages to perform in particular seemed to fall in these four categories:
- Did not look up ever. Period.
- Looked up sometimes but not when actually playing a soloistic passage.
- Glanced up at the conductor occasionally when in a solo line.
- Actually looked up enough that the conductor might feel that they were being eyeballed. Which they like.
Hardly anyone in this group of students really looked up enough. I recall clearly the time frame that I leaned to move from category two to category four in the list above. It takes some effort but in my case did pay off. The players stuck in category one and two probably felt they were doing their job to play the notes well which is true but they missed the bigger picture.
As an aspiring professional in particular the key thing to remember is the conductor is your boss; if you don’t eyeball them at important moments it really does make them nuts. Overall they probably would rather have a player who is competent and pleasant and looks at them than someone who is the best player ever who does not look up. It is something to think over in the bigger picture of building up a career.
That all said, sometimes it really is hard to look up at the conductor. One individual in particular that I have played under a few times has a delayed beat. In this case you really can’t look at them much because you will only end up being ahead of their beat unless you are really used to it. Depending on the tempo it is too much of a guessing game–you are better off keying on your ear or on other players. A friend recently reminded me of one tactic on this is to look at the bow of the concertmaster; this will give you the most definitive version of the beat. Sometimes this works; sometimes it does not. Along those same lines I have also found it helpful to look at the principal viola on Strauss Waltzes to have the feel for where the “2-3” needs put. Be aware of who you need to match.
In short, look at the conductor if you can, but if what you see is hard to follow then use your ear and figure out what you can key in on.
One of my favorite series of articles in Horn Matters is the Orchestra 101 series (begins here). This is a bonus article.