Hornmasters: Cousins and Reynolds on Conductors

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Farquharson Cousins has quite a lot to say about orchestral playing and about conductors specifically in On Playing the Horn. He notes for example that

A really fine conductor is a joy and a godsend; he will be much loved by all; music will take on a new and undiscovered dimension; St. Cecilia will smile and the players will go home with singing hearts and a sense of destiny fulfillment. However, mention the word ‘conductor’ to the average professional musician and he will spill his beer. Nudge him gently with a fresh pint, and, as the nasty look in his eye subsides, eh will tell you that there are three categories of conductors: good ones, nonentities, and wreckers.

Later he notes (in one of my favorite quotes in this entire series) that

The eminent violinist, Isaac Stern, said jokingly, “There are only six conductors in the world. All the rest are bums!” An exaggeration of course, but we all know what he meant.

Among the most interesting elements in his book is the system he proposes for rating conductors. They are to be rated in the categories of musicianship, stick-technique, personality, rehearsal ability, and rhythm (sense of pulse), and in each category you are given a group of choices. For example, in the category of stick technique you have the following choices: “quite delightful (flowing), good (flowing), workmanlike but clear, meandering but not interfering, labored (choppy) and disconcerting, destructive” and in the category of rehearsal ability “makes excellent use of time, makes good use of time, accomplishes something, accomplishes something but boring, time largely wasted (boring)” and finally “time wholly wasted (utterly boring).”

To close out our survey of the Hornmasters, Verne Reynolds has a few pertinent thoughts on conductors in The Horn Handbook.

Unfortunately, we are not always conducted by the finest musicians or by the finest human beings during our training and young professional years. The podium does not invariably attract people with both of these exemplary qualities. We have all heard conductors say unfortunate things, have witnessed their inadequate preparation and skill, and have been the target of their ill-conceived comments. For these and other negative experiences, attitudes are formed. Though inevitable, these experiences should not dilute our desire to learn during the training years, or lower our standards of conduct and performance during the professional years.

Not uncommonly, young players complain that their conductor tied to tell them how to play, or told them that they were sharp, flat, ahead, behind, too soft, too loud, too short, too long. If one of these comments were offered shortly after the conductor had beaten incorrectly, we can understand that the young player will question the conductor’s qualifications and right to evaluate. The conductor’s right to evaluate and comment are inalienable; the conductor’s competence to do so is another matter. The student will be confused and angry. The professional will remember the times that the orchestra rescued the performance from the clutches of the conductor’s inadequacy….

Our relations with conductors will be more positive if our preparation, attention, receptivity to suggestions, and general conduct convey a message of cooperation and reliability. Our preparation must not be confined to works we have not played. How embarrassing to misread one of the transpositions in the last movement of the Dvořák “New World” Symphony because we neglected to review such a standard work. Impressions made at first rehearsals of a new program are important because they ratify or repudiate that we are experienced and always prepared. From these impressions, reputations are built for better or worse.

Reynolds48Thinking a bit further, elements of the above relate to any job situation. Conductors in the end think of themselves being the boss and tend to favor players who are steady and reliable. In a modern situation steady and reliable also involves such things as turning around E-mail and more. All we do creates an impression, and “from these impressions, reputations are built for better or worse.” Those that studied with Reynolds in the time frame I did know he had a few things he liked to say about conductors that you might not put in a book. From that study and his book a final quote comes to mind, passed on by oral tradition in the studio. “There are two types of horn players, overemployed horn players and underemployed horn players. Which type do you want to be?”

With that dose of speaking the truth we conclude the Hornmasters series in Horn Matters! It has been a wild ride but has given many perspectives on horn playing from (mostly) classic horn texts. Thank you for following along in this huge survey of all things horn, and get back to practicing.

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