How to Lead

As our plans for recording last month–which became our attempt to record this month–have dwindled away, it’s time to look forward to 2011. Yesterday I took some time to multi-track Joel DiBartolo‘s arrangement of the Contrapunctus No. 1 from J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, thinking it will make a good piece for our repertiore early in 2011.

This was a revealing exercise. If you’ve ever performed Beethoven’s fifth symphony (or worked on the excerpts), you’ve had a conductor (or a teacher) rail at you to play more quietly after you’ve done playing the fugue subject in the third movement. The fugue subject has to be heard as it is played by the other groups in the orchestra.

When I listened back to myself playing all four voices of Contrapunctus No. 1, I realized that I could rarely hear the subject, no matter what register it was being played in. I was overplaying everything, and doing so I had no sense of the relative importance of the part I was playing or of what the overall effect of the piece was.

(To be fair: I was sightreading this stuff as I was recording. It’s a not-so-great habit of mine to charge ahead into music without taking any time to work out fingerings or bowings or even pay much attention to intonation. But my rhythm is usually okay. It’s an even worse habit that I record this flailing. But I’m pretty good about deleting the recordings before anyone else has a chance to hear them.)

But I digress. I realized–while re-recording tracks to try to eke out a better performance–that this kind of preparation is what I need to do for all of the group’s work: I need to develop a strong musical concept for each piece. I need to study the scores and familiarize myself with each part. I need to convey the musical sense of the piece to the rest of the group before we rehearse it over and over.

It’s possible to learn a piece as a group, and arguably we have done that pretty successfully with some of our repertoire. But my assertion here is that the process of bringing something to a high point of musical expression will happen more quickly if one leader “makes a case” for the way something should sound.

Perhaps if all of the members of the group had the same level of commitment, the idea of an autocratic leadership would be inappropriate. Groups like the Emerson or Kronos quartets must debate and discuss long and hard amongst themselves how to interpret pieces. But they have long histories behind them, and for each player in those quartets the quartet must be their top priority. That’s not the case for us yet, and so a different style of leadership is needed.

I’ll readily admit that I haven’t done a lot of research on the leadership styles within a range of performing arts groups. I know of anecdotal examples like the extreme autocracy of Buddy Rich, and I’ve heard a little bit about the extreme democracy of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

I casually follow Eighth Blackbird on twitter and get some insight into their rehearsal techniques. And I’ve spent my share of time under the baton of great and not-so-great conductors. There are a lot of different leadership styles out there, and no single one, arbitrarily chosen, can work in all situations.

Not merely coincidentally, I’m intending to lead a panel discussion at the upcoming Chicago Bass Festival on how to found and lead a performing group.

I know from the comments I have received on other posts in this blog that my most ardent commenters are selling ripoff pharmaceuticals. But perhaps there are a few of you actual readers out there who have some thoughts about this. Drop me a note!

3 Responses to “How to Lead”

  1. Jan says:

    Keep going. You have come a long way already, staying with it for years now! How long?

    We are forming a new bass quartet here in Gothenburg, Sweden and are trying to be on the democratic side in rehearsing, A take-and-give critic situation which needs to be handled in a mature way with a forgiving smile inside, if we can.

    But its been fun, so far 🙂

  2. […] during the last two months, pushing for the kind of excellence that would make a good recording. Thinking about leadership styles came out of that: I didn’t feel that I was getting the kind of “job performance” […]

  3. […] Just to wind down, we pulled up one of the two Bach fugues (Number 5 from the Well-Tempered Clavier). Ah, Bach. So deceptively simple looking, so rich and hard to play in a truly musical way. We barreled through our first time, but it became clear at the end that we were. not. together. We looked it over a bit, realizing that the entrances of the fugue subject were not always in the same place in the bar, and that the stretto was particularly “uneven,” and had another go. This time we were able to end on together (hooray). But at the same time, it was clear that we had not realized anywhere near the music that is in that piece. I’ve been there before. […]

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