Organising musicians is said to be like herding cats. Leading musicians is presumably then an effort to repeat the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s trick, but on creatures much less gullible and much more independent-minded than either rats or small children. Nonetheless it is a feat surprisingly often required …
I was a little surprised and highly gratified to be asked to lead the orchestra for #OperaCo’s Giovanna d’Arco, which I’m playing for in a couple of weeks. Now in classical orchestral terms this has a more or less defined meaning, some parts of which make sense and some don’t. For starters, it’s tied up by convention with sitting at the front of the first violins. Now while certainly you want to lead a section, let alone all the strings or notionally the whole orchestra, from where you can be seen, I don’t think there’s any reason why the principal violist or cellist shouldn’t be in just as good a position to head up the string section. And what do you do when you’re there, I hear some of you ask? Well, partly (thanks to convention that orchestral string players playing the same thing are all supposed to move the bow in the same direction at the same time), rule on bowings for the first violins, which are then passed down to the other sections wherever the rhythm is the same, in principle. And with this goes a certain amount of stuff about phrasing and delivery, which ought to be more important than the sacred bowing – but in practice isn’t. Must sharpen my pencil so I can scribble on my part and pass it around the other strings … It’s also common (and, if you can keep your place at least as well as the other string players, often useful) to ‘give’ entries and sometimes some points of rhythm (changes of long held chords for instance) by a sort of minimal conducting with the instrument, shoulders and head – being only able to move above the waist as orchestras almost always play sitting down. This does have potential to look and feel just as strange as it sounds, although it can help keep an under-rehearsed section together a lot. If another section (usually the second violins, being closest in role and position) tries to follow the overall leader and it turns out they’ve lost their place in, say, a fugue, it can of course not help at all!
The slightly more unexpected bit, though, is that quite often (though it depends on the egos of the conductor, leader and where applicable soloists) the leader is also cast as sort of assistant musical director, keeping an ear on the general orchestral sound and advising / flagging things up if necessary. (Here, the question of why this should be done from the first violins expands to why it should not equally well be done from the woodwinds or even the horns – though up until the late Romantic period most writing uses the strings almost all the time and the winds much more sparingly, so that a string player may – only may – have slightly more sense of what’s going on overall. That said, the timpanist or the trumpeters will have much more time to listen without zoning in on playing their own part … ) The obvious performance token of this is the leader usually supervising the orchestra tuning; though (as very often with conductors) whatever real work is involved is done in rehearsal and finished by the start of the performance.
I’ve been gradually settling into a sort of assistant-director role in The String Project for a while now as well. Here, there’s really no perceptible change in rehearsals or gigs at all, although I have run a couple of practice’s when Ben’s been away and we’ve had a gig coming up or new people learning parts. The significant differences are being much more involved in practical planning and organising (sometimes in collaboration and gradually slipping off the leash), and arranging a lot more music for the group, where until fairly recently Ben would compose or supply everything. (I haven’t set myself the job of writing anything from scratch yet, though it’s an appealing idea … ) With the first half, of course, goes needing to get the rest of the band-cum-collective to respond to diary emails and the like from me as efficiently as ones from Ben.
Actually, that’s not saying much. We’re back at herding cats again. And perhaps if ‘leaders’ are chiefly deputy organisers, then that makes me the sheepdog in the metaphor, trying to corral and direct animals not naturally given to herding together, but not in charge of creating the strategy or even direction. You know what, this might be a good point to drop this image.