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Orchestra behind beat?

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Andy Mopley, Feb 21, 2021.

  1. Andy Mopley

    Andy Mopley

    Sep 24, 2011
    Why does it seem like the orchestra is playing behind the conductor’s beat? Is this something that, as I have read somewhere, is there to provide more room for expression (as in slower movements, for example). Are conductors usually in line with this "drag' so to speak, and in the most respectful sense of the word!
    It all started when I stumbled on this:

    Regards to all
    AGCurry likes this.
  2. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Andy, I've often wondered the exact same thing: Why does the orchestra not hit the downbeat with the baton?
  3. lokikallas

    lokikallas Supporting Member

    Aug 15, 2010
    los angeles
    Because the orchestra really follows first chair violin lol. I'm convinced conductors are only there to remind the horns when to come in.
    M0ses, Matthijs, eerbrev and 2 others like this.
  4. Dr. Love

    Dr. Love

    Nov 5, 2008
    Lubbock, TX
    Jason Heath has a few Contrabass Conversations podcasts where they discuss orchestral timing (and why basses are always late). A lot of it has to do with the individual style of the orchestra/section leaders and the acoustics of the halls themselves. As far as the conductor goes, there’s loads of personal styles there too and many seem more focused on drawing artful nuances out of the performance rather than counting the beat for the musicians who hopefully can count for themselves if they’re in a professional orchestra.
    AGCurry likes this.
  5. Andy Mopley

    Andy Mopley

    Sep 24, 2011
    I am sure the "senators" here;-) will chime in..!!
  6. Andy Mopley

    Andy Mopley

    Sep 24, 2011
    True, but often knowing where the hand / baton is in relation to upbeat can make the difference between a successful take off or a disastrous landing ;-)
    Dr. Love likes this.
  7. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    It has at least three possible causes that come immediately to mind:
    1. The musicians aren't paying attention to the stick or don't know the conductor well enough to interpret what he/she means. Try conducting and you will quickly understand. The way you conduct changes how the musicians interpret where you are placing the ictus. Also, larger motions tend to be interpreted late, so the conductor will feel like he/she is pulling the ensemble through sand. In other words if a conductor wants to use large dramatic motions, it will be necessary to conduct way ahead of the beat...that's just they way it works out in my experience.

    2. Orchestras tend to be large enough so sound propagation is a significant problem. Sound travels at approximately 1' per millisecond (actually 1.13') and the duration that is on the verge of perception is about 10-15 milliseconds. So 5'-7.5' of separation between musicians equals perceptible delay. Remember the sound has to travel both ways when people are playing together.

    Now consider the size of a large symphonic ensemble. It can get confusing trying the manage the difference between what your ears are telling you and where your eyes are telling you the beat is. This is especially true in my experience with syncopated patterns or off beats.

    3. The propagation delay is further complicated if you are playing with brass as they have to deal with the bore length of their instruments. This is especially true with instruments like tuba and (French) horn. These instrument have to anticipate the beat in order to play in time. I have seen lot's of very learned horn players struggle to play off beats and it's easy to judge them harshly if you don't consider all the layers of difficulty they are dealing with.

    As an upright player who did almost all of his formal training in string programs and then played professionally in concert bands, it was a pretty significant adjustment for me to learn to breath with a brass ensemble, as they tend to put the beat way behind where a string ensemble puts it. For the first couple of years, it was pretty common for me to make early entrances that ruined the moment, but we always worked it out in rehearsal.
  8. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    This varies significantly from conductor to conductor and ensemble to ensemble. Within an ensemble, it can also vary significantly from piece to piece. Sometimes it's necessary for the conductor to count out and manage time, and sometimes it is not. When a piece is rubato the conductor must be watched and followed IMHO. It's also necessary in large ensemble for fast passages where there is separation between sections that must interlock with down beats and upbeats. In other words situations where the distance makes it impossible to rely on your ears to play fast "Oom Pah" parts, so you have to play with the stick.
    VictorW126 and AndersLasson like this.
  9. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    Murray Grodner deals with this issue specifically in his book. His idea is to listen carefully and develop the instinct for when to attack the notes so that there is no perception that the bass notes are behind the rest of the ensemble. It has to become instinctive in his view. He compares it to pizzicato, where the lag is not an issue to the same degree as arco- think of arco attacks the same way. He accepts that there are issues of resonance and distance but maintains these can be dealt with. The main point is that it must eventually become automatic.
    csrund likes this.
  10. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    I don't agree with all of Adam's conclusions. Classical players are used to reading different types of syncopations than rock or jazz musicians. Also there are some syncopations that jazz or classical players would expect to see notated differently. If you see a common syncopation notated in an unusual way it becomes more difficult to read.

    The reason classical musicians interpret the feel different is because they think different and have different experiences. The video of the bass player who can't play 3 against 2 is sort of in poor taste IMHO. Most classical musicians have no problem with 3 against 2. The common problem is more with interpreting swing feel, in other words how the triplet varies from a true triplet. Simply put, most classical musicians don't swing, but it seems unreasonable to expect them to do something they probably have not studied in any significant way. Let's be honest, this is also a problem with many jazz musicians.

    I am sort of the weirdo that straddled the jazz, classical, and pop/rock/R&B world. I wasn't great at any of it, but my strength was my flexibility and it served me well as it was sort of a job requirement.

    Many successful musicians tend to specialize. The jazz specialists I worked with could play me under the table when we were playing jazz, but I had the upper hand when we were playing classical. Likewise, the classical specialists could play me under the table when we were playing classical but I had the upper hand when we were playing jazz. So I was weaker than my peers in their specialty, but stronger than my peers outside of their specialty.

    Classical musicians and jazz musicians have different thought processes and different musical priorities. IMHO each type of musician excels at different things, and these thing tend to be related to their musical priorities and mental processes. IMHO, this is illustrated in Adam's video where the classical musicians did some things better and some things worse.

    Unfortunately rather than celebrating each others' differences, this is another area where people tend to become polarized and combative. It's rather unfortunate IMHO, but it's very easy to feel arrogant about what we do well and to think it should come easy to everyone. Then we assume anyone who can't do what we can do is either stupid or incompetent. Meanwhile those with a totally different skillset are doing exactly the same thing, and looking at us a pathetic fools. Sad!
    VictorW126, Leo Smith, M0ses and 7 others like this.
  11. Dogfightgiggle


    Mar 4, 2020
    I think there is a lot that goes into this, but in a general way I think the conductor is in the business of giving information in advance so that the musician can process and make use of it. Cued entrances for example.
  12. I have quoted one of our local conductors, Patrick Thomas, in a TB thread before. He famously said that "conducting an orchestra is like taking an octopus for a walk on a rubber band"!!
    M0ses, Rayjay, jj.833 and 5 others like this.
  13. In my experience listening to the rest of the orchestra, particularly the melodic line if there is one, is much more important in how you place your part to be "in sync" than staying in lock step with the conductor's movements (sometimes confusing if not impossible). After numerous rehearsals of the pieces you should develop a sense of how things should be timed. By the night of the concert the conductor's role is more ceremonial and normally relegated to helping the orchestra only in those sections when coordination with a soloist is crucial. If the orchestra is rehearsed well enough you should mostly be on "autopilot" during the performance except for specific spots. That's why leading up to the concert I avoid any other recordings or interpretations of the same piece. They lead to confusion.
  14. Dogfightgiggle


    Mar 4, 2020
    A good conductor is more managing the tempo than beating it off :thumbsup: anyway.
    M0ses likes this.
  15. I think there's a joke to be made about what sort of parties they get invited to. :D
  16. Yes, I once played in a jazz band in which nobody could swing. Don't get me wrong; as a beginning hobbyist, I learned a lot. But it finally got too frustrating..
    Wasnex likes this.
  17. Matthias Hacker

    Matthias Hacker

    Apr 8, 2018
    I´ve played the same repertoire with my band plus different symphony orchestras. To be honest I cannot look at the most conductors if I want to play in time, it just confuses me. I like to give them a smile from time to time to give them a good feel, but that´s it more or less.

    But there are conductors who are conducting exactly on the beat (feels great). Some are very very early but convinced to be on the beat. The smaller the orchestra the better (for me). We also played with chamber orchestras (strings only), there is usually very exact timing and conducting right on the beat. I experienced brass sections doing their completely own thing no matter what the conductor is doing, while I also experienced very tight large orchestras even in difficult acoustic situations. The whole thing is still more or less a miracle for me. I talked to some conductors how they feel and show the pulse without being much smarter afterwards. My way to deal with this is to keep calm and not to worry too much.
    M0ses, s van order and AGCurry like this.
  18. eerbrev


    Dec 6, 2009
    Ottawa, ON, CAN
    Orchestras have an inherent flaw - getting everyone to speed up and slow down is like controlling a cruise ship. The conductor will enact something, and even if everyone is paying attention to only him it will still take time for things to get moving.

    But that's beside the point.

    The goal is not to play with the conductor's downbeat. The goal is for all 50+ musicians to play together and have a unified concept of time and rhythm. Sometimes that's right with the conductor. sometimes, that's using your ears and compensating for when the first violins take half a breath before starting their line. No one is happy if, in performance, you play right with the conductor and make another section's entrance (or finishing notes) sound wrong. Congratulations, you're a human metronome - you've also missed the point of playing *with* other people.

    Some conductors are insistent on everyone being with them right on their tactus - but that's in rehearsal. they're not going to stop the show because the basses came in late. It's too late to change it, so you need to go with it. This is further complicated by conductors who don't want you to play right on their tactus. I've had several conductors like this - it's a weird flex, but like, ok boss, whatever you want. This is even further complicated by something that someone else brought up earlier - the size of the ensemble is large enough that the physics of sound being slower than light actually starts to affect things, both for the players and for the audience. If you're halfway back in the hall, you'll see the downbeat, and then hear the musicians play after, even if they play at exactly the right time.

    I like Adam Neely. He's *super* wrong in this video, and it just feels like he's dunking on classical musicians in the eternal "classical vs jazz" penis-measuring contest.
  19. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    In this case I will give him a break because I think he makes his comments out of ignorance, rather than out of malice. Essentially he does not understand the massive intrinsic differences the typically exist between well trained classical and jazz musicians. My belief is musicians become classical specialist because of certain natural aptitudes and preferences, and musicians become jazz specialist because of a different set of aptitudes and preferences.

    In my experience, there are definitely some things that classical musicians do far better than jazz musicians. But ask most classical musicians to improvise a melody on the spot, and they will be clueless, and also probably totally uninterested.
    VictorW126 likes this.
  20. Adam Wynter

    Adam Wynter

    May 9, 2005

    So, that call out of not only the bassist but the institution to which he is attached is as predictable as it is tasteless and boring a means of leveraging clout, I find. Makes sense, though, when he goes on to talk about his conception of himself as a ‘lowly jazz musician’ in his rehearsal and then some more about the virtuosity of classical sight reading blah blah... Personal neuroses always make an embarrassing yardstick for measuring up in public. Whether or not he thinks these things of himself and others, or they’re just devices for showing how he’d misapprehended the situations in question, tired stereotypes are tired.

    Strange to talk about ‘the orchestra’ playing behind the beat in that particular part of Mahler 5, when in fact only one person out of probably 80 odd is playing a solo. Functionally speaking ‘the beat’ in that instance is an internally generated one. If an orchestra plays consistently behind the beat to the same degree all the way through a piece, is it really the case that the orchestra is behind, or have you as a viewer misunderstood the collective’s relationship between the conductor’s gesture and the sound?

    As for the part about note attacks, soft sounds from strings etc; tell that to Stravinsky. The way I often find myself starting notes with the bow on the bass in a variety of different types of classical music, often very firm with a lot of decay, would probably not be considered tasteful if it were transposed to, say, violin playing happening at the same time within the same ensemble.

    If you look at the first page of the bass part of Elgar 1, where there are three separate instructions detailed for different types of speeding up and slowing down, and every few phrases the music changes mood and also tempo, there’s no way you’re going to get through a piece like that without things being done by committee. The conductor is a focal point for a group interpretation that everyone has to work out together. I suppose the question I’m getting at is, as long as what comes out is as together as everyone can manage, who cares?

    If you’re interested in being a person who can generate a beat internally you can work on that. To the degree you’ve developed that particular skill you’ll be potentially useful, if and when you find yourself in a situation where that’s a useful thing to be able to do.

    TL; DR - Why do different musicians feel rhythm differently? Because they’re different from each other. Arbitrarily adding a degree of team sports into the equation is a useful way for the social media influencer class to generate a lively comments section, so well done to mr. Neely on a fine example of that. If nothing else.
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