22. June 2009 · 4 comments · Categories: Links, Ramble

Lesson for young conductors (and old ones too): yes, we know when you screw up. Apologize and move on. We don’t like it when you screw up. But we despise your trying to pretend you didn’t.

-Robert Levine

You can read it here, and see the context as well that way.

But oh how true!

One common little “trick” that conductors do when they make a mistake in rehearsal is to quickly stop and correct something that we are doing. This happened fairly recently; the conductor had not caught the meter change, and conducted a 3/4 in 4/4 or some such thing. He quickly stopped and asked us to change something else. We knew he stopped because he made the meter mistake. He knew too. Why not just say, “Oops!” and move on? Instead, he tried to cover it up. That causes me — and I’m sure many of my colleagues— to snicker (silently), get annoyed, and lower the conductor approval meter down a notch or two. If this sort of thing happens in concert and we begin to get glares from a conductor, it lowers it even more.

It is admirable to admit a mistake. Heck, I do it all the time. That’s why I have so many admirers.

Um. Okay. Maybe not. But it is the right thing to do. And I don’t think less of a conductor if he or she is willing to admit a mistake, but I might when they try to cover up their mistakes. And I definitely think even less of them when they blame us. Surprise, surprise.


  1. In opera they get to blame the chorus. 🙂

  2. Oh but not always … I’ve seen the “stop the orchestra because I just missed a meter change” in the pit during rehearsals.

    And boy, did we used to get chewed out by the “top dog” of OSJ … she’d come down and really go at it with our concertmaster. I’m glad that’s stopped now. Somehow we came up in the world. Yay!

  3. I remember reading a story about a manager-type (possibly the owner of the business – top-of-the-food-chain, anyhow) who decided that the finger-pointing and as…er…backside-covering was not actually helpful when a mistake was made, so at a meeting he slapped $100 on the table and said something like “Who here has made the biggest mistake while working? That person gets this $100.” At first, everyone was sort of looking sidelong at each other, trying to figure if heads were about to roll, so he brought out a mistake he’d made and claimed the $100. Eventually they all started talking about things they’d biffed (and someone else took the prize), but it ended with them sharing their mistakes so that they could all learn from them. I’ve always liked that story (as far as I know a true one), and hope I haven’t misremembered it too badly (this was 20 years ago).

    I also remember a trumpet player telling me (with a sort of awed fascination) something Marv Nelson (RIP) had asked him during a lesson: “Why do you play wrong notes?” When you think about it, it is a pretty great question to ask.

  4. I love this story, Tim!

    And I will happily admit all my errors and take $100 each time. 🙂