I had an unexpected, profound learning experience in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.
I was conducting Equus in the final rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale. The first performance was that night so time was tight and the pressure was on.
Even though I wrote it, Equus is easily the most difficult piece I have ever conducted. There are a lot of subtle rhythm games in the music which make the beat feel like it is in one place when in fact it is in another. Can’t imagine what the composer was smoking when he composed that damn thing.
Anyway, during this final rehearsal there are 16 measures I just can’t solve. (It’s the sections at letters ‘K’ and ‘L’ for those of you who know the piece). During earlier rehearsals I had tried breaking it down and rehearsing the individual parts slowly, but the orchestra and chorus are still struggling to play it as an ensemble and I can feel the musicians becoming frustrated. Worst of all, it is becoming very clear that the only problem is the conductor. ME. I am actually confusing them with my attempt to keep them together.
So I say to them, “I’d like to try an experiment. Let’s play it again, and as soon as we get to letter ‘K’ I am going to put down my hands and stop conducting. I’ll start conducting again at letter ‘M’… let’s just see what happens.” A few looks of hesitation from the orchestra, but everyone seems game.
So we take off, and when we get to letter ‘K’, I put my hands down and do nothing but listen. All 200 musicians play it PERFECTLY, as crisp and thrilling as I imagined it would be when I wrote it. And we did the same thing for both concerts: I would get to letter ‘K’, put my hands down and do a little dance, smile, and the players would take the reins. (So to speak).
It was such a powerful lesson for me, to simply let go and allow the experts to do what they do best. And it was a great reminder for me as a conductor: the players are making the music, not the conductor, and when the musicians are confident, prepared and focused the best thing you can do for them as a leader is get the hell out of their way and let ‘em dance.