Klemp, you talka too muich

That was the punch line of what is likely an apocryphal story about an interaction between the great German conductor Otto Klemperer and an Italian principal oboe. Sadly, Klemp is not alone.

It must be hard to be a conductor, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. But one of the hardest things – judging by how few conductors have mastered it – is the art of not saying too much. No doubt the tradition (or myth) of the omniscient maestro, teaching the ignorant and faceless mass of musicians in front of him about the greatness of the art and getting them to play far beyond their innate musicality, is the source of much of the problem. Teaching involves a lot of talking, after all.

But that’s not really what happens with a professional orchestra. Generally they don’t need to be taught about the music. What they need is to be coordinated with each other so as to make the music sound the way the conductor wants it to sound. That can mean a lot of rehearsing and fixing things. The amount of words needed to rehearse and fix things can be surprisingly small, though.

One of the best examples I ever saw of this was back in my SPCO days. We had a guest conductor, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, and we were doing the Saint-Saens concerto with Ralph Kirshbaum. At one point in the rehearsal, Kirshbaum stopped and said something very quietly to Akiyama about how he wanted a particular wind passage to be phrased. I know he said it too quietly for the winds to hear because I was sitting principal viola (in those days, we sat on the outside) and could barely hear what he said from where I sat. Akiyama nodded, said “Letter A” or the equivalent, and began again. This time, with no verbal prompting and no guidance from the conductor at all except what he did with his hands, the winds did exactly what Kirshbaum had asked for.

That’s conducting. Now of course not all problems will be able to be solved that non-verbally. Often musicians need to be told what they’re doing that’s not working, especially when it’s a technical issue. But the telling does not need a lot of words. And letting the musicians know whether or not the problem is fixed doesn’t need a lot of words either.

If I were teaching conducting, I would require students to do the equivalent of language immersion – which, for conductors, would be not using words at all, except perhaps “start at bar X.” If I was feeling kind, I’d also allow “not together,” “flat” and “sharp.”

In my view, anything beyond that ought to be superfluous.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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