5.2 Use an Assistant

In most acoustics, what the conductor hears where he or she stands, is not the same as the sound the audience hears. Certainly, not everyone in the audience will get precisely the same sound, but the conductor is most likely too close to get an accurate picture. 

You will hear the instruments closer to you more clearly than those far away. This is particularly the case if there is a large string section, and the wind and brass players are therefore some distance away. In many large halls, the sound of the wind, brass and percussion will, to quite a surprising extent, go over your head and out into the auditorium. That is probably what the acoustician who designed the Hall intended! It is certainly what Richard Strauss had in mind with numbers 4, 5 and 6 of his Ten Golden Rules of Conducting:

4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.

5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.

6. If you think that the brass is now blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two

The solution to this is to have another pair of ears to listen to the balance and sound in the Hall, otherwise known as an assistant conductor. If you and the musicians know the venue intimately, this may be less necessary, but there will still be occasions when it is good to check – especially in a concerto or other solo work. Many ensembles (probably most non-professional ones) will not have the luxury of rehearsing regularly in the performance space, possibly only having the final dress rehearsal in there. With amateur groups, this may also be the first time that harpists or all the percussionists are present. A lot can change in these circumstances, so a reliable assistant can be a big help.

You can either position them in the Hall, turning to check periodically and getting a nod or shake of the head as feedback, or you can be a good colleague and give your assistant the valuable experience of conducting for a short while and going to listen for yourself. You may be surprised at what you notice when listening from a distance.

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