It can be hard to know what to say when it doesn't sound good, and you don't want to crush the musicians. The worst thing we can do is say it's good when it isn't.
One of my conducting teachers, Craig Kirchhoff, called this an approval error.
Approval errors erode the musician's trust in us. Two common responses from the ensemble are:
'Is the conductor just saying that to make us feel good?' The actual impact is that it makes the ensemble feel inferior: 'She must have pretty low expectations of us if she thinks that was good. I guess she doesn't think we're capable of more than this.'
'Can't the conductor hear that it's terrible?' This diminshes the musicians' respect for our judgement and discernment. If they think you actually believe it's good then they think you are incompetent. 'If she can't hear how bad that is then she must have no idea what she's doing.'
So we want to avoid approval errors. And yet the vast majority of our rehearsal time it doesn't sound good. It's not up to scratch...yet. The journey is long and bumpy. We know it will get there, but not today.
Stopping and flogging something until it's perfect isn't a great option either. We've all been in the situation when we're like a dog with a bone about something when we really should move on. Rehearsal pace grinds to a halt and when it finally does work the victory can feel unimportant.
So how do we honestly communicate where it's at without constantly being negative?
Firstly, how we discuss and ask for improvement makes a huge difference.
Set specific, realistic targets on the way to big goals. Help the musicians understand that there are many steps on the way to getting it to be great. The vast majority of the time our work is unfinished.
Our aim today is to play this passage at 60% of the marked tempo.
Everyone should know the sequence of entries here.
Know who to listen to at the fortissimo.
Our goal is to be aware of all our quiet dynamics today.
Keep it about the music. We can capture the musical spirit without having all the notes and rhythms down.
Clarinets, play with a sense of bravery.
Cellos, more heroic here.
Even though we don't have all the sixteenths yet, make it sound flashy. Use confident air/bow.
How can we make the music sound brighter here?
Secondly. When you're at the point of giving your feedback to the ensemble, try these:
Be honest in your appraisal.
It's not quite there yet.
We still need to work on/spend time on/give attention to this.
We have room for improvement here.
We're on our way with this.
This section is not up to scratch yet.
We can do better at this.
This is a good start, and we have a long way to go.
Acknowledge the progress.
That was better.
That's an improvement.
That's closer to what we're after.
Before we were 60% together, now we are 80% together.
That's good enough for today.
Is this the best we can do right now?
Look to the future and plan your next action.
Tomorrow will be better.
Next rehearsal we will be even closer.
How can we make this better?
What do we need to do to get this to performance standard?
How can we practice this to solve this problem?
What do we need to do to learn this thoroughly?
When all else fails, use humour.
That was the Walmart version, tomorrow let's go for the Macy's version.
Less dodgy SnapChat video, more big-budget Academy Award winner.
Less Jake Peralta more James Bond.
These questions and phrases model a growth mindset for our musicians. They show that we value progress and are trustworthy in our appraisal of their work. It demonstrates how they can evaluate their own progress in private practice and recognise constant small successes. We are also modelling how to respond to challenges, difficulties and setbacks in a healthy way. This approach recognises that we are constantly learning and improving. It acknowledges where we're at, without losing sight of where we're going.
A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!
Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.