Thoughts on Conducting during the Pandemic

by Nurhan Arman

After having conducted two virtual concerts with Sinfonia Toronto I want to share my experience and impressions. I would welcome any colleagues to comment or add their own thoughts on performing in this age of the pandemic.

At the moment Toronto’s public health regulations are such that indoor gatherings are limited to ten people. This means that our rehearsals in our regular rehearsal space can only be held with a maximum of eight musicians plus myself and an admin pandemic-protocols monitor. It was only possible to hold full orchestra rehearsals in the concert venues.

For both rehearsals and concerts the orchestra members wore masks and kept a distance of two metres. Everyone entering the venues was checked for temperature and provided a declaration of their current state of health. I conducted the rehearsals and the concerts without a mask. For the rehearsals, I stayed at least five metres away from the nearest orchestra member and at the concerts I was distanced by at least three metres.

The physical distancing and masks create a totally different rehearsal momentum. The physical distancing necessitates at times that conductors use a slightly wider beating space. That is not difficult and often with most conductors it is an instinctive adjustment. However the masks are challenging. Masks are absolutely necessary and what is to follow is not provided as an anti-mask statement but just to explain its effect on the rehearsal routine.

Rehearsals are when the conductor’s most important work is done. While the rehearsal technique of each conductor differs at the end we all need to achieve the maximum results within a limited time. While rehearsing intensely to communicate our musical ideas and deal with the technical aspects of each work, it is important for the conductor to be able to guage the emotional temperature of the room and make quick decisions on how much to push a point or which details to insist upon. A conductor with strong interpersonal skills can make quick decisions according to the emotional state of the rehearsal. This is an important skill and it is so well explained in Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’.

The facial expressions of the musicians are an important part of the musical communication between the conductor and musicians. In the pandemic era masked musicians still have expressive eyes but eyes alone don’t tell it all. The conductor needs to be able to read the musicians’ faces and assess their understanding of his or her musical ideas as well as being able to guage the orchestra’s ability to digest the amount of information the conductor is providing. If the conductor is not masked then there is still a one-way channel of communication. In the rehearsals for our last two virtual concerts I noticed more head shakes, twinkling eyes and body language than usual to make up for the masking of facial expressions. While masks make musicians and conductors work harder they are necessary to protect each others’ health. This is not a huge problem and we are capable of dealing with it to some degree.

The physical distancing of the musicians does create some ensemble issues. In general at the first rehearsals everything felt a bit heavier and behind the beat. While this is not a great issue in our orchestra I can see it may be a major problem for larger orchestras. At Sinfonia Toronto our musicians perform in a half-moon formation. With physical distancing we are now more spread out. Before the pandemic as part of our concert preparations I sometimes let the orchestra play without me briefly during the last two rehearsals, to strengthen ensemble technique and emphasize a chamber music-like approach. As we spread out for physical distancing, musicians need to rely more on their eyes than on their ears. They need to be more sensitive than ever to the conductor’s beat.

In these times we must do our best under the conditions in which we are functioning. Perhaps conductors and musicians will develop new skills while trying to perform under these extraordinary conditions. I am confident that if we can survive this pandemic we will emerge as better and more versatile performers.

Playing concerts in an empty hall for livestreaming is a bit strange but not a major obstacle for good music-making. In fact I found it stimulating, knowing that there is an audience “out there” still watching us live. So we play for the composer, we play for our audiences and we play for each other, and it is a real performance. It is much easier than recording a CD or a video. Some orchestras are pre-recording their digital concerts to be safe and avoid streaming problems. I prefer to take the risk, because the “live” aspect of the concert is important for the audience and for the performers.

And finally there is one more idea that was unthinkable before this pandemic but now lingers in the back of my mind and perhaps others’ as well. It’s hard to talk about, but it occurs to me anyway. As contagious as this virus is, will one of us catch it in spite of all our precautions? Will we be all together again for the next rehearsal or concert? I try to block this thought and stay positive. People are yearning for live music now, and our virtual concerts have meant a lot to many people. Reading email messages of thanks and receiving encouraging and congratulatory notes inspires me to continue.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Conducting during the Pandemic

  1. Dear Holly, how wonderful to hear of some normalcy in New Zealand which is no coincidence at all. They coped with the pandemic the right way. Congratulations on your appointment as music director of Symphony Nova Scotia. That is so exciting! Thanks also for sharing your experience of rehearsing via the internet. We haven’t done that yet but for Saturday’s virtual concert with Sinfonia Toronto we begin with a sectional again. All the best.

  2. Hi Holly, hope you’re well! Fascinating to hear your experiences and all the different ways conductors/players have adapted, thanks for sharing. I didn’t realise NZ was totally back to normal! That must have been surreal to say the least.

  3. Thank you for this, Nurhan – your reflections strike a chord with many of my own! The strange experiences I’ve had in the last 8 months have included recording a new opera with Opera North in overdubbed layers over the course of 2 weeks; and rehearsing 6 – 7 piece chamber groups with Symphony Nova Scotia, from my home in Scotland via live audio stream: We used Source Connect – very high quality feed with no buffering from the rehearsal/recording session in Canada to me; and I had a zoom open on my phone (muted for the most part) so that I could speak directly back to them. Over the course of four of these, the players have become more independent and are now mainly self-directing, with just minimal input from me, which is exactly what I hoped for. But perhaps most curious of all has been getting back to New Zealand for a month of concerts in what feels like stepping back in time, pre-Covid. No masks, no distancing, full orchestra, full audience, hugs and handshakes afterwards. It sounds like a dream, but in truth I felt very anxious throughout and as if I was cheating behind the backs of all of my dear colleagues elsewhere in the world!

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