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Notes from the Back Row: Maestro myths, humor, and other musician fiction

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
web posted June 24, 2024

Originally I intended to simply review Norman Lebrecht's book titled, The Maestro Myth, but realized the only thing I would add are a few anecdotes from a more experiential standpoint. And, as he's noted more than once - despite all our technological advances, the presence of genuine talent in this field grows increasingly rare.

Generally speaking, the music business and particularly, the challenges faced by professional musicians provide endless fodder - for jokes and stereotypes both inside and outside the microcosm of orchestral ranks. Perfectionism, public image, in addition to other pressures and demands that are endemic in the performing arts - create high levels of stress and burnout. Despite its shiny allure, perfection is not a goal nor is it ideal; its very pretense diminishes the exquisitely delicate balance of awe and intimacy within any complex musical organism.

Learning the most efficient ways to diffuse a particularly tense situation or ameliorate nearly impossible demands and learning them early, are essential for survival in this field. Humor is one of these tools, as well as recognition - knowing the right moment to simply acknowledge human error and on rare occasion, our limitations. Second only to technical skills, training and intuition, they need continual honing. And nowhere are these tools needed more, than in daily interactions with conductors.

There persists to this day a mythical aura surrounding the orchestral conductor as an unassailable implicit authority. Born of legends, conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski personified the robust talent and tyranny popularized in public imagination. It is rumored that during a dress rehearsal with the NBC Symphony, Toscanini got a "time's up" signal from the booth - and with one small hand motion from the maestro, the entire 80-piece orchestra stopped on a dime. Not one straggler. Toscanini was also famous for his verbal tirades in rehearsal, some of them caught on audio recordings that are public domain. No need to speak Italian to get the gist.

Such behavior was not viewed favorably at the time; now it wouldn't be tolerated at all, talent notwithstanding. The performing arts are not just defined by precision and creativity, but a degree of individuality and freedom.

Of all the musicians onstage, a conductor technically wields the least power. The baton is silent, and wise is the maestro who understands this. A memorable lesson for the overbearing conductor can come at a very embarrassing moment: That first downbeat heralding the start of a performance…brings no sound, just dead silence; several seconds of sweaty tension can seem like an eternity to him as the brass section sits calmly with their instruments in lap. Then slowly, instruments are raised and they make their entrance together, with the conductor forced to follow them.

Of course, there's humor - ranging from bawdy to crude. A relatively clean joke that's circulated through ensembles for over a hundred years, it's just as fitting now, as it was then: What's the difference between a bull and an orchestra?

Well…on a bull, the horns are in front, and the asshole is in back. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician  and recording artist. In her free time she enjoys writing and regularly  contributes to Enter Stage Right and she attained a Bachelor's Degree in Molecular Biology.

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