Last summer I attended a conducting course in Stavanger, Norway. I had the pleasure of staying with Andrea and Morten Wensberg on the beautiful island of Vassøy. Andrea studied with me in high school and now plays Associate Principal Horn in the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Her husband Morten is Professor of Conducting and Head of Conducting Studies at the University of Stavanger. In addition to those duties, Morten is in charge of youth brass bands in Norway.
The conducting course was my first instruction in conducting. For the ten years that I’ve led the Houston Brass Band, I’ve approached the challenges of getting the group to play well in the same manner as I have when leading chamber music groups: know the score really well and encourage the musicians. Occasionally, the consequences of my conducting gestures concerned me, so I would talk to conductors for advice—but most often I simply avoided the obvious mistakes that I have seen so many conductors make over the years, playing as a professional. (My stories about conductors will wait for another post—or lifetime!).
On the isle of Vassøy, I’d get up and eat, practice the trumpet for a bit, then ride a bicycle to the ferry. I can’t imagine a nicer way to get to work, as Morten and Andrea do every workday. I’d climb the stairs to the ferry’s top deck and buzz my mouthpiece as I watched some of the most beautiful scenery pass by. I did bother a harbor seal with my buzzing, and I have witnesses.
Arriving at the dock in Stavanger I rode the bicycle through that lovely town. The cobblestones in Siddis, the oldest part of Stavanger, required me to dismount. But every trip was enjoyable.
We began the Dirigentuka conducting course each day at 9:00 am with Trond Korsgård leading the 110 participants in very simple motions which raised our awareness of the consequences of our physical actions. Much of those physical exercises came from Tai chi. I was intrigued to learn what specific gestures accomplish—both in their positive as well as negative results. The smoothness of Trond’s approach reminded me of Vince Cichowicz’ trumpet instruction. All conducting motions, even in violent music, stem from an underlying, flowing legato. The parallel to brass playing was clear to me. As Arnold Jacobs said, “Even when playing Heldentrompete passages, the most heroic music is played with lovesong vowels.” Trond was a huge help to me, and I have a lot of work to do to get to the level of the others in our group who had worked with him before.
At 10 am those ten of us who were fortunate enough to conduct the Stavanger Brass Band broke out into some of the most enthralling teaching sessions that I have experienced since studying with Bud Herseth. The great teacher and conductor was Bjarte Engeset. Like Herseth, Bjarte urged us to find the specific character in the music at every moment, and to show that to the ensemble in a way that they would understand, with a minimum of speaking. Bjarte urged us conductors to “Show, not tell.” At one point in the evening session, one conductor was doing a lot of talking. Bjarte stopped him, saying that the Stavanger Brass Band did not need the drilling he was having them do; also that he should not ever “…tell them to do something that you have not already clearly shown them.”
We reviewed videos of the previous evening’s rehearsing the marvelous musicians of the Stavanger Brass Band. My first moments with that heavenly ensemble truly surprised me.
I play in a wonderful brass section in the Houston Symphony, where so many have studied in Chicago. As a student I had been immersed in the culture of brass playing in that city. I heard the Chicago Symphony many, many times in the five years I was there (1978-1983). But, as a conductor, I had not ever experienced what I did when I initially dropped my hands for the initial pianissimo entrance in the Philip Sparke Cantilena. The sound the SBB produced was no less loud than many other groups, but it was a bigger, fuller pp. I mused that the Stavanger Brass Band could play a pianissimo which immediately filled every square centimeter of the hall—so quickly, the SBB seemed to make a sound that travelled faster than other groups’ speed of sound. The immediacy of their sound made me recall the Chicago Symphony brass section when I first heard that great ensemble live. Especially at the soft dynamics their sound was rich and full—and immediate.
This brings to mind something Bud Herseth said in a trumpet sectional for the Civic Orchestra. The fellow playing first trumpet was really hammering out his part, not missing anything. Bud commented, “[name deleted], you are certainly working hard!” which elicited a response from that player, who seemed pleased that Mr. Herseth had noticed his work. But then Bud said, “And that’s no way to play the trumpet. You are twenty-four years old and I can tell you you cannot play until forty-four, not that way. I am sixty-four and I’m working way less than you. Find a musical way to get it out!” Later in the same sectional Bud became irked at how we were playing the loud parts in the Tchaikowsky Fifth. He noted that loud playing was really “…a whole heck of a lot of soft playing, all done at once.” I won’t forget that one. Working on beautiful, full soft playing is a priority.
I prefer the way the Stavanger Brass Band makes its basic sound to how most play on this side of the pond. The pianissimi are rich and full, in contrast with what I hear so often here—an extruded, forced way of playing. And their louds are so much more profound, for no one is involved in unnecessary muscular activity. That is, forcing. Again I recall Herseth’s quote of loud playing really being a heck of a lot of soft playing, done all at once.
— Bob Walp, November 2016