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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Real Men Don't Rehearse by Justin Locke

Watch the short video of Justin Locke talking about one of the episodes from the book on his Amazon author page. Very funny. Also at

A very charming book filled with short anecdotes and stories of events and behind-the-scenes activities in a famous orchestra. Hard to write a review. I’ll just say if you are a musician or love classical music, these little stories will charm you.

Playing in an orchestra is really an extraordinary task that involves getting as many as 90 narcissistic individuals to work together as a group in harmony. (Full disclosure: I have played the French horn in an orchestra.) How that is done involves a lot of hierarchy and tradition, much of which Locke explains quite humorously. The conductor's role is somewhat special often having little to do with setting the tempo (read the part about what happens during the milliseconds between the conductor’s open and down beats.)

Once a piece of music starts, many people believe that the orchestra needs the conductor’s non-stop stick-waving as a sort of visual metronome to keep the orchestra together. However, in hard-core professional orchestras, the beat lies, not within the conductor, but within the orchestra itself. Better conductors know this, and they take great advantage of it by swirling the baton around in very vague artistic ways so as not to interfere with the orchestra’s intrinsic rhythmic sense. This is harder than it sounds; in the midst of all that dancing and swirling, it is very important to avoid doing anything that the orchestra will interpret as an actual instruction for a rhythmic change, as this can really gum up the works.

In a major orchestra, the players are all so skilled and experienced that they aren’t dependent upon the conductor for very much of anything. And they are generally very assertive, if not downright aggressive, in their approach to playing. For the neophyte conductor in this situation, “leading” is not so much like urging a birthday party pony to greater effort as it is like hanging on for dear life while riding Seabiscuit in the back stretch of the Preakness.

You’ll have to read the book to find out about John Williams and the spinning basses in Japan. Great story. And by the way, there’s a reason why conductors always need to be nice to the principal bass player.

I loved this book.
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