Star lecturer

June 26, 1998

Tony Tysome watches eminent conductor Sir Simon Rattle charm an orchestra as he leads it through a masterclass.

It is not quite the usual 10.30am lecture. The students are all there long before it starts, taking their reserved seats around the rostrum. Meanwhile the auditorium fills up with members of the public.

How many lecturers can expect such attention, entering to applause and a welcome from the college principal? To Sir Simon Rattle CBE, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and president of the Birmingham Conservatoire, it is a familiar performance. He bounds on to the stage, acknowledging the adulation. He has one eye on the BBC documentary crew perched strategically ahead of him as he turns to face his student orchestra. This is a masterclass, and the master has arrived.

For many members of the Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra it is not the first time they have experienced a conductor's workshop given by Sir Simon,who has been Conservatoire president since 1989. Yet there is an air of apprehension as well as a sense of occasion as they prepare to rehearse the Sibelius Second Symphony. Sir Simon tries an anecdote to relax them.

"This could be the story of your life. When I was a student I was going around with one of the orchestras rehearsing Brahms's First. In six weeks we had played it six different times and we were on our seventh conductor. I know you can play this wonderfully. I am just here to mess it up," he said.

The first mess-up, also known as a correction, comes after the first note.Like a dressage horse trying to start at a gallop, the orchestra finds itself pulled up and is forced to begin again.

Now the players are ready, and the music starts to flow. Their conductor, however, is not satisfied they are paying enough attention to him - "Hello!Just watch, please" - or the sounds they are producing. Time for another piece of friendly advice. Bringing them once more to a halt, he recalls a film in which Woody Allen begs not to have his head chopped off because it is his second favourite organ. Sir Simon asks: "Please can you make your ears your second favourite organ?" Now he has the orchestra's full attention, he gets down to some serious body language. Lunging the baton wildly, at times to the point where he looks in danger of falling off the rostrum, he leads the players through the next bars, drawing them into the music. This is one "lecturer" who has no inhibitions ("Sorry if I am embarrassing you, but music is embarrassing - thank god!"), and he wants his students to behave the same. He suggests:

"Wave your arms about! I am getting Jeremy Irons when I want Errol Flynn. Do something outrageous and maybe illegal."

Good conductors can let individual players, sections or a whole orchestra know what they want with a well-timed and directed gesture, expression or look. But if they also want to be a good teacher they need broader powers of communication. They need an oral expressive ability that can connect with the aural understanding and experience of performers.

Sir Simon's workshop is a showcase of these skills. Somehow we are in no doubt that when he asks the orchestra to "Give me more uuuaaargh!" they know exactly what he means. To the flutes, he pleads: "Could you be more hrrrrrr? Shock me!" and they oblige. You can hear the difference. To the woodwind: "It's a bit boring, can you give it more shape? Pum bada bada baaaa."

He lets his students know, too, that he is prepared to focus on the finest detail, and he will notice if they get it right or wrong. He spends five minutes coaching the double basses on how to get a single pizzicato note "sound like you got hold of Orson Welles and bounced him". Ten minutes later, as the full orchestra plays the same passage through following extensive work with the strings ("dah...dah...dah...this is so boring"), Sir Simon rewards the basses with a "Yes!" as they bounce Orson Welles around the hall.

By the time the orchestra is ready to play the whole piece, every section has learned something. The workshop has been a thorough workout, and the gain has outweighed the pain. But Sir Simon reminds them the real world might not be as much fun.

"Do be aware you are going to be terrorised by some bastard who will make you play it until you get it right. I might be in your nightmares, but at least I am smiling. Feel free to smile back."

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