Hailed by the Washington Post as an “up-and-coming conductor” and a “true star” of the podium, Maestro Kenneth Woods has built a reputation as a multifaceted musician whose credits range from the Mahler symphonies to collaborations with members of James Brown’s classic band. He is currently conductor of the Oregon East Symphony, Surrey Mozart Players and the Rose City Chamber Orchestra.
Maestro Woods was gracious enough to sit down with "Classics Alive" for this interview.
After conducting the same piece many times, how do you keep it fresh?
Hi Tiffany. This is a great question. Actually, I find it gets easier and easier as I become more experienced.
When we're young, we tend to focus on a fairly narrow interpretation of "learning" a piece, so once we've achieved that, it is easy to get bored. When you understand more about what influenced the composer and what their influence was on future composers, and when you become more curious about the countless different approaches that other performers have taken to the piece, it's hard to get bored.
What is the job outlook for graduating students who want to play in a professional orchestra?
Hello, Theresa. This is a tough question, because the honest fact is that winning an orchestra job is tougher than winning a spot on an NBA team. It's terribly, terribly competitive, and the audition process only tests a part of what makes a musician. The good news, however, is that you don't need to play in a salaried orchestra to have a wonderful life in music. There are more good orchestras all over the country, and often good freelancers really enjoy being able to pick and choose projects, rather than being completely at the mercy of one situation.
You might work many years and win a great orchestra job, but what happens if they hire a music director you hate? You could have many years of frustration ahead. Even in a full time orchestra job, wise musicians look for lots of different outlets that let them both make a good living and keep their love of music alive.
For those student musicians who want to play in an orchestra, what is the most important skill for them to develop?
from James, age 14
You've got to develop a great, solid rhythm. Everything you do should be anchored to a strong sense of pulse and a constant, musical, sense of subdivision.
Listening is just about as important, playing in tune certainly matters, being musical is important, but if I had to stress one thing, it would be great rhythmic skills. Remember, the right note at the wrong time is a wrong note.
Does your orchestra sponsor programs for young people? What types of events or activities do they have for kids?
We have a huge and diverse youth program, with two training orchestras, a children's choir, lesson scholarships, a summer camp and other projects, competitions, masterclasses and school visits.
What specifically do you think about right before a performance?
Hi Elliot! It can be pretty mundane - Is everyone on stage? Is there a path for me to the podium? Are my shoes tied? Usually about two or three hours before a big concert I take an hour of quiet time to think about the music - both the ins and outs of the piece and what it means, but close to the time, there are people to talk to and things to worry about. I try to stay cool and be quiet. Once I'm finally on stage, I just take a moment to think about what I want the performance to say, then breathe deeply and go for it.
How do you hear so many instruments all at the same time? Can you hear individual mistakes as you are conducting?
Good question, Lisa. IF I know the piece, it's not hard to hear everything on stage, because I have a strong mental picture of what I want to hear to refer to. I'd say I can pretty well catch any mistake that matters. Not all mistakes matter- there's nothing sadder than someone who's been part of a great concert who is depressed afterward because of a mistake they made that nobody heard. Part of the art of being a performer is learning to make your mistakes not detract from the overall performance. Trust me, the greatest musicians all make mistakes, they just cover their tracks more artfully.
Is it hard being a conductor? Do you need to be able to play all the instruments to be a conductor?
Hi Alexia, these are both interesting questions, and maybe my answers will surprise you. The short answer to the second question is that no, I don't need to play all the instruments, although its important to know as much as I can about how they make sound, what's difficult on each instrument, what the tendencies of each instrument are and so on.
What instrument did you start with? Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to start conducting?
Hello, Ashley, I got curious about conducting the first time I ever saw an orchestra. When I was very, very young my class went to an open rehearsal of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, and I was captivated. Even as a very young kid, it seemed like I could understand what the conductor was doing and how it all worked, and was anxious to try it myself. I don't think my idea of conducting has changed much since then!
What career do you think you would have pursued if you hadn't studied music?
Hey, Joshua. It's not any more practical, but I would have LOVED to direct films or write books. I wrote three books when I was young that I never got published, but I'd love to come back to writing some day.
Has anything major ever gone wrong during one of your performances?
Oh yes, Charlie. I've had funny things happen like the electricity going off, embarrassing things like knocking a stand over while conducting, scary ones like seeing people pass out on stage. I've seen people get sick, get lost, run off in tears, forget their music completely, have their instrument break... I've even seen a piano get pushed off a stage because they forgot to lock the wheels. Anything can happen, but life goes on! Something that feels really embarrassing today will just be funny tomorrow.
Thank you, Maestro Woods, for sitting down with us for this interview.
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