Charles Hazlewood: How Does Trust Happen In Music? Conductor Charles Hazlewood talks about the role of trust between conductor and orchestra, which he describes as a "miracle."

Charles Hazlewood: How Does Trust Happen In Music?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on the show today - Trust and Consequences. And trust comes in handy, especially if you're this guy.

CHARLES HAZLEWOOD: I'm Charles Hazlewood, and I'm a conductor.

RAZ: Charles conducts orchestras all around the world.

HAZLEWOOD: And, of course, we live in an age where, in the rock 'n' roll world, pop world, everything pretty much is recorded now to a click track.

RAZ: Which is like a digital metronome, it makes it really easy to synchronize instruments.

HAZLEWOOD: So it's kind of completely fail-safe. No one will ever play in the wrong place. Everything will always sync up. You see, the orchestra doesn't have a click track. And that's a tough thing because a conductor, you play an instrument, which is called the orchestra - upwards of a hundred people. You know, you can't actually touch or blow or scrape or do anything to this instrument called the orchestra. All you can do is move air around and trust that your gesture will communicate what is useful to the orchestra. Like, say, for instance, there might be a time when the orchestra needs to hit a chord...


HAZLEWOOD: ...(Imitates chord) like that, which is a terrifying start to a symphony. God, you have to trust that's going to be there and it's going to happen. You know, out of thin air, you need to go...


HAZLEWOOD: ...(Imitates music).

RAZ: Right.

HAZLEWOOD: And you would've thought...


HAZLEWOOD: ...If you were a young conductor and you had that much experience that you would hit the downbeat with your stick, and at that exact moment you'd get (imitates chord). But, you know, of course, it takes time for 90 people to kind of amass and play so specifically and accurately together. So that (imitates chord) will always come sometime after your stick has clicked that downbeat. And somehow it all gels. It's incredibly tight. It's fiery. It's focused. It's poised. It can move forward. It can pull back. It can stop. It can start. And no one said a word. And there certainly ain't no machine gun (imitates machine gun).

RAZ: And all of that works because of trust. Here's Charles on the TED stage.


HAZLEWOOD: Now, in the old days, conducting, music making, was less about trust and more, frankly, about coercion. Up to and around about the Second World War, conductors were invariably dictators, these tyrannical figures who would rehearse, not just the orchestra as a whole, but individuals within it within an inch of their lives. But I'm happy to say now that the world's moved on. Music's moved on with it. We now have a more democratic view and way of making music - a two-way street. I, as the conductor, have to come to the rehearsal with a cast-iron sense of the outer architecture of that music, within which there is then immense personal freedom for the members of the orchestra to shine. There has to be, between me and orchestra, an unshakeable bond of trust, born out of mutual respect, through which we can spin a musical narrative that we all believe in.


RAZ: It's almost like a small miracle that an orchestra works.

HAZLEWOOD: It is a small miracle and in fact - sorry, I think it's an enormous miracle (laughter). And, of course, I'm effectively receiving all their information, all the multiple pieces of texture and color and inference and idea, from each and every member of that orchestral individually, and I'm effectively passing it up, balancing it mixing it and passing it out to the audience. You know, it's not about power. It's not about who's in charge. It's about me throwing out a gesture and trusting myself and, therefore, trusting that they will read that gesture and respond to it.

RAZ: That kind of trust is what allows us to make assumptions that things will go right.

HAZLEWOOD: To, of course, trust is actually the most fundamental gel in every single human relationship. And without trust, no relationship can really flourish.

RAZ: Trust means the pilot will get you home safely or the thing you order will arrive, that the government won't steal and your partner won't cheat. Trust is the way a beautiful piece of music comes together. And without it, everything breaks down. Here's Charles Hazlewood, once again, from the TED stage.


HAZLEWOOD: And I remember at the beginning my career, again and again, these dismal outings with orchestras, I would be going completely insane on the podium, trying to engender a small-scale crescendo really, just a little upsurge in volume. Bugger me, they wouldn't give it to me. Think about it - when you're in a position of not trusting, what do you do? You overcompensate. And in my game, that means you over-gesticulate. You end up like some kind of rabid windmill. And the bigger your gesture gets, the more ill-defined, blurry and, frankly, useless it is to the orchestra. You become a figure of fun. There's no trust anymore, only ridicule. And how futile seemed the words of advice to me from the great British veteran conductor Sir Colin Davis who said, conducting, Charles, is like holding a small bird in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you crush it. If you hold it too loosely, it flies away. I have to say, in those days, I couldn't really even find the bird.


RAZ: So it's interesting because, you know, we think of a conductor as, like, this person in power - in a position of power. But I guess you would, like, walk into rehearsal rooms early in your career and you'd kind of, like, struggle to earn the trust of those musicians.

HAZLEWOOD: Absolutely because, as I said, in these early years, I wasn't demonstrating a clarity because I was so fearful that my ideas weren't valuable and my ideas didn't really hold water. And the fact is that it's all well and good having this trust equation with other people, but it didn't work at all until you learned first to trust yourself. And I learned very early on that there was no other way they were going to trust me until I'd actually learned to walk under that podium with a real sense of value, that I was going to add value in the room within which every single member of that orchestra could bring their particular talents to the table.


RAZ: So, Charles, we're listening, as you know, to a piece of music by Franz Josef Haydn. And there's actually a story about trust, that you've talked about, behind this piece.

HAZLEWOOD: Yeah, it's a beautiful example actually of when trust breaks down. Essentially, Haydn spent most of his career in the permanent employment of a prince called Esterhazy. Now, this prince particularly liked spending time at the country palace. And where he went, all his court went, his retinue and, of course, the orchestra and Haydn as its chief. However, one day in the 1770s, this prince decided, for whatever reason, that he didn't want the orchestral musicians' families living in the court anymore. You could imagine the musicians were desolate. But the prince, on this occasion, was implacable and unbending. So Haydn decided the only way to prick his conscience and to melt his heart was to write a piece of music for him. So he wrote a symphony called "The Farewell Symphony."


HAZLEWOOD: And in the last section of it, it's written into the score that, bit by bit, the musicians finish their part, blow out their candle and walk out. So the music literally slowly withers and dies. And it's a beautiful metaphor really, isn't it, that where there is no trust, the music withers away? But where there is trust, there is music, and it can continue forever. And happily, this piece of music did, indeed, so affect the prince that he immediately reversed his decision.

RAZ: Wow. You know, I wonder, as a conductor, you know exactly how you want something to sound, right? I mean, and it must be tempting to want to be a dictator sometimes, like Prince Esterhazy.

HAZLEWOOD: Gosh, of course, you could, as a conductor, micromanage. You could drill each and every member of the orchestra into every tiny nuance, just controlling, directing, making the decisions for them. But if you did that, you might get something that was very precise, very accurate. But it wouldn't have any life because it wouldn't actually be truthful for any of those musicians.


HAZLEWOOD: You know, I mean, the most brilliant manager is the manager who somehow manages to unlock ideas in others rather than impose his or her own. And if I can get the equation right as a conductor, it's the most extraordinary, magical, spiritual, life-affirming experience you could possibly have.


RAZ: That's Charles Hazlewood. He also conducts something called the Paraorchestra. It's the world's first professional ensemble for disable musicians. You can learn more about it at


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