Thomas Stevens

Conductors- Alternative Views II

  • General Quotes

The Marsteller Rule

Robert Marsteller was at one time the principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and concurrently an instructor of music at USC. He was regarded as one of the leading mid-century brass teachers in the U.S.

During a 1960 all-day seminar in orchestral conducting which took place on the USC campus, a conductor of a regional orchestra who was a member of the panel suggested that musicians in major symphony and opera orchestras occasionally sabotage the efforts of conductors they don’t like-a tired old assertion that had been circulating in the music business for many years even during those antediluvian times. The conductor’s comment led to a very lively follow-up discussion of the subject.

Bob Marsteller was standing in the back of the room during the afternoon session, and it was rather obvious to some of us in attendance he did not appreciate what he was hearing. We knew something was coming and waited in anticipation. He finally spoke out, and after pointedly questioning the professional qualifications of some of the panel members, made a comment that became known for a time as “Marsteller’s Rule” among some music students at the university.

A number of years later, after Marsteller had left the orchestra to become a full professor at USC, during one of my “teaching Mondays” at the school we had a good laugh about that fateful day and the “Marsteller Rule.” I asked him if I could include it with attribution in an article I was writing on orchestral performance preparation. His response was that I should write down what I thought I had heard him say, and he’d think about it. I put it in writing and presented it to him. He, in turn, made some minor edits and then said, in his most professorial voice, “be my guest; permission granted.”

“Marsteller’s Rule,” which in today’s parlance would probably be called “Marsteller’s Rant,” is offered here as a Quotable: “With the exception of the great conductors, of which there are very few, musicians in symphony orchestras needn’t do anything to sabotage conductors other than follow their instructions implicitly and play exactly what is indicated by the baton. This will usually do the trick.”

Show no charity and take no prisoners.

Vintage Marsteller.

Update: Two former classmates have reminded me there was a student slang version of Marsteller's rule, but none of us can recall who originated it. It went (approximately) as follows: "Listen to their schtick and follow the stick. This will always do the trick."