Conducting 102

25 03 2009

Four years ago, I published a series of posts about how to conduct an orchestra. I had just been through a two week-long conducting masterclass with the French conductor Fabien Tehericsen (who I think is a fabulous conductor, even if the orchestra thought he took himself too seriously), and you could say my eyes had just been opened to the mystic art of conducting an orchestra.

Now, with four years of experience, I feel I can publish another installment on the matter.

First thing I would like to emphasize is that when all is said and done, conducting any kind of ensemble is about one thing only: leadership. It’s not about charisma, it’s not about how knowledgeable you are about the various orchestral instruments and the techniques involved in playing them, it’s not about how clear your beat is, and it’s not about your organizational skills. It’s about how well you can lead this group of musicians who, in the case of professional orchestras, don’t really need you.

I’m not saying any idiot with an excess of testosterone (and is thus very aggressive) can get up on the podium and lead an award-winning performance – you do have to know the music inside-out, since you can’t lead the musicians through something you yourself don’t know. I’m just emphasizing that even if you do know the music, if you’re not leading, you’re not conducting.

And to show that my dad’s extensive research into the field of leadership has indeed made an influence on me, I would like to point out that effective leadership is  built primarily on relationships. Who are you to the ensemble? Do you care about the musicians (let’s stop fooling ourselves – Beethoven doesn’t make the music; the musicians do)? Do you really want them to give their best? What for? So that you can take all the glory?

I’ve read accounts by conductors who say (or said, being dead) that the music is the priority. I disagree. Soldiers do not follow their sergeants to the death simply because they love war; they follow because (strange as it may sound) they love their sergeants. And they love their sergeants because their sergeants are one of them: face-down in the mud and muck, giving directions, lending a hand, leading. I see no difference when it comes to orchestras.

Michael Hovnanian, bassist of a very famous American orchestra once wrote in his blog:

As everyone knows, orchestra musicians are feckless and lazy. Naturally we would prefer any conductor who treated us nicely over one who might attempt to lead us to a higher level of artistry.

It’s really a simple case of human nature: would you be willing to be led by a buffoon whose mere purpose for existence is to make you feel bad about yourself? Of course not – not even if it were in the name of greater artistry.

By all means, possess a clear beat, a broad knowledge of orchestral instruments and their techniques, and explore every nook and cranny of the score, but do not forget that if you want an experience that leaves both audience and musicians changed, it will start with your relationships with them.

Only then will you be in a position to convince them that the crescendo at bar 145 is not supposed to be taken too fast…

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2 responses

26 03 2009
ccyager

GTI, an interesting post on conducting. I tend to agree, based on my extensive research into conducting and conductors. However, for guest conductors it’s a much different dynamic, however, similar to music directors. He/she is not trying to win a popularity contest with the musicians, but rather earn their respect. He/she won’t earn their respect, and therefore their willingness to follow where he/she leads, unless he/she knows the music inside out and is completely prepared, can talk to the musicians in the language of their instruments, has an understanding of the music beyond the notes (he/she is an excellent musician), has an understandable stick technique and makes the music the priority, not him/herself. I’ve met orchestra musicians who didn’t like a particular conductor as a person, but respected him as a musician and conductor and would follow him anywhere, so to speak. “Liking” is not necessarily what makes the conductor-orchestra relationship successful….

Thanks for the link to my blog. Cinda

26 03 2009
GTI

At last! Somebody actually replied to one of my music-related posts! Thank you! Thank you!

Ok, on a serious note…Yes, I agree with you that if you are a guest conductor, you really need all those skills to be respected on a professional level, which will be the only foundation upon which any amount of leadership will be built, given such a short amount of time.

I guess I just have a problem with being a “guest conductor”, since there isn’t much of a relationship that can be built over such a short amount of time. But that’s just me.

I suppose I should have made the distinction in my post. My apologies. Thank you for reading!

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