Conduct Yourself Accordingly, Part 8: Getting Out Of 2nd Gear

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I had occasion recently to play under the batons of a group of aspiring not-quite-ready-for-prime-time conductors, and was surprised at how much I learned from the experience. The conventional wisdom is to study the work of great conductors, either live or on video. However, it has occurred to me that making the fundamental leap from fledgling time-beater to effective gestural communicator and leader is not only something to be gleaned from what is present in the pro, but also by experiencing what is lacking in the apprentice. Being a captive participant (and opportunistic observer) under these batons, I was forced to experience things that might not have been obvious to the indifferent observer. As a learning experience, I would highly recommend it.

The first thing I noticed was a plodding sameness to their baton work. Something we take for granted in skilled conductors is the incredible variety of gestures and almost stream-of-consciousness “throughput” of their presentation. The relative newbie, being a little short on moves, tends to latch onto a beat pattern that instinctively works, and then vamps on it interminably, leaving his mind to be otherwise occupied. However, a good conducting experience, as with acting, oration, writing, or musical composing or arranging, as in real life, isn’t constructed out of endless repeat signs.

The way out is simply to amass, through constant observation and awareness, a rich library of effective moves and, through systematic adoption, an appreciation of when, how, and why they work. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel for its own sake with each passing measure; it means simply having the wealth of physical expression at your disposal that will allow you to communicate (effortlessly) every nuance that comes into your mind as you imagine your way through the score (another discussion entirely.) We could all read the same scene from a play, but a great actor would shade so much subtle variety into that same succession of words that interest is generated by the reality it mimics. When you realize your conducting is a form of sign language, and maintaining the interest of your players (and hence your audience) is fundamental to your job, gestural variety is the arsenal that will summon that interest.

Tangentially connected to this is a second problem for the inexperienced conductor: wasting time by having to communicate with words instead of gestures, usually through stopping, backing up, and restarting the ensemble. If you want more legato, leading with your hand while dragging the tip of your baton through the air (as if it were sludge) can communicate instantly what you want without all the wasteful chit-chat. The more gestures you have intuited and tucked away, the more time you will have for music-making.

Another shortcoming I noticed was inconsistent control of the ensemble. Unlike riding a horse, it isn’t enough to pull on the reins only when starting and stopping and changing direction. Of course, while those can often be the most critical times, what guarantees your ensemble’s attention and cooperation when you need them most is the fact that you have consistently commanded them all along. This means that you simply do not, ever, beat empty gestures without some form of communication occurring, even if it’s only a couple of bars of eye contact between you and that third horn player you are about to cue. Believe me, the whole ensemble notices whether the conductor is constantly and actively engaged or not. Autopilot is for pilots, not conductors.

These were just a few of my observations and, while not necessarily shared by all, they were the most fundamental. What these conductors did have in common was an obvious focus on, but not in, the music, and this is perhaps the biggest hangup of most conductors, especially in the studio. However, as you go about your requisite job of mining, distilling, and cataloging, and your treasury of gestures increases, you will find it easier and easier to keep your mind within the music, and your ensemble in the palm of your hand.