Dedicated to my father Kenneth Farr,
Bandmaster at Hereford Citadel Salvation Army Corp for more than 60 years.
This book on conducting is out of print, but because of public interest I am making it accessible, to anyone interested, on this site.
Please respect the copyright in this work, and if you use or copy any passages, please credit my name- Ray Farr.
The accompanying video is embedded into the site.
This method and video is aimed, as the title “Introduction to Conducting” suggests, at those who are considering the idea of picking up the baton. It may also be interesting for conductors who wish to develop their skills by examining the basics of their art.
The range of skills needed by the modern conductor is enormous and I might, sometime in the future, write a sequel to this method with explorations into interpretation and style – perhaps even to examine how conductors can achieve a performance so special it can touch a listener’s heart and soul.
But for now: let’s focus on basics. It might seem dull and tedious but we all know the value of good, fundamental techniques. So let’s get on with it!
This method considers conducting in four aspects:
- Conducting Techniques
- Rehearsal Techniques
- Performance Techniques
Each of these aspects requires special skills and techniques, and I aim to give my personal view on basics, accompanied by a few tips on further development and improvement.
“By failing to prepare you’re preparing to fail”
– Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
“The starting point of all achievement is DESIRE. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desires bring weak results.”
– Napoleon Hill
The confidence and will power needed for any kind of performance starts with the preparation process.
In this section we consider:
– Building an Image as a Conductor
– Planning & Organising
– Programmes & Repertory
– Score Study
– Visualising & Auralising
– Developing Aural Skills
– Developing Hand Co-ordination
– Formulating a Personalised Approach to a New Piece
– Body Language
– Auralised Sound verses Actual Sound
– Warm-up Routines
– Rehearsal Techniques
Building an Image as a Conductor
I often meet musicians in bands and orchestras who are interested in conducting. Some of them give serious consideration to the possibility of picking up the baton and the number of students applying for my conducting courses at Durham University (UK) over the recent years shows how popular the subject is. The first barrier to cross, if you want to conduct, is to imagine yourself as a conductor. You must be interested in conducting, otherwise you would not be reading this book, so the next step is to visualize and imagine yourself in front of a band or an orchestra. You might experience a mixture of emotions as thoughts of responsibilities and doubts about your own capabilities come to you. Will I make a fool of myself? Can I actually do this?
Try to think of the wonderful opportunities you could have and the positive advances you could make in your musical development and your musical career. Think of your favourite pieces (one of mine is Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony) and the depth of feelings you have for them. Focus on the chance you might have to share those feelings with an appreciative audience.
You need to be realistic, of course. The Berlin Philharmonic is not going to call you up tomorrow, but someone somewhere needs a conductor. It might be a while before you get the chance to conduct at Carnegie Hall but your local Town Hall Christmas Concert might need a conductor for the Hallelujah Chorus – watch out for the ending, by the way: it’s tricky!
As you visualise yourself on the podium, try to control your feelings. If those demoralising negative feelings try to make you give up, be brave and courageous and focus on your love for the music. No-one can take that feeling away from you.
Also, as you visualize, there are some physical things you can do in building an image of yourself as a conductor. Try standing with your feet slightly apart in front of a music stand. Imagine a band or an orchestra in front of you and with your favourite piece in your head, move your arms in sympathy with the music. At the same time breathe deeply and become aware of all the muscles in your body from top to toe. Try talking or singing in a dark, rich tone. If your voice has a ‘Mickey Mouse’ quality then there is some unwanted tension that needs to be released. Find a way to relax and feel rooted and strong.
On your first outing as a conductor (or even before) take a picture of yourself and put it on your wall. Some might suggest that you are being narcissistic, but we know better! You are building an image of yourself as a conductor.
Planning & Organising
“A conductor should protect himself from too much work.”
~ Carlo Maria Giulini
As a conductor, I often get tangled up in the administration because I fail to delegate. Often, of course, there is no one to carry out the tasks that need to be done but we need to be smart in recruiting help and support. The successful management of your orchestra or band will directly influence the performance standards.
These days there are different kinds of conducting positions within bands and orchestras and each post entails different responsibilities.
The Resident (or regular) Conductor will be mostly concerned with the general day-to-day running of the ensemble. He will establish a settled and committed team and will be directly involved with the many practical jobs that immediately arise from a plan or schedule. His position is supportive to the Musical (or Music) Director (MD) and he will busy himself with the basic preparation of players and music. The Musical Director, in addition to conducting, will usually have the responsibility of the musical development of the band and long term programme planning. He will create an attractive musical policy and identity, establish a strong team spirit, improve the image of the ensemble with effective promotion and establish confidence, stability and security within the ensemble. The M.D. will be actively involved with the planning of each season to ensure a healthy balance of activities. This might include local and international concerts and contests, CD recordings, radio broadcasts and TV appearances. He will also be concerned with long term planning. He must provide a serious musical policy with new and stimulating music. I recommend regular meetings with the management team and Resident Conductor. The MD is also concerned with the ensemble’s presentation and will be concerned with the development of teamwork, team spirit and efficiency of operation. He should encourage personal development and home practice and aim to inspire the musicians to motivate themselves for musical progress.
The Guest Conductor usually carries few responsibilities. He may be involved with the choice of a programme but usually he comes to the ensemble for a short period, puts polish to a performance and leaves. Orchestras and bands around the world often thrive under the baton of a Guest Conductor. Because he is a new face and has a different approach, they are instantly motivated and stimulated.
A lot more could be written on the various conducting titles and job descriptions, but at this stage my recommendation to all aspiring and ambitious conductors is – get a contract, and get it in writing. Bands and orchestras can be fickle- and a good working relationship should be established and formalised at an early stage.
When your conducting role is established, I recommend you take time and give serious consideration to planning your ideas and aspirations. All of your plans will involve a great many organisational tasks – some big, some small. You need to be imaginative and innovative, but also selective and practical and always with consideration to financial restrictions. Just one piece of advice: aim to emulate a band or orchestra with a management system that works. Study their concept and implement the good parts of it within your own ensemble. Good luck!
Programmes & Repertory
This aspect of conducting is one of the most difficult, regardless of whether you work with bands or orchestras. What shall we play? It has long been established that programme building is an art and some of the most established conductors can spend hours deliberating over the style of a programme and choice of pieces.
In the past I have used, to good advantage, a music committee. There is a danger, though, that individual suggestions about the design of a particular programme may not always be compatible, but at least it can stimulate thoughts and ideas.
Band and orchestral programmes these days can be most eclectic and audiences have a wide range of tastes.
The promoters or the preconceptions of an audience often dictate the style of the concert and so we must try to respect their expectations if we want a successful event: Although what constitutes a successful event is very much a matter of opinion. Is it an event which makes a lot of money or one which gives most musical satisfaction or entertainment value? There are lots of issues to consider.
On the other hand if you firmly believe in a programme concept or style then you should promote that concert and try to influence public perception. Again, good luck!
There is no substitute for an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of the music you intend to conduct. You must aim to know the score thoroughly. Get as many recordings of the piece as you can and stare at the score until the dots leap out at you.
There are techniques for marking up a score but mostly it is about common sense and application. You could try the old coloured pen trick!
I find that for contest work I need bar numbers, so I painstakingly go through the score numbering each bar. Try to persuade someone else to do it, if you can, as it’s a terribly boring job. You will also need your musicians to do the same with their copies, so let us just hope they all finish up with the same number!
You need to have a clear understanding of musical terms in order to be able to articulate the meaning and communicate the implementation of it to your musicians. I frequently refer to my ‘Oxford Companion to Music’ (see list of recommended reading) for translations of Italian terms, though sometimes they are not in the book – so I call my dad, who learnt Italian during the war.
A metronome is essential even at the early stages of learning a new piece. Not so much to find one tempo, but the relationships between various tempi.
Finding the structure of a piece is perhaps a priority and prioritising is our main consideration all the way through the processes of preparation, rehearsal and performance.
I recommend using the piano or any other instrument to understand the shape of phrases, rhythms and melodies (if there are any!). I sometimes copy extracts into my Finale computer programme in order to get the harmonies and rhythms into my head. (I have, occasionally, persuaded composers to email me a copy of their computer file. Technology is a wonderful asset to learning a new piece.) There will be the occasional misprint in a score and finding and eliminating these can bring a sense of elation. However, there are often ambiguities because of the imprecise nature of music notation and so there are artistic and interpretive decisions to make. Realising and interpreting the composer’s intentions is a huge subject and starts with simple basic things like choosing note lengths and progresses to searching for the essence of the meaning of the music. Some conductors choose an alternative approach by arrogantly altering the score. Score study will reveal many questions and ambiguities, which need to be considered within the context of ethics.
While studying scores or reflecting on them it is useful to practise (with a mirror if you like) the actual beating patterns you will be using. I find a slow 9/8 difficult to conduct, so I will often beat the patterns while reading the score, or simply imagine the movements. There may also be practical issues regarding the score with page turns or awkward repeats which need addressing.
Visualising & Auralising
As conductors, we need to have in our heads a clear aural impression and a strong feeling for each moment of the music a split second before we conduct it. A good memory is useful and how I marvel at those conductors who can memorize a whole opera – I can’t conduct a march without the copy (perhaps I could if I tried!). Auralising is the same as visualising but with the ears instead of the eyes. It’s the ability of imagining the sound before it is produced by the musicians. Marrying the imagined sound with the actual sound being produced is another necessary skill for conductors to develop.
Some music has instant appeal. The composer has stimulated a range of feelings that he wants us to experience by association. One sound brings a particular reaction; another sound implies something we are familiar with. The appeal is in the association with comfortable and easily recognised feelings and responses. Some music on the other hand, is challenging and requires more effort in order find the message. As conductors we need to be fully aware of the emotional content and impact of the music we are conducting and we should attempt to draw a suitable response from our musicians. So we need to be ahead in order to lead and we need to feel deeply in order to inspire.
How do you acquire and develop these skills? Repeated exposure to a sound will assist the memory so “Play it again, Sam!”
There is pertinent advice in the phrase “A conductor should have the score in his head, not his head in the score!” But unless you have a really good memory, you need to develop the skill of looking up from the score, having memorised as much as is comfortable, then, looking down, locate the correct place in the score. Spotting the exact position is sometimes difficult and a fairly common problem for inexperienced conductors.
One solution might be to keep a finger on the score in an effort to trace the performance progress. Another could be to plan the moments you want to look up and down and practise that tracking sequence.
There are exercises for improving memory you might like to try. I can highly recommend this book on the subject: “Peak Performance” by Don Greene and published by Routledge N.Y. & London.
Developing Aural Skills
There are many ear-training exercises available that you can make use of. The one I benefited most from, as a young boy, was aural dictation. I was introduced to music at a very early age and I remember my dad quizzing me – “Now, Ray, is this music in 2 or 3 beats to a bar?” “Can you hear the soprano?” Later, at college, I was given aural tests as a regular part of my education.
Soon after I started conducting, I became involved in band contests and with the aid of a tape recorder was able to train my ear to detect the finest of points, simply by repetition. Here I want to quote the famous Japanese pedagogue Suzuki: “There is no such thing as talent – only repetition”. Repetition is very useful.
Developing Hand Co-ordination
Co-ordinating independent hand movement is a skill, which can be developed by most people. It’s definitely not rocket science. Let’s start simply with these exercises:
Have you mastered those? Now think of a musical moment or find one in a score which requires co-ordinated, independent hand movement such as an accent or a crescendo. Visualize, first, what it might look like from a conductor’s perspective. How might it feel? How might it sound? Then, slowly at first, using a pulse in your head, trace out the movements with your hands in front of you. Do it again and again. With each repetition introduce a stronger feeling and let that feeling show in your hands. The muscles in your arm will tighten and the actions will seem more deliberate. Soon, this gesticulation will feel natural and automatic and a regular part of your expressive body language, which is ready for application to actually conducting music.
The next step is to put this newly developed skill into action during a rehearsal.
Besides rhythmic accents and more basic ‘moves’ you might see a particular gesticulation made by a conductor you admire. It might be a particularly effective one or particularly expressive one. Try it out at home and experiment in front of a mirror if you like and make a decision based on feelings whether this is something you can use.
How do you develop all these skills? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practise, practise! Focus on these skills and give them time, reflection, feelings – and repetition.
Formulating a Personalised Approach to a New Piece
It is important, I feel, to develop a positive attitude towards any piece of music you are planning to conduct. Most of the time, as music lovers, a positive attitude is easy to find but there can be instances, for example with a new contemporary piece, when this is difficult. Progress will be slow when motivation is low so try to adopt a positive sense of discovery – you are taking part in an exciting artistic venture. Approach it with enthusiasm – you are probably getting paid to conduct it, so get on with it!
To develop a personal approach to a new piece of music, a conductor should study the influences on the composition and other works by the same composer that have a similar compositional style. It is therefore wise to examine those influences in a musicological way. When you really know the piece you will have feelings towards it and those feelings will support and sustain your efforts in its recreation.
As your understanding of a work grows, try to imagine yourself conducting it. Envisage the trombone sound coming from over here and the percussion sound is from over there, etc. and I sometimes imagine the individual players that I will be conducting.
There may be practical issues with the score with page turns or awkward repeats which need addressing. Perhaps you may discover a section in the work which requires immediate action or a thorough investigation to find out how it’s supposed to work. These kinds of things will give the preparation process a personalised approach.
Conducting is, in a small way, acting with a bit of ballet thrown in, so if you are shy by nature you could try the technique mentioned earlier – that of building a mental model for yourself. Build, in your imagination, a model of a conductor – how this imaginary conductor would behave, feel, talk, and control and express the music. Then, metaphorically, step into that model. After a while you will feel comfortable with that model and eventually you will become that model. Before you raise your hands you should formulate a personalised approach to the music. Next you need to visualise, auralise and feel the emotion in music even before there is a sound. Also, imagine the hand and arm movements. As you raise your arms, give your musicians time to prepare themselves. Look around with a sense of urgency and positive will-power and determination. And then you start. The pick-up action or preparatory beat is possibly the most important aspect to conducting. I believe one can tell the quality of a conductor simply by the pick-up. The action must have in it all the ingredients of the music you are about to conduct including tempo, dynamic and style. It’s actually quite tricky so let’s come back to the preparatory beat later.
It’s ok to use both hands together in a mirror image but try to keep this action to a minimum. Basically the right hand is for the beat and the left hand is for expression. Forgive me for stating the obvious – I’m just trying to be thorough!
Before we look at beating patterns I must mention the “click” or ictus. The ictus of a conductor’s hand wave is the moment of a reverse direction of the hand movement that signifies to a performer where the beat lies in the music.
Important: Try to make this happen at the bottom of the wave not the top. Of course, if the music is soft and calm then there will be very little ictus but when the music becomes more rhythmic then the ictus needs to be more pronounced.
Body language is important, but I think that if you are conducting with integrity you don’t need to do anything extra to what you feel. Try to avoid walking about, but a little bit of footwork is ok. What do you think? Try using a movie camera to record your rehearsal. You can learn a lot.
When a composer writes a metronome marking, a conductor is ethically bound to follow the given tempo. On rare occasions I will make a decision to slightly alter that tempo for heightened effect – slower or faster but only after thoughtful consideration.
When there are no metronome marks, the conductor is forced to make a decision and that decision can be crucial to the success of the performance. You must ask yourself over and over in preparation, rehearsal and performance “What is the tempo?”
There is a technique which I sometimes employ during rehearsals and that is having a metronome on the music stand and conducting to the flashing light. It makes life complicated, but if you want to feel secure at a certain time change it can be most useful. I remember once, a cheeky percussionist shouting out “You’re getting faster there!” My response was to hold up the metronome I had been following to prove that I wasn’t getting faster. The embarrassment for the player was quite severe. Although I did not wish to inflict that embarrassment the situation gave me confidence to be authoritative.
Some people are blessed with “perfect pitch”. They can identify the pitch of a note without reference to an instrument simply from memory. It’s not an essential skill for a conductor, but a fine sense of tuning is. Tuning relates to the pitch of an instrument and has a long history of evolution and even today various pitches are used in different countries. Pitch is a large subject outside the realm of this method but generally you can expect the note A to be 440 or 442 hertz. This is your criteria and you can expect your musicians to tune their instruments to this pitch (unless you are performing baroque music or something modern with quarter tones).
Intonation is different and relates to the fact that we use a tempered scale. (Another big subject) What we can expect from our musicians is the ability to humour a note up or down slightly to make a more satisfactory level of intonation. Please bear in mind that this is very personal and that there is no such thing as perfect intonation.
I can also highly recommend the use of a tuning machine in rehearsals. The technique of using one is easily acquired.
Auralised Sound verses Actual Sound
There is a big difference between the sound I have in my head and the sound the musicians make, and there is often a time delay. Coming to grips with this difference is a skill which needs to be developed by a conductor as a priority.
The process also needs a balance between the two. If I prioritise the auralised sound when I’m conducting, I can’t hear many details in the actual performance. If I shift the balance in this process to focus on the performance, then I am less aware of my own technique and the musical concepts I have in my head.
Whereas you can expect professional players to be warmed-up and tuned-up before a rehearsal starting time, amateur players will welcome some kind of warm-up routine. I like to start a rehearsal with a hymn tune or two for my own benefit but often time is so short and there is so much to do that you have to plough straight in to the programme. Some conductors will continue the warm-up routine into a session of band training exercises. These can be very useful indeed, especially if there are musicians in the band or orchestra who only have a small amount of time for home practice.
During a warm-up session the players are not only warming up their instruments and embouchures – they are attuning their aural skills and making mental preparations too. Working with bands, I will often vary the speed of a hymn tune or the dynamics or the expression in order to gain control and a tight response from the musicians. The exercise is also quite useful to sharpen my own aural skills.
OK – warm-up period over, it’s time to get down to serious hard work. Try to show that attitude and intent in your voice and by your body language in front of the musicians. It will help them if they can see the objectives of the rehearsal and also its direction and relevance.
Bearing in mind the concept of aligning planning, rehearsal and performance it’s important for the conductor to know what he hopes to achieve.
When the aims are clear in your head, make sure you give clear and understandable instructions.
As well as being articulate, a conductor should be concise and specific and always use a positive manner.
A rehearsal technique I use frequently is to disassemble the music, polish the detail and then, slowly at first put it back together. It’s the detail in a performance which gives it style and quality.
Time to take a look at the companion video? It’s in two parts.
Before a conductor even raises his or her hands there are very many issues to consider. We have discussed research and score study and some other aspects necessary to good preparation. Later, I will talk about rehearsal techniques and also performance techniques. But for now let us consider the technique of conducting.
Stick technique – beating patterns
With this method I intend to encourage conductors to develop independent hand movements at an early stage. Co-ordination can be problematic at first but it is sometimes amazing what you can teach yourself to do in this respect. Earlier in Act 1 there were tips and exercises for hand co-ordination but for now let’s consider only the right hand and all the shapes and beating patterns we need to master.
Beating in 1
“There is only one down beat in a bar!”
~ Rudolph Kempe
Let’s start with 1 beat in a bar. Trace your hand (with the baton if you like) through the air in an up and down motion. Imagine a mf dynamic with a fairly rhythmic style at medium tempo. You’ll feel the benefits soon. Do you remember the boy in the Karate Kid film who followed instructions to “Wax on, wax off”?
Try to imagine each beat subdivided by 2 and also by 3. You could think of the Farandole from L’Arlesienne for 1 in a bar with sub-division of 2. And for the 1 in a bar with sub-division of 3 you could think of a waltz.
Beating in 2
Next we have 2 beats in a bar and here we definitely need two beats, not simply a down-up movement. Try a U shape so that the first beat looks stronger. Let’s imagine each beat subdivided by 2 and by 3.
You could think of a march – and then something in 6/8.
Beating in 3
Next is 3 beats in a bar: down-right-up, in a triangle. In order to make the three distinct beats you will need to be a bit flowery. The first beat goes to the left after the ictus. The second comes across your body and the third is a bit like the second beat in 2/4. With the 3 beats try to feel: strong-weak-weak.
Let’s imagine each beat subdivided by 2 and by 3. You could think of a minuet – and something in 9/8.
Beating in 4
Next is 4 beats in a bar: down-left-right-up. Again, be flowery and give each beat a bounce. A word of warning here – be careful not to sub-divide each beat!
You could think of something march-like – and something in 12/8.
Those are the most common time signatures but in order to be thorough let’s examine some more conducting shapes.
Beating in 5
Because 5 is an uneven number, the music and the shapes must be divided into 3+2 or 2+3. We borrow from previous shapes for these:
3+2 is down- left-left-right-up.
2+3 is down-left-right-right-up.
The beat that goes across your body is the second strongest beat. We’ll need that a lot.
Beating in 6
6 can be divided 3+3 or 2+2+2 and so we need beat patterns, which reflect the difference in the strength of the pulse.
3+3 is down-left-left right-right-up.
2+2+2 is down-left right-right up-up.
Can you see how all these beat patterns are related?
Beating in 8
This is quite common so you will need to master it. 8 is usually divided 2+2+2+2 and is similar to 4 beats in a bar but with sub-divisions.
But 8 can, of course be divided: 2+3+3 or 3+2+3 or 3+3+2.
Confused? A good time to take a look at the video Part 2 perhaps?
Beating in irregular time signatures
Now we should consider time signatures such as 5/8 7/8 8/8 9/8 10/8 11/8 etc. and with these you need to decide where the groups of 2 and the groups of 3 lie. Most of the time the composer will make this clear but sometimes you have to make the decision and mark your score accordingly, so that your beats are dependable and your musicians feel confident.
Beating in 5/8
Here you are beating in 2 rather like 2/4 or 6/8 in a U shape but with one beat longer and slower than the other. Keep the quaver rhythm in your head at a constant speed.
5/8 is either 2+3 or 3+2
Beating in 7/8
Here you are beating in 3 like 3/4 or 9/8 in a triangle. Again, keep the quaver rhythm in your head at a constant speed.
7/8 can be 2+2+3 or 2+3+2 or 3+2+2.
Beating in 9/8
Normally, you are beating in 3 (with each beat divided into 3), but 9/8 can also be in 4. In the shape of a 4/4 bar but with irregular combinations. Be careful to keep the quavers at a constant speed. S0 9/8 can be 3+2+2+2 or 2+3+2+2 or 2+2+3+2 or 2+2+2+3.
Sub-dividing the Beat
I often need more control when the speed of the music slows down, for example during a rallentando. In these cases I will sub-divide part of a bar or perhaps the whole bar.
Sub-dividing in 2/4
1 and 2 and (this is just like 4 in a bar)
Sub-dividing in 3/4
1 and 2 and 3 and (this is just like 6 in a bar)
Sub-dividing in 4/4
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and (this is just like 8 in a bar)
Each ‘and’ or sub-division is made with an extra movement and ictus between the main beats.
Between the initial tempo and the sub-divided, slowing (not slower) beats, I will often use a ‘bounced’ beat. This has a small, softer ictus within the larger beating pattern. It’s difficult to describe, so you need to study the video. Be careful not to use the ‘bounced’ beat too much. Some conductors use it all the time with the result that nothing is together.
The Preparatory Beat
This action, as mentioned earlier, is crucial to a successful communication of musical ideas. The most important thing to do, in my opinion, is to breathe. Take a breath as if you are going to sing the music. This action combined with hands, body, facial expression will determine the character of the music more than anything.
The biggest difference between rehearsal technique and performance technique is the fact that a conductor can use his voice in a rehearsal context. There are other differences that will be discussed in the next chapter.
Earlier we spoke about the preparatory beat and now its relevance is in context. What do the musicians need to do to make a good start to the beginning of a piece? The preparatory beat or beats can be used with the voice. Some conductors frown on the idea of giving a “count in”, but I definitely recommend it for rehearsals. A “count in” can be spoken in the style of the music and when combined with suitably expressive hand movements, the musicians are given lots of support in order to make a convincing start to a piece. By using your voice, the tempo can be firmly established, the volume indicated and other aspects implicit in the performance.
The Left hand
The left hand is best used independently from the right hand. This is your most useful tool to express musical ideas through physical gesticulations. But let’s start with the basics of crescendo & diminuendo.
Left hand up (palm up) and down (palm down). Easy!
Now do it with the right hand conducting 4/4. Good! This has to be semi-automatic and without too much conscious thought. So, how do we develop this skill? Repetition.
Generally you should use big, expansive movements for loud music and small subtle gestures for quiet music and, of course, a whole range in between. You must be willing to anticipate and exaggerate dynamics, not because you want them to sound that way, but because generally musicians prefer a comfort level of mf. So you will have to work hard to get a variety of colours and textures. Conductors use all kinds of signals to communicate all kinds of expressions. Feel free to fantasise and experiment.
Marcato can be shown by aggressive, forceful, jerky movements.
Legato can be shown by smooth, gentle hand movements. Try waving your hands slowly side-to-side.
Staccato can be shown by short, sharp, spiky actions.
A ff pause can be shown by hands held high with open palm or perhaps even a fist.
A pp pause can be shown by hands held close to the body. Palm down.
Working with Pauses
Pauses can be most problematic. An ending with a pause is simple enough:
But when the music continues, you need to indicate the following tempo and style.
When a pause comes in the middle of a bar on a single quaver you have to know what you’re doing and plan in advance, otherwise chaos reigns!
Eye contact aids the dialogue between musicians and conductor. It’s a two-way enterprise though, so you need to get your head out of the score as much as possible by using your memory. This can also be developed by practice. You may not always catch the attention of your musicians when they have tricky parts to play, but they will see you by using their peripheral vision. I sometimes give my musicians exercises in following my beat by making them clap using only their peripheral vision as I give a variety of beats. It helps! Thick rimmed glasses are not helpful for obvious reasons. I often use contact lenses.
Facial expression is important but be careful not to overdo it. You don’t want to distract your musicians. Musicians young and old, amateur or professional, all respond well to encouragement and a positive expression.
Accents & Syncopation
As with dynamics, the conductor should show accents and syncopation in the music. A certain amount of technique is required so as not to lose the main pulse or phrasing.
Near the end of a rehearsal, try to forget detail and finish with a full ‘run-through’ of something you have been working on. This will give the musicians a positive feeling and it will build their confidence. A ‘run-through’ will also help to cement the detail as well as encourage them to continue their work. The process of understanding the music and developing the performance does not stop at the end of a rehearsal the musicians, like you, will be reflecting consciously or sub-consciously.
Finish the rehearsal on a positive note and give encouragement and advice on aspects of the performance that need working on at home.
Beside the various aspects of preparation we have discussed in previous chapters and the more obvious measures needed to be taken prior to a rehearsal (such as fixing scores and other practical details), a rehearsal requires considerable planning and application of skills if it is to be effective.
In this chapter we consider:
– The Stick
– The Act
– Planning a Rehearsal
– Rehearsal Techniques
– Teaching Rhythms
– The Cut-off
– Stopping & Starting
– Sight Reading
– Problem Spotting & Error Detection
– Approaches to Problem Solving
– Problem Solving
– Teaching & Learning
– Learning the Music
– Variations in Ability
– Interpretation & Style
Most conductors use a baton, but I have no preference or recommendation about this. Left-handed conductors can be a little confusing for musicians at first but the players soon get used to it. I am right-handed so the instruction and examples in this method refer only to the right-handed.
The stick can have a life of its own. Its main use, of course, is to amplify and magnify the movements of the hand. Most conductors use one but it’s not essential. The great Jorma Panula advised me not to use one. My personal favourite is made by Guivier in London.
Conducting is the act of directing and controlling a performance of a piece of music with visible gestures. These gestures of the hand and body need to be clear and easy for musicians to follow. Even though a wide variety of different conducting styles exist, there is now an internationally accepted language or code, which has evolved almost by itself over the years. Words are not essential. I recently conducted a symphony orchestra from the Czech Republic on tour in Norway and without any verbal communication the rehearsal and concert went well.
Planning a Rehearsal
Let’s consider planning first. It is wise to have at least a rough idea of your aims and objectives for the rehearsal. You do not want to run out of things to say or do but more importantly, you must not run out of rehearsal time with music still left un-played.
There are many conductors who have their rehearsals planned to the minute and will know in advance exactly what piece of music they will be rehearsing at any precise moment.
For years I played in the BBC Radio Orchestra for Wilhelm Tausky – a fine conductor. His planning and rehearsal technique was a no-nonsense affair which started as the second hand of the studio clock ticked over to ten o’clock with the signature tune. I can still hear it! One day, though, his car broke down and made him late but would you believe that the orchestra started that same signature tune – without him – at exactly 10 o’clock!
I do recommend aiming for a professional approach for many reasons. It will help you to be efficient and efficiency is definitely what everyone wants. Time is money! It will also be motivating to the musicians who will appreciate your intentions. It is, after all, a compliment to them that you value their time and efforts.
A well structured rehearsal will also aid concentration and will focus efforts. Whether you are an aspiring conductor or a professional there is a natural tendency for the human mind to wander, especially when tired. The conductor as the driving force is therefore required to work hard and if the conductor doesn’t focus then, for sure, the musicians will not.
I have experienced a very different approach to planning a rehearsal but this must only be used by the very experienced and highly competent. This is where a conductor has no agenda and no particular plans as to what pieces to work on. He simply starts with what he has and develops it. Even though this type of rehearsal has no detailed agenda, the concept of starting with what we have and developing it must be the main psychological thrust in a rehearsal. The thrust, or speed and strength of a rehearsal, is very difficult to judge as it will depend upon the responses of the individual musicians and the whole ensemble.
Whether I am conducting a youth band or a professional orchestra my job is to develop what I have. It’s pointless to wish that the players are more skilful and it also leads to frustration for everyone.
I recently observed a rehearsal with a young conductor who was so full of energy and drive that he failed to engage with his musicians. He had a clear idea of what he wanted but was not able to connect with his musicians and so could not realise his concept. Consequently the performance level became worse as the musicians became more and more confused and frustrated. As I observed this situation I realized that I had felt something similar, on occasions, in my own rehearsals – a feeling like pedalling fast on a bike but the wheels will only turn slowly.
The thrust or pace of a rehearsal should also be balanced with sufficient time for the musicians to absorb and assimilate the things they have learnt. Learning takes time, so give it time.
A better, more satisfactory rehearsal outcome is, in my opinion, more often gained by a rehearsal technique which is aligned to planning and performance. The three aspects, then, should be aligned and connected:
Despite the wishes of many professional orchestral musicians around the world there is no such thing as the ideal, perfect conductor – everyone makes mistakes. I could make a long list of skills needed by conductors, but I would be sure to miss some necessary skill or attribute required. My brother Paul (an experienced professional horn player) says ironically “The only good conductor is a dead one.” Regardless of this highly critical attitude, an aspiring conductor should feel confident enough to stand in front of a group of musicians, be authoritative and give instructions. Authority comes to some extent with the position. A conductor’s power is given to him by his musicians, so be confident and assume the position.
Shakespeare writes: “There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.” (King Lear). In other words: Respect is given to anyone who is perceived to have authority. Looking at the quotation another way – you can expect, once you are in the position of leader, to receive support from those you lead.
The first hurdle for an aspiring conductor is very often the act of standing on the podium in front of the musicians. No matter what skills you have acquired prior to your first experience as conductor, there is definitely a psychological barrier there. Even if you are an experienced musician and section leader in an orchestra or perhaps a respected soloist, standing in front of a band or orchestra for the first time can be awesome.
My first time was at a Christmas concert where I was playing Principal Cornet with the Birmingham Citadel Salvation Army Band. At the end of the concert the regular conductor (Bram Williams – bless him!) was called away to meet some dignitaries. One last verse of Silent Night was expected at the conclusion of the concert, while people were leaving, and all eyes fell on me as Principal Cornet to lead it. Looking back, perhaps there was a small spark of ambition, but at that time somebody had to jump up and conduct. I gave the instruction; “Silent Night once more” (no objections, it was going well…) picked up the baton and waited while a rush of thoughts and ideas flooded in. “Oh dear! This is in 6/8 – how do I do that?” I thought. “How do I start? Too late to back down, now, just go!” Somehow, we started and I was aware of this glorious sound happening but something was wrong. “What’s happening? Keep going everyone’s watching!” More insecurity flooded in. I was close to panic, which is not a good feeling to have while conducting such a gentle carol but I became acutely aware that the rhythm and sound I had in my head was not matching the rhythm and sound being made by the band: there was a serious delay!
Since that time I have understood some of the difficulties that I went through during that first awesome experience but that day was the start of my vocation as a conductor. I managed to direct a performance which did not break down, I started subconsciously to build in my mind a mental image of myself as a conductor and I formulated the processing of an auralised sound being different from an actual sound.
This processing of an auralised sound being different from an actual sound is a skill which needs to be developed by a conductor as a priority. The process also needs to balance the two concepts. If I prioritise the auralised sound when I’m conducting, I cannot hear many details in the actual performance. If I shift the balance in this process to focus on the performance, then I am less aware of my own technique and the musical concepts I have in my head. If this is difficult to grasp, let me identify the extremes:
It is possible to conduct with only an auralised sound; for example during score study, where you create the sounds in your head and you directly control the imagined performance. And it is also possible to listen to a performance while conducting, and follow along with your hands. Here you focus on as many details as your brain can take in. I find that the more energetically I conduct and the stronger I lead, gesticulate and feel, the less I can actually hear.
There is another aspect to this process, which involves feelings and even spirituality. Sometimes when I’m conducting, the feelings created by the music can be overwhelming. When this happens I feel I must make a conscious shift in the balance towards taking control of these emotions for the sake of the performers. They need the conductor to be in control and to give a strong, authoritative lead.
There are, I believe, more aspects to the process, which happens while conducting that will affect the outcome. And where does talent come into the process? Where does personality (even ego) come into the process? In my opinion, there are no short cuts and no substitutes to gaining control of the technique needed to balance all these aspects.
Let us consider a few skills that the conductor needs in rehearsal. Bearing in mind the concept of aligning planning, rehearsal and performance (as outlined previously) it is important to give thought to what you hope to achieve though rehearsing. Establish your starting position – at what level are your musicians performing? Now, with realistic aims, what level do you hope to attain? This is sometimes difficult to qualify but if after one hour your band or orchestra has successfully negotiated their way through a new work, then the evidence is tangible. If, after an hour of detailed work on a piece that the musicians know well, the progress is difficult to assess.
Here is a tip; before the rehearsal, make a list (either in the score or on separate paper) of all the details you want to improve and go through the list systematically. Clever? Not really. Music making is simply putting it together – bit by bit, piece by piece.
Something important though, is the aspect of style and interpretation. Even when learning basic notes and rhythms of a new piece I believe it is still possible to introduce style and interpretation so that even the basic building blocks of a performance will resonate with a stylistic approach through to the next level of detail.
The rehearsal starts (on time we hope) and the musicians are, hopefully, warmed-up mentally and physically. I recommend saying a few words at the start of any rehearsal. The purpose would be to contextualise previous rehearsals or plans and to give a broad outlook on what the rehearsal hopes to achieve. It is vital that the conductor gives clear and understandable instructions. A lot of time can be used up by poor communication. A terribly short-sighted conductor once complained in a rehearsal that the 2nd Trombone was too loud. “Yes, you – the 2nd Trombone player wearing the red jumper! It’s too loud!” “Sorry” said the 1st Trombone – “the 2nd player hasn’t arrived yet. That’s the fire extinguisher!”
As well as being articulate a conductor should be concise and specific and always use a positive manner. Instead of saying “That’s too slow!” – try putting it another way: “Can you play faster?” The change of emphasis makes a big difference to morale and motivation. I am reminded of the horn player who was criticized by the conductor, once, for playing “out of tune”. The conductor was not specific and so in a state of exasperation the horn player asked: “Do you want me to push out, push in or push off?”
Just as there are different kinds of rehearsals, there are also different kinds of techniques and approaches that must be employed. Good, effective use must be made of the time you have.
During a detailed rehearsal a great deal of time is spent on rhythmic phrases and tightness of ensemble. One of most effective ways to make a performance sound good is to get the musicians to play together. When instructing and describing a rhythmic phrase it is important, I believe, to relate the notes in the phrase to the pulse that’s in the music. Of course you can, and perhaps you should, slow down the tempo but in describing the rhythmic attributes in a phrase try to communicate the pulse at the same time and as an attribute that is equally important. Your description of the rhythm may be clear but the pulse that you feel underneath the phrase may not be understood.
You could clap your hands or tap the music stand, giving the pulse while you sing the rhythmic phrase. Another useful aid is the metronome.
This can be straightforward with only a few variations, but if there is something following the cut-off, then this next entry needs to be shown within the cut-off itself.
When the music is strong, the cut-off needs to be equally strong. If it is not then the end of the note or chord will be untidy and ragged.
When the music is soft and gentle, a cut-off needs to be made in the same way; otherwise an uncomfortable jolt will be felt. This can be rather like a car coming to an abrupt halt and the passengers being thrown forward.
Try this: 3 bars of 4/4 – big sounding music in medium tempo. Cornets or Violins are on your left. Point at them on the first beat of the 1st bar. Percussion is straight ahead of you at the back, so on the first beat of bar 2 point at them. Don’t be shy, now! Turn a bit on your feet to face the Trombones, who are seated on your right. Give them a cue on the first beat of bar 3.
Now, guess what? Repeat it!
Try, in the same way, a cue on the 2nd beat. Then on the 3rd beat. Then on the 4th beat. Voila!
Stopping & Starting
Stopping and starting a band or orchestra can be a major event in a rehearsal. Most bands and orchestras do not like to stop while in mid-flow and continual stopping can be tiring for some people. You could balance working in a detailed stop/start way with running through larger sections of music. Musicians, after all, need to gain a sense of continuity.
My own approach depends on how much rehearsal time I have, how familiar the music is and how competent the musicians are. As I said earlier, a conductor must not run out of time with pieces still un-rehearsed.
Let’s suppose there is plenty of time. If, in a rehearsal, the players make lots of major mistakes in every bar then the piece is probably too difficult for them. If you have hours and hours of rehearsal time in the next few months then it might still be possible to manage a performance, but you would be wise to consider changing the piece. If the band plays through a piece immaculately on first reading the piece is probably too easy, but you can safely programme the piece and move on to something else.
When your musicians are seeing a piece for the very first time (prima vista), try to be sympathetic. There will be many errors, so be patient and give them positive support with their entries. Get them to prioritize the rhythmic properties. Occasionally, getting them to sing their part can be beneficial so that they don’t have to worry about fingerings and other practical technicalities.
Problem Spotting & Error Detection
An aspiring conductor should not feel that he must stop, make comments and re-start. On the other hand if a conductor stops and outlines ten points for improvement, the musicians are likely to get confused and will probably forget all of the points. Stopping and highlighting two or three weaknesses, giving solutions to the problems, would seem ideal.
How do you spot weaknesses? As you play through a piece (new or familiar) the musicians will identify their own mistakes to a degree. The next run through will be very much better by itself. You do not have to say much. What you can do, though, is monitor each individual’s improvement. This is a huge challenge and requires the conductor to hear everyone’s part in detail. You will understand now that waving your hands is only half of conducting, so an aspiring conductor needs highly developed aural skills.
When the music is simple, with perhaps only a few people playing, problem spotting is not difficult but when everyone is playing at the same time in a complex piece, then the conductor has to examine the composite parts, closely. Don’t feel ashamed about this. Most musicians will also welcome the opportunity to dissect the music and then reassemble it, even if it doesn’t need fixing.
How does one solve musical problems and improve weaknesses? My way of working has been fashioned from observing some great conductors as well as observing some not so great ones. Who are the great conductors? Well, that’s for you to decide. I have played for Sir Simon Rattle, Sir John Barbirolli, Antal Dorati and many other fine conductors when I was a professional orchestral player but, to be honest, I was not paying attention to their rehearsal techniques or their interpretations and the things I value now in a performance. I was busy playing my instrument – but I was aware that something “special” was happening. The way I listen to music now is completely different to how I listened as a performer. I now hear a mixture of detail and overall structure and I’m concerned not only with the performance but the meaning of the music and its influences. A conductor’s reading and how he will bring to life certain aspects of a piece also fascinates me.
My ideas for developing a performance are these: start with the basics and make absolutely sure everyone is playing the right notes, the correct rhythms and with no wrong or imprecise entries. Articulations must be correct and dynamics observed. Only when these things are in place will I concern myself with the next layer of detail.
Once these fundamentals are in place, I can focus on balance, intonation and style but I believe that the priority for solving problems is a personal one and this will personalise many aspects of the piece as it develops.
Approaches to Problem Solving
There will always be problems in building a performance but there are usually solutions and we must, in a positive, optimistic way, search out the options. There are usually solutions to problems for individual musicians, sections and full band or orchestra and each solution requires a different approach.
The approach that a conductor makes will make a huge difference to the response he gets. Musicians no longer accept a stern, dictatorial manner but on the other hand a conductor trying to be a buddy with jokes and stories will eventually lose respect. It is wise to vary the approach in rehearsals if possible. Try to find new ways of saying things. Move around, vary the pitch and tone of your voice, fluctuate the pace of the rehearsal and take a break.
The approach a conductor takes will also depend on the length of his contract. If you are just visiting for a couple of rehearsals then gentle persuasion is not necessarily the best approach. If you make a contract “for life” as Karajan did with the Berlin Philharmonic, then you will be very much more involved, developing and processing different kinds of knowledge about the ensemble and its players. Following advice from the composer Eric Ball who said “It takes five years to build a band”, I’m definitely in favour of long-term commitments from a conductor.
When I’m talking to the whole band or orchestra, I make a conscious effort to raise my voice and move my eyes around. My stance is more upright and authoritative so that if I want to say, “This is not in tune!” I’m not looking at any particular individual or section. Such an approach would probably be too confrontational and upsetting for an individual to accept.
I once guest-conducted a Swedish Band. Introductions were made and we started with some hymn tunes. After a few minutes a tuba player came crashing in to the rehearsal room obviously troubled. Because I was a guest I didn’t feel that it was part of my job to find the reason for his distress or offer any help. I simply waited for him to pick up his tuba and find his place. When he seemed to be ready we started again with hymn number 13. I stopped after two bars because he had played every note wrong. I thought he must be looking at the wrong hymn – anyone can make a mistake. So we started again with hymn number 13. Again, he played every note wrong. Something more serious was happening with this fellow perhaps I should say something? “No”, I thought to myself. “Don’t cause a scene, just start again.” So, we did. Hymn number 13. All wrong notes again so I stopped. He’d surely got the wrong music? At this he jumped up, slammed his tuba down and stormed out of the rehearsal room leaving everyone, including myself, embarrassed and confused. I said “Shouldn’t someone run after him and bring him back?” “No.” said the chairman profoundly. “We’ve been trying to get rid of him for years. Thank you for helping us.”
A conductor should use a different approach to problem solving if it involves just one or two people. I try to remember people’s names and establish a friendly rapport. Be careful not to be too familiar, however, but there must be a line of communication where a musician can feel confident enough to express their musical problem. It’s a question, like most things to do with conducting, of balance.
I find that once a problem has been identified, the solutions lie in a range of options from basics, through common sense or experience, to innovation. Whichever solution you choose, and I sometimes try a couple, you should implant the solution gently and slowly at first. Musicians need time to re-learn something so give them time. It is unwise to expect a solution to be adopted immediately. It’s wonderful when it does happen, though.
I had problem, a few years ago in Norway, during a tuba solo. I had to give a cue to the soloist who was standing with his back to my back. “How do we do this?” I said. “Don’t worry, Ray” said the soloist. “I can sense the rhythm through your back”. To this day I do not know how he did it, but the entry was spot on every time!
When solving problems, a conductor is changing the way a musician or a group of musicians played previously. You are changing their thought processes and their concepts. This is easy enough, to a point, when the musicians are willing and straight-forward when you have capable players. When you don’t have those things the conductor needs a lot of patience. All the while a conductor is rehearsing, problem solving and developing the performance he will be gaining a deeper understanding of the music and developing his own aural concept of how the piece could be.
More advice: I sing a lot. And I try to sing the correct pitch, articulation and style. There is a danger, though, that your singing may not be as good as you think it is. As an alternative to singing you could, perhaps, play it or you could ask a competent player to demonstrate the difficult phrase. Why not play a recording of the piece? This method of learning by imitation can be most effective but needs a careful balance of persistence and patience.
Teaching & Learning
Most of the time, in rehearsal, a conductor will be teaching, and with the authority given to him combined with the disciplined approach that’s needed in order to be efficient, it’s easy to adopt an attitude that is didactive or preaching and even belligerent and confrontational.
In my experience, using sarcasm rarely proves constructive. Conductors need to support the musicians in their learning and musicians learn more by what they do than what you say.
Emotion sometimes plays an important part in a musical learning process. This aspect is very relevant in the field of music in general and conducting in particular. There are many different emotions in the process of conducting – starting, perhaps, from aspiration through motivation, self-doubt, courage, enthusiasm and confidence with many more along the way. Some emotions have a negative effect and some a positive, so it is important to recognise their effect and consequence.
One of the most important responsibilities for a conductor is to always approach a rehearsal in a good, positive mood.
Learning the Music
During a rehearsal I find that the learning process can be most effective if I resist giving instruction on every little detail. I try to point out what’s “wrong” in general terms (“It’s simply not together!”), what we have to do to get it “right” (“Listen to each other!”) and what we are aiming at. What happens as a result is that the players learn for themselves rather than from my instruction.
Remember that changing preconceptions and individual transformations is the essence of learning. The players need to learn not only how to perform the pieces, they must fully understand them.
Variations in Ability
In a non-professional band or an orchestra there sometimes is a big variation between the advanced, skilled players and the non-skilled players and this can be a huge problem for the conductor. Before you sack a player (and that is sometimes an option that must be taken) you should try to find a solution to the problem. The better players will feel frustrated with the slow progress of the weaker players and those weaker players will probably feel intimidated by the better players. This needs a sympathetic, psychological approach.
The weak players need more time and more basic instruction but if you as conductor do not have time, you should find someone who does.
Interpretation & Style
This is a big subject. I might consider a follow-up book on interpretation but, as I said earlier, I firmly believe that interpretation and style can be introduced into a performance even at the basic fundamental level. From our earlier score study and preparation we have made relevant decisions which now, in the rehearsal, we can implement.
Near the end of a rehearsal, I often try to forget detail and finish with a full run through of something I have been working on. This gives the musicians an opportunity to develop a positive feeling, which will then build their confidence. A run-through will also help to cement the detail as well as encourage them to continue their work. The process of understanding the music and developing the performance does not stop at the end of a rehearsal. The musicians, like you, will be reflecting consciously or sub-consciously.
Finish the rehearsal on a positive note and give encouragement and advice on aspects of the performance that need working on at home. Most amateur players benefit from advice on how to practise at home so perhaps they need a more detailed plan for their own development. Giving (and receiving) feedback after a rehearsal can be very beneficial to development.
How does a conductor develop? Repetition by itself is not enough. There must be a process of evaluation before we can improve. That process can take only a moment or it could take a lifetime. The “trial and error” method can work but there is something else implied by that expression and that is self-correction and auto-didacticism (we teach ourselves).
We learn and gain experience from correcting our own mistakes. We gradually find what works and what doesn’t and if we are smart then the next time the same situation arises, we choose the method that does work. Personal development starts with a conscious decision mixed with emotion. As a conductor you make decisions based on facts that surround a situation and on what the consequences of your decisions are likely to be.
I remember making a mistake while conducting Respighi’s Roman Festivals in a rehearsal with the Grimethorpe Band many years ago. The consequences of my mistake caused the performance to break down. The Solo Horn player at the time, Bryan Smith, saw the pain and embarrassment in my face and commented: “You won’t make that mistake again!…” – and he was right! Professional pride, ambition and other emotions all contributed to finding the solution to the particular problem, and by conscious reflection the episode aided my development. This is important: You must make time for conscious reflection.
As my conducting develops, so too does my experience. However, I am convinced that the experiences alone will not help me to develop – it’s the thought processes that go with those experiences that help to shape my understanding of both the experience itself and similar experiences that arise. When you have processed a challenge and found solutions, your deeper understanding of the problem will, in my opinion, give you confidence to look for even better solutions to the problem and, furthermore, solutions to other and perhaps even more complex problems.
In music making there are rarely rights and wrongs. Aspiring conductors can, and must, find solutions that are satisfactory for themselves so: take heart.
After every conducting session I recommend that you sit quietly and write a report. Finding time is always a problem but while thoughts, ideas, sounds and feelings are still fresh in your head you should write them down as a kind of de-briefing. You will probably give priority to the practical issues and want to solve some of the administrative problems. They are important, but in the long run the musicians need you to focus on the music. The report will be for your eyes only so you can write with candour. The main questions to ask are: how can I develop myself as a conductor and how can I develop the performance? By reflecting in this way you will gain a deeper understanding of the many problems that arose during the rehearsal. Solutions to those problems will surface and you will need to make decisions about each of these problems, small or large. Some decisions will be easy, others will be tough and these are the ones that need more time and consideration, perhaps even professional advice.
Talking to your partner can be terrifically helpful if you have one, but beware – the frustrations and worry can be very trying to a listener. Most conductors need a soul mate, so: find a good one! Other conductors suffer the isolation of leadership alone.
Recordings are an excellent way to assess your own development as a conductor and the band’s progress on a piece of music. I use headphones for greater clarity and help in focusing my attention.
Video and still cameras are terrific means to aid reflection. A mirror during rehearsal is useful. Feedback from almost anybody who has an opinion can be useful. Even though comments made to you without thought and consideration can be hurtful you can still learn from them, even (or especially) if you disagree with those comments.
When reading concert reviews and reports, I recommend that you look for the negative more than the positive points. Comments from colleagues and other conductors are especially useful as are the comments from adjudicators. But the best and most useful comments if you are performing contemporary music will come from the composers themselves.
From my experience composers are most anxious to give their opinions on performances of their works. These comments are usually complimentary and encouraging, which is nice! The composer, Philip Wilby, once wrote on my score “Thanks for a brilliant rendition!” after a performance of “…Dove Descending”. I knew then that I was on the right track towards a real understanding of the piece. The opposite kind of comment was made to me by the composer Robin Holloway following a performance of his work “Men Marching” at the Aldeburgh Festival – “too slow!” was all he said. Well now I know – and so I need to re-think if I am to conduct it again.
Reflection is a continuing exercise; it is a part of my life. Reflection can bring despondency but also elation. The trick is to get a balance. I recommend that you aim to surround yourself with people who can discuss things with you and support your reflection.
What do we need to do in performance that is different to rehearsal? For a start we must use non-verbal communication with the musicians and this involves technique. But let’s consider some of the issues. This chapter is concerned with some of the important skills and techniques needed by the conductor during performance.
Conducting – A Multi-tasking Challenge
The more experienced I become as a conductor the more I realise that conducting is a balancing act of multi-tasking. More important than any of these mental or physical tasks is the auralised conception of the music. Just as when you visualise something and imagine what it might look like, to auralise is to imagine a sound. Everything the conductor does or thinks or feels should be focussed towards the music concept. The auralised conception of the music is formulated before the performance, as are the feelings of desire to achieve a realisation of the concept.
In performance the conductor, while focusing on the music, draws from his experiences in rehearsal (and past performances) and acts on the feelings he has developed for the music and the feelings for the realisation of the concept. Conducting can be very emotional.
I hope I do not deter anyone, but to be frank: conducting in performance very often becomes a series of disappointments and frustrations to me. Moment after moment never quite reaches my hopes and aspirations no matter how good the musicians are. The closer we get to even a moment of the perfection I have in my head the auralisation seems to change. It becomes elusive to an extent that I realise I will never be satisfied. (Is this the dream of Utopia?). But somehow, despite the dissatisfaction, the prevailing feeling and conclusion is that the effort was worthwhile. You have to find a balance in these things.
The most difficult and complex tasks to balance is the continually changing focus between the auralised sound in your head and the actual sound being made by the musicians in front of you. The focus can change (sometimes instantly) from an imagined auralisation to intense focus on a small detail in performance, via concern for practical issues such as beating complicated time changes.
In other words; sometimes I need to focus on what the players are doing, sometimes on what I need to do to support them and sometimes I need to focus on the essence of the music.
There are other kinds of balancing that happens during the conductor’s performance such as the continual dialogue between conductor and musicians which is one of action and reaction. Should the conductor follow here or lead? Sometimes a performance feels exciting – but is the tempo correct? There is a continuous evaluation, while conducting, of a modest kind, which needs to be balanced with dynamic commitment.
The combining and balancing of these issues with the many other skills and attributes that are needed make conducting a true art form.
There are lots of practical things to do before a performance and this process should start early. Before the event there are issues to consider like seating positions, podiums, microphones and lighting. Speaking to an audience is, for some conductors, one of the most difficult things to do and if this is the case for you, I recommend carefully researched programme notes. You might like to consider using a Compére. Most of it is common sense though. Just be thorough in your detail by making a list of things to do.
To use a score or not to use a score, that is the question! I almost always use a score, mainly as an aid to remind myself what is coming next but also if someone gets lost I can focus on their individual part and be efficient in the process of getting them back on track..
I consider visualisation to be most valuable to a conductor. Before entering the stage for the performance, try to picture yourself on the podium and imagine how it would look and sound and also imagine how it would feel.
Everything depends on the conductor’s ability to auralise and there are ways to develop this skill as outlined. The conductor needs a clear concept in his imagination for the overall structure and every small detail, both before the moment and as the music is created during the performance. Focusing and concentrating on this concept can be difficult if there are distractions – and there are always distractions!
To achieve a good performance, the conductor needs to develop strong feelings for his concept of the music and also strong feelings towards the realisation of that concept. I cannot provide any advice on how to develop those feelings. I believe, however, that feelings will develop from a considered approach and an inquiring mind, mixed with feelings rooted in one’s personality, such as ambition, talent, ego, enthusiasm, the love for music and a need for reward. The feelings will provide the motivation. Lack of inspiration will in turn lead to a lack of motivation.
In my opinion, a music performance can be enjoyed in three ways: First in anticipation, second in its performance and third in its recollection. The anticipation is influenced by expectation and perception and this can be influenced to a degree by effective publicity.
The performance itself can be enhanced by its surroundings, acoustics, comfortable seats, viewing position, and nicely printed programmes with comprehensive notes on the music, composers and artists. There are also many other factors which contribute to the enjoyment and the experience of a performance, but I will not list them all here.
The recollection of a performance can be aided with many things like photographs, videos and recordings. The conductor is naturally involved in all these things.
Starting the Performance
Plan your entrance on to the podium carefully. Do you want to acknowledge the applause? How do you do that? Should the musicians stand?
With everyone seated and with the musicians ready to play, try to create an atmosphere of purposeful concentration. You want everyone, including the audience, to be still and concentrated. Your mental attitude combined with your body language will influence everyone in the hall and on the stage. The performance has taken a lot of effort to prepare and, in my opinion; the conductor has the right to expect some effort from an audience.
As the performance progresses, try to be consistent with what you did in rehearsals. Be as close to the chosen tempi as you can and make the same gestures so that the musicians are comfortable. There should be no big surprises but having said that you need the added ingredient of “magic”; something that brings the music to life in a unique and special way.
In rehearsal a calm thoughtful approach is needed but in a performance you need to be dynamic with confident, committed effort. The musicians need the inspiration and motivation which comes from a passionate conductor in order to deliver their best efforts
As the performance proceeds there will be, hopefully, much communication and interaction between the conductor and the players and this will be with individuals and groups of people. I mostly try to ignore the audience during performance. Their presence can be a distraction.
In the beginning of this Aspect, I highlighted the issue of changing focus and the command of this aspect of performance will determine your style and character as a conductor.
Let us consider the extremes:
If the conductor focuses on practical matters, like the lack of precision in the performance or perhaps an insecure entry or poor intonation, the performance will be strongly influenced by the priority the conductor gives to that focus. He will not be able to involve himself with the essence or spirit or meaning of the music.
If, at the other extreme, the conductor focuses on those almost spiritual qualities of an auralisation; if he is in raptures or tears or rages then he will not be aware of the practical issues mentioned earlier. Music can invoke overwhelming emotional responses.
The key to success, in my opinion, is the balance between the two aspects and the flexibility and willingness of the conductor to mentally move from one extreme to the other.
The performance is where we put into practise all the preparation, research, rehearsal and reflection and hopefully add that all important ingredient – “magic”.
For me a magical performance will have near-perfect precision, beautiful tone, excellent intonation and balance and so on, but most of all it will show evidence of a deep understanding and also a love for the music. This evidence comes from the musicians who will be inspired by a conductor but primarily the “magic” in a performance is created by the conductor himself; the years of study and preparation, the highly developed skills and the way he has moulded and balanced all the ingredients will, in my opinion, be perhaps the most significant aspect of a wonderful performance. The conductor’s ability to mould an enormous amount of detail and deliver it with enthusiasm and integrity is not rocket science, as they say – it’s more complex!
Conductors should, in my opinion, be on a constant search for improvement and development of their own abilities to realise the composer’s intentions. A conductor’s ability to create something special is eventually rooted in a life-long process of development. Let’s review the situation in a more ‘down to earth’ manner. I aim to encourage aspiring conductors; so we should not be too concerned with the wonder of it all. And while we are considering the re-creation of artistic endeavours we need to keep our feet on the ground. We will discuss the ethics of interpretation and other elevated concepts on another occasion. For now: let us focus on how to facilitate a decent music performance.
During a performance, my approach alternates between feeling the emotion of the musical moment and a feeling of detached authority; always trying to positively inspire my musicians to motivate themselves. Music can, of course, portray the whole range of human emotions but the conductor should, at times, detach himself from those emotions in order to successfully guide the performers. What the composer has written and what the musicians need is paramount.
The conductor, in performance, must anticipate and prepare what comes next in the piece and aim to guide the musicians to realisation of that moment. If the conductor indulges himself in the emotion of the moment then he is not properly preparing the next. Complicated, isn’t it?
Before each down beat there is a process which formulates it. The conducting beats and patterns should happen automatically however, a process of formulating a musical approach needs to be synchronised with technique. This process requires the conductor to engage with the many aspects of the musical moment such as tempo, dynamic and style. There is a “check list” of aspects of the performance to be considered within this process. Each aspect will have been considered in rehearsal, hopefully, but in performance there must be an added ingredient and that is one of commitment.
Next is the problem of communicating these thoughts.
Often your musicians will want to keep their eyes glued to the parts so you need to persuade them with gestures, body language and facial expressions to use their peripheral vision or even direct eye contact in order to gain contact. Only when you have that contact will you be able to begin to communicate. Many musicians, even good players, choose an approach to playing which is in a comfort zone. You might have seen it: eyes closed, ears closed and heart closed. Everything is mezzo forte with sloppy articulation and has no commitment towards making the music come alive. In these situations the conduct needs to use will-power.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”
Sometimes I do not feel like imposing my will onto musicians and I am tempted to take the easy option and stay within my own comfort zone. In these cases I find, very early in the process, that standards slip away and the performance level become unacceptable. At these times I need to summon courage and determination to be forthright. The conviction comes from many things including my motivation to be creative.
This is the big subject that requires another method. But briefly: because music notation is an imprecise science there are always moments of ambiguity. The conductor has the responsibility of making a decision as to exactly how the performance should be, and so needs an analytical approach. If the composer is still alive I recommend contacting him to gain a deeper understanding. Most composers are approachable in these matters: they want accurate performances of their works.
Sometimes there is a temptation to put something extra into a performance which is neither written nor implied. I strongly believe that the conductor has a musical moral responsibility to resist this temptation and there is an ethical code and parameters to interpretation which must be observed. Conducting is a mission of re-creating music in a respectful, selfless, non-egotistical way. We are serving the art of music with humility.
More to Consider
Besides interpretation there is a lot more to consider about conducting such as:
– The Art of Accompaniment
– Programme Planning
– Musical Direction
– Public Speaking & Presentation
– Recording Techniques
– Public Relations
– Image and Reputation.
Conducting is an art which demands a great deal of commitment, time and effort but I believe that the benefits are enormous. Further issues for considerations, however, will have to wait for the next book. Until then I wish you every success in your conducting career.
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Thanks to Bob Hall for the picture of me from the Royal Albert Hall.
And to Gareth Pritchard and Jagrins for their production work,
And to the Fishburn brass band from County Durham, UK.
And to the Reg Vardy brass band also from County Durham for the their fine performance of Eden (J. Pickard) from the Royal Albert Hall.
And Kapitol Promotions Limited for permission to use the video footage.
-Brass Band World. UK magazine. August 2008.
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