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Some practical observations for those who conduct or coach orchestras

The good news for any would-be conductor, is that orchestras generally want to succeed. Whether with a youth ensemble, amateur orchestra or professional group, the conductor is, more often than not, working with willing partners who are forgiving and amenable. For this to remain so from one rehearsal to the next however, depends on maintaining good relations. Here are some observations that conductors may find useful, especially when just starting out.

The three types of conductor

Conductors fall into three categories:

- Those that have a positive influence on the orchestra (the orchestra plays better because of the conductor’s contribution.)
- Those that have no discernible influence on the orchestra (the orchestra would play just as well with no conductor.)
- Those that have a negative influence on the orchestra (the orchestra would play better with no conductor.)

With young ensembles, most conductors will fall into the first category, as any influence is likely to be positive in some way. As everything is new and exciting to a young musician, the conductor doesn’t necessarily have to do much more than allow them to play. The very act of playing their instruments for a long time will teach them plenty.

For professional and good amateur ensembles, the conductor is much more likely to run the risk of falling into the latter two categories. An experienced orchestra will find it effortless to run through and perform a familiar piece of the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods with no conductor. Indeed, the performance is likely to be very dynamic with a high level of concentration and communication within the group. If a conductor is to involve themselves, it must be with good reason.

Delusions of competence

It is said of politicians, that anyone expressing a desire to run for office should automatically be disqualified from doing so. The same has jokingly been said of orchestral conductors. While it would be cynical to suggest that all conductors are power-hungry egomaniacs, it would be wise not to underestimate the potential for the ego to interfere with one’s good intentions.

An instrumentalist can easily identify their own weaknesses. Their years of practice will have taught them how to fix sloppy intonation and poor coordination with some focussed practice. With conducting however, to self-diagnose is a problem, especially if the only feedback is coming from polite friends and paid members of the orchestra who wish to ingratiate themselves. What makes it more difficult, is that orchestras, even less experienced ones, are very good at accommodating poor conducting technique. Their desire to sound good as an ensemble supersedes their desire to expose their conductors’ shortcomings. Less objective individuals, who are too wrapped up in themselves, can be left blissfully ignorant of their troublesome conducting. It is difficult to fix a problem that you are not aware exists.

Understanding the role

To improve as a conductor it is important to be ruthlessly objective. A good place to start is to adopt the principle that if the orchestra does not play well, the responsibility always lies with the conductor, never the orchestra. This is true for the simple reason that only the conductor is in a position to effect change. A cellist on the back desk can’t help the 2nd oboe balance their low D. This is the case regardless of the quality and experience level of the ensemble.

Some conductors bemoan the technical limitations of the orchestra they are working with. Bear in mind, this has nothing to do with the role of the conductor. Their objective is to help the musicians play better, whoever they may be. Finding a better orchestra to make one feel better about oneself is disrespecting the position and frankly lazy. It is not the job of the violin to make the violinist sound good, the opposite is true.

It is not possible to make the orchestra play in tune, but it is the conductor’s responsibility to achieve the best possible result by guiding the players, diagnosing problems and fixing them in the most efficient way. A clear baton technique helps, as well as good language and communication skills. Much like the director of a company, the role is to lead and inspire the team to achieve. It is part of the job to win favour amongst the musicians and keep them motivated. The buck always stops with the conductor and in order to improve as a conductor one has to acknowledge this as a rule.

Listen

I remember a story about a famous conductor who yelled out in rehearsal, “Horns! you’re too loud!”.  When he was made aware that the horns had yet to arrive he replied, “Well when they get here, tell them they’re too loud.”

Don’t be afraid to just listen. To fix problems you have to first identify them. It is not uncommon for a conductor (or any performer for that matter) to enjoy their imagined performance in their head, while ignoring the reality of the present. You must be in the moment. This is increasingly the case as music gets more complicated with more moving parts. Learn to be calm and alert. If that means moving less, so be it. The more attention you pay to the orchestra rather than yourself, the more the orchestra will respond to you. Listening intently will also encourage the ensemble to do the same.

Conducting isn’t always a proactive activity. If a passage is refusing to come together, it can be a good idea not to conduct at all. This will encourage more focussed listening in the ensemble, which can sometimes be neglected if a conductor is drawing too much attention to themselves by over-conducting. It is not because anyone is necessarily doing something wrong, it is simply finding a means to fix a problem quickly and can be a very useful exercise. You are training the orchestra to play better together. Stay in the moment and respond to what is actually happening rather than what you would like to be happening. Listening has the added benefit of helping to keep your mind calm. The orchestra will sense this and be more responsive as a result.

Conducting

A common novice misconception is that putting lots of physical energy into the baton technique will motivate players to put more energy into their bows, reeds or fingers. Remember that most instruments, when played well, require very concise, small movements, so gestures that are too big may not always connect with players’ impulses. Large movements can often be more difficult to follow, especially if they involve the legs, shoulders, or other parts of the body besides the arms. With instances of fast and tricky passages, most players will either not look at all for fear of losing their place, or only occasionally glance up, in which case a smaller and more concise beat is usually more helpful to them.

Try to keep the baton in your own line of sight as you look forward (i.e. about a handshake in front of you.) When the players look up, especially those directly in front of you, they will see both the baton and your eyes which will communicate with clarity. Try to keep the tip of the baton within the parameters of a medium picture frame. Find ways to be expressive within a confined space to better focus attention. Be careful to keep your feet still and your body centred. Moving around the podium should be kept to a minimum as this can dilute clarity, which won’t help the orchestra. The orchestra needs a still point of reference they can glance at. Of course there will be moments that warrant big gestures, but they should remain exceptional.

It is wise to avoid too much regular and repeated movement. This can be very numbing to the players, and can actively discourage listening and communication; they will be more likely to overlook important changes which limits your expressive range. Similarly, a downbeat has a natural accent. If you labour downbeats, the music can slow down or become heavy. This is especially the case with Waltzes and pieces in compound time. Trust the orchestra to provide the downbeats and focus your attention on balance, shaping and direction.

In busy sections, be mindful of the instruments with the most notes. Have sympathy for these players when choosing your tempos and be careful to hear their notes in your head when preparing. In rehearsal, direct your attention to the instruments who provide the big beats. This will help the fast notes align themselves better, improving the ensemble.

In some ways the conductor is like the pilot of a plane. They are needed for take-off, changes of direction (navigation) and landings.  When there are no changes to execute, a pilot can relax and enjoy the view. If a passage of music is being driven by a repeated rhythm or ostinato, use the opportunity to focus on subtle changes, phrasing and dynamics rather than beating the pulse. The orchestra’s natural momentum and sense of phrasing can do the work for you.


Video yourself

The most effective tool to gain worthwhile feedback is the video, but only if it’s used honestly to mete out failings. Use the footage to root out bad habits and mannerisms. Listen carefully to how the orchestra responds and imagine yourself playing along from different sections of the orchestra. No amount of conducting lessons or classes can reveal as much to you, if you are willing to learn.

Just let them play!

Musicians learn most efficiently when they are playing their instruments.  Whether under-tempo, loudly, softly or with particular articulation, the important thing is that they are playing and the shape and character of the music is being absorbed subliminally. With music that is unfamiliar (nearly always the case with youth ensembles), this is particularly the case. When playing, the brain is in a dynamic mode, listening and reacting to all that is going on. To interrupt this flow you have to have good reason.

Ignore mistakes unless they happen more than once. Most players will be aware of their errors and will fix them without your help. If mistakes happen repeatedly, there may be several reasons, in which case you will need to investigate.

When working in detail, with lots of repetition and stopping involved, be careful not to tire out the orchestra. If a player knows that they won’t need to concentrate for more than four bars at a time, they may stop concentrating altogether. Whilst it is good to spend some time focussing in detail, this has to be managed carefully in order not to reduce the morale of the players. The very act of moving from resting position to playing position can be tiring in itself, never mind if it is combined with didactic and nit-picky instruction. Reward the orchestra by playing long stretches without interruption. This will give them a better sense of structure and context, allowing them to pace their energy as well as highlight exposed sections that they may want to work on in their own time.

Keep talking to a minimum

Try to avoid long speeches. In general, the more you speak, the less the ensemble will listen. By saying less, your words will carry more meaning. Use a variety of communication styles. Sometimes people just need to hear ‘loud’ or ‘soft’; other times, elaborate imagery and expressive language can be very motivating. By keeping a mix of language styles, you will keep more of the players’ attention.

With youth ensembles especially, save your wisest words until the players have had a chance to first get their fingers and brains around the notes. In the early stages they are so preoccupied with working things out that they probably won’t listen to much of what you are saying, and in any case, they won’t know the piece well enough for it to make much sense. Wait until they have a greater sense of context before you share your more profound insights.

You’re not the Police

At the end of a rehearsal recently, I invited members of my young orchestra to come up and conduct. One chosen individual stood at the podium and barked “Attention!” while tapping furiously on the stand with the baton. Aside from the fact that I might hold some responsibility for this caricature being one of only a few conductors they would have observed in their short life, it exposed an instinct that must be noted with caution.

Power corrupts, as the old saying goes. Never forget that the conductor is on the same team as the players. The orchestra only wishes to play well. If a member of the ensemble plays poorly, it does not necessarily mean that they don’t care. You must assume that they are trying their hardest and your role is not to reprimand but to enable. The danger of becoming authoritarian is it can lead to an ‘us and them’ situation that can turn sour. Focus on the collective objective; it is not a battle of wills. Likewise, if a member of the orchestra makes a suggestion that you hadn’t considered, it is not a criticism of your work or concept. You don’t have to defend yourself. Instead, give it a try. This will demonstrate that you are compromising and agreeable. The players will be thankful for this and you may learn a useful lesson from it.

It’s not about you!

Some conductors, professional and otherwise, make the same ego-fuelled mistake of believing that they are the most important person on stage. To steering committees and publicists, the celebrity attributes of the conductor are very important, as that can greatly affect seat sales. In a nuts-and-bolts rehearsal however, it is an amateurish mistake for the conductor to try to be the centre of attention. A conductor’s role is to facilitate rehearsals, much like a theatre director. The objective is to train the ensemble so it is ready to perform with freedom and expression with only the involvement of the conductor as necessary. Take for example the trumpet solo that opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. With only one person playing, there is no technical need for it be conducted. To do so can send an insulting message to the soloist and the orchestra. A conductor must trust their players or they cannot expect the same trust to be returned. By all means, help the soloist prepare in rehearsal, but in concert, responsibility must be entrusted to them.

Learning the score

Knowledge of the score is really the first point of departure for any conductor. The more you know the music, the more confident and efficient you will be in rehearsal.

When available, listen to many recordings to get the notes into your aural memory, and then spend time reading through the score in your head. Organise the piece into clearly defined sections. Make a note of specific entries, especially those that might be problematic. Note tempo changes and metres and practise beating through sections as you hear them in your head. Much like preparing an instrumental performance, try to make sense of the music in your head, analysing why the composer chose those notes, and what meaning you can deduce. Right or wrong, it will give your interpretation gravitas and a more persuasive sense of purpose.

Be aware that no matter how prepared you may believe yourself to be, the actual rehearsal will likely feel very different. Don’t be put off if things don’t work out the way you planned them. Be flexible and ready to make changes on a whim.

In Performance

Conducting in concerts is and should be a very different experience from that of rehearsals. A well prepared orchestra will have the freedom to take risks, executing more expressive extremes with abandon. An audience will sense the thrill of the orchestra and share in their sense of spontaneity. A concert is an occasion, not a defining moment so don’t dwell on inaccuracies. Focus instead on the whole and enjoy yourself; you’ve all earned it!