Believe it or not, conductors do not get up on that podium and wave their arms around until the music stops. (Just kidding. I’m sure you know that.)
Well, I am no stranger to the art of conducting, though I am only relatively beginning my expertise in this area of knowledge.
One of my favorite conductors I enjoyed watching from a young age was Gustavo Dudamel. He didn’t only conduct with his hands, but with his face, body, and hair. He made it look fun and effortless.
I began playing in several orchestras in middle school, and as concertmaster several times through that experience, one of my main responsibilities was to always watch the conductor. I basically memorized my music so I could pay attention to the cues, but more importantly, to learn any information on playing with expression. For my part, even if I sit in the back nowadays, looking up all the time is still something I try to do to the best of my ability.
But I picked up a real baton for the first time in my freshman year. The 3/4 and 4/4 patterns were not difficult to master – if you wish to do them without any style, that is.
The baton hand (or right hand) give the beat patterns. Most budding conductors will not know any better and will be too rigid, forming strict triangles with their motions. In reality though, the movement should be more fluid and “curvy”, without sacrificing clarity. Depending on the mood of the section or the tempo, these characteristics can, and should be, changed.
It took me weeks of experimentation to find my own “groove” – a default style, without added expression or frills – and for everyone, it will vary slightly.
Adding the right hand then makes the conducting equation exponentially more difficult. It’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, except both motions are changing. But at the same time, it’s also the fun part, because this is where the conductor gets to be creative in their manner of conveying what they want from the orchestra.
My high school conductors always liked to use their left hand to mirror their baton hand, while I believe that there if is no need to use the left hand, one shouldn’t use it. My “resting place”, ironically, is on my stomach. I like my left hand, or “expression hand”, to be independent of the right, although it may be harder and require much more practice at first.
Another small, but significant part of conducting is the fact that the conductor’s signals must always be ahead of the perceived beat. So the downbeat happens a fraction of a second after the conductor’s baton comes down. Failing to do this could result in a perpetual slowing down of the orchestra, because the players should not “anticipate”, but “react” to where the conductor places the beat (aka the “ictus”, but you don’t really need to know that).
Now that I’ve given you a tiny (and not very detailed) crash course on the basics of conducting, let’s go on to discuss what we can learn from the world-class conductors that have walked this earth.
Conducting is almost infinitely more difficult than sitting and playing in an orchestra.
You thought that sight-reading your part was difficult? Try keeping track of 30 instruments at once. Conducting is the most intense form of multi-tasking and analyzing.
Good conductors have a vision for their piece.
It’s easy enough to YouTube some previous performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but the rendition has to be solely their own. Authenticity shines through – a true conductor is inspired and creative and know what they want. Their job is to get that vision inside their head to become reality.
They have to be very good at communicating their vision.
However inspired their interpretation may be, the next most important thing is to be able to tell the orchestra what they want by communicating through gestures and words. Yes, conductors have to have really good people skills too! Otherwise, even if their vision is staggeringly powerful and even if the orchestra is intensely receptive, if they can’t express themselves, that vision will never become reality.
Conductors must plan their rehearsals ahead, but also be flexible when rehearsing.
Conducting is not easy. We’ve already established that. But a lot of their work is also about preparation. I worked with a very famous, world-class conductor once, named John Nelson, and he marked all the sections he wanted to rehearse meticulously and in great detail before each rehearsal. No matter how good you get, conducting is not something you can completely ad-lib.
At the same time, if something is not working in rehearsal, or if a section is going better than anticipated and working on a different section would be a better use of time, the conductor must know to change their plan to suit the present moment instead of adhering strictly to a schedule. So: they are prepared, but also open to changes.
They are responsible.
Often the quality of an orchestra is dependent on the quality of the conductor, and they know that, and take full responsibility. It is up to them to tell the instrumentalists what to work on, change, or fix – mistakes will not fix themselves. And they know that too.
They also have to know the people they are rehearsing.
Rehearsing, say, a middle school group, will be different from rehearsing the London Philharmonic. They can’t have expectations that are too high or too low for the group they are working with. Also, the attitude, vocabulary, and tone of voice should be adjusted. Know who you are talking to.
They have to know the people they are performing to too.
Conductors often pick the program for their concert season, which must be done strategically. It is good to have familiar numbers balanced by more obscure works. Frankly, orchestra is a business too, and knowing your “customers” is important for their popularity and financial success.
Rehearsing means being inspiring without sacrificing efficiency.
Conductors obviously want their orchestra to sound as good as possible. Some conductors are borderline abusive, only pointing out problems that need to be fixed without a word of encouragement, making everybody frustrated and angsty. Other conductors sugar-coat everything and never say anything useful, getting nothing done. A good conductor will be respectful to the orchestra and will still push them to be better musicians.
They are always energetic, yet control their energy.
The conductor literally drives the train. They have to be energetic and willing to get work done, otherwise the entire orchestra will stagnate. One player slacks off a little, that has relatively little effect on the orchestra, but the conductor will affect everybody.
At the same time, their energy and passion for the piece does not affect their position of control. They have to be relatively stable people in order to channel that energy into being productive.
Conductors love what they do, despite the hours of score study and rehearsal.
Have I mentioned the hours of score study required for every single piece rehearsed yet? The good conductor will spend long nights poring over scores, marking up passages, and learning the parts for each instrument. And when it comes to rehearsal time, if you think you’re tired, most likely the conductor is too, only they’re not showing it, for your sake. Yes, the entire process, from beginning to end, is tedious, but at the end of the day, they love it.
Hopefully this gives you some more appreciation of all the values and work ethic that conductors of music stand for. I think that the best way to learn is to learn from the masters. And we can learn from a master of any subject, really. Chefs, athletes, musicians, scientists – it’s never easy for the top to get where they are, and they can all inspire us alike.