On Conducting (6): Monotonies

A good leader in any sphere of operation will want to do what s/he can to avoid being characterized by monotony.  Saying the same thing over and over again is ineffective at best.  The conductor’s potential pitfalls include monotonies of rehearsal technique and gesture.

Rehearsal Technique
It should first be said that rehearsing 5th- or 6th-grade players in their first real band or orchestra experiences is a different enterprise from a high school, college, community, or professional-level rehearsal.  Personally, I have no expertise whatsoever with beginners, and I am not all that good with pre-college students, but I can articulate a few things about rehearsal technique with older players.

Rehearsal technique is a study in itself.  My own technique tends to be bit choppy, with frequent pauses for encouragements, corrections, or simply building on something by moving it to the next level.  As I enter into a rehearsal, to balance my tendencies, I try to have in mind a plan that has the ensemble periodically synthesize by playing longer segments.  Some other conductors tend to major in simply playing through a piece.  That “technique” is actually no technique at all but can sometimes be helpful on occasion—especially when a performance date is drawing near.

If I can help it, I never want a player to think I didn’t have a plan, so, with advanced ensembles, I rarely start at the beginning of a piece after the first rehearsal.  After all, the beginning naturally tends to get the most attention, because it is what the players and conductors see first on the page, so the beginning comes to mind readily and therefore tends not to need as much repeated, focused work.

Rehearsals, like daily life, benefit from varying “energies.”  My better rehearsal plans often begin with a review of something accomplished in the last rehearsal, then they move into “detail work” for a while.  Depending on the total time available, a good plan might look something like this:

  1. 5 min:  chorale or other sensitive style, warming up the musician within (and getting the air flowing!)
  2. 5-15 min:  review of work accomplished at least rehearsal on a difficult spot, perhaps continuing or putting two segments together
  3. 20-40 min:  detailed, focused rehearsal, probably with a good deal of stopping
  4. [1- break and 2- any necessary announcements, if the rehearsal is longer than an hour or so]
  5. 5-15 min:  synthesis, playing through longer sections with some stopping for correction and advancement
  6. 5-10 min:  review of a different piece—probably one that allows for a feeling of “success”

Some techniques emphasize advance instruction—prescription and even proscription (advance prohibition), and that is sometimes necessary.  When possible, I also incorporate spontaneous discovery and group ideation.  I strive for (but do not always succeed with) fresh wordings—descriptions and exhortations that pique the musicians’ ears and brains rather than inviting them to tune out.  Technique involves words, and it is important to stay fresh, not monotonous, with guiding words.

Most conductors tend to develop personal “vocabularies” of default gestures much like the speech “crutches” of spoken language.  (Few are immune to this syndrome, but the great Carlos Kleiber might be an exception.)  Beyond individual habituation, which I see as a greater problem for accomplished conductors to overcome, monotonous gestures shared by a great many lesser conductors include the following:

  1. An incessant mirroring by the left hand of the right hand (the most common and worst example of monotony in instrumental conductors—a visually noisy habit that puts musical sensibilities to sleep)
  2. An undifferentiated, non-phrase-oriented emphasis on the downbeats in music that is not “downbeaty” (It has well be observed that not all “downbeats” innately carry a downward emphasis!  Some actually seem to have an upward, sideways, or flourishy sort of character.)
  3. An obsessive, clocklike motion with the left hand joining the right hand on beats 3 and 4 of a four-beat pattern, then dropping the left hand through half of each measure.  (The unthinking assumption seems to be that there’s no possibility the ensemble can possibly feel each upbeat and downbeat unless it sees that repetitive left hand doing its thing.)

No one likes to listen to a monotone voice.

Few will continue listening to any person (whether it’s an auto mechanic, a Bible teacher, a politician, or even a friend) who says the same things all the time.

In rehearsal technique and in terms of specific gestures, mature musicians tend to desire more than monotony from a conductor, as well.

Please share your thoughts. I read every comment.

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