On Conducting (7): Leading

P1120278A conductor is a leader.  He leads.

He also monitors, responds, and facilitates, but he certainly guides and leads every time he is on the podium.  Each musician’s individual capabilities contribute to the whole, and a conductor realizes both the aggregate and individual gifts of the ensemble, working to enhance and synthesize those capabilities.

The conductor’s leadership involves words and nonverbal guidance.  It involves relationship, communication, and perception.  The conductor’s leading is simultaneously a practical and psychological—and perhaps even spiritual—enterprise.  Here, I should acknowledge that many have undertaken to speak and write about leadership, and some of the common (or uncommon) wisdom is applicable to the conductor’s leadership.  It is not my purpose here either to re-appropriate or critique the counsel of corporate leadership gurus, no matter how apt that advice might or might not be.  I will rather speak more specifically to aspects of leadership widely and specifically recognized as central in the conducting enterprise.

The elements of music have been collected into lists; while these lists do differ, here is a solid one:

  1. timbre (tone color)
  2. frequency of vibration (melodic pitch, harmony)
  3. intensity (dynamics)
  4. time (duration, tempo, rhythm)

When a conductor aurally apprehends a given timbral combination, or if he detects a nonstandard, uncharacteristic timbre, he may wish to influence it.  I recall that, as a young horn player, the faculty conductor of my college band gave me a back-handed compliment, speaking to timbre in such a way as to influence me but not embarrass me in front of peers.  It was sort of a “he who has ears to hear” sort of thing in that only a few would have been cognizant of what he was saying to me.  My timbre was strained and thin, and he said something about liking that “tense sound you’re getting” in a lyrical, upper-register solo.  I have never forgotten that, and I’m perhaps more recalcitrant than I need to be these days about any hint of strain in my high range.

A harmonic aberration may fairly leap out of the acoustical environment into the conductor-leader’s consciousness, demanding attention.  Many conductors hear harmony well, experiencing vividly as a vertical reality.  Others seem more attuned to melody.  Few there are  who work as devoted phrase-influencers—at the nexus of melody and harmony and dynamics and other expressive aspects of music.  Narrow is the gate that leads to phrasal leadership!

Dynamic relationships—both the combined ones heard 1) in an instant and the kinds perceived 2) over a period of time—are significant in terms of pedagogy, decibel-measured quantity, and expressive potential.  Although even the highest-level ensembles need dynamic guidance, the wind band institution stands in particularly frequent need of serious dynamic reshaping.  Choirs and orchestras need help in achieving effective dynamic expression and balance, but bands notoriously play too loud too much of the time, rarely exploiting softer dynamic levels or giving meaningful shape to crescendos or diminuendos.

While all of these elements are significant in terms of musical “product” and leadership, the time-related, rhythmic aspects are the most readily addressed and influenced by the conductor.  It is rhythm and tempo that I will address next.

2 thoughts on “On Conducting (7): Leading

  1. Diane Emmons 06/06/2016 / 6:46 am


    You are a gifted musical conductor and leader. I am thankful for the experience you gave me while you were here and stand amazed at the way you can express ideas in writing, too, even from a distance.





    • Brian Casey 06/08/2016 / 10:17 am

      You’re kind and thoughtful as well as affirming, my dear friend.

      Last night I had another disappointing experience as an ensemble member, thinking of what I more equipped to do (on the podium). I know every leader/conductor/teacher/writer/whatever will disappoint people time and time again, but when I have opportunity, I want to do the best I can with what I’ve been given.


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