On Conducting (8a): Rhythmic Skill Level

When a baseball player is in a slump, a batting coach works with him on his timing.  When a guy is getting to know a girl and thinking about asking her out, timing is important.  Timing is everything for a comedian, and so it is in music, as well.  The successful player or singer must have a good sense of timing, and for the conductor, timing must be even better.

The timing-related aspects of music include duration, tempo, pulse, meter, division/subdivision, and rrhythmic patterns.  A conductor’s perception of all these aspects is important, and they might all be subsumed under the heading rhythm.

One year, I had an associate who was both very busy and very musically supportive. From a moderately knowledgeable standpoint, I can testify to the fact that she was an effective program builder who engendered greater-than-average loyalty (and that is saying a lot, since even mediocre directors often have very loyal students!).  She was a capable player and a musical leader herself.  I respect her, but she stands in my memory as only average in terms of rhythm.  Her rhythm was good, in that she could read and play rhythms fairly well, but actually, no director can be expected to have obtained a music degree without a good deal of rhythmic proficiency.

At one rehearsal, the above-mentioned associate’s section was not negotiating a rhythm pattern very well.  I noticed the problem, which effectively included rushing the pulse and arriving at the next downbeat too early.  I did as most leaders would do in this case and attempted to correct the problem without direct attention to the fellow professional.  After two or three attempts—including singing the rhythm correctly and saying something along the lines of “let’s be careful to give that rhythm some space . . . be careful not to get to the downbeat too early,” it wasn’t getting better.  Feeling pressed for time, I became more insistent:  “The trombones are rushing there.  You’re playing it like this [singing again], and it should be like this [singing].  You’re rushing.”  At this point, the associate looked at her younger section members (and two of them were her students at the time) and said, “That’s not happening.”  I read her lips and heard her voice, and there was no mistaking this comment.

Backstepping for a moment . . . when professional musicians work together in an ensemble, there are understood protocols.  Tacit understandings and practices are at work.  One doesn’t generally call out another professional’s mistake directly from the podium, for instance.  Nor does an ensemble member generally buck the authority of a conductor.[1]  There are ways to question the decision or perception of a conductor that do not undermine him or her.  What the above-mentioned associate did on that one occasion did in fact undermine me.

Despite the inappropriate, authority-challenging remark on that occasion, the rhythmic execution was off.  There is no question:  all the trombones were having the same rhythmic problem.  I know this just as well as being able to determine when another car arrives first at a four-way-stop intersection, or when an umpire misses a safe or out call at 1st base.  I was correct, and that musical colleague was in the wrong both rhythmically and relationally.  (It was a blip on the ensemble’s screen, and I doubt anyone consciously remembered the moment but me.)  So, in a mild outburst that was more common in conducting’s yesteryear, I retorted, “Yes, the trombones are rushing.  It is happening, and the rhythm needs work.”  We returned to it later in the rehearsal, and also the following week.

Another former associate—this one far less esteemed relationally, and far more intimidating and even arrogant on occasion—once mused aloud that he thought he had “perfect rhythm.”  Now, let’s leave alone for a moment the unlikely event that any vocal/choral musician will have better rhythm than an instrumental musician with similar experience and training.  I had never before considered the possibility of having perfect rhythm.  I took him to be suggesting that he had an inner, absolute rhythmic sense that enabled him to know in an instant whether music had been rendered rhythmically correctly or not.  I have continued to think about that possibility, and it does now strike me as a real possibility, just as absolute pitch is a sense possessed by a small number of individuals.  Can absolute or perfect rhythm reside in a person?  Perhaps.

I am confident that I do not have perfect rhythm, but I’m just as confident of my rhythmic ability.  As a conductor, I do make rhythmic mistakes periodically—including gestural ones, aural ones, and pedagogical ones.  Whether rhythm figures into the given moments of rehearsal or not, I can perceive it and do have the capacity to diagnose mistakes with any rhythm I’ve ever encountered—my mistake or anyone else’s.  Does anyone have “perfect rhythm”?  It might be that a few clairvoyant, hyper-aware souls could be characterized that way, but not me.

Conductors need not be (or be thought of as being) perfect, but they do need to be rhythmically more astute and agile than the musicians in their ensembles.

More rhythm to come, but with irregular meter and pulse!

[1] If a conductor’s authority is challenged openly, various consequences may come into play, such as decreased effectiveness of rehearsal and degraded esprit de corps—both in the moment and in the future.  Despite a conductor’s necessary public leadership, he or she is a human being who may take the incident personally and retain it on a subconscious level for some time.


2 thoughts on “On Conducting (8a): Rhythmic Skill Level

  1. Steve 07/05/2016 / 10:10 am

    “[1] If a conductor’s authority is challenged openly, various consequences may come into play, such as decreased effectiveness of rehearsal and degraded esprit de corps—both in the moment and in the future. ”

    I would think that not only in the world of music, but in pretty much any arena–when a parent, manager, captain, etc. has their authority challenged openly, it must be addressed. When I was in high school, I had the particular privilege of being in a choral group that was nationally acclaimed, won numerous music festivals, always had All-Region/All-State members, etc. It was indeed an honor to be a member of this chorale. That did not happen by accident. The teacher/music director eventually became the head of all choral and instrumental music activities at a little school in LA–you may have heard of it: LSU. 🙂

    Dr. Fulton’s command of the music and his choirs was never in question. The only question was: will I follow his lead–or have the option to pick another class in lieu of being in chorus? Of the three men who influenced my life the most during high school, he was the one who exuded and expected excellence–and got it, for which I will ever be grateful.


    • Brian Casey 07/06/2016 / 7:26 am

      I read this with interest and can well imagine that you and others had great respect (even fear) of Dr. Fulton’s commanding musical presence and leadership, although it would not likely have been suspected that he was destined for an even higher profile. That “only question” to be answered is not exactly the way I want my musicians to feel about me, yet, I do want them to have confidence that my decisions are strong and well-founded. I believe you sang for “Uncle Bud,” as I did, and he had something of that reputation, but he also told a story about one of his conductors when he was a grad student — John Finley Williamson, I believe, at Westminster Choir College? — who would throw you out of choir if you were caught yawning during rehearsal. 🙂


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