Conductors: my most admired two

This post is a continuing tribute to influential conductors in my curriculum vitae—literally, my “life’s course.”  The first post is here, spotlighting several conductors who influenced me to one degree or another.  In concluding that essay two months ago, I purposed to offer some more detailed praise of my two most admired conductors.  By way of commentating on the one I know less about, I’ll comment on her impressive concert offered at the recent CBDNA conference.  That concert was a shining example of gesture (among other attributes) that is at once beautiful and distinctly connected with sound.  First, some important background.

Most of the non-art-music world comes to have a shallow view of the conductor as a musician.  TV and movies that depict conductors almost invariably use actors who may have little sense of what a conductor does (and the producers seem never to bother to call in experts to help).  Some even appear in caricature.  Other professions or cultural subgroups may receive more negative treatment, but that is beside the point.  The point is that few people whose worlds do not include ensemble music appear to have much idea of a conductor’s training, abilities, or activities.  The sometimes-arrhythmic waving of arms in nonstandard patterns in the movies needs a corrective, so I’ll offer one in two sentences:

A good conductor’s gestures (and other nonverbal signals) are not only in time and in style, using conventional patterns and cues.  Beyond those attributes, what a conductor does should also be in the music to such a degree that the nonverbals play a major role in evoking group sound—sound that turns out to be connected directly to the composer’s musical creation.

“In time,” of course, denotes solid rhythmic connection.  Most Western large ensemble music needs a conductor to help keep players together, and this factor demands the use of standard gestural “beat patterns” and other conventions that are executed at specific points in time.  Beyond tempo and patterns, and surpassing the other qualifier I used above (“in style”), “in the music” is all-encompassing.  To be “in the music” is to comprehend—and then authentically to elicit—the musical content of a given musical work.  A conductor “in the music” will of course be in tempo, and in style (for instance, not using accented gestures for smooth, flowing music).  He will also be so wrapped up in the musical content at hand that every gesture, every change in facial expression and barely perceptible move of the eyebrows, and every explanatory word offered will serve a faithful recreation of the composer’s musical work.

In the previous post on conductors, I had spotlighted three conductors as particularly strong examples of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound.  Steve Davis, Cynthia Johnston-Turner, and Jerry Junkin have all struck me as inimitable leaders and strong musical interpreters.  Their conducting manner and other leadership expressions are passionate (at times Bernstein-esque!), engaging, and infectious, but sometimes less than efficient and not always connected to dynamics.  Of course there are many conductors in the world that I’ve never seen or heard in action, but of the 1000+ I have observed, these six are some of the very best.  I would travel many miles to listen to them talk about music or to be present for a rehearsal or concert.

There are yet two conductors I consider my most formative and/or most deeply admired conductors:   Mallory Thompson, of Northwestern University in Chicago; and Allan McMurray, recently retired from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Mallory Thompson
Mallory Thompson

Several years ago, I observed Mallory Thompson demonstrating rehearsal technique in a clinic and was impressed.  It was not Thompson’s impressive CV (including an Eastman doctorate) that made the difference.  No, it was actually what she did as a teacher, ensemble leader, and conductor—as well as how she did it.  I have never had the opportunity to be directly taught by Thompson, so I cannot say much in personal terms.  I will merely say that her ensemble’s concert at the CBDNA conference in Kansas City was the most nearly perfectly conducted concert I have witnessed.  I don’t remember a single moment that called for criticism, and that in itself says a lot for a natural critic like me.  Her convincing programming was comparatively simple, with an introductory work (by Richard Strauss, 1864-1949) and two more extended ones (by living composers Carter Pann and Joel Puckett).  The program showed shape and balance in terms of style and musical depth.  The Pann work, a programmatic symphony laced with intense human feeling, required a special combination of mature control, serene sensitivity, and sustained awareness of musical direction and the approaching points of “arrival.”  Throughout the program, Thompson’s gestures kept my eyes riveted, yet I was peripherally aware of various players.  My ears were enthralled not only with the gloriously expressive ensemble sounds, but also a precise, focused, almost inhumanly perfect connection between the visual and the aural.  My own view was from about 10 meters directly above the vantage point from which this shot was taken during this very concert:

A Northwestern University follow-up article about this concert is found here.  Reading just the first few paragraphs provides a good overview.  Should I ever have opportunity to seek more training/mentoring from a more seasoned artist-conductor again, I think I will first seek it from Mallory Thompson.

Of all the conductors from whom I have learned first-hand, Allan McMurray has topped my list since the summer of 2000 when I first submitted myself as a conductor-participant in a symposium at CU-Boulder.  The next two summers involved similar but increasingly rewarding experiences.  Allan’s teaching collaborators at these symposia were strong, too, but none so captivatingly, pedagogically on-point every time—in terms of both overall musicianship and conducting.  It would be a gross exaggeration to say I entered into a “discipling” relationship with McMurray, but following in his footsteps from afar has been something of a goal, and an ongoing teacher-student relationship of the apprentice type, unrealistic in my life, was something I nevertheless desired.

In my experience, McMurray is a sterling, relational teacher who goes to great lengths to help each student move to the next level.  While a student-conductor works with players through a musical passage, McMurray will stand off to the side or in the back, taking everything in.  He allows the music to proceed for a good length of time, then comfortably engaging the student in dialogue, imitation, or merely another attempt, as appropriate.  There is always a sense that nothing is important at that moment except helping this one conductor to progress in his/her ability to conduct that particular music better.  McMurray is not likely to call attention to his own masterful technique with long Image result for Allan McMurraydemonstrations, rather choosing to show something for a few seconds, patiently assisting the student to catch the vision, emulate the gesture, or embody some other conducting ideal.  I have not yet been able to part with VHS recordings of my own work in these workshops; they are priceless to me.  This brief video shows just a bit of Allan McMurray in his natural teaching habitat—possibly with his own graduate students—but cannot do justice to his teaching method and manner.

I distinctly remember a moment during the third or fourth day of a five-day symposium, probably 15 years ago.  At this point, I was playing horn when one of the other 19 conductors was on the podium leading the rehearsal ensemble.  We were nearing the lunch break time, and there was some question as to how to spend the next 15 minutes since all the scheduled conductors had received instruction for the morning.  Feeling we could all use a sort of synthesized lesson, I took the step of nearly begging McMurray to conduct us in a demo of an entire movement.  Unassuming as he is, he was difficult to convince, and I can hardly remember whether he actually did engage in conducting for 10 minutes or not.  I only remember the feeling of the moment:  (1) deeply wanting to be shown how by this master—through an extended example of his abilities to lead willing musicians, evoking sound with gesture and eyes and posture and all the rest—and (2) his humble spirit in the face of the public request I made.

Here, McMurray and CU colleague Matthew Roeder discuss an upcoming concert in a 3-minute video, providing insight into thought about music and programming.

And here is a rare find:  a video of a McMurray rehearsal with another university ensemble in his own rehearsal hall.  I would doubt that McMurray made any special preparation for the production here, but polish and glitz are not the point.  For him, music-making and connecting with real people playing real instruments are as natural as walking.  One deceptively significant practice I learned from Allan was the value of referring to the player by name in rehearsal:  e.g., “When Jacqueline enters with her line” instead of “When the 1st oboe starts playing.”  In the above-linked video and this one (part 2 of the same rehearsal), one might notice such aspects as McMurray’s complete, memorized command of the composition’s musical expressions and their “in the music” evocation, and his natural, unforced charisma.

Watching that rehearsal instantly took me back to the same room and the three extended symposia in which I participated there, plus a couple other times that Allan graciously allowed me to sit in for an afternoon even when I wasn’t a participant.  Far better players than I would also return, summer after summer, just for that unique, communal music-making experience.  I miss that kind of music-making, that kind of leader, and that kind of conducting in my life.

Allan, I am glad you are still active in your early retirement years.  The rest of us still need you. I didn’t presume on your time when I saw you in Kansas City, because twenty others probably wanted to talk with you at the same time, but if I had approached you, I know you would have received me with warmth.  I am grateful for your early patience with me, and your encouragement as I developed.  Your influence is extensive and has extended through many years.  As you often pay tribute to your teacher Bob Reynolds, I am paying tribute to you.  I am but one of many, but I will long remember your examples, your long-lived constancy as a musician and as a conductor-model, and your ability to make students know that you are genuinely interested in guiding, in helping each one move to the “next thing.”

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Conductors from whom I’ve learned

This post is a tribute to influential conductors.  I’ve learned things from all of these; in some cases, the impact has been broad and deep.

I’ll start with men I never had the opportunity to learn from in person but whose conducting has, in one way or another, had strong impact on me.  Of the conductors I have only seen on video, three deceased men rise to the top as those I would like to have learned from, had I the opportunity:

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Carlos Kleiber

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Leonard Bernstein

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Frederick Fennell

Kleiber is perhaps most admirable for his depth of score knowledge (albeit, reputedly, with a limited repertoire) and ability to show the music’s character; Bernstein and Fennell, perhaps for their unbridled passion and command.  If I knew his work better, one living composer might fall into a similar category for me:

Gustavo Dudamel

I played or sang under these next two only once or twice, back in the 1990s.  Those occasions are now in my distant memory, so I am not altogether sure how I would assess them as conductor-musicians at this point:

Mary Woodmansee Green
Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Green and Harth-Bedoya have the distinction of being conductors who had multiple, standing appointments (as opposed to being a principal guest or regular guest conductor) in different cities.  That always struck me as a goal to which to aspire, but I’m not so sure anymore.  A life of perpetual flux and travel is not very desirable.

Of all those conductors under whom I have performed on a regular basis for some period of time, the next two seem the most exemplary to me at this juncture.  One is deceased, another in his seventies.  Their personalities were markedly different, and I learned very different things from them in vastly different scenarios and phases of life.  In their respective idioms and milieux, they were strong leaders and rehearsers, and they both had impact on me:

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Kenneth Davis, Jr. (Harding University)
Robert Streckfuss (University of Delaware)

There have been many conductors that I do not feel I have learned much from.  Some of these seem to be viewed by others as iconic, and at times, I have been unable to discern why.  Other times, I happen to have had similar skill sets and values, so I didn’t particularly take anything from them.  I suspect the strengths of some lie not in conducting per se, but more in their musicianship or program leadership effectiveness or administration than in their conducting and artistry on the podium.  I will not list names in this category, because it is not my desire here to be critical of any individuals in the slightest.  There are actually two or three from whom I learned negative lessons, i.e., “Brian, do not do as s/he did!”  Like many others, I witness unhelpful and/or stylistically inappropriate division of beat, spasmodic gesture, and other nonverbals that should be checked in a mirror or on a video recording.

Other lessons have been interpersonal in nature:  one has consistently modeled, as a gentleman musician, how to treat people with dignity; another once displayed in the starkest terms what a travesty can be made of the communal music-making experience when a conductor shows no human concern or care for what an individual musician is going through in life.

Leaving generalities and negatives behind . . . the next group is short list of conductors whose work has impacted me in unique ways.  They have affected me for good and have been particularly exemplary in one or more respects:

Richard Mayne
Kenneth Singleton
H. Robert “Bob” Reynolds

I never had the opportunity to play under Reynolds, a true prince of conducting pedagogues, but I did spend a little time with him, both personally and in a group.  At summer symposia, he shared a lesson or two I won’t forget.  Here, I honor Reynolds (who taught some who taught me) along with two graduate professors who were and are examples of generosity, teaching, and devotion to music-making and students.

The next list includes a few more I’ve learned from at symposia, plus others I have observed on only one or two occasions.  These conductors strike me as highly artistic, but they have not been specifically formative in my development.

Patrick Casey (no relative)
Steve Davis
Craig Kirchhoff
Cynthia Johnston Turner
Jerry Junkin
Sarah McKoin

In some of the above instances, chronologically distant memories are still strong of impressive, beautiful, controlled gesture, well connected with sound (McKoin, Casey, and Kirchhoff in particular).  For the others, the traits I admire include visible, artistic passion.

These last two conductors exhibit different yet overlapping sets of strengths.  Among all those I have played under or observed on multiple occasions, I have learned most from these two, who rise above all the rest, in my estimation.  One knows me, and the other doesn’t.  These are the two most formative, most deeply admired conductors in my experience.  Image result for allan mcmurray

Allan McMurray

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Mallory Thompson

Above, I have opted to show McMurray and Thompson doing one thing they both do very well:  teach younger, aspiring conductors.  In the next post on this topic, I will offer some more detailed praise of these two, as well as the concert offered at the CBDNA conference by Thompson’s ensemble, the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

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Four eyes

eyeSometimes I see unexpected things at inopportune times.

A few nights ago during a long, multi-measure rest in a concert, for reasons I can’t completely remember at this point, I thought of four eyes.  I quickly moved from the childish eyeglasses taunt to things more substantive.

Eye No. 1:  The One that Communicates (with Music-making Partners)

Surely communication theorists have a plethora of journal articles and graduate research papers devoted to studies of the eyes.  An important aspect of communicating with anyone (or any group of someones) is looking him in the eyes—with your active eyes.

Any conductor who does not use the eyes to communicate is not using a crucial tool.  Yet it is such an extremely common problem as to be cliché:  most conductors stare at the score while they are talking to the ensemble, when giving cues, and immediately after having given cues.  Score-orientation is an important core value, to be sure, but the conductor should know the score well enough, and be confident enough, to speak to the ensemble vocally and gesturally without constant visual connection with the score.

The effective conductor will look at the ensemble intentionally and meaningfully during music-making.

Eye No. 2:  The One in the Skyeye

These words have been included hymnals:

Watching you, watching you,
Ev’ry day mind the course you pursue;
Watching you, watching you,
There’s an all-seeing Eye watching you.

The song’s inclusion should be embarrassing to generations of churchgoers, if not to the offspring of the poet (who doubtless had very good intentions).  No matter how you view God on the judgment vs. grace spectrum, you have to admit it’s silly (and downright counterproductive if one is thinking evangelistically) to think of God as a big eye in the sky.

It’s not that God’s eyes don’t see, of course; it’s a matter of how the reality is portrayed.

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on those who are evil and those who are good.  (Proverbs 15:3, NET Bible)

“Keeping watch” sounds different from “an eye watching you,” doesn’t it?

eyeEye No. 3:  The Ever-Open One

Psalm 34:15, which is quoted, more or less, in 1Peter, has God’s eyes “on the righteous,” or perhaps “toward” the righteous, and His ears, open to their cries for help.  The NET Bible renders this “eye” as simply “paying attention to,” and that’s an acceptable idiomatic translation, although the Hebrew and Greek do include eyes specifically.

Here, we might add 2Chron 16:9, which has God’s eyes actively searching the earth in order to bolster those who in turn are seeking Him.

eyeEye No. 4:  The Bird- and Me-Watching One

This meditation song wasn’t part of my growing-up years, although I gather it was quite familiar in some circles.  I first heard it at an Integrity Music worship conference sometime in the 1990s, and I still have the CD recording (reproduced here) offering Ron Kenoly’s personable voice presenting the song.  Part of it goes like this:

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Now that’s a positive faith-expression.  The second half comes loosely from Matthew 6:26f.

If you want to read more on this topic, try this post from Rubel Shelly.  If I’d seen his extended treatment first, I might simply have shared his link instead of writing a post of my own!

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.

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.

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.

Gesture
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.

On Conducting (5): Visual Noise

Noise is a problem in life.

Radio DJs may be just doing their job when they’re noisy, but that factor is also why I tend not to listen to any commercial radio.  “Cheerleading”-type preachers can be noisy as they try to pump people up (as opposed to instructing).  Noisy commercials, noisy car salesmen, noisy politicians … we have a rather noisy life.

In conducting, a common problem in is the “noisy” baton.  (We sometimes talk of tone “color” and whether a timbre is “darker” than another one, so another mixed image shouldn’t detract too much from understanding.)  It’s actually difficult to find a good video example of this on YouTube, because no discerning conductor would want this kind of thing featured.  I myself have been appalled when viewing “noisy” examples of my own conducting.  We all do get noisy once in a while, but visual noise is a habit to be broken.

The positive principle to be noted here is that gestures (like words) should be meaningful.  When gestures become too flamboyant, too frequently flourishing, or too habitually large, visual noise is the result, and the ensemble will have difficulty inferring meaning from the gestures, no matter how musical the thoughts are in the conductor’s head.

Military band conductors are an important breed in the U.S., but the conducting skills of those I’ve observed personally has not always been as efficient and rule-following as their men and women need to be in order for the unit to function properly.  I’ve met two top-level military conductors personally, and they were both much better as conversationalists with than they were as exemplars ofUSAF band conducting gesture!  Oddly enough, the most recent military band concert I attended offered a particularly visible example of the noisy baton syndrome:  unnecessary arm-waving and superfluous gestures were common.  An assistant conductor might not have been judged worthy of a command yet, but what I saw indicated he was a better conductor in terms of movement.  (I know:  it’s sometimes just as important to be a good PR man, a staunch leader, a good administrator.  Here, I’m commenting only on conducting leadership as manifest in gesture.)

Gestures should not be too large when the music is small.  The beat pattern must not indicate accents on every beat unless the music does that.  The wrist should not snap so that the hand whips up and down on every beat.  And the left hand should not constantly, meaninglessly mirror the right hand.  (More on “mirroring” in a future installment.)  All these and more are examples of extraneous, visual “noise.”

Something is probably askew somewhere when we need “white noise” machines to sleep.  (My phone app even has blue noise, brown noise, violet noise, and pink noise options!)

Something also needs attention when there is so much noise in “religion” that people can’t hear or see the meaning.

Something is also amiss when an ensemble can’t follow a conductor because his baton is too noisy.

On Conducting (4): Breathing and ensemble

A conductor experiences many minor (and some major) issues while leading a group of musicians.  One of these issues is togetherness—often referred to by musicians as “ensemble.” ¹

Although the individual musicians’ functional hearing is really the primary determinant for successful “ensemble” work, here, I’d like here to bring to the foreground a mini-method that conductors can use to enhance ensemble togetherness—both at the beginning of a piece or section and throughout it. . . .

→  b r e a t h i n g  ←

Experience and perception of human nature combine to speak this unimpeachable truth:  if musicians will breathe together, they will play (or sing) more together than they would have otherwise.  A conductor can and should model breathing at every realistic opportunity, certainly including the beginning of a piece or section.

Now, if you’re a singer, or for any other reason you already understand and agree that breathing is important in music-making, you could skip the the following three supplementary paragraphs.  If however you’re not convinced but are interested, you might read it all!

Instrumental conductors tend to have a cross-section of specific instrument backgrounds,² but not a cross-section that spans all the wind, string, and percussion families.  For my illustration here, I will draw from a relatively rare breed:  the successful instrumental conductor who is, or was, primarily a percussionist.

I have worked relatively closely with two percussionist-conductors; each one was an exceptionally fine music educator and/or performing musician (in different respects).  I am convinced, though, that percussionists who conduct work with a disadvantage:  they often experience and exhibit a disconnect with the flow/breathing/lyricism aspects of music-making.  Percussionists—given that their primary, internal, musical imagery has been developed in the course of making sounds by striking objects with other objects—tend to conceive of sound accordingly.  In other words, there tends to be a difference between the way a flutist, trombonist, or cellist conceives of sound generation and tone connection on one hand, and the way even the most gifted drummer or xylophonist conceives of these things on the other.

One of my former colleagues displayed some rather extremely percussionistic gestures while on the podium.  He did breathe often as an aid to a pickup note, but it was a very “percussive,” noisy breath, out of musical style; I attributed that characteristic to what I think of as the “percussionist’s disconnect.”  (He made up for this lack in other ways, namely, he was an exceptionally thorough planner and rehearser.)  He also tended to gesture with emphasis on the ictus (beat point) in a way that resembled striking a percussion instrument.  The “travel” between beats was sometimes hastened in an unnatural, quick-whipping manner, making it difficult to sense the regularity of pulse.  To get this visual in your mind, compare the timpanist’s basic stroke with, say, the violinist’s bowstroke during a lyrical passage.  Each motion has different characteristics.  The percussionist will often have a well-developed sense of rhythm and pulse (and division and subdivision), but he also may exhibit conducting gestures that inhibit the sense of “inevitable pulse,” so he may inadvertently detract from rhythmic ensemble.

Back to breathing now.  With non-conducted, small ensembles such as brass quintets and chamber wind ensembles, breathing together is indispensable.  Last Friday, I had the pleasure of auditing a collegiate string quartet rehearsal, and the faculty coach, a friend, persistently invited me to comment, so I eventually did make some suggestions.  (I had dug out scores, so I was following the music and so was able to speak specifically.)  One of my thoughts was that, in a particular section in which the low-string accompaniment had been a trifle disjunct, the musicians could try catching one another’s eyes just before the entrance, breathing together as they begin.  These string players didn’t physically need to breathe together; their instruments can technically be played without breath.  Yet breathing is human and unifying, so breathing together helps human musicians to make sounds together.  When percussionists (typically positioned far at the rear) are having trouble playing together, I will often ask them to breathe on the beat before the entrance—even though they are quite capable, technically speaking, of playing their instruments without regard to the human breath.

Whenever an ensemble is having difficulty beginning a passage together rhythmically, or when it is having trouble keeping accompaniment patterns together, or seems stylistically dis-unified, the conductor might try making it a point to give extra emphasis to an intentional, in-style, visible breath on the beat prior to the entrance, and to an understated, in-time exhalation with the first sound.  In this way, s/he demonstrates visually what the music does sonically (1- predict/inhale and 2- actualize/exhale), and s/he provides a powerful means of bringing an ensemble together stylistically and rhythmically.

Does a pianist or violinist or timpanist need to breathe in order to play?  No, breathing isn’t a physical necessity for these musicians as it is for the flutist or horn player or singer, but breathing can be a visual, very real catalyst to letting the music breathe together.  Breath is a core human experience.

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

(Genesis 2:7, Hebrew Names Version)

Other meditational/pedagogical posts on conducting may be found here.

For additional insight on breath and breathing:

http://www.breathmastery.com/spiritual-breathing-2/
(I do not support what I take as the spiritual implications of this page, but some connections with breath and breathing may be helpful.)

http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7307.htm (for the linguistically interested)

http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Spirit_of_God/spirit_of_god.html (ditto)


¹ This nonstandard-yet-ubiquitous use of the noun “ensemble” seems to be adjectival, with a sort of “ghost noun.”  For example, someone might say, “We need to work on our ensemble” or “The ensemble (factor) hasn’t been very convincing today.”  It is not the group/organization that needs bolstering; rather, they need to work on ensemble togetherness, i.e., its rhythmic or stylistic unity/togetherness.  “We need to work on ensemble” really means “We need to work on ensemble unity.”

² On the vocal-choral side, I suppose there is an approximately equal number of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses who conduct choirs.  Singers obviously need to breathe in order to sing, and choral conductors are generally much better at modeling breathing than instrumental conductors.

I have worked with three bassoonist-conductors who were all well above average, but these are exceptions.  I know of one accordionist and one classical guitarist who have parlayed their music experience into successful professional conducting careers, but these are very unusual exceptions.  It is the rare violist or tubaist or oboist who pursues conducting and excels at it.  More skilled wind band conductors seem to come from the ranks of those trained earlier in trumpet, horn,  and trombone, with a few violinists, clarinetists, and saxophonists thrown in.

On Conducting (3) and accounting: conventional practices

I once took an accounting course.  I was working at a bank at the time and thought it would contribute to my interest (and make me appear more interested) in the world of money.¹  I remember that the accounting textbook referred to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles).  At the time, in my late 20s, I don’t recall questioning the notion of general acceptance, but I now imagine that there are all sorts of variations on what’s “generally accepted” as sound procedure in financial accounting.

In conducting, there are also some generally accepted principles—benchmarks or non-negotiables, if you will.  One universally accepted pattern is that the “downbeat” is down; the last beat is up, and the next-to last is out.  However, some very fine, artistic conductors agree that “not all downbeats are down.”  Some music seems to cry that its downbeats are less about “gravity” and should move forward—and even up!—with less weight and more effervescence.  The aim to express the musical essence must trump the generally accepted patterns.

The expression of authentic Christian faith—faith that is truly of Christ—must rise above generally accepted patterns, too.  Who knows, after all, why a pattern became generally accepted?!

Other meditational/pedagogical posts on conducting may be found here.


¹I got an A and enjoyed some of the work at the time, but I can’t imagine registering for such a course these days.

On Conducting (2): Reflecting the Music

A central aim of the conductor should be to look like the music.  

If he is merely beating time—with gestures not in keeping with the style—he may be conducting beginners in very simplistic music, or he may be worried that the sense of pulse may evaporate within the ensemble, or perhaps he is irritated, or he may simply not be very skilled.

On the other hand, if the conductor’s nonverbal communication is well centered in the specific music being conducted, even complex or unusual gestures can have an air of ease.  Being “in the music,” imitating its essential nature, leads to a genuine flow of communication that in turn evokes the desired sonic result.

How will a conductor know whether he “looks like the music”?  He can look in a mirror, but his nonverbals might in that case be affected/altered by self-consciousnessFayare.  Video recordings are invaluable aids in studying oneself in this regard.  Another, differently objective reflection will be seen and heard in the human beings he is conducting.  For instance, do questions, comments, and other feedback indicate that the musicians, aided by the conductor’s nonverbals, “get” the music?  Over and above any dialogue that arises in rehearsal, the “proof in the pudding” is whether the music turns out to be stylistically authentic, manifesting appropriate interpretation.

A conductor should clearly be in tempo (which is a universally understood concept) and in style (which is not as universally evidenced in aggregate practice).  If he is in tempo and in style, he may be said to be in the music.  DudamelThis embedding of oneself in the music turns out to be a strong reflection of the composer’s intentions.  There is evidence, then, that the conductor has studied what is written in the score—understanding what it “looks like”—and is intentionally pursuing its essence.

Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.

– James 1:23-24


Other meditational/pedagogical posts on conducting may be found here.