I had the privilege of being a performing instrumentalist from the time I started playing in youth groups through the many years I performed professionally in New York City before I fully turned my attention to conducting. Particularly as a percussionist/timpanist, I had plenty of time to observe well over 200 conductors work, witnessing the art form at its highest level and also at levels considerably lower!
Before I started working on the podium I, like many musicians, had a sneaking suspicion that I could do a better job than the vast majority of conductors with whom I collaborated. Partly this was hutzpah, but it also came from the fact that I thought I knew what and what not to do by watching so many conductors work, and particularly with talented artists, seeing rehearsal technique and physical delivery that was economical and connected. How hard could it be if I just applied my own musical knowledge to movement, which is what I did anyway as a percussionist?
As it turns out (as with many things), it’s harder than it looks! I had numerous perceptions of the work conductors do that were just flat wrong, despite so many years of making music with amazing artists. It’s interesting that in conversations with instrumentalists and singers to this day, I still hear some of the same things about the art of conducting that I once thought myself, since the perception of what happens on the podium is hard to understand until you have actually done it for a while.
Here’s a list of some of the preconceptions that I had compared to some of the realities I have experienced:
Perception: Good stick technique is not hard to develop if you watch people who conduct well and just copy their physical delivery.
Reality: We are all different, and it is very hard for one person to copy another because of the physical and emotional differences we bring to our musical endeavors. The same gestures in my hands copied identically will sound different in yours. Beyond, it is so easy to develop habits that are inefficient/unhelpful. As conductors we have to constantly work on being fundamentally sound if we want to be in the good graces of our colleagues, and we truthfully need good will, or the sound will suffer. There are conductors whose musical IQ is that of a genius and who can use this intellectual gift as a tool to get around physical deficiencies, but these people are extremely rare. Usually conductors have worked on either pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, mentastics, alexander technique, body mapping, or other somatic pedagogies, many times in combinations with ferocious energy in order to allow musical energy to flow more freely, beyond the study of conducting with pedagogues who know how to teach. People who think they can just get up and do it usually have a higher estimation of their abilities than what they can actually deliver.
Perception: It’s not hard to move your hands and hear what is in a score.
Reality: It’s much harder than it looks, because while listening to musicians perform, as a conductor, you are multitasking well beyond right or wrong notes. You are adjusting your physical vocabulary, responding to the sound you hear and what you perceive is needed in the ensemble; you are adjusting your conception of the work in real time compared to what you imagined in study, since you need to empower musicians, taking advantage of their strengths and sensibilities, while at the same time balancing architectural details so there is a thread through a work from beginning to end – it is collaborative and not dictatorial; you are listening with your eyes, looking at players and trying to determine what psychological factors are at play within an ensemble, which necessitates adjustments in your conveyance of criticism/correction; you are determining what will fix itself vs. what needs your attention; you are mindful of the clock (whether working with unions or not), making choices on what to attack given time constraints; you are trying to vary the amount of verbal criticism/correction offered, so as not to be too predictable, sometimes being very quick, and other times taking a moment to explain or sing; in tandem to the prior comment, when stopping, you are determining the fastest way to fix a problem – metaphor or black and white, bowing/fingering change (which can be political/disrespectful), mallet change, articulative recommendations, intonation issues (also political), and a variety of other instrument or singer specific advice that may or may not be appropriate (diction for a soloist), etc…; you are trying to allow yourself to be emotionally connected to the music, yet still listening critically. These are a few of the moving pieces moving through a conductor’s head, and so leading an effective rehearsal while all this information moves in live time is indeed tricky.
Perception: I can do this better than that guy/gal!
Reality: Most of the time you can’t do it better without training and most importantly, podium time. Many conductors have spent very little time on the podium when they are judged initially, and this is so unfair. Can you imagine a few months of training on your instrument and then being asked to take an audition? This is what we face as conductors. Practice can only happen in standing in front of musicians – conducting to a recording does very little in reality to make one a better conductor. I heard Simon Rattle once say that conductors are afraid of being found out. Even after lots of podium time, this nagging feeling is there for those who aren’t arrogant!
Perception: If things don’t work out on my instrument or as a singer, I can always conduct.
Reality: I have heard this so many times, and it amazes me how many people have wanted to pursue conducting without having achieved
anything as an instrumental or vocal performer. Otto Werner Mueller once said that if you can make chamber music with world class artists and they are willing to listen to your opinions, then you might have a chance to be a conductor. My sense is without the first hand perspective of actually MAKING the sound, it’s very difficult to connect deeply to the sound and its infinite level of details. How can you feel comfortable leading excellent musicians who have done what you could not do yourself? It does not mean you have to win an orchestral audition, or perform with a major opera company, but somewhere along the line you need to have had the experience of performing on your instrument or singing at a world class level with the highest caliber musicians. Otherwise life on the podium will be about faking it, and at some point this will catch up to you.
Perception: The conductor has tremendous power.
Reality: A conductor does indeed have some power, but not as much as you might think. In today’s world, where unions are still very strong in the orchestral and operatic realms, and boards are also becoming more fiscally conservative, there are many masters to whom you must answer, never mind your audience, who you have to both lead and please. It’s a difficult balancing act on all sides, full of compromise.
Perception: A conductor spends most of his/her time working with musicians, making music.
Reality: A conductor spends a very small amount of time actually making music compared to the number of hours required in study, and these days, doing administrative work and fundraising. I wrote another blog post about the administrative duties a conductor typically performs, particularly if you have the role of a music director, or in a college/high school, a program director. You have to have a tremendously organized mind to get everything in, and the truth is that you will spend more time doing non music work if you are to make a living as a conductor, unless you are super gifted and can just serve as a guest conductor. But even then, there are still lots of details to craft when putting a program together when working with managements.
Perception: once you get a job as a conductor, it becomes easier to work with greater repertoire in your hand and more experience.
Reality: It is extremely difficult to sustain a career. Some can do so because they have other gifts, such as raising money, or programming creatively. But I’ve known many assistant and associate conductors of major orchestras who have had difficulty through their careers maintaining both an income that sustains a decent quality of life, as well as one that is artistically satisfying. Winning one job does not guarantee anything, unless you’ve been conducting as a guest at the major orchestra level, and then you probably will find your way.
When I first told friends I was going to change my career from playing to conducting, most thought I was absolutely out of my mind! Truthfully, if knew then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have made the move the way I did. However, my feeling has always been that if one is able to work hard enough and be completely dedicated to the craft, eventually if you truly love the work (and all the work a conductor must do), it will somehow work out, even if there are misperceptions along the way as I had starting my career on the podium.