Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Initial thoughts on conducting

It's now been 2 years since I first started conducting, which seems like a good point to reflect on what I've learned and put into writing my initial thoughts on what conducting is actually about.

First of all though, what isn't conducting about?

  • It shouldn't be an ego trip - the point is not to make yourself look good but ensemble sound good - and it's not about asserting the superiority of your point of view to the exclusion of everyone else's.
  • There isn't a magic solution or system that will enable anyone to suddenly conduct really well.
  • It's not about learning and then repeating a set of gestures for a specific piece - you can't learn a 'right' way of conducting a particular work. Similarly although there are 'schools' and systems of conducting, it isn't enough to learn and then copy a specific conducting style - your gestures have to be individual so you know what it is they're meant to communicate and can adapt them depending on the response of each ensemble.
It's also important to recognise that conducting as we know it today (as opposed to the role of a music director) is a fairly modern idea, having first developed in the nineteenth century. Berlioz and Liszt were among the first conductors in the sense we would recognise, and therefore there is much music where a first step must be to consider whether a conductor is necessary at all.

So what is conducting?

  • Ultimately it is about doing what is necessary to make an ensemble sound as good as possible and helping musicians play to their full potential.

So first of all, it involves choosing the right repertoire for each particular concert and group, based on factors such as the venue, standard or players, and type of concert. Choosing the wrong music might not matter, or just be slightly unfortunate but it can be a major issue, and it's one of the things I've found surprisingly difficult.

  • I think one of the most crucial elements of conducting is flexibility - every piece, ensemble, and even each rehearsal needs a different approach in order to get the best results, and the nature of that result is constantly changing as well.
  • At the same time, that flexibility has to be paired with a strong certainty about the musical result that you're trying to achieve, and an overall conception of how the piece should sound. A conductor has to adapt their gestures in order to get as close to the ideal result as possible, whether that be simplifying them to make the beat clearer or changing them completely if they don't have the desired effect - thinking on the spot is important as well!
  • It is about making decisions - despite the frequently repeated idea that conductors are in service to the score and the composer, what we are really there to do is making interesting, exciting, stimulating performances, and as not all the information to do so is in the score that entails taking responsibility for making choices about the music and creating an interpretation.
  • Conducting means enabling the musicians in the ensemble to work together effectively. Ultimately the conductor isn't actually making the music, the players are, and conducting is about helping them work together to create an effective performance - to do this it's important to understand what they players need from you before and during rehearsals and performances.
I could go on, but I think I'll leave my thoughts on this particular topic there for now, and maybe update this post if I'm struck by any new thoughts.

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