Thursday, 22 October 2009

Going over to the dark side

Talking a bit more about conducting, at last year's York Orchestral Course, I decided to try my hand at a little bit of it myself. I had made a wind ensemble arrangement of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D and I wanted to try it out and see if it would work.

Conducting is fun! The power!!! You change a bit the way you wave your right arm, and people play differently, they get faster or slower, louder or softer. Not just one player, but lots of them, all at once! And you don't have to worry about accidentals or wrong notes - they are all the players' fault! It is easy to see how conducting can encourage megalomaniac tendencies.

I hadn't ever conducted before, but have played under a great many conductors, including one or two from the top rank. Before I took up the stick for the session, I had a think about what I have found makes a good conductor for amateurs and/or students, the characteristics of those conductors I had most enjoyed playing for. (I wouldn't presume to know what makes a good conductor of professional musicians.) This is what I came up with and tried to apply.
  • You must have a clear beat. In particular, the downbeat has to be easily distinguishable from the other beats, and your arm must keep moving in some reasonably predictable way so that when doing accelerandos or rallentandos, the players can easily see by how much you are speeding up or slowing down.

  • People like to play. So let them. Speak as little as reasonably possible and conduct as much as possible. In many cases, fluffed notes and entries can be sorted just by running the passage again, if necessary more slowly once or twice to let people overcome panic over a difficult passage. The players usually know which notes they have got wrong, there is no need to labour the point.

  • Dynamics can often be handled on the fly either by a larger or smaller beat, by gestures with the left hand to the players concerned, or by a quick word while continuing to play. Only on relatively rare occasions do you need to stop and talk to the players about what they should play, for instance to assure players that they really are supposed to be off the beat relative to their neighbours.

  • If someone gets lost, if at all possible try to help them back into place without stopping the whole group. That can be by giving them a clear cue at their next entry, singing their part for a bar or two or calling out a rehearsal letter when it comes up. If they get repeatedly lost at the same point, briefly point out some musical landmark they can use for navigation before running the passage again.

  • When asking for changes in how people play, describe them as just that - changes. There's usually no need to say they were playing wrong, even if they were. Protect their dignity by phrasing it in terms of how you want it in order to get the best from the group as a whole. This applies particularly when asking people to play quieter. Where necessary, blame the composer for writing inappropriate dynamic markings, unless he/she is alive and present!

  • When starting a new piece or a movement for the first time, announce the speed and the number of beats before you start, and if this changes partway through the movement, say at the start what you intend doing at that point, or call it out a few bars ahead while playing.

  • As far as familiarity with the piece will allow, look as little as possible at the score and as much as possible at the players. Particularly at entries, players are incredibly reassured by a bit of eye contact when playing.

  • Be encouraging. Take the trouble to praise a particularly good bit of playing by an individual, a section or the group as a whole, or a significant improvement in a previously dodgy passage. People like to be told when they have finally started to get things right.
All the above is not about deciding what you want to get them to play, this about how you cajole them into playing it. Much of the work of the conductor is done before you ever step up on to the rostrum. The players may be sight-reading, but the conductor must know the piece already. He must know what speed he intends to take it, he must know the style he wants, must know what pauses and changes of tempo are needed, who is playing the tune at any moment, who will need to have their entries cued.

And for any substantial piece, the conductor is the person who has to decide on the interpretation, what he wants to try and communicate to the audience through the music. He has to set the vision.

I knew the Brahms pretty well - it takes a lot of effort to write music, even when you are merely arranging rather than composing something original, and I had been working at this arrangement on and off for months. So I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to achieve.

I explained to the players my absolutely limitless inexperience at conducting, and asked for their tolerance if I got myself mixed up. But it went very well, I really enjoyed it, I discovered several points where the arrangement needed to be improved.

And the players seemed to enjoy it as well. A couple of them came up to me afterwards and said that I had a nice clear beat, and they wouldn't have guessed it was my first ever attempt at conducting.

Largely the same group got together the next day to play the Mozart Gran Partita Serenade for 13 winds, and asked me to conduct again. Again, I have played it many times, so I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. At my basic level, Mozart is quite easy to conduct, in that the tune generally keeps to the same speed once it has set out, and there aren't large numbers of corners to turn in terms of tempo.


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  2. Jonathan - I think the term in Brit speak is "Spot on!". Every single one of those bullet points is something that if done consistently would help me immensely. The psychology underlying them all is terrific. It sort of mystifies me how so many music educators don't get the value of this kind of approach.

    From what I can tell, several generations ago a sort of totalitarian approach was the vogue, and even though things are changing, echos of that ethos that musicians are trained seals that need to be slapped around are still with us. Otherwise, there'd be no need for a post like this.