Teaching = Conducting?
Not so fast...
This week’s Chalkboard Life is a guest post from long-time reader of the newsletter, Emeritus Professor Ian Gallacher, from Syracuse University School of Law. As he explains, he had extensive experience with orchestra conductors - and conducting himself - before becoming a law professor.
David’s piece last Saturday, comparing teaching to orchestral conducting, got me thinking. I asked him to let me respond this week, not to challenge or correct anything he said, but to give a different perspective on what conductors do.
For context, I should explain that before becoming a lawyer and a law professor, I trained and worked as a conductor, and also sat through many, many orchestra rehearsals – some good, many not – as a violin and viola player. Based on my experience, I can tell you that conducting isn’t necessarily what you might think it is.
David titled his post last week “Traffic Cop,” and that’s a fair description of what conductors do in concert, although unlike drivers the musicians know (for the most part) when they’re supposed to go and when they’re supposed to stop. Conductors will cue the musicians from time to time – sometimes with the gestures you can see but much more often with looks that you can’t – but that is really only an acknowledgement by conductor and musician that we both know what’s going to happen next. This is, of course, an over-simplification of the conductor’s role in concert, but there is also some truth to it.
In fact, a conductor is arguably significantly less powerful than a traffic cop. For all the popular perception of the conductor as an all-powerful, magical, being who wills the performance into being by force of thought and the gesturing of a wand, the reality is that the conductor has no power except that bestowed by convention and the professionalism of the musicians. If they don’t want to follow what the conductor is showing them – and that happens more than you might think – they will ignore what they see from the podium and play the way they want to. There are things a conductor can do to try to regain control, but when the only thing you have is a little white stick that doesn’t make any noise, it can be difficult. And while conductors of the past had the absolute power to hire and fire orchestral musicians, that power is (mercifully) no longer in the conductor’s hands.
So what do conductors do and why do they exist? There are orchestras – the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra being perhaps the most well-known – that don’t use conductors at all. Maybe they’re just an anachronism that makes no sense in the contemporary world of orchestral music. Certainly, some orchestral players would cheerfully agree with that idea, but only in jest. They would probably (grudgingly) acknowledge that conductors play a vital role in the performance of orchestral music and that they make the entire process more efficient.
That is because what you see in concert of a conductor’s role is like the visible part of an iceberg; the vast part of their job is done out of the audience’s sight. First, the conductor must have a strong grounding in music theory and history which is acquired over years of study. Then the conductor must have spent hours studying and thinking about the pieces on a concert. This requires not just knowing how the music sounds, although knowing how each part sounds – not just the melodies, but also all the accompanying parts as well – is a crucial part of a conductor’s preparation; the conductor must also anticipate where problems might occur and plan solutions to those problems and must have a rock-solid understanding of the overall arch of the piece, both formally and thematically. And then the conductor must know, before the first rehearsal, how to convey all that knowledge to the orchestra in a short amount of rehearsal time.
All of this requires the conductor to have a clear sense of how the music should sound and the technical ability to convey that conception to a large group of musicians before they play; it’s worth remembering that every gesture you see a conductor making happens before the sound it is meant to influence has occurred. There would be no point in a conductor gesturing for a sound after the sound has been played! In rehearsal, the conductor can stop the orchestra and explain, in words, why the sound the orchestra is producing is not what the conductor hopes to hear, but conductors must be careful to not interrupt the flow of playing too much; orchestras don’t enjoy listening to the conductor’s voice.
Having one person do the work of a conductor is a much more efficient way of shaping an interpretation than having the entire orchestra try to reach consensus. Orchestras with no conductor can function, but usually only when one player, or a small group of players, takes on the conductor’s role, and they often require much more time to rehearse a work than orchestras who have conductors take. And when the forces required to perform a piece get too large – anything written later than, arguably, Beethoven or anything with choirs – then conductors are irreplaceable. Sometimes there really is a need for a traffic cop.
It is impossible, in a short space, to describe everything conductors do. But I hope I have given you the sense that what you see in concert is only a small part of the conductor’s job and that most of the work is done sitting at a desk or in rehearsal. Now, whether a teacher’s job is comparable to that of a conductor is not for me to say. It is certainly true that conductors are teachers in a sense, but their job is to teach the audience about a piece of music through the medium of performance, not to teach the music to the musicians, all of whom are highly trained and experienced professionals who don’t need to be taught much and who would certainly resent the attempt. The best way for you to decide, I would suggest, is to go to as many concerts as you can, observe what the conductor is doing, and form your own conclusions. And you’ll enjoy the experience!
Letters of Recommendation
It is unusual to have the chance to see a conductor rehearse an orchestra, but early in his career the great Carlos Kleiber allowed a rehearsal of his to be filmed. This video is in black and white and the rehearsal is in German (although with very small English subtitles) but it gives a sense of what conductors do and how they do it. Kleiber was uniquely talented, and orchestras would accept some of his more eccentric flights of fancy more than they would from other, lesser, conductors (and even then, you can see this orchestra growing frustrated with him sometimes) but as a chance to see a conductor at work, this film is unparalleled.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Richard Strauss, a great conductor as well as composer:
Never look encouragingly at the brass, except to give an important cue.