On Teaching Conducting

On Teaching Conducting
Alan Hazeldine
'Come to the edge, he said
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
They came.
He pushed Them....
And they flew....'

Guillaume Apollinaire

How often one hears the words, 'he is a born conductor'? This would imply that a musician is born either with the necessary attributes to become a conductor or without - a clear-cut division between the haves and the have-nots. To a certain extent I would agree with that in so far as there are some talents, or sensitivities, that are needed in order to be a good conductor, which some people seem to have naturally, and others, sadly, do not. This, however, does not mean that a student cannot be encouraged to learn these skills. I do feel, however, that much of what is needed to be a good conductor must be learned and not taught. It is implicit, therefore, that teaching conducting is a matter of channelling learning. As in the well known verse quoted above. One learns to fly by doing it - but a good push can be useful.

The effectiveness of a conductor, perhaps more than any other type of musician, depends more upon what he is, as opposed to what he can do. I can think of several highly accomplished instrumentalists who come over as timid and personally diffident until that magic moment when they play their instrument. This is not the case with the conductor; he must present himself as confident and efficient from the word go or he simply never gets as far as being in front of the orchestra in the first place. (I am using the pronoun 'he' simply because it is shorter to type than 'he or she'. It is possible to be a female conductor to be effective and successful although there are specific problems, more to do with subjective audience reaction than anything else, which may be encountered).

All too often, when one hears an eminent conducting pedagogue teaching, what is being said boils down to, 'do as I do, my boy, and you will be fine'. Well, this is very often not the case. What that teacher has missed is the fact that what works for him is a combination of what he actually he does, his gesture, and what he is, his personality - what his experience has turned him into. The young conductor has not yet had the opportunity to acquire this experience so what the teacher is actually expounding, when combined with the charisma of the student is often comical and ineffective. I remember watching a 'student' of the late Sir George Solti conducting the introduction to Beethoven's first symphony. The problems started right with the first chord, when the wind enter with a sustained note that is combined with a pizzicato note on the strings. Solti used to do that with a quick flick of the arm preceded by a short, sort of catatonic pause in mid air. This worked for him, combined, as it was, with his giant personality. However, although I remember this incident from nearly twenty years ago I doubt if that young conductor has made it work yet! He simply did not have that huge personality. He, in fact had something even better from his point of view; he had his own personality, which, if combined with his own gesture, based upon sound principles of conducting, would have worked much better than a borrowed, idiosyncratic one.

Let us look at what is required to be a sound conductor. The attributes required of a successful professional conductor could be encapsulated in gesture, academic knowledge, leadership qualities and good political sense. Let's look at them one at a time.

This is often referred to as 'technique' and is, perhaps, the easiest of all the aspects of conducting to master. It must be studied, yes, but, compared with piano or violin technique, it is really very easy. It is so easy, in fact, that the mistake is often made, by some international instrumentalists (who should know better), that they can dispense with learning it at all! This is so sad as great reputations are often tarnished by their ill-informed and inelegant attempts at conducting.

It must first be realised that orchestral musicians do not spend all their time looking in adoration at the conductor. Even if they were to adore him, a circumstance that is rare, they have many other things to occupy their minds, like playing their instruments and looking at the music. They do not have time, or inclination, to decipher seemingly mystical gestures. It is essential, therefore, that the conductor's intentions should be instantly apparent from the shortest of glances.

It surely follows then, that the more natural and simple the gesture is the more transparent it will be. It also follows that, once simplicity is achieved, any deviation from this natural norm, however subtle, will be noticed and can therefore be used to inform the player of some musical point or to express some artistic intention. For instance, if I were to bounce a ball, or anything else for that matter, it would follow a predictable course through the air. After the initial contact with the ground, from which it derives its energy and which takes virtually no time, it follows an arc, the length of time it takes going up being exactly the same as the length of time it takes to come down again. Bounce a ball and watch it. This proportion could be referred to as 1:1. - one unit of time up, one unit of time down again. If this could be applied to the arm when beating one would have a completely predictable bounce point and the orchestra would play exactly on the beat, a happy state of affairs which is as desirable as it is rare. It is so rare because it requires a very relaxed arm which drops by gravity and all too often the conductor 'pushes' the beat towards the bounce point which forces the player, who is not privy to the internal sensations of the conductor's arm, to play as soon as possible after the hand has hit the bounce point - after the beat. Sadly, in an awful lot of cases, the players give up on such a conductor and simply watch the leader instead. At least he or she is familiar.

A little study, and some exercises can put this right, however, and, once a truly natural bounce is accomplished, different rhythms can be implied by simply altering the proportion of the beat. A 1:1 beat - which would imply a legato quarter note, or crotchet - becomes a 1:3 beat - which indicates sixteenth notes or semi quavers. Thus, if the orchestra has a rhythm like a repeated dotted quaver and semi quaver they are encouraged to keep it as that and not to lapse into sluggish triplets as is often the case. It becomes easier for them to do the right thing than the wrong one because what is required is being reinforced by what is on display in front of them with every beat.

This is but one small example of how some thought and discipline can make a conductor clear and concise. It need not be applied all the time of course. There are many times when the conductor can actually stop beating completely and deal with a point of phrasing or expression entirely, when he can devote himself completely to what I call the 'how' of the music as opposed to the 'when'. The true skill is in knowing when to deal with either of these two.

Academic Knowledge
In his book, 'Thoughts on Conducting', Adrian Boult, that great British conductor of the last century, give a pretty comprehensive list of what he would expect from a well trained professional conductor. Here are a few items from that list:

  • He should be a master of four or five orchestral instruments.
  • He should have played in an orchestra for some years, perhaps on different instruments.
  • He should have had similar experience in a choral society.
  • He should have a very full knowledge of the whole classical repertoire from the point of view of orchestration, structure, phrasing, etc
  • He should have a clear pattern in his mind of the necessities of style in performance in regard to the many different schools of music which the normal conductor must tackle.
  • He must have knowledge of musical history, and of all great music: songs, organ, chamber music, pianoforte, etc.
  • He should be a connoisseur of many other forms of art.

Now Sir Adrian Boult was known for being quite a demanding person, as this list would illustrate, but I must say I agree with much of what he says. I, myself, was very fortunate to have spent some years as a school teacher which meant I had access to a fine collection of orchestral instruments and teachers of these instruments. I made some pretty ghastly noises but I find I still have an almost instinctive feel for what it is like to play these instruments, and knowledge of the required techniques, that no amount of book learning would have given me. As I said, I was lucky. Most young conductors must actively seek out this experience. A good starting point, however, is to treat such books asWalter Piston's book 'Orchestration' as compulsory reading material.

Anyone can join a choral society. In any case, it is imperative that a conductor should be able to sing, at least to some extent. It need not be beautiful, indeed I was described - accurately - in a conservatoire report of long ago as a 'basso disgusto'. However, no matter how 'unique' the sound, nothing conveys phrasing or articulation as well as a sung illustration. In any case, good etiquette is best learned from bitter experience as an orchestral musician or a choral singer. Once one has been kept standing doing nothing for twenty minutes the simply courtesy of standing down sections not actually in use, either vocal or instrumental, becomes self evident.

To have full knowledge of scores implies the ability to read and absorb music from scores. This is not quite as simple as it may seem. Many conducting teachers insist that it is essential to be able to read scores at the piano; indeed, entry to many institutions often depends upon this skill. There are even those who say that one cannot be a conductor unless one is first a good keyboard player. I do not agree. It is more important that the conductor can read the score in much the same way as one reads the printed word, i.e., hearing it inside the head, absorbing the meaning and implied inflection and being able to adjust the balance etc as one goes through. True, this skill is more easily acquired if the intermediate stage of playing score at the piano is gone through, but it is not impossible to go straight there.

There are several techniques and devices that can be used to assist this internal hearing. For instance, one of the main obstacles that are encountered is the problem of transposing instruments. It is hard to 'hear' a unison between a cello playing middle C and a horn in D playing the Bflat apparently a minor seventh higher. It simply looks wrong. This means that the cello part goes straight from the eye to the internal ear whereas the horn part has to go along a mental detour in order to be transposed. If, however, the horn in D part is read in alto clef, that is with middle C on the middle line, all is well - the written B becomes the required C; no transposition required. Of course there are a few adjustments of key signature to be done but it will soon be realised that if the bass, tenor, alto and soprano clefs are mastered, which is not too hard, then all E/Eflat, Bflat, D and A transpositions are dealt with for life. The Holy Grail has been reached.

Indeed, the whole business of score learning seems to be fraught and surrounded by insecurity and worry. It is true that, if some normal life is desired in addition to a musical life, success as a professional conductor depends not only on how much one knows but how fast one can absorb it from the printed page, thus leaving some time to attend to the needs of a spouse and family for instance. Some people do this naturally, some have to find an effective method and develop it. There are ways that this can be accomplished and insurmountable difficulties can become manageable after all.

It is essential that the young conductor immerse himself in the artistic world as completely as possible. I encourage my students to have three things in their pocket at all times - the score they are currently learning, a book about music and a calendar of concerts, plays exhibitions and artistic events which are going on in his town. It is very good, for instance, to find a part time job as usher in a concert hall. Several concerts per week, and paid for going to them too! What could be better?

Leadership Qualities
Now this is a much more subtle and difficult topic to address but it is one of the most important. We human beings cannot help but have opinions and form judgments about those we meet; we cannot even notice someone in the street but, at some level we form opinions upon that person and put him, or her, into some category or other. We form instant judgments, often on the most flimsy or subjective basis.

Orchestras do the same. A new conductor simply has to walk from the dressing room and take his place on the podium and some members of the orchestra will already have condemned him to an eternity in outer darkness. It is inevitable that a conductor will make enemies and friends in about equal measure. It is said that, on completion of a guest engagement, if 30% of the orchestra think you are pretty good, 15% think you are dreadful and the remainder are neutral then the engagement can be considered a success. If the first two figures are reversed, however, one could have done better. Of course a conductor is judged upon the quality of his rehearsal and of the finished concert but what are the factors that are used to form these instant judgments, which, sadly, often become reinforced and permanent and are, consequently, very important. Many of them are simply small physical mannerisms or habits.

Take, for example the angle at which one 'wears' one's head. A more forward angle, displaying a prominent, and hopefully learned, brow, is normally taken as a sign of directness and power. Here is a man who is in charge of his own actions and capable of commanding others in a fair and concise manner. If, however, the same conductor's head is angled slightly backwards, he can appear arrogant or, even worse, insecure and trying to mask this with artifice and posturing. He is 'looking down his nose' at the orchestra - hardly an attitude calculated to win friends and obtain their co-operation and good will. Another prime example is the way the conductor holds his hand. A hand with the palm facing upwards is issuing an invitation which may, or may not, be accepted. A hand with the palm facing downwards, on the other hand, is issuing a command; even when the conductor is at his most jovial and benign the hand is giving orders, which are intended to be obeyed. Try inviting a guest to have a seat with your palm facing downwards and you will realise that it is giving a most inappropriate signal for that situation.

These are but two small body signals that can be learned and adopted that will help the young conductor form sound relationships with his orchestras or choirs. There are many other signals, both physical and verbal, that help and that can be observed, reflected upon, considered and adopted when applicable. Many great conductors were actually quite small men. Where did their personal power stem from? Self-belief plays a great part in this but this belief is, in turn, demonstrated by subtle personal actions and gestures. One feeds off the other and eventually the young conductor becomes what he has aspired to be in the first place - a leader.

Good Political Sense
Of course, there is no earthly use in having all the background knowledge music and the arts at your fingertips, having complete knowledge of the score upon which you are working, being able to play every instrument that would be in front of you and having the most inspired idea of how to interpret the music unless you have some access to an orchestra. That is like the 'great novelist' who has not actually written anything yet. Unlike a pianist or a violinist who can still express themselves upon their instrument even if the only audience they may have is themselves or their pet dog, a conductor without something to conduct is but a declaration of intent, a dream made vocal. He may indeed be as good as he thinks he is, or he may be a sad, Walter Mitty character with no real talent whatsoever. He can only be a conductor, and prove himself, when he has gained access to that elusive orchestra through which to express what is in him. Conductors play people in the same manner a pianist plays his instrument - without people they are nothing.

It is essential therefore to find that voice and it is this that takes either luck and opportunity or the good political sense to make that luck and opportunity out of normal life. When I teach I encourage every student to reflect upon the events of the past week and see whether there might some aspect, some incident, which can be exploited to advantage. I also encourage them to keep a small index system of people they have met, no matter how apparently insignificant, because one never knows just who may crop up in future life and, if that person's name and details can be brought to mind, may just be in a position to offer that opportunity that could make all the difference to a career. For instance, if a name can be instantly brought to mind then the owner of that name will naturally feel warmer to the person who has taken the trouble to remember it. They will also be more helpful.

This does not come naturally to some but it represents a problem that faces any young musician. You are a product and must be marketed as that. There are many very talented young conductors left by the wayside of the profession whilst others, with a fraction of their inborn talent, flourish. Why is this? The difference is very often simply that the latter has the talent to make others subscribe to their dreams and visions thus advancing this vision to their advantage. This cannot be taught but it can, with reflection and encouragement, be learned and cultivated.

Good conducting teaching should be based upon these principles. If any are missed out then the emerging conductor is vulnerable to making some mistake from which they may well not be given the opportunity to recover. The world of professional conducting is exciting and inspiring but it can also be brutal to those who make mistakes. On balance, it is better therefore, not to make these mistakes or, given human frailty, at least make as few of them as possible.