Conduct Yourself Accordingly, Part 5: Who’s In Charge Here?

By • May 13, 2008

The art and craft of studio conducting may not be dying, but it sure isn’t feeling very well. Of all the cast of characters in the recording process, the conductor is the one which inspires the least automatic respect, and deservedly so. With the advent of random-access digital recording, which is almost always pegged to some kind of beat structure, the ubiquitous accompanying click track has allowed anyone strong enough to lift a half-ounce baton to regard himself as a “conductor.” And I fear this “dumbing-down” effect may be diluting our expectations from those on the concert podium, as well.

If you aren’t sure where you stand, please ask yourself the following questions: (1) When conducting without click, and the ensemble momentum pushes or drags the tempo, do you (with or without stopping) verbally correct them or do you, by gestures alone, quickly coerce them into the tempo you wish? (2) From an unbiased examination of video of your own conducting, do you see yourself pretty much using the same-sized gestures throughout, regardless of dynamic, especially during silence? Do you mirror-conduct most of the time with both hands? If you turn the sound off, will the video give you the slightest clue as to where you are in the score?

The key element lacking in much mediocre conducting is control. Historically, the first conductor was the ensemble keyboard player (with a free hand) or the concertmaster (using his bow). His function was not really interpretive, but organizational (starting and stopping, cuing entrances, etc.). As music became more complex and interpretative, conducting evolved into a stand-alone and pre-eminent role in the performance. When music moved into the studio, the podium-meister still carried the substantive job of syncing a musical performance to picture, through the use of streamers, pops, and (“sigh”) click tracks. Now that technology has made possible do-it-yourself infinitely and microscopically variable click tracks that would have been the envy of any old-school music editor, communicating all tempo elements to the studio orchestra is no longer strictly the conductor’s job. And, since being the absolute controller of the time has always been the most fundamental aspect of our craft, separating mastery from mediocrity, anything further down the food chain (like dynamics, style, skilled cuing, etc.) simply dropped off the radar. Essentially, what many studio conductors are unconsciously counting on is that the composer, orchestrator and copyist have all done their jobs perfectly and that the players will read, think, and interpret sufficiently and in perfect agreement with one another. This may happen in a conductor-less chamber ensemble only with plenty of rehearsal, or in the contemporary A-list studio orchestra, which may be so facile, enlightened, and experienced that it can accomplish this miracle with little or no rehearsal (or astute conducting) at all. Would any self-respecting artist think of performing on an instrument that did most of the work, such as a player piano or a sequenced MIDI rack? Is not that what so many “semiconductors” are doing on studio podiums every day of the week? This is one of those rare times in history where evolution has gone in a complete circle, with conductors getting hired (and paid) to essentially do no more than their player-conductor ancestors did 400 years ago.

The key ingredient in this discussion is control. Do your gestures exercise it musically at all times or do you neglectfully surrender it? And if you think you do have it, how much of it do you have? Every aspiring conductor has a fundamental psycho-technical barrier he must break through to become a good one: to go from conducting what the players are playing to conducting what they should be playing (while they are playing what they are playing). There is a huge difference and it is crucial. That ability to always be aware of the higher plane of what the music can be while your ears are telling you otherwise, and the ability to constantly pull the performance in that direction is what separates a semi-conductor from a true leader.

How does one take that leap? Most of the battle lies simply in becoming aware of what’s missing when you undertake to conduct live players, impossible to gauge without them. Watching yourself through videotape, while scrupulously minding the points above, can help you self-diagnose. Players’ opinions, if honest, may be useful.

You can practice trying to bend the will of a recording, conducting slightly ahead or behind the performance, to get the hang of being mentally in two places at once. Working to have a range in the size and intensity of your gestures, and making sure that range means something, can give you control that a mind-numbing sameness can kill.

But it all really boils down to the attitude you adopt with every beat you conduct, every time you get on the podium. Ask yourself constantly: “Who’s really in charge here?”

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