Conduct Yourself Accordingly, Part 7: Last-Minute Cramming For The Big Exam

By • December 23, 2008

A story from the front lines: Suppose you are asked to “understudy” for an ensemble conductor with a looming performance, necessary travel in the interim, and inclement weather threatening a timely return. The program’s greatest challenge is a technical powerhouse, with a bat-out-of-Hades tempo, voluminous meter changes, and a serpentine, overlapping phrase structure that taxes the word, “notey.” You get no rehearsal time whatsoever with the ensemble, and there will be no “take 2.” This happened to me yesterday.

What do you do? You say yes, of course, if the job is remotely within your technical abilities. You recognize a plea for help and, knowing the litany of careers that were shifted into higher gear by such successful fill-ins, you see the potential in the situation. Plus, even if this doesn’t end up being a career-maker, it helps prepare you psychologically for the time when it will be.

But how to prepare for such an opportunity? Let’s recognize one fundamental truth: This isn’t your chance to “be all that you can be.” Your job is to get this ensemble through the gig, period. This means you must do all in your power, not to try and do it better, but to do it the way the ensemble has prepared it. That means making your ensemble comfortable by exuding confidence, using gestures so clear that the blind could read them, and supplying the players with their conductor’s interpretation, not yours. It’s chameleon time, not come-look-at-me time.

If possible, request a recording of at least one run-through, of whatever quality, for you to study. Also, seek the actual score used by the conductor you will be replacing. Unless this person is a savant, chances are good that he has peppered his score with clues about his version. True, for you to mark it up further could be dicey, but there are limits to how good an omelet you can make without breaking any eggs. You can always study his score and then mark up a copy. Your choice.

In my case, the hot fudge sundae piece had a bazillion meter changes and more than a few complexities-just-for-the-sake-of-complexity. As beat pattern errors are more deadly than inadequate cuing (which may be something the ensemble will just to have to live with, under the circumstances) I was going to have to use a method to quickly assure that I got it right the first time.

A good one is to essentially boil the score down to a single line by marking up the top score margin with all the meter changes, significant ensemble hits and absolutely essential individual cues. As such elements may be littered and duplicated throughout each page, you are essentially doing the job of data compression software by reducing the clutter while preserving and displaying faithfully what you determine is essential. This lets you focus your attention on one finite area so that you can maintain a reserve visual and “concentrational” capacity to cope with those unknowns which may crop up during the performance. Along those lines, you can and should also place indicators anywhere you find ranges of static similarity (again like compression software,) such as 8 bars of 5/4, or ostinati which need no special gestures. At the beginning of such a region, make some marking for the “8” so that you can get your eyes (and mind) off the page while counting those 8, possibly for a page turn or a glance around the stage or whatever. As musicians, we can count 8 bars while dealing cards if we want to. The point is to give your mind room to multitask while beating time and without losing your place.

Once the score is marked with these basics, go through the audio and whatever conductor’s markings to add what you need to this margin to make the interpretation readable.

Then conduct the score with your baton and your recording, checking to see if your markings make sense to your eyes and communicate the interpretation well. Practice. Once you are comfortable with your “performance,” it may be tempting to leave it at that, but it would be a huge mistake. It’s not enough to successfully conduct the audio, any more than it would be to wave your arms before an ensemble that has memorized the piece and has its eyes closed, a fun but empty exercise. To find out what you still don’t know, and whether you really are in the driver’s seat, it’s necessary to conduct the piece without the audio, while nevertheless showing all the tempo, style, and meter changes. And if you really want to be a pinhead (but a conscientious one,) time your silent performance and compare with the recording. Either way, time permitting, feel free to use any other of the usual methods of checking yourself (mirror, videocamera, trusted colleague, etc.) If you have done your homework, you should feel confident and so should your ensemble. Go forth and “save the day.”


By Asher Krim on December 25th, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Informative, to the point, and well written as always.
Happy Holidays!

By Andrew Harrison on January 5th, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Hi Ron,

Another great article. Great stuff! I always look forward to reading your musical treats…

By Conor on March 11th, 2009 at 11:45 am

How much time would you say that this process takes? It all makes sense, but I struggle with the amount of prep time.

By Ron Hess on March 11th, 2009 at 2:11 pm


The editing and audio-checking of the score could be done in under an hour. The effort to lead through it without the audio is between you and your concentration and conducting skills. In terms of the career seeds you are sewing, not bad…

Good luck!


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