London, United Kingdom
Conducting is the art of directing an orchestra or musical group, and it entails both the off-stage organisation and coordination of the group, as well as on-stage direction through movement. Conductors have had a role in the history of music as well as the contemporary musical scene. Traditionally, conducting has applied to classical orchestras, be it symphony or chamber groups, and classical choirs. More recently, conducting has also played a role in jazz and gospel music, as well as film soundtracks. The importance of conductors has been questioned in recent years; certain people have commented that the role of the conductor is now redundant. This, however, is not true. The conductor’s ultimate aim is to find concord, balance, and equilibrium in a group of people playing different instruments in different ways. The very best conducting allows the individuals to shine whilst creating an extremely elusive and ephemeral harmony which resonates deep in human hearts––a harmony found only in the performance of musical groups. This is why conducting is so central to music; without it, the music would be discordant and mismatched at worst.
Why am I drawn to conducting? Perhaps I, like many others, seek that intangible and fleeting moment when everything comes together and you feel the music of the orchestra reverberate within your very core, elevating and uplifting your spirit, and allowing you to rise––for just a moment––above the world.
Conducting is viewed by many as an arcane and complex art passed down through the generations within tightly-knit musical families. While there is some truth to the idea that good conductors often beget good conductors, it need not be as mysterious as it is often depicted as, and with enough practice, anyone can become an adept conductor. The below steps, while certainly not comprehensive, are intended to provide an introduction to the path of learning conducting.
Step 1: Leadership Skills
The role of the conductor has been likened to weaving; the notion of bringing together fibers of different musical colors and tones into a coherent and beautiful work of art. Ultimately, all good conductors must have excellent leadership skills. People often forget that behind the single, four-hour long concert performance, there are months of rehearsal and practice, all led by the conductor. This is one of the reasons why conducting is also called musical direction; just like a director of theatre, a conductor has the responsibility of organizing, leading, and keeping order in practice sessions. To do this effectively, conductors have to make the performers want to exceed every time they play together, to have a sense of pride to be part of the group. The conductor, however, is not the ‘leader’ of the band; they do not simply give the instructions to the performers. Instead, there is a certain partnership that exists between the two, a special bond which is found rarely if ever outside the concert hall.
Step 2: Musical Knowledge
Every conductor must have a solid knowledge of music theory and history. The ability to interpret complex scores, gained from the study of music theory, is crucial to be able to conduct, and proficiency in musical literature and history allows for perspective and a basis for comparison when directing an orchestra.
Step 3: Choreography and the Baton
Choreography of both the body and the mind is key to conducting. Your knowledge of the score should flow from your mind and end up in your wrist. In most forms of conducting, the wrist is the focal point of all directions to the orchestra, as the wrist’s movement denotes key elements of the music being played. The movement of the body is equally important, which should remain fluid and dynamic even when the music requires the wrist to move sharply and quickly.
While a baton is not absolutely necessary to conducting per se, it is almost always needed for a beginning conductor. The baton is a long, thin piece of wood, usually of a light color, sometimes with a small knob-like grip. It is held in the dominant hand and moved in the air to give the beating patterns, as shown above. The length and thickness depend on the user’s personal preference, which is why it is good to try many before choosing the one for you. There is a saying in the conducting community: “The only tools of the trade are your baton and your brain” … or indeed, in the case of the great Leonard Bernstein, your eyebrows ...
Step 4: Learning the Patterns
The conducting patterns are the fundamental building blocks of a conductor’s performance. Each pattern is a set of movements of the baton through the air which mark out the beats in a bar of music. It works on the idea of a baseline, an imagined line in the air. When the baton ‘bounces off’ the baseline, that denotes a beat. Different time signatures, or systems of beats, require a different pattern to be used. To familiarise oneself with the patterns requires simple repetition—for a long, long time. Practice changing the pattern midway once in a while to keep the mind agile.
Beat patterns vary slightly from conductor to conductor, and this is usually how they end up developing their own unique style. Indeed, across cultures, there can be considerable difference: the so-called ‘French Six’, for example, is quite idiosyncratic and used much more rarely than the globally-adopted ‘German Six’ … although they have both been used by the best conductors in the world. Some conductors also place dependent beats (such as the last beat in the bar) away from the baseline, in a position of height. For the beginning conductor, however, it is best to stick to the simple patterns laid out in texts such as McElheran’s Conducting Technique.
Step 5: Separate your Hands
Also known as ‘breaking,’ separating your hands involves training your mind to not be compelled to mirror the actions of one hand with the other. In conducting, the dominant hand lays out the beat patterns, while the left hand has a different function. At first, try doing the beat patterns continuously with your right hand whilst slowly and uniformly raising and lowering your left hand. It’s harder than it seems! Once you can do this without struggle, you have successfully ‘broken.’
Step 6: Learn the Variations
This step is possibly the hardest of them all. Once you have mastered the basic beat patterns, you have to learn to vary them based on other musical factors, such as dynamics (change in volume), accents, tempo (speed), character (smooth or jumpy), phrasing, and so on. For example, a staccato (‘jumpy’) section would have very angular, relatively straight-lined movements compared to a legato section. Eventually, you could go on to learn stops and starts, off-beat cues, syncopation, fermatas, subdivision, and recitatives––the mark of a true master.
Step 7: Presence
Stage presence is key when conducting in front of audiences both large and small. Although many don’t like the attention, when an orchestra is in concert, much of the limelight is focused on the conductor. Therefore when performing in front of an audience, certain mannerisms must be avoided, like hands in pockets, otherwise it reflects badly on the whole group. Posture is also key; first-rate conductors manage to remain fluid yet upright, dynamic in movement but static in presence. You must remain calm in demeanour and expression at all times, because any uncertainty or doubt that you portray carries forward through all the performers and can audibly detract from the music. Finally, you always have to listen to the musicians in front of you. Conducting is not one-sided, but rather a conversation between the conductor and the orchestra. In other words, it is a feedback loop; if the performers are continually getting something wrong, it may be down to how you’re conducting them, and vice-versa.
There are many other things which a conductor should aspire to master––and plenty of good texts out there to help you do so––but the fundamentals laid out above should be, at the very least, incentive to go out there and try it out!