Speaking of Conducting

November 15, 2010 at 10:34 am | Posted in Conducting | 1 Comment

On the heels of the last post about the job of a conductor — especially the part about conductor-as-hand-waver — check out the videos that Roger Ebert has posted on his blog of a three-year-old named Jonathan. I only had time to watch the first one so far, but in that first one, young Jonathan “conducts” the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s adorable to watch, but there are some really great, warm-fuzzy-generating things in there:

  • It’s obvious from how he anticipates some of the changes in the orchestra that he has heard the piece numerous times.
  • For a three-year-old, he has great rhythm!
  • This is my favorite part, the part that makes me feel good: About three-and-a-half minutes in, Jonathan says “This is my favorite part!” Now ask yourself, did you have a “favorite part” of any symphony when you were three years old?

My thanks and congratulations to Jonathan’s parents for raising him in the world of music. And for posting the videos!

Also my congratulations to Jonathan for not stabbing himself in the face numerous times, as I likely would have done at that age.

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  1. As a musical amateur who has played in many organizations, I tend to perceive and mentally evaluate conductors based on three roles that I think they perform.

    1. The person behind the stick: As you have already discussed, that person can be a time-beater (read: DCI drum major), interpreter (Bernstein?), or facilitator. Even observant audience members can discern the difference. Frankly, I think a lot of finesse exhibited by a conductor is lost on amateurs like myself for one reason: we haven’t studied conducting. If you’re speaking in French, I need to know some French in order to understand you. Players who have not studied conducting, which is a system of communication, often miss subtlties in posture and stick movement that the conductor uses. I’ve played under conductors who were narcisistic show-offs and those who were competent and clear communicators.

    2. The musician/scholar: the behind-the-scenes preparation that enables the conductor to use the stick to intelligently communicate with the players. Sooner or later, the players (and the audience) will discern the well-prepared conductor from the stick-wagger. The musician/scholar makes musical decisions about interpretation of the composer’s intent and communicates these interpretations to the players and the audience.

    3. The leader: Whether you’re a teacher, a surgeon, a business manager, or a conductor you are first and foremost a leader. That old saying “How do you know you’re a leader? If you turn around and see that people are following you” applies here. I suspect that players are more likely to follow the conductor’s directions if that conductor is a leader. We know that “leadership” is a difficult human attribute to define, but I think we know it when we see it. Doesn’t musical leadership follows from attribute #2? If the musicians know that the conductor is bright, knowledgeable, and well-prepared they are more likely to follow his/her lead willingly and carefully. They will unite as a unit under the guidance and vision of that conductor — even if that conductor is a tyrant. Great leaders are able to inspire these individuals to meld into a unit where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Reiner?).

    It would be interesting to study the great conductors in terms of their visible motions/stick technique, preparation and interpretation of the music on the stand, and leadership qualities.


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