Thank you Maestro Gianmaria Griglio, for featuring me on your blog.
In this guest post, I will explore my experience of conducting, from a flutist’s perspective.
Starting off on the Wrong Foot
It has been quite some time since I have performed with an orchestra. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the pandemic gave me much time to reflect away from the stage.
I ended up joining the university orchestra as a bit of a fluke. My academic advisor had originally told me that I was going to perform on the violin, which I certainly did not know how to play. He put in it my schedule even though it wasn’t required, but it quickly ended up being my favorite night class.
For the four years of my undergrad, I alternated between first flute and piccolo. This is pretty unusual, as second flutes typically play on piccolo. Though I was a music education student, performance on my instrument took up more than half the time of my studies. I had been put in so many ensembles, that I often joked that I was music education and flute performance double-major. This, however, was not a possibility at my university, because the classes supposedly had too much overlap.
My first experience of conducting an ensemble was an absolute disaster. One of the arrangements I had created and had to conduct had gone horribly wrong, as it printed with an incorrect key signature. After this catastrophe, I became more than a little intimidated by conducting. I’ve never really been the kind of person who was comfortable with moving, either. I move through my instrument, which sits safely in front of me.
That all being said, learning how to conduct lead to an interesting change in my perspective as a musician. And, to learn more about the clumsy anecdotes of a first flutist on a podium, you can find the second article on my conducting here.
The rest of this article will detail how learning to conduct has benefitted me as a professional flutist.
Learning How to Move
Many instrumentalists report feeling awkward singing because they can’t have the comfort of holding their instrument in front of them. This is exactly how I felt when I first began to conduct. The small amounts of sexism I had experienced here and there with both colleagues and some general studies professors lead to me quite literally keeping my arms tucked in. Conducting forced me out of the shell. Taking up space was now part of my grade, and I wanted to keep that 4.0 GPA,
Conducting ended up helping me with much more than just music. For example, it taught me how to be comfortable expressing emotions such as anger and melancholia, to a large crowd. The first time I conducted a section of Dvorak’s New World Symphony for my professor, I was met with raucous laughter. “Move your eyebrows!” He then made an extremely sour face towards me. I giggled. Eventually, my laughter at both his pseudo-anger and my inability to emote spread across the classroom.
By the time I got to conducting three, my musical experiences began to feel…different.
When I was in orchestra, I began to feel as if my own arms were moving, when I was watching the conductor. There was an entirely new level of understanding, I started to think about my educational psychology courses, and realized that learning how to conduct was creating a stronger activation in my sympathetic neurons. So that was what this je-ne-sais-quoi was.
Sympathetic neurons are often described with the example of a bicycle. When you are a child and you don’t know how to ride a bicycle, some of your neurons get activated when you watch someone bike (because you know how to move your legs). But once you learn how to bike and you watch, say, the Tour De France on television, your sympathetic neurons go wild.
I am now a firm believer that all instrumentalists who belong to an orchestra should take at least one conducting class at the collegiate level. Deepened communication with your director is invaluable when it comes to improving both your own playing and the quality of the ensemble as a whole.
The longer I studied with conducting professors, the better my communication got overall. In my small music project, I was able to cue my colleagues at wedding gigs by using just my face. Leading flute choir became easier too. The end of my flute quickly became a baton that I could use to create a downbeat to get us back on track.
I noticed that, once you get better at nonverbal communication, it is clear to see just how much the conductor is actually giving you. I laugh now when I recall hearing mistakes in college orchestra, and looking up with a small ‘Oh no!’ expression. The director of bands then gave a small wink. Conducting teaches you a kind of knowing that private lesson on and instrument simply can’t.
Learning how to conduct improved my bodily awareness, as well as made me a more communicative musician. And while I’m no maestro, I’m certainly better than before.
When it comes to the arts, comparing a past version of you to your current self is really what it all comes down to it, isn’t it?
Aleah J. Fitzwater
Aleah Fitzwater is a full-time music writer, classical flutist, and artist. She teaches tutorials for how to digitize music on the ScanScore Blog and has been published in various coves of the internet.
She also creates visual art and flute arrangements https://aleahfitzwater.com/