Unlike instrumental and vocal techniques, over the centuries conducting technique has not seen the same type of development. To this day it is still largely taught in very basic blocks: right hand for keeping the tempo in two-dimensional patterns, left hand for expression. This idea is fundamentally limiting the conductor to a time beating machine with some non-specific gestures left for an even more generic concept of expression. It also fuels the myth that “conductors are born, not made” and that “conducting cannot be taught” beyond its basic commands.
Discovering how to approach a composition from a technical point of view while attaching a personal musical idea to it is a fairly unknown process to those who venture in this profession. It is, in fact, considered a product of experience, therefore unavailable to conductors at the beginning of their journey.
Needless to say, this is faulty approach, effectively robbing young conductors of an opportunity to mold their technique in the early stages of their conducting lives. Conducting in itself is a lifetime learning experience but the steps through which one goes are always the same:
- Learning the score
- Installing a technical system for its delivery
- Delivering it
The first and the third point are the most widely adopted. Learn the score through musical analysis, harmonic analysis, structure, orchestration etc. Rehearse and perform.
While the first step is obviously fundamental, it is, in fact, only the first step. So far, as a conductor, you have “only” studied the music.
You then jump to the third step directly: delivering to the orchestra your knowledge of the score. The culprit is the second step: how do you do that?
The delivering of your newly acquired knowledge is left to a handful of all-purpose patterns that surely are not able to convey your musical thoughts completely. The first consequence of this is a lot of time wasted in verbally explaining what could (and should) be physically shown.
If we start from the point of view that music creates the technique – instead of superimposing 300 years old formulas on it – it becomes clear how necessary is a technical language specifically modeled after the score you have in front of you.
This is the nuts and bolts of Visual Score Study: look at the score from a technical point of view, seeing in it a graphical representation of a succession of baton movements.
When you start paying more attention to the visual aspect of the page, you’ll start to correlate those signs with baton movements, different stroke types, and baton placement.
How does this help you studying a score?
From a purely technical point of view the benefit is immediate. The topography of the score will be an enormous reservoir of gestures:
- length and character of the notes = length of the strokes (staccato, legato, short, long, accents etc.)
- dynamics indicate the region in which the stroke is formed and delivered
- orchestration speaks for the space in which the stroke operates
- pitch serves as a map for following the contour of the line
Once you combine all of this together, you will have a unique vocabulary that changes almost from bar to bar, effectively giving you all the tools to show the music, “painting” its shape in the air.
There is another advantage: technique is, obviously, a means to an end. Looking at the score from this perspective accelerates your learning curve. Because you have to attach a very specific musical meaning to your gestures, the correlation between physical movements and musical thoughts is not abstract any longer.
It’s much easier to remember a piano dynamic when it is attached, for example, to a small movement of the wrist at eye level in the farthest region of your body played by the oboe. The baton placement/stroke becomes a direct reflection of your musical thought instead of being a disconnected gesture.
Visual Score Study can also be applied, on a generic level, before the standard studying of the score: skimming through the music while looking at the graphical path that it designs will give you a head start during your analytical process.
How to practice
Practicing Visual Score Study is just like practicing any other technique: the more you do it, the better and faster you become at it. There is no shortcut. There are, however, exercises. Start with asking yourself a fundamental question: how can I show this?
From there you move to all the aspect of that specific part you are looking at: is it forte or piano? Who’s playing it? In which register? Where is the line going?
While it is a little more obvious where to move in case dynamic registrations (generally speaking closer to your body for piano further away for forte – although there are exceptions), pitch registration represents the most challenging aspect of this technique. It is what can effectively help you break a pattern: if you follow the music line, one can be up instead of down.
Imagine a piano keyboard. Now flip it vertically. “Play” a scale on it, clicking on every note with your wrist, starting at waist level and moving up and down in a straight line from C to C. Start at 60 on a metronome and move your way up.
Register the line in intervals
Register the line on an arpeggio
Remember that pitch registration is approximate and most effective in slow to mid tempi. In fast tempi, for obvious reasons, a general contour can only be given.
Most likely you’ve done all of the above with your right hand. Now, repeat everything with your left hand 🙂