When you step in front of an orchestra, especially for the first time, you have to convince a number of people of your idea. You need to keep in mind that their collective knowledge and experience is greater than yours and something that can be invaluable to you as a conductor.
The best tool you have at your disposal is your preparation: put the score in your head, know it deeply, and never, ever be unprepared.
Rehearsal time is precious and is becoming less and less with years: the more you can articulate the music with the baton, the less you have to stop and talk. That’s where your conducting technique comes in handy. It’s not going to be enough however: you will have to stop the orchestra for one reason or another and give some instructions or correct some mistakes.
Most of the instructions can be given to an orchestra with very few words:
- crescendo etc.
These are instructions that everyone will understand immediately, as opposed to imagery like “a beautiful waterfall early in the morning while a gentle breeze is caressing your face“: you may be poetic, but everyone will have a different take on what to do with it.
Avoid lecturing the orchestra endlessly: a bit might be fine, and sometimes they will ask you questions on the history of the piece or if it’s an opera on what’s happening on stage, which is perfectly ok of course. But if you start your rehearsal with 15 minutes of historical background most of the players will go to sleep. They want to play.
There’s another thing to keep in mind: nobody knows everything, especially when it comes to the mechanics of an instrument. I myself am a string player, and I do have an inner knowledge of bowing and fingering. Yet, unless I want something very specific, I let the concertmaster deal with that. And if you don’t know something, ask for advice to the concertmaster or the section principal. Make use of their expertise. You’ll learn something new and gain their respect.
When you stop the orchestra make sure you do it with a precise intent in mind: what are you going to correct? rhythmic problem? intonation? phrasing? balance? Be specific. If you can’t explain yourself with words, sing the line. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a singer or if you don’t have a beautiful voice. Nobody cares about that. What matters is the intention. Toscanini used to sing out of tune all the time, yet everyone understood what he wanted.
When you come to rehearse, have a plan of what to rehearse: if it’s the second rehearsal make notes and give them to the players before you begin rehearsing. Also, if you do not need every player for the entire concert, plan your rehearsal accordingly, so that they can either leave early or come in later. All these little things will save you time and show the players that you respect them.
One thing that sometimes happens, even involuntarily, is a disappointed expression on a conductor’s face when a player makes a mistake: it happens, they know it, they already feel bad about it. There’s no need to underline it. A glance is enough. Be respectful, there is no need to put down a person or humiliate them in front of everyone.
And when you make a mistake – which will happen – apologize to the players and carry on. Do not blame them if the fault is yours.
Generally speaking, be positive, be concise and most of all, have fun!