What is a conductor supposed to do (and not to do)

 

Well, last month I spent a week teaching at the Bard Conductors Institute. It was absolutely fantastic, as it always is when I go back to that special place. And, as usual, when you teach you learn – a big plus.

What daunted on me during this week – and later on reading some questions on the web – is that a lot of people, some students included, do not have really clear what the purpose of a conductor in an orchestra is. The most common misunderstanding is that a conductor is there to beat time in nice clear patterns, so that the orchestra can understand where they are. Add some dynamics to it and some show-biz gestures and you’re ready to go.

That is simply wrong.

Conducting patterns

Typical conductor’s patterns for 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4

Patterns are not conducting

Patterns have nothing to do with conducting. Patterns are dry, meaningless exercises which the orchestra – any orchestra – does not need. So, why is it that patterns are the first and sometimes only thing you see when you watch a conductor? It’s the basic, rawest piece of technique you could think of, and yet, it seems to be in very high demand.

Conducting patterns are very easy to replicate and understand, but they defy the purpose of a conductor, transforming him/her in a live metronome: you can even see patterns being endlessly mirrored with two hands. Honestly, do you think that in a Mozart’s symphony, for example, players will not be able to count to 4?

Do you think that players need a 4/4 pattern for 1/2 hour not to get lost? #conducting #classicalmusic Click To Tweet

 

The answer is quite obviously no: orchestras today can play almost anything without a conductor. Players do not need a beat, they need a pulse. A pulse is what makes the orchestra start, speed up, slow down. It’s not constricted in a pattern, but it comes out directly from the music. It’s the music that makes the technique. And since every piece of music is different, the shape of a conductor’s movements need to change accordingly.

Which brings us back to our first question. Having established what isn’t the purpose of a conductor (a time beating machine), what’s the other option? What’s the real point of an orchestra conductor?

To shape the music.

This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my teachers: Gilberto Serembe and Harold Farberman.

By the way, if you are a conductor I suggest reading Farberman’s book on conducting technique: it’s simply brilliant. Or even better, follow his course at Bard College* and Serembe’s course at the Italian Conducting Academy.

* [EDIT] Unfortunately Maestro Farberman passed away on November 24, 2018.

 

The Art of Conducting Technique
Now, shaping the music can be accomplished in a variety of different ways, but it all starts with two very simple things: sound and breathing: if I, as a conductor, do not have a specific idea in mind of what the sound I want is AND I cannot breathe with the music and the players, nothing will come out, but empty motions. Empty motions generate nothing but empty sounds, with no direction and no shape. Uninspired players will make the performance and the conductor will become a dispensable appendix.

Sound, breathing, gestures, technique: they all come from the same place, the score. Any breath a conductor takes, any movement he/she makes, has an impact on the orchestra players and on their sound. This simple concept makes a real difference when someone steps on the podium.

No shape means no music, no music means no emotions.

No emotions…: then what’s the point of being on the podium?

I’ll leave you with two of the greatest conductors of all times. No patterns. No bs. Just music.

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