By Dr. Randy Navarre, Conductor and Musical Director
The Brandywine Philharmonic Orchestra
There is debate among conductors, especially in the band world, about conducting the time pattern or conducting expressively. I consider that topic, for the most part, the least important aspect of conducting. Conducting, regardless of the ensemble, is mostly mental. The conductor must know the composition better than any of the musicians performing with him or her. Not only that, but the conductor must know the limitations of each instrument, when the performer is playing at the limits of the instrument, if it is difficult, and when to back off and allow more freedom to the performer. In other words, the conductor must be fully prepared. To the non-musician, people think conducting is easy. You do not have to play an instrument, just wave your baton. The downfall of many conductors are those who decide they can conduct an ensemble and not thoroughly know the score, have a vision of the sound in his or her head before the first rehearsal, and know the musical aspects of the work. Simply speaking, the conductor is the most responsible and most prepared musician in band, orchestra, or choir.
There are tools of the trade for the conductor, and those need to be second nature. Having developed skills to make it easier for musicians to know what is expected of them, is important. That takes practice just as the violin player must practice his or her instrument. Regardless of whether your philosophy of conducting is to constantly keep the time pattern, or stray from it fully, or occasionally, you MUST be able to keep the pattern and return to it at will. This takes practice.
It is also important that you understand what it takes to play an instrument, and you know when the composition is easy, difficult, and down right punishing. You need to know when you are hurting your fellow musicians.
There are basic rules to making music that all artists know either consciously or subconsciously. As a conductor, you help facilitate these musical aspects of performance.
- Short note after long note gets an accent.
- There is a natural crescendo or decrescendo as the melodic line moves up or down within the dynamic marking.
- The first note of a phrase or slur is the most important. Give it a slight accent.
- Follow the dynamics of the composer if different than the above.
- There are exceptions to all rules.
- Musicality trumps all other rules (including the composers wishes!)
A conductor does not necessarily need to make huge gestures with his or her hands and baton to make the music happen. (Sometimes, just a slight movement of the head, body, or just a look of acknowledgement, will be sufficient.) If you are working with professionals, little needs to be said. With students, you will need to tell them, drill, and reinforce the above.
The conductor is the interpreter of the music. It is the job of the conductor to set tempos, accelerate, ritard, set the balance of the instrumentation, and interpret the style of the music. Knowing the styles of the different musical eras is important. Understanding and knowing how music is experienced in other cultures is also extremely important. Music from the East is performed quite differently than Western music. One must study the culture, history, and era of the music being performed. The conductor is not only a musician, but also a historian. One would not want to play Bach in the style of Brahms. It is the same from East to West. To play a work from China in the same aggressive style of a Beethoven symphony would communicate the wrong musical message. It is the conductor responsibility to know what he or she is performing and its purpose.
There is the question of cueing, conducting pattern, and showing emotion. First of all, always be willing to show emotion in music. After all, it is music. It is emotional. If you are not expressive, do not expect your musicians to be expressive for you. Professionals will play musically, but the more expressive you are, the more expressive your musicians will perform. The more you talk, the less music you will make. Communicate through expression. During a rehearsal, try conducting the ensemble without using your hands. It will make both you and the musicians pay attention to each other. In the band world, the director usually stays with the time pattern all the time. Even at a beginner or training band level, start teaching your students to keep playing when you leave the time pattern. They should not rely on you all the time. There will be times when you need to give an emotional gesture, or you may just need to gesture with your hands to get students or fellow musicians in the correct place. If your ensemble is so reliant on you conducting the meter all the time and you make a mistake, it is likely the entire performance could fall apart. Professionals expect you to leave the pattern. They know how to count. Teach students independence early so you may enjoy some of the conducting benefits as those with accomplished musicians.
Cueing is a tricky topic for conductors. Band musicians are usually expecting a cue at an entrance. Often, unless practiced otherwise, if you do not cue, they will not play. For those of you in school situations, work on independence from the very beginning. Cue when needed, and with strings, cue a beat in advance. The sound from a string instrument takes longer to be heard than those of the wind or percussion instruments. The string players cannot change the response time on the string instruments.
Balance is the conductor's job. The musicians cannot hear the balance. It is up to you to balance and blend so the audience is hearing the music as the composer intended the composition to be heard. The conductor must be able to hear the sound in his or her head in order to balance the band in proportion to the ensemble, hall, and audience.
Which brings me to your role with the audience. First of all, it is your job to make it easier for the musicians to do their job. That trumps all other concerns with your relationship with and to the audience. However, the audience is not to be ignored. Talk to them. Tell them about the composition historically, and what was intended if you know the composer's story about the work. The audience appreciates a personal touch, and is always exited to know more about the composition. Let the audience know your feelings of the composition. It is not advisable to get too carried away with motion so that the audience is paying attention to you rather than listening to the music. Most importantly, you are there to bring out the best in the musicians, and further the enjoyment of the audience.