It's All In the Upbeat
Working as a conductor is fun for many reasons. Getting paid to wave a wand and spend daytimes a foot taller than usual are among several perks that come with the job. A favourite perk is that people frequently tell me I'm the first/only conductor they have ever met. It's an unusual job, and people seem to think it's quite cool. I do too.
I thought it was about time I wrote a bit about conducting on this blog, given that it was my initial intention. To those working in classical music, as well as those who have never touched the genre, a conductor's role is often a bit of mystery. So I wanted to share five facts about conductors that might give a little more insight:
1) It’s all in the upbeat.
To many, a conductor is an attention-loving buffoon who waves his or her arms in front of a group of bemused instrumentalists or singers. They have no real function.
I want to suggest that a conductor has at least one function: giving an upbeat. It is given to signal the music starting. The conductor lifts their arm in the speed of the music so that the orchestra can begin when it comes down. Sounds simple enough? Well, you'd be surprised how rarely this is done well. It's hard to do clearly and precisely and communicating the correct tempo. Many conducting teachers swear that they can tell how good a conductor is going to be just by how they perform this one motion. Scary.
2) We are all total nerds.
A conductor may appear as a calm, collected, 007-type figure. They stroll on, bow, do some intricate dancing, then leave with an air of unwrapped (perhaps slightly sweaty) cool. This is undoubtedly true. However, it doesn't account for 99% of the job which is a total nerd-fest.
Most of a conductor's work happens before even meeting the orchestra. Before the glamourous entrance onto the podium, a conductor spends hours in a bedroom, office or library, studying scores.
My Dad has occasionally watched me study scores and is puzzled by how I manage to decypher the 'ants' on the page. It baffles me too sometimes. A conductor has to get to know every inch of a score which contains music not just for one person, but for all 50-100 members of the orchestra. And have something to say about it.
Luckily a well-trained conductor will have a toolbox. Firstly, analytical skills for understanding the music's structure and language - looking at melody, harmony, rhythm, among other things. Secondly, an exploration of what the composer was trying to say, and a decision as to what you want to say through the music. Thirdly, many many many colouring pencils. Anyone who says a Geography student gains a degree in colouring has never met a conductor.
3) I'm not Hermione Granger, but it is magic.
The art of conducting is the art of communicating without words.
While the CEO's of businesses get to communicate with words and countless emails, a conductor has to help a group of over 50 people reach a shared goal with no words. Or very few. In a rehearsal, a conductor is allowed to say things that will lead the orchestra in the right direction, though better to do this by a gesture. Often the words 'louder' or 'quieter' can be said quicker with a simple flick of the hand.
And in a performance, there is, of course, no talking at all.
A conducting degree is a bit like expert training in charades. Only, because it's to a whole room of people, there are lots of standardised moves to speed along the process. It's about building up a vocabulary in gestures that communicates universally to a whole room of people at once. It sounds complicated and is complicated. Mr Bean makes it look very straightforward (or, rather, the musicians following are excellent...)
There's also a cool thing called the mimetic gesture hypothesis. It essentially means that sometimes these gestures can lead to a change in the sound of an orchestra without the musicians themselves noticing. As a conductor makes a gesture, the players follow subconsciously. It's a bit like magic.
4) We are, in fact, just people.
Sometimes conductors seem to be ethereal beings who are existing in a sort of alternative reality to both the audience and the orchestra; a rule unto themselves. While this may have been true once, culture has changed in the conducting world, and there is now more of a focus on collaboration.
One of the cool things about studying conducting is having regular conversations incredibly talented musicians like my coursemates. We discuss what we ate for breakfast, which Netflix series is most worth watching, and often complain about London traffic and transport. We do also nerd out over scores, recordings and our favourite conductors, but most of the time you'll catch us at lunch talking about normal topical things.
I think this is important for a conductor, or indeed any leader; living in the real world. It can't be good when a leader distances themselves from what's going on on planet earth. And I'm encouraged by how down-to-earth so many of the conductors I've met have been.
In contrast to the image of a conductor as some detached deity with musical ideas beyond reality, beings blessed with supernatural abilities, I've been encouraged by how down-to-earth conductors are. Yes, they have amazing musical ideas and a talent for communicating these ideas without words, but they also like to go for a drink in the pub and have a chat.
4) La Baguette
I recently learnt that the French word for baton is 'la baguette' which made me happy as I like baguettes almost as much as I like conducting.
Also, baguette literally means 'wand', so a) Harry Potter has 'baguette magique' and b) I'm a wizard.