Score studying or ……

One of my first “official” conducting teachers told us all that “conductors study scores for a living. Actual conducting is just something you get to do for fun as a reward for the studying.”

It’s a point of view I took to heart and have often repeated to both students and to music lovers who are interested in understanding just what a conductor does, but I’ve recently become frustrated with the term “score study.” Maybe it’s because I never took to “studying” in school- I never had the patience for, say, repeating pages of my chemistry notes out loud until I memorized them in school. I always felt that if I understood something, then I could remember it, and if I didn’t understand it I wouldn’t remember it, no matter how often I repeated it, copied it out, re-read it or whatever.

As I thought about this linguistic problem, it also occurred to me that I actually spend very little time “studying” scores the way an American student is taught to study for tests, drilling, repeating, repeating, repeating. What was I doing with all that time?

So- on to the new model….

I would like to suggest that “conductors question scores for a living. Actual conducting is something you just have to do to share the answers you’ve found to the questions you’ve asked.”

Yes, I toyed with “analysis,” and any number of other words, but for me, the most productive work on scores comes when I ask the best questions.

Yes, you heard it here first- Score Questioning

So, what are the best questions?

Well, for some conductors, there is only one question to ask.

One conductor I learned a lot from when I was getting started was Pascal Verrot, who was a regular guest at the Round Top Festival, where I spent many happy summers. When I first worked up the courage to ask him for a conducting lesson he said that he has only one thing in mind (not that) when he “studies” a score, which is- “why?” He claimed to never work on memorizing things. For every detail in the score and not in the score, his goal was to understand why- why did the composer make the choice he or she did, why did they know to make that choice and why does it work?

I’ve got to hand it to Pascal- that was, hands down, the best piece of conducting advice (even better than “one is down”) I’ve ever had, and every friend and student I’ve passed it on to (who didn’t already know it) has come back to me and said it transformed not only their method of learning a score, but also their ways (and mine) of communicating with an orchestra in rehearsal. Players don’t like to be lectured at and tend not be interested in hearing all the little factoids one has discovered hunched over the score at home, but they don’t like to be in the dark either, and if you can show them with real experimental evidence gathered in the rehearsal laboratory why you’re doing it a certain way, it makes a big difference, both in terms of how much they get out of the work and what the audience gets out of the performance.

Nonetheless, the pragmatist in me isn’t %100 convinced that that is the only question you need to address. Maybe it’s helpful to look at all the other questions (maybe they are only subservient to “why?”) as falling in to one of two categories. On the one hand you have all the nuts and bolts, practical questions and on the other hand you have all the artistic, philosophical ones.

More of those in the next episode.

UPDATE- Be sure to read David Hoose’s comment, which is even cooler than this post before moving on to episode 2.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Score studying or ……”

  1. David Hoose

    Ken and Pascal are on to something. More accurately, on to THE thing. “Why” is the question, possibly the only one, that puts us close to the composer’s way of thinking. Although composers are not making every decision calculatedly or consciously (though all of them are sometimes), they are always being guided by the internal logic of their hearing. Our asking “why,” whether it’s of Bach or Haydn or Stravinsky or a composer who’s our close friend, can simulate (and stimulate) that compositional thinking. Since conductors are supposed to be representatives of the composer and his or her work, the more we can–if only temporarily–think like the creators of the music, the greater the chance we have of having some insight into the piece at hand.

    Ken’s critical points only glance, however, toward a sometimes problem of young conductors (and maybe old ones, too). In saying that “conducting is just what you get to do for fun as a reward for the studying,” he (or his first conducting teacher whom he’s quoting) is trying to reverse common thinking, something I sometimes see with aspiring conductors. Often, they are in love with the act of conducting–the waving the arms, the making things happen, the alleged power, the being in front, whatever–but aren’t really in love with music. Or, if they do genuinely love music, they aren’t necessarily interested in music, desperate to understanding how and why it works (or why it doesn’t), and they often have few clues as to how to try to find out. And the asking questions, the asking ‘why,’ can be thought of as an annoying barrier between them and what they really want to do–conduct.

    Why are there eight or nine instances of five-measure groups in the slow movement of the Eroica, how did these irregular groups get to be that way, and what is their large-scale rhythmic impact?

    Or, why does LvB have four instruments, including 2 horns, play the C natural, but only one instrument (the bassoon, in its weakest register) play an F, in the half-dimished chord of m. 60 of the same movement. Bad orchestration? Certainly possible with LvB. No choices because of the horns? Maybe. Voice leading? Also possible. Regardless, what do you do about it, since it sounds pretty horrendous if left to its own devices.

    Or, why is the return in m.105 of the music from the beginning of the movement now marked piano, not pianissimo, but both times marked sotto voce. Hmm. Editorial sloth? Maybe. Meaningful? Possibly. But, why?

    Or why does the cadence in measure 8 swing through the subdominant, instead of the possibly more expected dominant? Is it forshadowing anything?

    Or why does LvB mark the quarter note in m. 20 with a wedge accent? Most orchestras (conductors) sustain this chord like they’re shaking their collective fists. But is this what LvB meant? (And just how would that insistent sostenuto have sounded with gut strings and a different bow, anyway?)

    These are not at all terribly profound questions, but are among the gazillion necessary ones for us who want the fun of standing on the podium. (And they happen to be among the ones that are bugging me right now.)

    Ken is absolutely right. “Why” is the answer. Before that, however, we need a desire to notice. Sometimes I think that observation is the first charge of any of us who want to conduct.

    David Hoose

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Score Questioning- The Practical

  3. Kenneth Woods

    I just want to point out one particular bit in David’s quote and fill in some context for the reader…

    David writes-
    “These are not at all terribly profound questions, but are among the gazillion necessary ones for us who want the fun of standing on the podium. (And they happen to be among the ones that are bugging me right now.) ”

    Note the bit about “bugging me right now…”

    I can confidently report that David has done Beethoven 3 many times before. He and I both taught the work this summer at the Rose City Intl Conductor’s Workshop in Portland, and that experience alone opens up so many quesitons for the teachers. You would think that after all that immersion so recently, we would be pretty much saturated with the piece, but these are questions that are bugging David “right now,” by which I assume they’re at least unsettled and probably new since then. I’ve conducted the piece four times in the last year and taught it at RCICW, heard it played, argued with other conductors about it, and there are plenty of new ideas in David’s post for me.

    I’d just reiterate- if you ask a question about a score and it leads to a new question, it was probably a good question. If you ask a question and it leads to a dead end, maybe back up and re-ask the question differently.

    David, thanks as always for contributing!!!!!!


  4. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » RCICW 08 Day One!

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