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