And you call yourself a quasi-conductor?

Here is an interesting email exchange with a young conductor (not “quasi” that I can tell) in the Philippines. I love this aspect of the internet.

Offered here, typos corrected where found (mostly mine as my message was written in great haste),  for general interest….

Dear Mr. Woods,

I am a 23 year-old quasi-conductor from the Philippines (I say “quasi” because I really conduct the school orchestra where I teach – nothing professional). I’ve been an avid follower of your blog for about a year now, and I must say that I feel most fortunate to have finally found a conductor who blogs regularly, giving people like me a much-needed closer look at this rather poorly-understood profession (it’s certainly poorly-understood where I come from). I would like to inquire how you deal with any piece calling for both an orchestra and a choir. Who do you conduct when? When faced with a piece like, say, anything from Handel’s Messiah, how do you manage to guide both groups when similar voices rarely double? In all my attempts to conduct such pieces, one ensemble tends to get neglected – it’s either the orchestra or the choir. How do you pull both together?And given such intensely-contrapuntal works, how on earth does one like yourself go about with studying the score?I understand your time is limited. Any reply from you would be greatly, greatly appreciated.

Thank you. GTI

Dear GTI Thanks very much for your message. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. You raise some very good points, and I wish there were easy and neat answers to all of them, but I’m afraid the real answer is trial and error, experience, preparation and self-assessment.Where to direct one’s energy and who to cue are certainly issues in almost all repertoire, and especially so in very contrapuntal pieces. More often than not, when doing choral/orchestral works, I tend to err on the side of sticking with the singers. They’re likely to be that little bit more insecure than instrumentalists because they don’t have the security of a physical reference point that one has on an instrument, and they have to deal with text (and they’re farther away). One thing that is important to remember is that singers not only need help getting started, but also finishing- much more so than instrumentalists. A choir can’t place a final consonant unless you show them where it is, and that’s an important part of making the language intelligible to the audience.That said, you should never look at the orchestra as simply accompanimental. The main thing is that need to be constantly making tiny adjustments in your focus and your energy. You can’t afford to get stuck just conducting the sopranos or the trombones.  It’s just like driving- you don’t just set out for another town and just turn at all the junctions. You’re constantly, intuitively adjusting to all the minute changes in the road. You feel the violins are a little too soft, give them an eyebrow, you feel the basses are late, click the point of the stick nice and crisply in their direction. Perhaps you sense someone is a little confused about counting- you need to jump to them even if you would usually be looking elsewhere.

Even when instrumental sections are not doubling the choir, you can create more cohesiveness by showing a really compelling musical shape that everyone can sense and follow. Everyone on stage should be feeding off your sense of purpose and direction- when you start a phrase you should know where it’s going (same for the whole piece), and if the players can sense this coming from you, they then have that sense of inevitability that helps them feel solid and confident.

As far as very contrapuntal music goes….. I basically study this kind of music very slowly and very carefully, beginning with very thorough analysis of every note. You can mark every entrance and have a little short hand for what’s going on. For instance, if I have four imitative entrances of the same idea, I mark them each with the abbreviation of the instrument and their place in the order, ie


If I know something important about what is happening, then I can include that, so if the second and fourth entrances are in inversion, or retrograde or whatever, I’ll include that


I’ll also have analytical names for all the motivic cells, perhaps even separating out rhythmic and melodic motivic ideas as many composers develop those two aspects of a theme with tremendous independence, and bracket out bits of motivic material so I can see how everything is combined

Then, you have to practice memorizing the sequence of cues and entrances, but if you understand the logic of them, it doesn’t take that long.

Hope that  gives you something to work with. Feel free to write again




Dear Mr. Woods

Thank you very much for your advice, Mr. Woods. It is, as far as I can tell, the most useful and understandable answer to that question I have ever received.

Regrettably, I have yet to experience conducting a “standard” orchestra…the student orchestra I conduct is made-up of mostly string players, with the occasional flutist or clarinetist. Brass is still a far-away fantasy, since it is wildly unpopular with the student body. Nevertheless, this does not stop us from working towards performing Gloria from Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain – pieces that the orchestra “hates” for their mind-shattering difficulty (for them) but remain as among the few pieces that have the unique ability to give both performer and audience a “glimpse of eternity”. Your advice has gone a long way in making the opportunity to glimpse eternity possible. Many thanks indeed.GTI

Dear GTI So glad it was helpful. Don’t worry, there is no such thing as a standard orchestra. This has started to look like a blog post, so I hope you don’t mind if I recycle… \Good luck with Handel and Mozart. Mind shattering or not, if you don’t push the orchestra, you’re cheating them.

All best wishes

PS- GTI has already turned this into a blog post here…. Gotta love trackbacks.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “And you call yourself a quasi-conductor?”

  1. Pingback: Naivette… « Postcards from Far & Away

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Messiah- Top 11 tips for not messing it up.

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