The curse of video

We’re reaching the end of application season for the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop this year (Discovery Program applications are due June 7, and we have 2 spaces open in Emerging Artists due to cancellations). This means I’ve just finished watching a lot of videos of a lot of conductors.

Generally speaking, I think video is not a great tool for evaluating conductors because the vast majority of viewers (including some of the great and the good) don’t know what to look for, can’t separate cause and effect (this can be difficult even for the most knowlegable viewer), and have very simplistic ideas about what a conductor should look like. The old adage that a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing is devastatingly true of conducting- so many instrumentalists on conductor search panels took enough “conducting” in college to know what a first year conductor should look like, and throw out anyone who doesn’t conform to that idea. The irony of this is that few major conductors look like the model citizens we see on instructional videos. Can you imagine Gergiev, Rattle, Solti or Temirkanov getting an assistant conductor audition in America based on a video audition? Hah!

Of course, like all conductors, I probably have the hubris to think I know what to look for on a video, and I think I can tell a gifted conductor in about 15 seconds 9 out of 10 times. Still, I have been wrong. I once picked a chap for a difficult assignment based on what looked like a great video, but what I’d seen was pure choreography, plain and simple. The poor guy was as lacking in talent as anyone I’ve ever worked with. He must have videotaped his moves to that piece and critiqued it dozens and dozens of time.

Looking at your own video is a worthwhile and painful thing to do- it shows a lot of the ticks and habits that everyone develops. Still, the fixation on looks can drive conductors to do some crazy shit. I knew one young woman who would video herself over and over and over again conducting to a CD, until she looked perfect. She always had great audition tapes because that’s what she’d practiced, but her results with actual musicians were mostly disastrous. Her talent was for mime, not music.

Sadly, if you want to get ahead in this business, it’s important to be able to jump through the hoop of looking “correct.” Video puts pressure on us to approach conducting as choreography, not as communication.

Henry Fogel has some good advice on his website about assembling video. His opinion matters far more than mine  (and I agree with everything he says) by quite a bit. Still, it’s no secret what you should aim for on a video.  If you want to get into summer programs and job auditions, your video should  (and all of these are laudible qualities at all levels of work):

1-       Show you standing tall with good posture, feet below the shoulders, no knee bends or toe rises (dismiss Solti, Gergiev from your search here)

2-       Show you holding the baton as in the textbooks with wrist flat-ish to the floor. (Dismiss Bernstein, Karajan, Gergiev again (no toothpicks allowed)

3-       Demonstrate a clear, steady pattern (I won’t even start the list of famous conductors who don’t do this). You want everyone on the committee to recognize the pattern their teacher showed them in Intermediate Conducting at college.

4-       You should not look at the score, or, better yet, you should conduct from memory

5-       Don’t show the orchestra tuning or you bowing or any talking (please!).

I’ve recently heard several industry pros using the term “physically gifted,” mostly in reference to conductors who couldn’t get an orchestra to play together, but who looked good while not getting an orchestra to play together. These punditocrats seem to think that if only they can put these young idols of the podium in front of an orchestra that already plays together, they will achieve something miraculous.

“He/she has a great technique” I hear when such conductors are discussed. That phrase is almost always used to imply that they look good even though the orchestra they conduct doesn’t always sound good. The only measure of a good technique is the conductor’s ability to get an orchestra to play together in an interesting way. That’s what conducting technique is. Not pretty moves. An orchestra playing together is not always attributable to a conductor, but an orchestra playing not together (unless they have the timpanist from Hell- you know who you are- playing for them) is always the fault of the conductor. If it’s not together, the conductor doesn’t have a good technique, no matter how bitchin’ they look up there.

The other thing one hears around the business from the classical Cowells is “she/he is so talented.” I have never, ever heard this expression used to refer to someone who was actually good, but instead, it refers to someone who really doesn’t know what they’re doing, but practices their ineptitude with tremendous flair and abandon. The assumption seems to be that once a conductor shows some competence, they can no longer be held to be “talented” because everyone knows that competent people never improve, so instead we should promote people with more “potential.” Funny, isn’t it….

Technique is about facilitating ensemble and SHOWING and BRINGING LIFE TO THE MUSIC, not about conforming to some completely arbitrary set of rules about posture, pattern and affect. When I look at a video, I want to see the conductor’s depth of understanding of the score coming across- every sf, dim, cresc, stacc and so on. I want to not only see that there’s an sf, but what kind of sf the conductor wants. That’s conducting, and it does take technique, but you don’t learn the technique (beyond the basics, which are important) in a textbook or a workshop, you learn it from trying to express what is in the music. The best moves come from the music, not the other way around.

Also, remember that some conductors conducting from memory on their videos have not memorized the score, but have memorized their moves. Rehearsing from memory is more impressive than performing.

I once played the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra under an amazing (and well known) maestro, who never once opened the score in all the rehearsals. It just sat there on his stand. He knew almost all the rehearsal numbers, all the harmonies, dynamics… everything he wanted. In the concert, he used the score and turned every page. I asked him why, when he obviously knew it cold. “I don’t want to look like an asshole- showing off,” was his answer. I do enjoy conducting from memory every so often just to keep on my toes (call me an asshole), but I like it to feel effortless when I do so, not like I’ve practiced the memorization. I don’t want to give up time I could spend working on the music just to work on the memorization.



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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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7 comments on “The curse of video”

  1. ComposerBastard

    I hope you aren’t expecting the technique of a ballet dancer. Remember, everyone’s body is different and everyone has their own physical limitations and ticks – for better or worse.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    CB- of course, I’m not expecting the technique of ballet dancer. Conducting technique should be much more specific in its connection to the musical text. The goal is not to look pretty (except for the purpose of getting a job) but to show as close to everything in the music that the musicians need to see….. Getting rid of a tick is worthwhile as a way of clearing out the background noise of motion which might obscure what you want to show, not as a way of looking prettier….

  3. Pingback: Great post about videos from Kenneth Woods « All the conducting masterclasses

  4. Teresa Metzger Howe

    Always good to get a refresher course on this subject, Ken. Thanks!

  5. Mikko Utevsky

    I’m finally watching some of my video. It is rather disheartening. I have to say, I can’t imagine rehearsing from memory – even just finding the spot I’m looking for in something simple is daunting without any visual reference, although it doesn’t help that my ensemble is the high school orchestra right now (Sibelius Andante Festivo – the director wants me showing a sharper beat, but I discovered that they’re playing way more marcato than I thought on my tape, so I don’t dare even to keep them together). I have two questions specifically, though, if you’ve got a minute: Should video be solely of performances, or of rehearsal as well? and to what extent is a subpar ensemble damaging? I’ve got footage with high school groups only, whereas I have a friend who got into a class with the Russian National Orchestra. Now, he’s clearly more experienced than I, but he also now has the advantage of having their playing (on Shosty 9, where it’s especially advantageous) where I have kids. Should I give up hope of making it into a summer institute any time in the next five years?

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