Several months ago I was sipping a flat white in a café with a friend and former student who was describing the teaching methods of one of America’s more eminent conducting pedagogues- a gentleman I’ve never met nor observed.
Apparently one of his favorite aphorisms these days is that, when conducting, “the camera is always on.”
Now, I need to include a whole bunch of disclaimers here- I don’t know the context or spirit in which this advice was/is given. It’s possible I completely misunderstood what I was hearing when my friend told me this (we stayed on this subject for maybe five minutes). Perhaps they meant that “the Camerata is always on.” The Manchester Camerata are a very good orchestra. So is the Salzburg Camerata. Maybe he just meant that one of these fine groups is always “on”?
Still, in the six months or so since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking over and over again about this notion, about the possibility that a generation of young conductors is being trained to think of their conducting in terms of how they look, on camera or off. It’s become a bit like wondering if you’ve left the iron on when you left on vacation- once the idea is planted in your head, it eats away at you until you have to do something about it.
So, here I am, doing something about it.
I suppose I always needed to take on this topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it hard to believe that any teacher would actually tell a young conductor to approach conducting as if “the camera is always on.” I’m sure his point of view was more nuanced than my friend was able to describe in a few fleeting moments of a wide ranging conversation. Nevertheless, I have seen a growing obsession with the visual aspect of conducting among people who should know better, including other teachers, managers, administrators and critics. “The camera is always on,” regardless of its original context, seems like extremely handy shorthand for a mindset about conducting I see very often these days, so that is how I propose to use it for the rest of this essay.
Having thought about it now for some months, I think that “the camera is always on” may be the worst and most potentially destructive piece of advice I’ve ever heard given to young conductors. It’s certainly right up there with “be a complete dick to everyone and wear a cape to work,” “be a real maestro and make the effing soloist follow you” and “never look a score outside rehearsal until the day of a concert.” It’s probably even worse that “you can leave out the exposition repeat if you want to.”
Actually, it’s not even close- “the camera is always on” is in a different league of bad conducting advice from almost anything else I can imagine any teacher, colleague, employer or mentor suggesting. Being a jerk, being inflexible, even being incompetent are all behaviours that will instantly get you a lot of negative feedback. You’ll either learn your lesson quickly, or cease to conduct.
Making your appearance on the podium a prime concern, however, is more like giving yourself a little bit of cancer. By the time you know the damage you’ve done, it’s too late. In fact, not only will you not get much negative feedback when you first do it, you’ll probably get a fair bit of positive feedback when you start conducting as if “the camera is always on..” It may even help you get an audition or win a job.
But just as a smoking a cigarette can make you feel good, but smoking cigarettes will probably age you prematurely, give you emphysema, lung cancer and cause your death, playing to, or should I say conducting to the camera, may work wonders in the short term (and grad school is the shortest term of them all), but the road it will take you down is likely to be just as ruinous.
So why is this such bad advice? Don’t all conductors, even all performers, kind of want to look cool? Don’t we live in a visual world, and isn’t conducting a visual medium? Am I just being some kind of moralistic fuddyduddy who can’t accept that “the camera is always on” is just sound, pragmatic advice for the modern conductor in the modern world?
Allow me to share a cautionary tale.
About a year before I heard the phrase “the camera is always on” used in the context of conducting, I saw a concert at a major international festival that really got me thinking about this very issue. On the podium was a young-ish conductor with a HUGE career. Ever since he came on the scene, folks have been talking about how charismatic he is, how talented he is, what great hands he’s got, and how the camera loves him. (No, I’m not naming names, and no, it was not Dudamel). I’d seen him before a number of times, both live and on TV, and although I’d never been particularly won over by his musicianship, it only took me seconds to see what everyone was talking about. He was what is known, in the parlance of our time, as “the complete package.” It was also clear to me that he was someone who took his appearance very, very seriously, and who was keenly aware that the camera was on. To his credit, he’d mastered his relationship with the camera- the camera worked for him, it served him, it loved him. Everything he did looked great, every gesture looked like a CD cover.
But the last time I saw this maestro, his complete package was looking like it had been damaged during shipment. What I saw that night was someone teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It looked to me like all he could think about was what he looked like, what move to do next, what pose to strike for the nex t CD cover. He seemed totally disconnected from the music, and completely consumed with anxiety about when to do the next hair toss or when to unleash the next thunderclap downbeat. He looked awkward, nervous, neurotic and like he might simply stop at any time. In spite of his enormous fee and army of lackeys, I felt bad for him. It’s amazing how fast envy can change to pity.
Why couldn’t he move with the grace and flair he’d had in spades only twelve months earlier? I think he’d forgotten about what motivates us to move as conductors. I suspected that the obsession with his visual style had driven him to a point where he couldn’t figure out how to make decisions about what visual effect he wanted to achieve from moment to moment.
Music making is something that happens at astonishing speed- there’s little time to decide which move to use next when you’re on the podium, especially if you’re trying to figure out what the basis of your decision is going to be. Of course, we all want to look cool, but what is cool? How am I to know in the heat of the moment whether people will think my “Kleiber-esque lefthand swirlyque” or my “Lenny twitch” or my “Reiner-rhino stare” will look coolest? How do I decide what will look best on camera in the middle of a Mahler symphony?
A few years ago, I wrote a post about audition videos, in which I admitted that in this day and age, if you want to get a job audition, you’ve got to have a video that presents you as someone who looks like what the people watching your video expect a conductor to look like. You need to look like what the fourth sarrusophone player learned a conductor was supposed to look like when he took undergraduate conducting thirty years ago at Northeast Sheboygan Community and Veterinary College. Back then, I was still resigned to the fact that being able to look a certain way on the podium at a certain time was probably a hoop one has to jump through at some point in your career.
But would you choose a surgeon to operate on you based on how they looked on a video? “Oh! He looks very medical! I’ll let him do that heart valve replacement I’ve been needing!” Conducting may not be heart surgery, rocket science, or even oboe playing, but most people on orchestral search committees don’t know any more about conducting than they do about the inner workings of the mitral valve. Imagine hiring a sign language interpreter on the basis of how cool you thought they looked, and not realizing that they’re just making things up and don’t actually know sign language?Wait…. Didn’t this just happen?
But the real problem is not that evaluating a conductor on the basis of how they look is unhelpful (although it is), it’s that trying to make your conducting look they way you think people want it to look is deeply self-destructive.
The “camera is always on” highway is a road to nowhere, because once you adopt that approach, you stop learning your craft. The only place you can learn to conduct is on the podium, and the only way you can learn what works and what doesn’t is to listen to the results of the gestures you make.
We have to listen REALLY hard, and we have to be constantly evaluating the musical efficacy of every twitch, jerk, flutter, stab and sweep. We have to listen to see if raising our eyebrows at the clarinets gets a brighter sound. We have to listen to see if smiling at the violins gets them to play more off the string, or moving the baton a little lower stops the trumpets from rushing. We have to listen to see if a more pointed beat helps the orchestra to stay with you or makes them drag.
And one can’t just be reactive! One’s generative hearing (the process of creating an aural picture in your imagination) also needs to be strong. Every single second we’re up there, we’ve got to think about what’s coming next, holding inside you your concept of sound, balance, phrasing, and you have to think about every single detail of articulation, intonation and texture the composer is after. We also have to be responsive to the musicians in front of us, building on their strengths, engaging with their creativity, helping them play with confidence and learning from their experience.
If we’re not constantly aware of what we’re after, what we’re doing and what we’re getting, we will never, ever, ever, ever improve as conductors. And if you’re not improving, you’re getting worse.
I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be focusing on how they look while conducting and really hearing everything an orchestra is doing at the same time. We may all just have to accept that there are going to be moments on our videos that don’t look cool. One will find other ways, off the podium, to improve them, but at the end of the day, if you look a little awkward, if your posture seems a little strange, if you’re breaking all the rules you learned in conducting school, then that may well be the price you pay for getting the best possible musical result on a given day. How do we know if we got the best possible musical result? By listening to the orchestra at every second in every rehearsal for years and years, and constantly evaluating whether what you were doing was helping or hurting.
- It’s not just about how effectively you communicate your ideas and instincts about the music to the orchestra, it’s even more about how compelling, vivid, interesting and, perhaps above all, honest, those ideas and instincts are. Any energy or focus that goes into thinking about your next “move” is bound to obscure your inner vision of the music.
- Thinking about how you look can only get in the way of your connection to the music and your connection with the musicians. Insincerity is poison for a conductor- musicians can spot it in a millisecond, and nothing makes them disconnect from the performance more quickly. Being effective on the podium goes beyond effectively showing what think the composer is after to the musicians. It’s about connecting to the music, and helping your colleagues in the orchestra connect to the music, and to each other.
- Of course, there are talents like Haitink and Kleiber who manage to elevate conducting to a visual art form with its own aesthetic every time they conduct and make music at the highest possible level, but Mitropolous, Furtwangler, Solti, Gergiev and countless others would never have gotten past the video round for a local youth orchestra gig.
(You can see both tummy and underpants in this video of one of the greatest and most successful recording sessions in music history.Apparently, nobody told him the camera was on that day. Sadly, Sir Georg did not advance to the live round of the auditions for Assistant Conductor of the Bi-Cities Community Sightreading Society on the basis of this audition video)
- These conductors, the graceful and the awkward, got incredible results from their colleagues because they had perfected a technique for projecting their instincts and ideas about the music to their colleagues in the orchestra. More to the point, they got great results because they were/are great musicians. Some looked cool doing it, some didn’t.
- We all want to look like cool. At least, none of us wants to look any dorkier than we have to. Trying to look cool, however, is not cool. Coolness comes from within. Solti was cool, even when he looked a little strange. Mr Complete Package last year was not.
- If you want to be more elegant on the podium (Keiber), become a more elegant person. If you want to be more in command (Reiner) know your music better. If you just try to look more elegant or more in command, you’re posing- musicians know you’re posing, and so do the audience.
- When you’re making music honestly, how cool you look will depend a lot on how good the orchestra is. If you want to look cooler on the podium, you’ve got to make your orchestra play better. You can’t help them improve if you’re thinking about how you look rather than how they sound.
- Many of the things we find visually unappealing in conductors are natural response to stress. Fear, frustration, impatience or lack of preparation all tend to manifest themselves in how we stand, how we hold the stick (if we use one), how we move and how we breathe. If you want to look “better” on the podium, you have to address those underlying causes of your visual/technical problems Trying to look relaxed and centred is way less effective than becoming relaxed and centered.
- Like it or not, we all often have to work in stressful situations, with weaker players, limited rehearsal time or when our study time was somehow inadequate. This means that we all have days when we struggle to stand, to hold the stick, to move and to breathe. “The camera is always on” teaches us to try to look like we’re not stressed. This approach means that in situations when the weaker orchestra most needs your help, or an under-rehearsed concert needs you to bring things to life, or when you need to REALLY concentrate and not f*ck up, you’re focused on your looks rather than the situation at hand. Go ahead and look like a dork on days like that, but help the orchestra, make the music come to life, and for heaven’s sake, don’t f*ck up if you can avoid it.
- Conducting auditions should be held behind a screen. Audio recordings can lie because they can be manipulated, but in a live setting, the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of any given conductor with any given orchestra should be instantly obvious to anyone one with ears to hear. I’ve proven this thesis to myself 1,000 times by now at workshops, competitions auditions and watching conductors repeat repertoire with orchestras great and terrible. I’m 100% serious- conducting auditions are the only orchestral auditions that should take place behind a screen.
- By all means, critique video of yourself- it’s a great tool and one of the biggest challenges for any conductor is knowing whether what you thought you did was what you really did. Be creative about what you can do to become the conductor you want to be, but when you walk in to the next rehearsal, be yourself, be authentic and honest.
- My advice? When conducting, the camera is always off. But everything is being recorded for CD release by DG. Focus on that.
Updates and comments-
It’s been great to see the strong response to this post. Thanks for reading and for sharing it.
There are some interesting points made in the comments, and I want to just add a few quick follow-up thoughts.
- I’m not advocating that conductors should move less or be less “flashy.” What I’m suggesting is that whatever a conductor does onstage should be in service of the music and true to their personality. Remember, Bernstein’s conducting teacher was Fritz Reiner- one would never, ever guess that two such visually dis-similar maestri had a link. Props to both of them- Reiner for teaching Bernstein in a way that freed him to find his own style, and Bernstein for not simply imitating his teacher, who was certainly one of the great conductors.
- I’m not excusing poor technique or encouraging vague gestures. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that the best way to learn an effective technique, a clear technique, a useful technique, is to listen, not to try to imitate the visual language of another conductor.
- Along these lines- when I was in my early career, and ripped away from the virtuosic colleagues I’d been at school with and trying to cut my teeth with orchestras of mixed standards, I sometimes found myself beating my head against the wall when, for instance, a section would keep dragging or entering late. I’d try to beat “clearer”, and would even videotape rehearsals to see if what I was doing was what I thought I was doing. I’d get closer and closer to the visual ideal of a perfectly clear beat- showing excatly when to prepare and when to play with maximum clarity and precision, and the orchestra wouldn’t improve. Finally, in desperation, I tried getting completely out of the way, as one might with a better orchestra, and guess what- they got better. In this case, conducting less “clearly” and precisely obtained a much better result
- There’s no magic formula. Things that work one place may not in another. I’ve found that my “getting out of the way” method tends to make motoric music way easier to play about 98% of the time, no matter how good or bad the orchestra, but there are exceptions. I had one last summer- a passage in steady 8th notes that went on for days. Moreover, it was a very atmospheric passage- not something you would want to sound “beat-y”. It was not too bad at first, and as I tried to get more fluidity and more atmosphere, and to get the players really listening to each other, I tried to get out of the way a bit more and it all went pear shaped.Just one or two players started fretting, then gradually the virus spread. I thought of the hundreds of times I’d run into similar issues before where just sticking to my guns had worked miracles. Not this time. Things just got worse until I gave in and switched to Kapellmeister mode, and all was then fine. I I should have realized sooner that even though it was a great orchestra, they were losing confidence, not gaining it. The lesson in both this case study and the previous one is that if you find yourself saying “this should be working but it’s not” while in front of an orchestra, think again. In this case, conducting more clearly was what was needed.
- I think teachers can help students to look better and to free themselves from thinking about how they look by directing their awareness in more healthy directions. If I see a technical problem- something that’s perhaps visually hard for the players to read, I try to find a way to correct the visual ambiguity by addressing the music, the musicians and the way in which the conductor is moving rather than what they look like, but I’m still learning strategies for this as a teacher
- One should never make the mistake of equating technical sloppiness with being “musical.” Technique is very important for conductors and is only getting more and more so as we all lose rehearsal time in this age of austerity. The problem is not that thinking about how we look makes us somehow too technical (or too visual), it’s that it stunts the growth of our technique. Real technique, the ability to engage with sound, to take the performance somewhere, to facilitate the best and most confident playing of the orchestra emerges only in relationship to your musicianship and the orchestra, which you can’t fully engage with if you are thinking about your appearance.
Thanks again for reading, everyone
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about how conducting really works, why not come to my talk at The Bridgewater Hall next month?
Magicians of the Orchestra: The Art of Conducting-Strauss’s Voice
International Concert Series
You’ll see me dissect some fascinating footage of great conductors of the past and work with a young conductor in a masterclass with an orchestra of talented musicians from the RNCM