The worst conducting advice in the history of the universe

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.

Combining generative and reactive hearing on the podium is a difficult balancing act

Combining generative and reactive hearing on the podium is a difficult balancing act

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.

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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

Saturday, 8 February, 2014 2:00PM
The Bridgewater Hall

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

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33 comments on “The worst conducting advice in the history of the universe”

  1. Evan Tucker

    Jurowski or Nezet-Seguin? It can’t be Nelsons can it?… he looks like a drug addict up there whose clothes are on the floor until the moment he comes onstage.

  2. John McMurray

    Off-topic but just how many players did the VPO have in that session?? There appear to be five trumpets (plus the bass trumpet) and at least seven horns in addition to the four Wagner tubas… THREE bumpers?

  3. David Hutchings

    I feel I need to say something in defense of this statement, Since the author starts off with a whole bunch of disclaimers. It’s common for student conductors to be filmed in lessons, masterclasses etc – from within the orchestra. The feedback that can be gleaned from watching onesself again can actually really make you think ‘oh no – that wild flapping gesture that I thought looked so expressive in its flamboyance, was actually just a wild flapping gesture’. (OAH style, if I dare say that in Wales?)

    With a good combination of a conducting tutor analyzing the footage, and genuine self criticism, watching yourself back on camera is actually great both for crushing the egomania and for building up those areas of conducting technique which are either required, or just generally needed in the job.

    I strongly suspect this wasn’t the advice of someone who wanted his students to be egomaniacs, but quite the opposite – self critical musicians who always strive to be better.

  4. David Hutchings

    You have my apologies, your second last paragraph says exactly to what I was referring:

    “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.”

  5. Evan Tucker

    OOOOHHH! Petrenko! :)

    …at least that’s my first thought when I think of an image conscious young conductor who isn’t much focused on the music.

  6. r.grainger

    How many players did the VPO have? The VStOO has about 150 now, and then probably not a whole lot fewer. That’s a good pool for the VPO to recruit from.

  7. H. Bledsoe

    Well said. I wonder how the visual aspect of things will change with the rise of female conductors?

  8. G Dan Mitchell

    Before you wrote your screed, I wonder if you stopped to consider that this is probably not about being “on camera” as a conductor or about concern for your appearance or anything similar… but simply a way of saying that you must remain connected and focused as a conductor?

    Seems to me that you’ve worked yourself up over an idea that no one actually expressed…

  9. Mark Powell

    This is an exceptionally well written piece. Spot on in so many respects. But, as a fellow conductor, I do have to say that seeing Solti again is particularly compelling. Every. . and I mean EVERY moment of rhythm is present in his body somewhere. . . . arms. . . head. . . . hands. . . even his eyes. . . there’s never a doubt what the pulse is.

    Please tell me you actually teach some very lucky conducting students. This is a perspective so many need to hear.

  10. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Dan
    If you re-read the post a little more carefully, I think you’ll find that not only I consider this possibly but addressed it in two places. In the third paragraph:
    “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).

    And in the sixth paragraph:
    “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.”

    In this case, I used the expression “the camera is always on” as shorthand for an outlook on conducting that makes the visual aspect of the craft the prime concern both for conductors and those who evaluate them. As I wrote in the piece, I find it hard to believe that this teacher uses the phrase in such a simplistic way, but that I often see evidence of young conductors who are thinking more about what they should be doing to look “right” than about how they want the music to sound, or how the orchestra is playing. And I’ve certainly seen huge evidence of many decision-makers in the business who think it’s more important to never bend one’s knees or to always keep the baton nearly parallel to the floor than to actually be able to deliver great music-making, catch wrong notes.

    Of course, the title of the post is an obvious bit of hyperbole, but experience tells me that catchy, flashy or provocative titles attract more readers.

    Finally, I really enjoyed your photography. Thanks for including the link, and please know, I have nothing at all against cameras. I even own one myself :)

    Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps.

    Ken

  11. Kenneth Woods

    Many thanks, Mark. Glad you appreciate the Solti, too. It’s really something! I do teach, but no longer at a university, just workshops, masterclasses and occasionally privately.

  12. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Helen! So great to hear from you.

    I do have some very specific worries about how this will all apply to women over the next 20 years. I first wrote about it in this post from 2007:

    http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2007/11/21/women-in-the-conducting-profession/

    “There is, however, anpther huge, difficult and awkward issue out there, and it’s not one that anybody seems to want to talk about.

    When the breakthrough comes, it is going to be market driven for better or (and!) worse, and big changes are going to come fast and furious. The recent history of instrumental soloists tells a sobering tale- a generation ago female soloists were a tiny minority in their field, now, especially among violinists, they are the majority and the biggest stars.

    However, some part of their success has come with an exploitation of the glamour factor- it is an inescapable fact that the majority of young soloists out there are quite attractive, whether male of female. Agents and orchestra managers have woken up to the fact that glamour sells, and sells big, and this has opened doors to many young women.

    However, this is a quintessentially Faustian bargain, and already the generation of women soloists in their 30s and 40s are getting impatient with having to play the violin-babe role. More worryingly, what are the opportunities for soloists of any gender who don’t fit the glamour mould? What is the future for today’s violin babes? Will they be dumped the way Hollywood dumps middle-aged actresses even as their artistry is reaching its peak (note Hollywood doesn’t do the same with men)? An instrumentalist should be at their peak in their 50′s, but will the industry promote opportunities for 50 year-old women with the same verve they promote 20 year-olds? Will we miss great talents in the search for glamour? Neither Ginette Neveu nor David Oistrakh would likely qualify as glamorous or marketable today- would they get opportunities to make their mark in today’s music world? I think it is very unlikely either would get a record deal today and would probably end up in academia- beloved by their students but unknown to history.

    Young women shouldn’t have to make that Faustian deal- if you can play, you can play. Attractive young women shouldn’t be pressured to cash in on their looks, or to “ramp it up” or “tone it down.” Sure, this is show business to an extent, but it’s the playing that gets standing ovations, not the dress.

    The stakes are even higher in conducting, because it is so visual. I worry there will be a huge, huge emphasis on looks over the next 10-15 years. Some young women will have doors open for them, but for the wrong reasons, while others will not stand a chance because they’re the “wrong” physical type. I’ve seen the future- recently a MD search in the US got down to two candidates. In the end, the orchestra chose a female candidate of very, very dubious skill because she was so attractive and made that her primary selling point at her audition- one board member said that “it doesn’t matter if someone can conduct if nobody’s coming to the concert. Her looks will bring people in.” This is not affirmative action or reverse discrimination, but something more insidious- putting the most exploitive kind of mainstream marketing ideals ahead of the mission of the orchestra. It could just have easily have been a dashing young man (we’ve all seen this happen with men) beating out a veteran woman conductor, but this is the future, and, even if the people are pretty, the future may not be. A leather body suit in a promo shot may bring audience members once, but if the concert stinks, they won’t come back for anything.”

  13. Sasha

    It’s an interesting post, Ken, but I cannot fully agree with you. I just taught a conducting masterclass and was working very hard to make my students look more professional AND elegant while on the podium. I fully acknowledge that there are no set “rules” in conducting, but part of my job as a conducting teacher is help my students conduct in a manner that would be pleasant to look at. They are young and if they do awkward looking things on the podium the players will be giving them hard time. That said, I never ask them to do things because of visuals only – it naturally has to be in synch with the music and inspire the players to play in a proper mood and character.

    Via FB

  14. Kelly

    On the other hand…perhaps the concept was for the “inner” camera, that self – awareness of technical clarity, which can expedite limited (expensive) rehearsal time in certain endeavors, such as opera. We’ve all seen conductors “get into the music” so deeply, they may as well be mixing cement for some counting bars or insecure actors hoping for a cue to sing in a complicated ensemble.
    Just saying…

    Via FB

  15. Keith

    Great post, Ken! I have many similar thoughts when it comes to young composers these days and the influence of social media. Most of them need to spend less time talking about their music and trying to be media darlings and far more time actually polishing their craft (which is in short supply these days). No one could ever claim that Szell was photogenic, but the man knew a thing or two about conducting an orchestra.

    Via FB

  16. Karin

    “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.” Thanks for being brave enough to say this publicly, as a conductor and a teacher. Go explore sound, people – you’ll be shocked at what you do and do not hear. And yes, please be the first to audition conductors behind a screen. The music needs that, as does the “business”.

    Via FB

  17. Matthew

    I think that the camera can be a useful tool in conducting pedagogy, but it should not be the primary method of training, which unfortunately it has become in most programs. It becomes that way because it is an easy and tangible method for both teachers and students. But I agree, there should be much more to it. It’s kind of like a metronome…very useful, particularly in the foundational stages, but a some point those basics need to be so much a part of you that you don’t need the aid anymore. Otherwise, you’ll never transcend them and move on to the next artistic level, where you start to really communicate and actually make music.

    Via FB

  18. Chris

    agree with Matthew, but the essence of a conductor is her ability to communicate to the orchestra with her baton, her body, her eyes, her soul. In the end, you have to WILL them to do your bidding!

    via FB

  19. Jean-Ronald LaFond

    Brilliant. The same can be said for singers and actors. I am a singer by profession but studied orchestral conducting under Gustav Meier for five years. Maestro Meier always said one can learn gestures in 10 minutes. Conducting is about how well you know the score. If you’re busy communicating the music, you have no time to think about how you look in that moment. Excellent writing style as well!

  20. Peter Davison

    It is an interesting blog and I’d agree with you. The expectations heaped on young film-star conductors makes them agonisingly self-conscious and narcissistic. Self-consciousness always disturbs instinct, yet it is good instinct that we want when making music. Of course, if a conductor – male or female – looks good, projects a glamorous or even sexy image, they can’t be blamed for that, if it is true to who they are. They will doubtlesss find plenty of marketing and PR people, magazine editors and uncritical fans eager to enjoy the glitz of the surface. But all of that can’t make up for a lack of talent, technique and substance.

    A lot of the young conductors today have meteoric careers. Simon Rattle was among the first to combine youthful vitality, prodigious musicianship and high ambition effectively. He is a man of prodigious talent and confidence. Many have followed, imitating his style and in pursuit of the dream, needing to have a big job before they are thirty. Such appointments excite audiences (for a while), but the music business is increasingly obsessed with youth and beauty, as it competes with pop-music for air time, ticket and CD sales etc. In a business where there is a surfeit of talent coming off the conservatory productions lines, if you look good, it may be the advantage you need to get a career going. Good luck to anyone starting a career; you need all the help you can get.

    But we are in danger of forgetting that maturity is hard-won and takes time. Maturity of insight, a broad experience of life, the richness of an artist’s hinterland are what make for great performances. Even good technique and hours of practice are not enough in my view. I’d say to a young conductor – sometimes the camera is on and sometimes it is off. You will be placed under intense scrutiny by a lot of pelple who think they know better than you, who will judge you superficially and give you a lot of bad advice. Some will know more than you and you should listen to them. You will learn a lot about yourself on the podium and off it, before the camera and away from it. Never think one perspective or one opinion is all there is.

    I’d say – go and live a full life alongside your conducting. It is human experience which will deepen your music-making and make you a more rounded person; one able to communicate and inspire your fellow musicians.

    We are in danger of creating a generation of musicians who are career obsessed and only able to function in front of a camera, where they are can perform a pre-packaged set of cliches based on how we think a conductor is supposed to be.

    If you want to get really existential about it, go to the final scene of Visconti’s Death in Venice, where a tripod camera stands elegantly before the ocean vista as von Aschenbach’s dead body is carted away. We are the observer and the observed, but the camera will only ever tell a small part of the story.

  21. Miguel

    I share your point of view, but it seems that the visual aspect is more important than we think (or we’d like to accept).
    Have a look to this paper, “Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance”
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/16/1221454110.abstract
    It is not about conductors but instrumentalists, but the results are quite controversial. I think they are reliable, even when they are very disappointing from an artistic point of view.
    I am curious about your opinion on the paper.

  22. Ed Carwithen

    Always enjoy reading your thought provoking articles. On glamour (women conductors/soloists) musicians; you do mention maturity, age fifty or so. Excellence will wear well while flash may not. This may speak also to the conducting “for the camera.” Perhaps music is one of those rare fields where true excellence doesn’t present itself until sufficient tempering has honed the true from the fluff.

  23. Ken Wilson

    I have been privileged to see conductors who seem to conduct with very little thought for the audience but have created magic from the orchestra. There are those who are very flamboyant and are also fine conductors. I heard a world famous conductor who said ” what I have discovered is no mater how much I wave my arms about the players will only play what is written on the page” as a non musician I would rather go to a concert where the conductor is ‘lost’ in the score than watch one who is obviously playing to the audience. The one exception is the last night of the proms when we expect a charismatic conductor.

    I am a regular visitor to a series of military concerts where trainee conductors are trained and they are always filmed to allow an analysis of their performance.

  24. Pingback: The worst conducting advice in the history of the universe | Choirpundit

  25. Lawrence Eckerling

    This is a fantastic article, and right on. It’s well thought out and stated well. The whole notion is preposterous. Every conductor’s gesture should be for the benefit of the orchestra in order to influence the sound. Period. Period. Period. Everything else is residual. (Just look at Szell or Toscanini!)

  26. Annie Stanyon

    Brilliant! Thank you so much for that…I’m a grad. student, a historian and have been struggling with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s obviously ridiculously effective but completely bizarre conducting technique. You’re helping me make sense of what I was thinking and more to the point, what he was doing. Finally, if necessay, and in context, may I quote you?

  27. Charlotte

    This brought to mind an incident out of my business career. (Definitely relevant only as to focus on visual vs message). The company I worked for brought in a trainer to teach some of us how to be effective at public speaking. Her technique for controlling nerves while giving a speech involved: plant feet x inches apart, use y leg muscles to assure firm stance; remember to breath deeply at regular intervals and–the finale–to keep the body from looking tense, visualize having an orange under each armpit. Never could keep both oranges in place so had to switch to just looking at the audience and talking.

  28. Jim

    I really am of the opinion that Kristjan Jaarvi suffers greatly from this 20th/21st century disease of style over substance. Offering so much promise in his early outings as a conductor, his recent concerts have been less than impressive, except of course for the constant flick of the hair and pandering to the camera shot… ;)

  29. elrond

    I found the visual of Solti absolutely mesmerizing, even with the volume turned off. Give me that over a contrived visual technique any day.

  30. Stephen P Brown (@Stephen_P_Brown)

    Oh, I missed this post the first time round! This is sad and quite amusing, and the comments are intriguing, too! As we continue to traverse this new technological age it will be interesting to see if it supports or directs our existence – it is a fine line and in this particular case, easy to get out of perspective. I’m reminded of the scene in “Deep Impact” when some young astronauts are more worried about how they look on camera than they are about flying an innovative shuttle and saving the planet, and the ‘old fogey’ is worried about their focus. Same thing with conducting – there are the show[wo]men and there are those who support the people actually making music. Thanks for putting it out there, Kenneth, and sparking discussion about it. I must admit to garnering less and less respect for the Educational environment these days (Are they teaching to make money, or share with others what works and what doesn’t? Hmm)

  31. Garry Humphreys

    I studied conducting more than 30 years ago with the late Bryan Fairfax, and the most telling thing he said was that ‘What feels good doesn’t necessarily look good or convey anything helpful to the players’. A more revelatory observation than it might first appear, and made me really think about what I was doing (or trying to do).

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