In my recent The Podium Mystery blog (Sept. 17), I asked how conductors get their results — what it takes to create a great performance. Several replies to my blog pointed out very correctly that the main work of the conductor is not done in the concert, but rather in rehearsals. It puts to rest the notion that a conductor is only beating time.
Here’s another blog, by Shankar Vedantam in Deceptive Cadence, looking into the ephemeral interaction between musicians and conductors.
Vedantam mentions a 2012 European study, “Leadership in Orchestra Emerges from the Causal Relationships of Movement Kinematics.” In this curious exercise, the researchers attempted to verify and analyze how the conductor’s “motor behavior” affects the “aesthetic quality of music.”
The researchers used infrared technology to pinpoint when and where the interaction between conductor and musician took place (in this case the violin section). The result was not surprising: the conductor leads and the musicians follow. I could have told them that. As you probably know, the term Kinematics describes motion, most often in engineering and robotics.
There was more to this scientific study: two conductors lead the same orchestra. One was a seasoned conductor and the other an amateur. Who produced the most satisfying music? Surprise, surprise — the professional baton twirler. I’m now thinking I too could become a scientist or clairvoyant.
If an orchestra is coached properly I do think the conductor could be eliminated, but it would result in a lot of extra rehearsal time. So the conductor not only provides the musical leadership, but is probably cost effective — besides people enjoy watching the person on the podium.
I think the bigger question might be, “How can we train conductors to handle all the responsibilities they are expected to do now?” A stimulating view of a conductor’s job is found in Leonard Slatkin’s new autobiography, “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro,” which should be required reading for all aspiring conductors. Concert-goers would also enjoy this fascinating and entertaining look behind the scenes.
One thing I’m still curious about is how conductors can work all over the world and cover multiple conducting contracts. They must attend fund-raising dinners and do interviews in between rehearsals. They also deal with the musicians’ union, management and the board, and charm the patrons of the orchestra. Oh, and don’t forget studying scores.
I suggest that conductors take classes in magic and find wrinkle-free clothing so they can catnap anywhere and still look good on the podium.