A Composer's Adventures

Twirling Batons

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Gustavo Dudamel, music director at the LA Philharmonic.

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.

Michael Colgrass


  1. I don’t have much experience working under conductors since most of my work has been in the pop and jazz fields. I have seen, though, an orchestra inspired and by a conductor who offers a ‘unified focus of feeling’. In my experience, even pro players often don’t have an emotional connection to the music and a verbal description of what is happening or the pointing out of an aspect of beauty of the passage or work can bring the performers to a level of inspiration and renewed interest and energy. Too, when a conductor gets ‘into it’ he telegraphs an excitement that can fire an ensemble. Like-ability can be an X factor here…

    Regarding the kinematics experiment: Of course, a scientific study that includes the unquantifiable terms ‘aesthetic quality’ and ‘satisfying’ can never be scientifically satisfactory. Still the attempt to unravel what is happening and what ‘works’ is sure to be edifying.

    I recall that there was an attempt in Communist Russia to do away with conductors but it just meant that the concertmaster was doing the cueing and the count-offs.

    One of my gigs is to rehearse a community jazz big band on a weekly basis. The job is to rehearse amateur players in playing music that they like but is quite adventurous for their skill level. So, I take them through the arrangements and help to iron out the rough spots. They also want me there during performance, they seem to feel secure knowing that someone is tending the fire though I do very little other than count them off and conduct the odd ritard or fermata. So I guess there is a place for conducting even in the jazz field but in jazz at least the idea that conducting is a requirement seems pretentious to me and I’d rather not see someone in front of a big band waving their arms continually and following players who are busy getting on with the job and ignoring him.

  2. Bruce—Your remark about a conductor conveying a “unified focus of feeling” brings to mind one of the best conductors I have played under: Gunther Schuller. With a special orchestra mixed with classical and jazz musicians he would give everyone an equal understanding of the music which usually mixed jazz and classical techniques. He did that not only in words but with his body. You couldn’t miss the point of the music under his stick. And the results were always very satisfying to listener and performer alike.
    When I read about the kinematics ‘scientific experiment’ to measure the relationship between conductor and orchestra, I was reminded of an incident that took place when I played in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra. A high-ranking general attended one of our concerts and commented afterward that string players’ bows were not all in synch with each other and said that the orchestra needed some good military drilling in order to get “in step.” This kind of ignorance is common among those who are not a part of the performing world.
    In a good orchestra the tips of the violin section’s bows can relate perfectly to the beat of the music with or without a conductor when the music doesn’t change tempo and we don’t need a group of scientists to prove it: we have our ears to verify it.
    Your comments about a community orchestra are particularly relevant here because the help that good leadership can give to amateur musicians is particularly significant. They look to the conductor not only for a beat but for guidance in interpretation and also to convey confidence which reassures players and makes them feel comfortable.

  3. As a middle school choral conductor who has been completely ineffective and somewhat effective, it has been very educational to begin to understand what one needs to get musicians to make music. Really, any of my middle-schoolers can make greatly inspired music, and they do it all the time…when no one’s watching. As long as it’s impulsive, spur of the moment, silly, they can do amazing things. But when you want them to emote a difficult piece that they’ve been working on for two months, even though they know much more about it, even though they’re really more capable of doing it well than they were the impulsive music, they won’t. They’ll go inward, even shut down and stop singing, while you’re waving your arms! I’m finding daily that it takes a genuine connection, in the moment, with these musicians, to make the music. Looking good won’t do it, bullying won’t do it, even clear, concise instructions and rehearsal won’t do it. They have to trust me and trust themselves, and I have to open myself up to them, look them in the eye, recognize them, love them. It’s HARD. Professional conductors, I assume, have only a slightly different challenge, in that, if they don’t connect, the orchestra still sounds “good.” But they won’t make music.

  4. Adam—Your remarks are very insightful and significant. It’s easy to conduct a professional orchestra, but an entirely different kind of challenge to lead a group of amateurs, especially young children still learning how to negotiate their instruments. I often receive emails from middle school kids asking about my “Old Churches,” written for middle school band. I find, and band directors corroborate this, that anecdotes about how I conceived the piece help get an emotional response from children that shows up in their in their playing. For example when I explain that the “murmuring effect” is the soft muttering of monks in the large dark hallways of cathedral, that seems to stir a sense of intrigue in children. Also that the aluminum kitchen bowls represent distant church bells seems to arouse special curiosity and help fill in a picture for them of what the music means. In general a sense of mystery attracts children (as it does adults), hence my writing of newer piece for kids with names like “Mysterious Village” and “Ghost River.” My sympathies are with you especially when picking band repertoire for children to play, since so much of it is superficial and uninteresting. So let me encourage you to arouse the interest of composers within your reach (and good ones who may seem out of your reach) to take on the challenge (and a big challenge it is) to write new pieces for children that have some emotional and intellectual interest that can win over the attention of kids (and their parents by the way, who sit patiently through their children’s concerts). As it stands, publishers seem to find mainly non composers to write for children, so don’t wait for them to provide you with good stuff. Take the initiative yourself and get some good music written for youngsters. They deserve the best and too often we serve them the worst.

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