“The conductor must not only make his orchestra play, he must make them want to play. He must exalt them. Lift them. Start their adrenaline pouring. Either by pleading or demanding or raging — it doesn’t matter. It is not so much imposing his will on them like a dictator. It is more like projecting his feelings around them…”
— Leonard Bernstein, in his Omnibus television lectures on conducting
This past week, I’ve had the opportunity to play in a series of conducting masterclasses held at my school. Fifteen conductors — some young professionals, some well-established music educators, from the U.S. and abroad — conducted the wind orchestra and received critiques from renowned clinicians, including my school’s own professor of conducting. The experience of playing for fifteen different conductors at various levels of their training was so enlightening. First of all, I realized newly just how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to play under the baton of my school’s amazing conducting professor. Through these masterclasses, I feel like I learned more about conducting than the masterclass participants did! Seriously. I had no idea about just how subtle conducting can be. Example: one of the clinicians explained that if the baton is pointed slightly above the wrist, the ensemble will produce a brighter, more articulate sound; if it is pointed slightly below the wrist, it’ll create a darker, more fluid sound. I didn’t believe it until he demonstrated. The difference was mind-blowing.
I wondered, then — how do we, as musicians, know to play brighter when the baton is slanted a half-centimeter above the wrist? No one taught us this. The only thing we were ever told that a conductor does is keep the beat — but we intrinsically know that they do so much more. The conductor is as much a musician as any of the players. Their instrument is the orchestra. Like the musicians they conducts, they’ve studied their “instrument” for years on end, practicing, perfecting. Becoming a good conductor, let alone a great one, is just as difficult as becoming a great violinist, or oboist, or doctor, or journalist. It requires incredible amounts of dedication and training and passion and charisma. This video is one of the best, most innovative explanations of conducting I have ever encountered — seriously, watch it!
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize just how intricate an art conducting truly is. Non-musicians (and even some musicians!) see the conductor as that guy who gets up on stage and waves their arms around. It’s easy — anyone can do it! Case in point:
There was even a short-lived British reality show in which celebrity contestants battled it out for the title of maestro, Dancing With the Stars style. Clearly, the role of the conductor is portrayed to the masses as ancillary, almost silly. That’s a pretty big problem, because in order for the orchestral medium to survive, orchestras — and their conductors — must be taken seriously.
But not too seriously. The conductor must be relateable, accessible, personable. They must be able to engage the audience, help the audience understand and experience the music in a new, exciting way. Something like this…
…or like this…
…or like this!
Participating in the masterclasses this week has opened my eyes to the strength of connection between a good conductor and their orchestra — a connection built on facial expression, eye contact, kinesthetic awareness, musical passion, mutual trust. If classical music is to be saved, there can be no more stoic maestros striding on and off the stage without a word. The conductor must extend their charisma beyond the orchestra, letting the audience join in as active participants in the music. After all, as a musician, I can attest that participating is much more fun than just watching and listening. In these times, then, the conductor’s job should be to ensure that the audience has fun — because fun things tend not to go out of style.