It is a truism that conducting can’t be learned from a book. I don’t actually think there are any books out there that purport to be able to teach conducting in complete isolation from actual experience in front of a group of musicians. But I’ve often found books on conducting helpful in clarifying ideas, or untangling tricky concepts both theoretical and practical.
It’s probably also the case that with the relative paucity of conducting time during the pandemic, I’ve been turning to the books occasionally to keep certain concepts fresh in my mind, or to challenge my thinking on various ideas.
So, I’ve decided to make brief notes on a few conducting manuals, drawing out some key quotes, with the aim of distilling some of the insights that I’ve found helpful or interesting, and putting them in one place for ease of referral. And they’re going on this blog in case they’re helpful to anyone else.
It’s been interesting to reflect on the various books about conducting I’ve read over the years. Sometimes I find myself vigorously nodding as page after page illuminates my own experience in ways I hadn’t considered; other times my brow furrows at a concept or illustration that doesn’t make sense to me. There are as many different opinions about what makes good conducting, and good conductors, as there are conductors, musicians, and concert-goers.
I’m starting off with a book that very largely falls into the ‘vigorous nodding’ camp for me, and that’s The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson.
The Beat Stops Here: Lessons on and off the Podium for Today’s Conductor
2017, Oxford University Press
Director of Orchestral Studies at CCM, University of Cincinnati
An experienced teacher and performer, Gibson shares insights honed from years of teaching in the University of Cincinnati’s conducting programme. The book is divided into two, with the first half consisting of intensive studies of particular overtures or movements and workshopping the challenges they present to the conductor. The second half is a more disparate collection of writings on other aspects of conducting, from teaching, to working in particular genres, score study, and more.
(My observations/comments in blue)
- Many books begin with physical technique, but for Gibson, score study is more important, and that’s why the book begins with it instead
- Gibson describes himself as ‘anti-beating’:
Conducting is as much about waving one’s arms as golf is, which is to say, not as much as people think. Both are highly disciplined kinetic activities whose physical manifestations – a beat, a swing – conceal an abundance of subtle movement, both with the body and the mind. (xi)
- Focus on the beat as the principle idea of conducting is reductive and counter-productive. Hence, the beat stops here!
The right equipment for the conducting student is, every day, a score, any score, a pencil, preferably with a good eraser, and a mind that is willing, curious, and relentless. (xiv)
The study of conducting is circuitous; there is no straight line to mastery or success (xiv)
- Gibson really doesn’t like beating or the idea that conducting should begin with it – it’s the ‘original sin’ of conducting
- Hard not to agree. I was once told that beating time is what conductors had to learn to do in response to music like the Rite of Spring, but that merely beating time is not the same as showing music. Gibson says it can become ‘the death of music-making’ and that ‘beats beget beats’
- Words are insufficient to convey what is in music – that’s partly why Gibson tries to avoid the standard words, and looks to invent new terminology related to everyday gestures or images
- Score study is of primary importance: the aim is ‘to know in the richest sense of the word, any given work the composer has written’
Only armed with that knowledge and understanding will we then be able to communicate what we know of that work to an ensemble and to an audience, employing our bodies from head to toe to speak a nonverbal language of gesture with style and taste. (xv)
Part 1: Repertoire Lessons
The first part of the book consists of bar-by-bar analyses of movements from various genres of classical music: Overture, Opera, Concert, Larger Symphonic Works, etc.
- Opens with Gustav Meier (Gibson’s teacher) quotation:
There are only three things you have to do to be a conductor: Study scores, study scores, and study scores.
Gibson begins with a glossary of his teaching terminology, much of it an amusing or inventive take on a particular gesture or mannerism. I love them all and there is a wealth of useful insight. Here are some selected examples:
- Advertising: ‘Many young conductors exaggerate the size of the upbeat; this we call “advertising”‘
- Buddha face: ‘Images of the Buddha reveal a calm, knowing visage, engaged but not emotional, open and receptive but not active’. Conductors should emulate this, there’s no need for exaggerated facial motion
- Helium hand – ‘an easy, slow, vertical, non-inflected rising of the left arm and hand in preparation for a signal’
- ‘S/he who lives by the beat, dies by the beat’
- Small hand – ‘the bigger the beat, the smaller the listening’
- ‘Toss the pasta’ – ’round gestures promote connected playing and generate flow’
- ‘Two adjectives’ – the conducting should communicate the spirit of the work as well as the other necessary information (how loud, soft, fast, or slow). ‘Think of adjectives that accurately describe the spirit of any given passage’
The repertoire studies which follow are brilliantly and sometimes minutely detailed. One needs the score to hand (easy enough with IMSLP) to get the most out of it. It takes the music blow-by-blow, bar-by-bar, explaining the context, highlighting passages which are tricky for the players, drawing analogies to contemporary works or others by the same conductor, and explaining what this means for the conductor.
You very much have the feeling of being with him in his studio as he takes you through his approach. He deals thoroughly with thorny problems – awkward starts, like the upbeat of Mendelssohn’s Die schone Melusine overture – and mixes in general observations clearly drawn from practical performing experience – in the theatre pit, always go strong to the violas!
It’s not for beginners by any stretch – it’s not entry-level stuff. Gibson’s hope expressed in the preface that the book may be of interest to non-musicians wishing to learn more of the conductor’s craft needs to be taken in the light of detailed passages of craft such as: ‘Use your left hand to go from 1st violins straight up to Donna Elvira for her entrance. Don’t shy away from the sfp in bar 4; it should cause a shiver up the spine, both hers and the listener’s, but make sure there is ample bow to sustain the chord its full length.’
It wouldn’t be very helpful for me to summarise this part of the book for ‘notes’ purposes as it’s so minute in detail, and tied to the particular scores. But focussing on these analyses one at a time is a masterclass in the sensitive appraisal of a score and one of the book’s most helpful features.
Part 2: Professional Lessons
Part 2 consists of of a number of articles, some adapted from blog posts, on a variety of subjects from peripheral conducting skills such as building a inner metronome, to management techniques for orchestras and choruses. Here are some things that stuck with me:
- ‘Not the Eternal Tao: Conducting is ‘the intersection of gesture and pulse’ (175). The focus on giving a ‘clear beat’ is reductive and unhelpful – the orchestra will not simply play more together if you beat more vigorously
You may think the orchestra wants or needs a clear “beat”. Members of the orchestra may even tell you they want one[…]but in my experience, that is not what they mean and not really what they want (176)
- The problem with the ‘beat’ as in a singular point of arrival is that, with the exception of percussion, sound in an orchestra or choir doesn’t work that way. A beat can indicate tempo but little else, and doesn’t even need to do that after the upbeat has established the tempo
- Musicians can keep tempo by themselves, usually
- If you find yourself over-beating (‘beats generate beats’), stop and try and plug into the group’s tempo, to feel the pulse as something organic that arises out of the group’s activity
- Left hand should be independent and useful, not contradicting the right or giving the orchestra multiple ‘targets’ – preferably at a different height to avoid the appearance or temptation of mirroring
- Mirroring is not uniformly bad, but can leave the right hand with no space to go to across the body
- In cathedral music, with the choir on either side of the conductor, it can sometimes be an important tool, if it used as such, ie with intent. If done all the time though, it decreases the variety of tone available to you
- The left hand is a crutch, something to do, but it should have intent. If it’s not doing anything, put it away
- Vigorous nodding once more (even, perhaps especially, in the knowledge that I use it without intent far too often. I was once taught that the left hand does one of three things: 1) nothing (in which case it is placed by the waist), 2) information, 3) mirrors the right )
Make Your Own Metronome
This is a fun way of learning to internalise tempo:
- Learn a piece with a clearly defined metronome mark, such as a Beethoven scherzo, such that it can be recalled at will and its tempo marking applied. Do this for all the metronome markings
- Here it is pleasing to observe Gibson joining me on the smallest hill on which I will die, which is non-existent metronome markings, such as those giving crotchet = 41, or 65, or 113. ‘those numbers don’t exist on a metronome’, says Gibson, adding with tongue in cheek, ‘no real composer uses them’
- Note to self: a metronome goes up, from 60, in 3s, then from 72 in 4s, then from 120 in 6s, and from 144 in 8s)
- It has the tempos you need, but the given tempo might not be the right one in a particular circumstance – they’re an important starting point but not a finishing point
- Trouble shaping a melody? Why not invent some words in the right character? Uses example of giving a Dvorak melody folk-esque words. Generates a narrative and helps you find musical shapes
Heads, shoulders, knees and toes
- Deals with the physicality of conducting – this is much more than just arms and gesture
- Disassociate the bobbing of the head with an accent in the music – young conductors do this a lot
- (I certainly did and continue to if unpoliced)
- The face: be like the calm bus-driver ‘who knows where s/he is going, and gets you there without fuss or drama.’ Try not to exaggerate facial expressions (to which I would add Zoom is a painful reminder that we do this a lot in an attempt to please)
- Gibson advocates ‘Buddha face’: ‘the serene visage of a generous, knowing presence’. Open, aware, listening, but not dominating or being needy (angle of chin also has a bearing on this latter)
- Sniffing as an upbeat is a ‘disagreeable habit’ and distracting to audience and orchestra alike – for one thing, the wind and brass players, not to mention singers, for whom you are a model, mostly breathe through the mouth. Don’t open the mouth too far though as it looks silly
- For Gibson, the arm is the breath (this is good – I often feel like I breathe too much and find myself hyperventilating)
- Mouthing along to chorus (particular pertinent to choir directors of course and a much discussed issue). Like mirroring, it is not as simple as saying ‘never’ or ‘always’. It can help reinforce a particular onset or bring ‘bite’ to a certain word or phrase, but done to excess it inhibits the listening of the conductor to what they are actually doing, much like an exaggerated beat does
- It also annoys the choir, who might feel consciously or otherwise that they are not being trusted to read words
- Generally ‘the more we do physically, the less we listen’ (197)
- Keep lips relaxed
- Stand up straight and try not to bend over – must be balanced with a proper centre of gravity
- Knee bends! A difficult habit to break
- I find they’re especially bad in propulsive baroque music where the knees just really want to get involved
- The entire act, from backstage from the dressing room to the podium should be practised and rehearsed – this avoids nervous habits, extraneous movement, or a loss of control. The behaviour and demeanour of the conductor is being assessed before they even take the podium
- If you have to look at the score to turn the page, you don’t know it well enough. Consider also when to turn the page – it might not be where the publisher has put a page turn
- Don’t turn the music stand around – if the music’s at a 90-degree angle to the floor you’re going to have to lean over to see it – orchestras distrust this
- Interesting. I’ve seen lots of people do this in masterclasses and always wondered why they did as I would always panic that the score was going to fall off
Discipline your body, your posture, and your head, and your conducting will grow in confidence, simplicity, and effect (199)
Annuziata Tomaro contributes a guest article with some tough truths about score-reading
- You should read clefs as what they are, rather than transposing them in your mind to a clef with which you are more familiar
- Alto clef a classic example, the middle line is C, not ‘a B in treble clef and therefore transpose up one to get C’
- Bill Buford: ‘one does and does and does until one eventually knows more than others and learns the craft’ (214)
- If you want a conducting career: helps if you don’t want worldly possessions. Pack light. Be thick-skinned
- Nothing sexy about the mastery of the craft, and no guarantees of success. ‘People win competitions and positions; I know neither how or why’
- So much is hard to measure – you can test specific things but there are many that elude measurement
- ‘When all else is in place, art shows up’
Three-Part Conducting Rules for All Occasions
1. if the orchestra doesn’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.
2. if you don’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.
3. if you really know the score, it still doesn’t matter where you put your hands. (233)
He knows when to pose questions rather than offer simple solutions: for example on the vexed question of whether, how, and why an orchestra should ‘watch’ the conductor.
Of course I’m also interested in what he has to say about working with singers and choruses, and there are a couple of articles on that here too. Gibson learned his chorus chops in the opera house. It’s always worth hearing the orchestral conductor’s perspective on choirs
…amateur and student choruses are working with you out of love; they love the music and/or they love the social dynamic of singing in a chorus. Very different from the orchestral situation[…]if you ignore them from the podium, you let them down (241)
- Whereas he permits the orchestra to look at their music and spare you the odd glance if you’re very lucky, he notes that choruses need to be out of their copies in order to communicate emotion, and for their voices to speak out into the building, and so that they have a feeling of communication.
- He goes into the chorus rehearsal with the music memorised, and makes the bargain: I won’t look down if you won’t.
- I like this, even if it feels like a tough challenge when the musical workload goes up
- Lauds Romano Gandolfi, with whom he worked, who conducted with very small gestures and insisted on the chorus’s maximum attention
- Returns to the issue of ‘don’t mouth the words’ with the further observation – why do we do it? Do we think we are helping, and if so, why? ‘Never once have I had a chorus member ask me to mouth the words’ (242)
- When working with chorus, know when to ‘press the button’. Late in the rehearsal process, something isn’t working and the ensemble has lost focus – it can sometimes be permitted to ‘press the button’, stop proceedings and gently but firmly remind the chorus of what we had rehearsed and thank them for their attention. Stresses this should only be used with amateur choruses and then at most once
- Be encouraging and have high energy at all times. Choral rehearsals are ‘exhausting and exhilarating’
‘know before whom you are standing’ (Hebrew proverb)
There are also some useful comments on careers and people skills towards the end:
Only after a while, and often too late, do you, as the recently engaged music director, realise that no only were you putting on a show for the orchestra during the audition process, the orchestra and its various entities were putting on a show for you. Both parties were selling, and now both must deal with the reality of living together. (250)
This rings true and brings to mind the observation that in an audition, both parties should evaluate each other for fit, not just one way around!
Who lives by the beat, dies by the beat. Try to avoid making it the focus of your craft, instead think about the interaction of gesture and pulse.
Generate a vocabulary of gesture with imagery and metaphor to provide the widest range of physical responses to music.
Score study is vital and neglected at your peril.
Who’s the book for?
Conducting students and those looking for fresh perspectives on their craft. Anyone interested in the analysis of music from a performer’s perspective.
I hope you’ve found this summary helpful. If you’d like to buy the book, you can use the links at the top of the post. I intend to give one or two other books the same treatment, so watch this space if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!