Schreker has a lot to do. During his absence, I am supposed to lead two rehearsals of the mixed choir, and more often the male choirs. I am still very much in doubt whether I can do this! A word from you, dear Herr Schönberg, would be extremely precious to me.
In a letter of 21 December 1912, twenty-seven year old Alban Berg was desperate for the advice of his friend and mentor Arnold Schönberg. Berg’s trepidation about going in front of the choir is palpable, and familiar to many a young conductor (the fact that he is doing so to rehearse the premiere of Gurre-Lieder notwithstanding).
The elder composer’s reply contains much for the choir director to ponder. I was made aware of it during a recent masterclass, and in this post I’m going to try and unpack some of Schönberg’s wisdom.
The four errors
Schönberg, in his reply dated seven days later, lays down the law in unequivocal terms. His prescriptions make for interesting reading for the present-day choral conductor. Here’s the relevant passage in its entirety, from the letter of 28 December:
It will not be easy for you who are doing this for the first time. That is why I would like to tell you the most important things quickly, which is also in line with my experience. Namely, if you interrupt (and you have to interrupt as often as you 1.) hear a mistake and 2.) know how to improve it), you need to be as brief and clear as possible. Talk as little as possible. Never be witty. But above all: there are only the following types of errors.
There are therefore no other corrections and explanations than: 1. ‘G’ (instead of ‘G sharp’; too high, too low) 2. show the correct rhythm! (sharper, softer) 3. Demand p and f, stronger or weaker 4. Correct the breathing, the intonation (p, f), the paragraphs and beginnings.
The latter (4) belongs to the class of finer elaboration. If you know something about singing, you can say some technical things. You can also pay attention to good pronunciation of the text – but everything else, especially: moods, ideas, beauty, characters and everything poetic is from evil! [von Uebel!] This is for us, but not for the choir! Believe me and do it as quickly as you can. I also had to learn. And the trick is to really demand p[iano] and f[orte] that everything else comes along as a result. It’s not from me, but from all the band masters; but it’s true anyway!
Plenty to unpack!
Firstly, the interruption policy: interrupt as often (and only as often) as you both hear a mistake and know how to fix it. This of course is going to depend on the length and complexity of the work, and I don’t think he is suggesting to Berg that he stop the whole run every time he hears some dodgy intonation in the altos. I daresay he would permit ‘the rule of 3’ – ie, having three-ish things to say each time you interrupt – but the key thing is the next line: ‘be as brief and clear as possible’. No extraneous waffling: fix it, move on.
Demand p and f. The point here is that just saying it sometimes isn’t enough. Sometimes the dynamic has to be ‘demanded’, insisted on, whether by gesture or verbal instruction. Singers can sometimes be reluctant to modify dynamics as much as a conductor would wish, and Schönberg knows it.
Never be witty. This one hits hard for me as I am invariably trying to be witty, often with little success. There could be a cultural element to this, and also an amateur/professional distinction: some choruses appreciate a joke or (brief) anecdote to keep them engaged and relaxed, or to defuse tension; others don’t want to feel like their time is being wasted with inessential talking.
The desire to, as Schönberg puts it, ‘be witty’, stems from the desire to be liked – one with which I am well familiar. People-pleasers like me need to remember that few musicians have much time in rehearsal to think about whether they like you or not – they are too busy trying to do what you have asked of them.
Indeed, the evidence of some senior figures in the music industry suggest that likeability is quite irrelevant to musical success. We are sometimes too concerned with whether everyone is having a good time to remember that the reason we are all there is to make good music.
The evil of ‘everything else’
What about those ‘four types of error’? They boil down to: notes, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing. Look after these (and especially dynamics), Schönberg says, and the rest looks after itself. He allows for a little ‘finer elaboration’ when it comes to phrasing – under which headline he includes technical instruction and pronunciation.
However, we are cautioned in the strongest terms against flowery language – and indeed against saying anything that doesn’t have a direct relation to those four main types of errors. Not only is this unhelpful, says Schönberg – it’s evil!
This anecdote about John Tavener, well-known in British choral circles, summarises the problem (though my version, transmuted through third-hand Chinese whispers, is almost certainly wrong in every particular):
Tavener is watching a well-known cathedral choir rehearsing one of his pieces. Asked for his opinion, he says, “It needs more of a sense of sublime, ineffable mystery.” The conductor turns back to the choir. “You hear that, boys? Louder!”
Conductors often want a poetical effect, a mood to be conjured, motifs to be characterised – but here we’re being reminded that whereas ‘sublime, ineffable mystery’ could be interpreted any number of ways, ‘louder’ only means one thing. The trick, then, is to translate our lofty, poetic ideas into instructions that can be easily understood by the choir.
To take a personal example – recently I enjoined a choir to treat a certain chord, upon their arrival at it, with a sense of ‘discovery’. I imagine I was quite proud of this poetic coup of analysis and interpretation and sat back to hear the effect, which was completely imperceptible.
My process should instead have been this: in order to create a sense of discovery when we reach this chord, delay it slightly and sing it a little softer. Even that first bit isn’t strictly necessary. This would have been more likely to achieve the desired effect. I imagine the same applies double if you and the ensemble do not share a first language (this example is drawn from such an occasion!).
‘This [poetic language] is for us, and not for the choir’. It reminds me of a saying attributed to Richard Strauss: ‘Do not sweat; let the orchestra sweat. Do not weep; let the public weep.’
I’m not sure how widespread that opinion is today. Still, in a climate where there’s less and less rehearsal time available, boiling down our clever, poetic interpretations into concise, legible instructions remains a vital part of score preparation.
Now, to practise. I just need to persuade someone to mount Gurre-Lieder…
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!
The role of conductor changed abruptly in mid-March of this year. For me, it’s thrown the nature of musical leadership into the spotlight: how can those of us with responsibility for musical direction maintain this responsibility when a direct musical relationship isn’t possible?
The business world tells us that the companies that do well are those that are light on their feet. They adapt; they are, in teeth-grinding but somewhat useful management-speak, agile, alert to market conditions and ready to respond.
Musical groups are not businesses, or at least they don’t like to think of themselves that way. But the substantially ‘market-altering’ conditions which 2020 has visited on the performing arts have forced change on a genre which is normally remarkably resistant to it: western classical music. Likewise the leader or conductor of the group has had to make changes, and in this post I’m reflecting on mine, thinking out loud about musical leadership in a time of crisis.
A change in goals
Until earlier this year, the goal of the groups I direct was largely to work towards musical performances, and build up our common musicianship along the way. Goals are important for the motivation of any organisation, and musical groups are no different – indeed, many now have ‘mission statements’, a concept imported from the business world.
Our goals have adapted and evolved during the various stages of lockdown, roughly along the following lines:
Keep our community intact
The immediate priority for me was making sure that, however long this all lasted, there would still be a strong sense of community within the group. The worst thing would be if, after all this, there remained only the husk of an ensemble to come back to. Zoom meet-ups, virtual pub quizzes, seminars and workshops formed a large part of this initial phase.
During this time, we became familiar with and adjusted to the requirements of online meetings, a necessary relearning of the rules of interaction.
Maintain our musicianship
After these initial experiences with online get-togethers, my focus turned towards how to preserve any gains we’ve made in our musicianship, technique, or other skills, so that when we return, we can hit the ground running, without having lost too much momentum. This is where online music sessions came in.
I’ve generally resisted the term ‘virtual rehearsal’ when talking about these – it’s not really the same thing as a rehearsal, at least in the OED’s sense of ‘practice performance…in preparation for later public performance’. The most cynical way to think about it would be a sort of ‘choral karaoke’ – but I think even this has value.
The online sessions had a similar structure to our in-person rehearsals, but with a shift in focus: away from an eventual performance, and towards preservation of key skills. The warm-up was slightly longer, focusing on maintaining healthy technique even in a confined space or if sitting. The preparation of a piece was necessarily more basic, with no possibility of rehearsing anything involving ensemble. Instead we looked at possible interpretations, attention to details in the score, poetry and text. Performance was done along to a guide recording, either pre-existing or recorded by me for this purpose.
The performance element of the rehearsal had an almost completely different function – not so much cementing an interpretation honed or notes learned, as listening and reacting to an unfamiliar recording. Sometimes this led to critical listening of a performance or recording.
3. Produce something
Being a performing ensemble ultimately means generating a performance of some kind. Most of us are still in the process of working out what this looks like within the constraints currently imposed on us. I’ve written about one answer here. And with my cathedral choir, we’ve been recording items for use in broadcast services along the lines described here.
The autumn will provide the real test of ingenuity, if current restrictions continue. I’ve got some ideas, and I’m excited to see what others will come up with.
Lest this sound self-congratulatory, I think I was slow to react in the early stages, when we didn’t really have a notion of how long this might last. I was initially sceptical of taking everything online, and I might have been tempted to batten down the hatches and wait for it all to blow over. It was seeing others boldly pushing out of their comfort zone that inspired me to do the same.
Setting the tone
Perhaps more strongly than the move to redefine goals, the thing that came home to me was how much people look to leaders/conductors for moral and emotional leadership. No big surprise, you might think; but it reminded me of my responsibility.
When the message comes down from the top that ‘everything will be OK’, or ‘we’ll get through this and emerge stronger’, it permeates through the ensemble. If it’s true that what counts is ‘not what happens to us, but the way that we react to it’, then, in organisational terms, leaders set the tone and pattern of that reaction.
In those weeks where I was able to successfully project this optimism and reassurance – even if I wasn’t completely convinced myself – we ended our sessions with a sense of positivity and potential.
I’ve been trying to stay on the right side of a fine line: between the energetic, tigger-ish buoyancy that completely ignores what’s going on; and the quieter, more stable outlook which acknowledges the difficulty while believing in the strength of everyone involved to overcome it. There’s a place for both approaches. The first style might beget the response ‘I completely forgot about all the bad things for a couple of hours’, while the other might lead to ‘I didn’t forget about the bad things; but I remembered that we can overcome them’.
In Oxford, I used to occasionally act as a guinea-pig for MBA students and others at the University’s Said Business School. Unsuspecting lawyers, engineers, middle managers, or students would be thrust in front of a group of professional singers and told to conduct. They had no prior training, and, with few exceptions, no idea what they were doing.
Some would get up immediately, wave their hands around enthusiastically, and be rather surprised when nothing happened. But the most successful at this exercise were not the ones who tried to bulldoze their way through on pure confidence. Instead, they got up, and, with a mixture of openness, positivity, and humility, engendered a genuine connection, making us want them to succeed even when their technique was deficient.
I often miss the mark; but I think this is what I’m going for.
The last few months have frequently held up a mirror – literally, in the case of online video conferencing, or self-videography – in which we can see our attempts at leadership played back to us. I’ve found it a salient reminder of the need to try and maintain that openness, positivity, and humility.