What is He Thinking? — Part 1

What is a conductor doing on the podium?  Conductors don’t just bow and smile and stand on the podium waving their arms around for the entertainment of the audience, sort of an audio visual addition to the sound of the music.  What is a conductor thinking?  Every conductor I’ve asked told me the same thing: “I’m thinking about the music.”  But what does that mean?  And how?

I needed to answer these questions in order to write the first chapter of Perceval in which Evan Quinn conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Musikverein in Vienna.  I wanted to show what Evan was thinking, feeling, who Evan was as a person, and the role of music in his life.  But how if all he’s thinking about is the music when he’s conducting on the podium?  Writing about cuing instruments and shading dynamics, controlling tempo and so on does not reveal character and after a paragraph would probably bore any reader, even a musician.

My first thought was to start at the beginning.  At some point in his life, usually at a young age but not always, hearing music or attending a concert or performing in an orchestra or band or choir jolts a boy (or girl) into the realization that he wants to study music, be a musician and conductor.  His music education would include the study and performance of a musical instrument (or two or more), the study of music theory, composition, and history most often at a music school or conservatory.  Conducting studies would include work on the language of conducting, i.e. communicating through gestures and learning what gestures to use for what; how to play a conductor’s instrument, i.e. the orchestra or band; performance practice throughout music history; learning orchestral music, i.e. score study and beginning to build repertoire; the psychology of conducting which includes presentation (grooming, dress, etc.) and leading 80-100 other musicians who each have their own ideas of how a piece should be played; and conducting practice with a student orchestra.  (Administration and the fine arts of marketing and fundraising are apparently learned on the job when/if a conductor lands a music directorship.  Building a conducting career has no standard procedure.)

My second thought was to observe conductors in addition to talking, when possible, with them.  Over the course of a year or so, I attended rehearsals and concerts, watching each conductor closely.  Gradually, an image came to mind of the conductor as a prism for the sound and concert experience, the energy flowing from the orchestra through him to the audience, and from the audience to the orchestra.  His job on the podium is to think of the music, which requires disciplined concentration, but he’s a human being, and I could imagine him also responding to the other human beings around him, the music and the emotion, although as background rather than foreground.  For writing Evan in Perceval‘s first chapter, I started to think of the conductor having five working experiences on the podium during a concert, two technical and three relational:

1.  The technical relationship of the music: knowing the music score, guiding the ensemble playing, cuing entrances, controlling dynamics, etc.  “Hearing with the eyes, seeing with the ears.”  This is what every conductor told me he thought about on the podium, i.e. being focused on the music performance.  Using his knowledge of conducting and the music to lead the musicians in performance.

2.  The technical relationship of the physicality of conducting:  movement and physical gestures to communicate to the musicians, standing on the podium, awareness (or not) of the physical demands of conducting.  The conductor thinks about this in service to the musical performance.  Like an athlete who practices his moves over and over until he can do them in his sleep, a conductor knows the repertoire of conducting gestures so well that they come to him naturally without too much thought.  Rehearsals, not concerts, are where everything is worked out — what a conductor will signal in certain places for the musicians, if necessary.  Professional orchestra musicians know the conductor’s physical language and movements.

To be concluded next week…..


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