I was forced, due to a commitment that got moved up in my schedule, to cancel giving a presentation at the recent CODA annual conference in Salt Lake City. This was a disappointment as I had planned to give a an in-depth analysis on the difference between the work and attributes of musical directors for theatre compared to orchestral/opera conductors. Are you surprised that there is a difference? Well you wouldn’t be alone if you did. Even conductors and musical directors of theatre don’t seem to know the difference much of the time. As part of the research for that presentation, I was reviewing all the known resources on the ‘Art of Conducting’ including every published text on teaching conducting – and there are a few!
The problem is most of them aren’t very good. I was particularly bemused by the author of a book on all things to do with the ‘baton’ published within the the last decade, who is adamant that the book, The Grammar of Conducting by Max Rudolf (multiple editions) should be on every conductor’s bookshelf. Alas, it wasn’t on mine, so I thought I should both acquire it and read it. I did. Oh, dear, it’s really very out-dated and is based on the idiotic assumption that conducting is derived from beat (or beating) patterns! So, by the way, the author who recommended the book similarly promulgates this approach.
Are there any ‘real’ conductors out there who actually think orchestra players give a toss about beat patterns? I don’t think so – because they all realise this one basic truth: Orchestra players CAN count. They don’t need conductors to ‘beat’ them to death. There are exceptions to this paradigm; for example, in polymetrical music where rhythmic pulse is the central construct in compositional terms (especially in quick tempi) and, in music with multiple cross-rhythms.
Just for clarification, conducting is the art of communicating gesture to an orchestra where the gesture is derived from the music itself. This (I hope) is the accepted, modern, understanding of the Art of Conducting. The mechanics of ‘waving one’s arms about’ (the art of the ‘good wave’ as one famous flautist has so evocatively described it) involves aspects of pitch registration, dynamic registration, dimensional placement of the hands, speed of the baton and shape of movements deriving from the wrist (predominantly) and extending to the full arm. That is the briefest of summaries.
So, before we look to see whether there is a definitive text on the Art of Conducting, let us just briefly consider its nomenclature. How do we describe such a technique? There are schools of conducting thought that have evolved over the years. Some of the more prominent of these (in no specific order) are the Saito Method (apologies for the lack of diacritic), the Malko and Scherchen inspired techniques and the Russian ‘Musin’ school. It is the latter that comes closest to the definition of conducting as expressed above. Ilya Musin articulated his rationale as, “A conductor must make music visible to his musicians with his hands. There are two components to conducting, expressiveness and exactness. These two components are in dialectical opposition to each other; in fact, they cancel each other out. A conductor must find the way to bring the two together.” The problem is that until very recently an informed English translation of Musin’s theories was not available. Fortunately, Oleg Proskurnya, has ameliorated that shortcoming in a translation of Musin’s text, The Techniques of Orchestral Conducting published by The Edwin Mellen Press.
But the only book of which I am aware (and if one has slipped by me then I will amend this statement) that knowingly and informatively addresses the Art of Conducting as an expression of the music (and as the basis for the book being written in the first place) is Harold Farberman’s The Art of Conducting Technique. It’s not an easy book because of the three-dimensional representation of conducting space elaborated as pattern cubes (conceptually difficult to fully understand without real application) but it is the only text that illuminates the real challenge of making music as a conductor, where gesture is fully aligned to the music being performed.
If you’re really serious about conducting, I warmly encourage you to immerse yourself in what this book reveals.
More soon on the ADO!