Intermittently I return to the subject of whether assertions made in treatises on orchestra conducting and conducting technique are valid. I return to the subject again today.
Recognising that there are quite a number of younger conductors who follow this blog (albeit intermittent of late) I think there is a responsibility to engage in discussion about things to do with conducting that weren’t readily available when I started out in this business.
One of the recurring issues is, “Is what you read in the ever expanding subject matter of orchestral conducting reliable?” The answer is more often ‘yes’ than otherwise, but there is a growing body of literature; mostly emanating from American college and university academic conductors, that raise some concerns.
One of the nasty truisms of academia – and especially so in the performing and creative Arts disciplines – remains the concept of ‘publish or perish’. Alternative methodologies and frameworks of Performance as Research (PaR) as it is referred to in the USA or PARIP (Practice in Research as Performance) elsewhere, and other exemplars of practice-based academic enquiry regrettably remain problematic for many universities, their associated research funding mechanisms and processes of academic promotion.
Consequently, as opposed to seeing how conducting orchestras and Opera as creative production can constitute intellectual enquiry through performances, we have seen the publication of a plethora of texts on conducting technique as ‘how to’ books over the last 5 – 10 years. These tomes tend to reflect more associations of experience from within the hallowed halls of learning than performances with professional orchestras.
And herein lies the problem: professional orchestra players learn an ‘inside the orchestra’ vocabulary of execution which negates the need to observe or follow the pedantic approaches to conducting espoused in these texts. It’s true too, that the development of this player-group vocabulary has arisen over the last hundred years of orchestral performance practice to negate the often seen shortcomings of the person at the front of the orchestra waving the stick! It’s not a question of the validity of this reality, it just is.
It would be far more useful if the ‘academic’ conducting fraternity could, and would, use PaR or PARIP methodologies as enquiry into what conducting gestures (as they see them) actually mean to professional players in terms of what they collectively see and, as a consequence of this, what they interpret the meaning of these gestures to be. This would provide much needed feedback to determine whether what is actually being taught to conductors actually reflects what orchestral players need. Continue Reading →