On Conducting 8

Giving Center Stage To Real Artistry: Tony Bennett at 94 Years Young

This post is inspired by my good friend; and the most complete musician I know, Lee Musiker. Lee is one of the finest Jazz pianists in the world and, in my opinion, the most gifted and musically well informed Jazz music director working today. He has acted as MD for artists including the legendary Barbara Cook, Jerry Lewis, as well as the sublime talents of Tony Bennett amongst many others.

Lee directed me toward an article recently in the latest issue of AARP magazine (Feb/Mar 2021) and the effect of Alzheimer’s disease now afflicting Bennett who, at the age of 94 years young, continues to defy the extreme ravages of this terrible disease.

You can – and should – read the full article here. Not only is this article by John Colapinto one of the very best pieces I have read in a long time, it is profoundly moving in the way that it captures the courage and humanity of Bennett and love and strength of his wife, Susan.

Here’s the point: Listen to any of the great Tony Bennett songs (none better than ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ from the film, The Sandpiper) and you quickly come to the sobering realisation that no conductor can ever express the depth and shades of colour that can be elicited from the single human voice.

Below is a list of eight ‘TB’ albums to get you started if you don’t enough of this man’s work captured on 60 albums, several compilations, duet collaborations and live albums (the ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ album being a standout):

1950: Boulevard of Broken Dreams

1951: Because of You

1953: Rags to Riches

1959: Smile

1962: I Left My Heart in San Francisco

1965: The Shadow of Your Smile

1965: Fly Me to the Moon

1975: But Beautiful

On Conducting 7

The Fixation on Beating Patterns as the Primary Starting Point for Conducting Teaching

The above video with Marin Alsop, giving a to-camera introduction to time-beating in 4/4, is typical of the pedagogy used in introducing the Art of Conducting to beginner students irrespective of the age at which they begin learning.

The problem is that beating in 4/4 is neither artful nor does it represent conducting as an artform. So why do conductors – both who are pedagogues and/or active working conductors – perpetuate this model and ingrain the idea of beat patterns as the primary means of communication between conductor and orchestra from the outset?

I have always found it notionally ludicrous that orchestral musicians playing under a conductor apparently can’t count up to four (or 2 or 3 etc.) once shown the tempo at which the musical passage begins. Alsop is correct that for the players, as opposed to the audience, the initial movement of the conductor – in this case, the ubiquitous raising of the right arm in an upward vertical-like movement – is critical to the information that the players need to time when the actual sound of the music will begin and, how quickly or slowly the music will then proceed.

More on why this preparation movement is almost invariably ‘upwards’ – and why it is often the worst thing a conductor can do later.

But, the issue remains, after this visual/physical has been given the orchestra players don’t need any further timing information to perform the notes and dynamics of the music until there is a change in the tempo in the music itself to be conveyed by the conductor (but, in fact, is often agogically given by the concertmaster when a conductor mismanages this critical aspect of their role).

Why, therefore, is the concept of time-beating perpetuated as the basis of conducting in performance when it is the least important aspect of conveying musical interpretation to players in an orchestra?

My view is that this approach has become ingrained in methodologies of teaching which have been passed down from the old conducting treatises dating back to the late 19th Century, as epitomised in the didactic teachings of Richard Wagner and Felix Weingartner to mention just two of the prominent culprits. Mid-century texts by Rudolf, Malko, and Green et al generally pursued similar aesthetic approaches to greater or less tedium.

As the predominant textbooks have perpetuated the primary concept of musical expression of a conductor to be derived from the exacting study of combinations of beat-pattern patterns which, when expertly ‘melded’, combine to create the fluid movements of a conductor into a seamless representation of the music being performed as physical gesture, so too have we witnessed multiple generations of conductors looking like traffic policeman and policewomen directing vehicles in front of orchestral ensembles.

Various alternative approaches to finding a better means for conductors to impart more precise, nuanced and detailed musical ideas to an orchestral ensemble have been developed, but they are difficult for students starting out to discern or even identify. Equally, there are conductor/teachers who have developed new techniques for developng such skills albeit the conceptual basis in respect to teaching aesthetic varies considerably.

Here is one conceptual idea for the preparatory beat and movement of the right arm to start a piece of music that you often see in conductors not fixated on beat patterns (think Gennady Rozhdestvesnky, Carlos Kleiber, Jascha Horenstein, Andre Cluytens and contemporaries such as Lahav Shani):

Start the preparation for the downbeat (assuming beat 1 is the start of the music) moving from above the left shoulder at the point of beat 2 in a 4/4/ pattern moving sideways left-to-right in a horizontal motion with the downbeat ending out to the right of the body relative to beat in 3 in a standard textbook 4/4 pattern. Result: a downbeat that is not vertical and is not displaced downwards. Consequence: “one is not always down”. Of course, such a preparation and downbeat would only make musical and physical sense if the primary sound is to begin in the lower tessitura instruments of the ensemble and assuming they are on the right-hand side of the conductor as (s)he faces it.

Thinking in horizontal planes and not only vertical planes opens up an endless vista of conducting gesture possibilities in three dimensions.

Whereas, a detailed list of the worst culprits in terms of published methodologies about conducting technique grounded in beat patterns ultimately only represents my opinion (and many conductors will disagree with me) I do hold to the opinion that young and experienced conductors alike should read everything on the subject that they can access. Over time one learns to separate what is valuable and to absorb those ideas that work for each individual.

Nonetheless, let me mention a couple of resources that I do believe are worth pursuing. Here’s a very short list:

  • Embodied Conducting as taught by Charles Gambetta. Charles teaches workshop based on this technique and his teaching is excellent.
  • Score Study Passes by Lawrence Golen is a concise but highly effective methodology on the thorough and systematic approach to preparing scores for rehearsal and performance.
  • The Techniques of Orchestral Conducting by Ilia Musin (trans. Oleg Proskurnya) is an English translation of the conducting methodolgy of Professor Ilia Musin, the creator of the “Leningrad/St. Petersburg school of conducting. This is one of very few book on conducting teaching (which includes beat patterns) that has real merit. It is, admittedly, more easily understood by advanced students and professional conductors.

On Conducting 6

Outstanding Training Opportunities

I am, generally speaking, averse to the increasing presence and plethora of online and in-person training opportunities for conductors. They range from, in a very few cases, outstanding to outright charlatanism. The problem for young aspirational conductors is to be able to distinguish excellence from the dross.

Generally, the quickest way to make this determination is to ask yourself these three questions:
1. Who is doing the teaching and what is their musical aesthetic?
2. Do they have a verifiable and quantifiable reputation as a conducting pedagogue and/or a professional career of long-standing?
3. With which ensembles and orchestras have they worked?

In this post, I want to look briefly at two outstanding training opportunities that fulfil the above criteria as a benchmark in excellence.

The Conductors Retreat at Meadowmak

In 2021, the Conductors Retreat at Meadowmak will celebrate its 25th Anniversary. Founded and overseen by Ken Kiesler, it is an outstanding learning environment for young conductors. Ken has been Director of Orchestras and Professor of Conducting at the University of Michigan since 1995 and has taught many of the up-coming and pre-eminent young conductors of this generation; some of whom have won major international conducting competitions.

Beyond this accomplishment and his own impressive professional career, it is Ken’s embracing aesthetic of the power and transformative abilities of music to heal the world that should be experienced by anyone serious about the conducting profession.

Applications are now open for the 2021 retreat.

OperaWebinar

OperaWebinar is a relatively new online enterprise created by Italian conductor, Carlo Montanaro. Carlo takes students through the opera repertoire from a conductor’s perspective in a thoughtful, comprehensive and detailed analysis of the technique and challenges of conducting singers and stage. Up to 12 students can join in any session. Each opera takes several sessions to cover in entirety. The applicable fee for each two-hour session is very reasonable.

Carlo is a first-rate opera conductor with very significant international experience. Added to this is his clear – and entertaining – insights into the distinctly different skills needed by young (and not so young) conductors in effectively communicating with and supporting opera singers with the major repertoire.

It is rare to find such an articulate and musical teacher in the Opera genre with the experience to impart the core, practical, and sometimes arcane nature of Opera performance. Recommend highly.

On Conducting 5

The Rise and Rise of Conducting Resources

I have been somewhat fascinated with the rise of apparent resources for aspirational conductors during COVid-19 lockdown. Why have these resources appeared when they were markedly absent before the global pandemic?

There are three resources to review today:

  1. Maestro as Professor
  2. Conductors’ Collective
  3. Conducting Artistry

The first two are American-based initiatives, and the third an Australian intitiative.

Maestro as Professor
In some respects, the website name says it all. This is an initiative created by Caroline Watson from the University of Kansas and Chaowen Ting from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The website is a starting point for those student conductors wishing to pursue a career primarily in academe. The founders pitch appropriate levels of expertise to their intended clientele. There are webinars to watch – the one by Ken Kiesler is a standout – and a useful list of places from where to purchase batons (although everyone knows you go to Tate Newland).

Other websites with similar information are available on the Internet, so start here and move your way up.

Conductors’ Collective
This is membership-based website offering some freemium services, but is essentially an enterprise to make money for its founders, Kensho Watanabe and Lina Gonzalez-Granados. Signup is required without any assurance that your private information won’t be on-sold to third parties. From their website I quote,

“Conductors’ Collective was founded out of a desire to thoughtfully contribute to the global community of musicians in a time of isolation and distance – the Conductors’ Collective fosters an environment of collective mentorship and shares leadership principles that are accessible and applicable for all.”

I find this fairly disingenuous since the website is spruiking for business in pay-for-service areas including resume/cover letter/bio reviews, rehearsal footage review, intensive score study lessons amongst other services.

My question is why would young conductors who hardly have a foothold in the professional world, and with minimal professional experience, be offering such services when they are readily available for free from established conductors who are always more than willing to offer advice to younger colleagues? Think I’d pass on this one.

Conducting Artistry
This is an initiative by Australian conductor, Ingrid Martin. Again, it’s a pay-for-service website aimed at aspirational conductors predominantly at the school aand community music level. Essentially, the idea is to offer structured conducting lessons online in a sequential series of short courses. The site also offers a podcast series which, whilst not unique, is novel.

Importantly, and unlike the above initiative, Conducting Artistry has a compliant Privacy Policy and Terms of Use section.

What appeals to me about this initiative is that it aims to cover a significant shortage in instruction at the very basic level for conductors in Australia. The cost for each module is given and the content covered within each is clearly outlined. For those starting out, especially without access to a private teacher (and there very few reputable conducting pedagogues in Australia) what Ingrid offers is both valuable and sorely needed. Big thumbs up.

More soon,

Kevin