Monthly Archives: September 2011

Beyond the Performance of Conducting

I recently was interviewed by Susan Poliniak for an article she’s writing on conducting for Teaching Music magazine. I contributed some quotes about psychological aspects of musical leadership, and what the research says about teaching effectiveness in an ensemble setting. Susan’s excellent questions, along with my long-winded answers :), resulted in much more discussion than she could use in her article (which will appear in the November issue). To me, the most interesting issues relate to the relationship between a conductor/teacher and the musicians/students. This is largely determined by the group leader’s beliefs about the fundamental role of a conductor.

A new conductor may envision taking the podium, and looking out across the ensemble before him or her like an organist would sit at the grand instrument, ready to work all the keys, stops, and pedals. Becoming a conductor is virtually always preceded by many years of studying a musical instrument. So in this way it makes sense for young conductors to see their role on the podium in this way–as a technical and expressive type of performance. But I think it’s a mistake to approach conducting an ensemble like a musician playing an instrument. Merely making the right gestures, showing emotion, and knowing the score are not enough. As important as these things are in conducting–and they are important–they don’t ensure effectiveness as a communicator and leader of people.

Let’s face it…most professional ensembles would sound good even without a conductor. The advanced musicianship of a group of professionals can go a long way. Clearly the job of a professional conductor is quite different than that of a school ensemble teacher, whose students are developing performers in need of much musical guidance and instruction. A productive relationship between conductor and ensemble can take various shapes but must include two-way respect. Student musicians will not make much progress if they look at their leader with any suspicion, apathy, or contempt. Learners’ attitude and motivation greatly affect how they take in instruction, and how readily they apply it to their own performing. If they believe that their conductor genuinely cares about their musical growth and the reward they will get from performance, then they will be tuned in to the message from the podium.

Especially with student musicians, a conductor’s communication can be ineffective if ensemble members come to believe their job is merely to take orders. It may be counterintuitive, but many times the best way to communicate is not necessarily the most direct way. Music students are not voice-activated robots. Simply telling them to do something does not always result in them receiving the message, let alone retaining it beyond the initial instruction. A conductor’s message may be more effectively received if musicians are involved in the decision making, and even in the voicing of instruction. For example, instead of just telling the ensemble to perform a phrase more legato, a conductor could sing it in that style and ask students to identify what sounded different. In general, questioning is a simple verbal strategy that can increase the ensemble’s overall attentiveness, and make the musicians feel more contributive in the rehearsal process.

Motivating students through the difficult work of a rehearsal is critical. Good leaders are realistic in their expectations for a group, in terms of attention span and the technical difficulty of a piece of music. It’s good to push performers’ ability level–that’s how growth happens–but over-challenging students can be counterproductive if it only serves to induce anxiety…for them and the conductor!

What’s tricky is that an ensemble includes many different motivational patterns related to music and performance. Some students, when faced with a difficult passage in a piece, will be sustained through rehearsal because of the simple enjoyment they feel when making music in any way. Others will need to be motivated with extrinsic rewards (e.g., conductor: “give me 15 minutes of focused work and we’ll take the last few minutes of class to watch a YouTube video of an amazing professional musician’s live concert”). Still other students, driven by a need-to-achieve mentality developed in their musicianship, will take on the passage if it’s been presented as formidable challenge to be conquered.

Ultimately, conductors must be responsive to their ensemble members, and be willing to adapt their approach accordingly. Of course, it’s easier to think “I’ve got my way of doing things” and expect the ensemble to adapt to you. But to me, that sounds like the attitude of someone who considers leadership a position of privilege, instead of a position of responsibility. Effective musical leaders are able to change up their modus operandi, even if it means reducing their own prominence in rehearsal. After all, it is not a teacher’s instruction that yields musical improvement, but the learners’ application of it. The more the message from the podium is effectively received (not just delivered), the more musicians have opportunity to grow their performance skills, and in the process feel more influential in the progress of the entire ensemble.


A Case Study in Musical Motivation

In the summer of 1947, two parents living in a small Southern town had to choose a birthday present for their 11 year old son. He was a pretty typical boy so the gift ideas were, well, pretty typical. The parents had their options narrowed down to a bicycle or a guitar. It surely wasn’t the only factor in their decision, but there was a considerable price difference between the two. The more expensive bike was passed over and the boy received his first guitar on his birthday.

The boy as a teenager


A musical instrument seemed the perfect gift for a boy who had shown great fondness for music all of his childhood, mainly by singing every chance he got. He did much of his singing in and around church, but he also found opportunities at family gatherings, at school, and while playing in the backyard with friends. He was probably the kind of kid who sang about every spoonful of cereal at breakfast. But people enjoyed his singing and he constantly fielded song requests from teachers and friends. He eventually entered a talent show at the local fairgrounds, where he won second prize. So when his parents presented him with his first guitar, it made sense. It would help him further develop his singing.

After getting his guitar, the boy received some tutoring from a couple of his uncles who played. Armed with a few chords and recordings of his favorite music, he labored to reproduce the sounds loved. His singing likely benefited from this practice but not enough to keep pace with the increase in musical expectations that come when a singing child becomes a singing teenager. His eighth-grade music teacher saw no special potential in him and did not invite him to perform in the school’s top vocal group. He began to identify the musical settings in which his skills were best suited. He jumped at certain performance opportunities–he especially enjoyed making music for and with his friends–and avoided others with equal enthusiasm.

His love for music was never shaken and his involvement in it never stopped. In high school he participated in sports and other school clubs, but there were also many times when he sacrificed leisure activities in order to work on his music. Because his family struggled financially, he also had to take part-time jobs. As a teen he worked at a downtown theater, then later at a metal products factory. Upon graduating from high school he took a full-time job driving a delivery truck for a tool factory. But music was still his passion.

On many of his deliveries, our singing guitar-playing truck driver passed a small recording studio. It offered a make-your-own-recording service to anybody willing to pay the studio costs. The young man’s first recorded song impressed the studio’s office manager, who then shared a copy with the record producer who owned the studio. The producer was only moderately interested and waited nearly a year before approaching the aspiring singer. Now under the tutelage of the producer, the young musician still struggled. The producer eventually matched him up with some more experienced musicians in hopes of developing his skills. What followed were many more months of hard work.

But by now, young Elvis Presley was fully committed to a career in music.

It deserves mentioned that once Elvis did get his “big break” and performed for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry radio program in Nashville, he was no instant success. In fact the head of the Opry talent office, after hearing Elvis’s performance, told him that he should go back to driving a truck!

Although certain parts of Elvis’s biography are very unusual–especially after achieving stardom–some aspects of his development are common to many musicians: an unceasing love of music, the support of others, the maximizing of available resources, and perseverance through adversity. As described above, it was a combination of environmental factors and experiences that allowed a young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, to become “The King.” But identifying a common storyline just scratches the surface in understanding musical motivation. Where did Elvis’s deep connection to music come from? How did he sustain it through distraction and hardship? Why didn’t his musical failures cause him to give up? These kinds of questions, which I won’t try to answer here, capture the curiosity of many performing artists, educators, and psychologists. Count me among them! And it seems the more I learn about motivation, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is.