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.


5 responses to “Beyond the Performance of Conducting

  1. I completely agree-RGB

  2. This is deeply connected to the issue of coaching versus teaching.
    Check out this superb article on coaching in general and throughout one’s professional career (in this case regarding surgery) in the upcoming New Yorker:

  3. Bill Bauer referred me to this blog and this post really resonates with my own experience working with middle school band students and mentoring young teachers. The suggestions really reinforce work we’ve done in our district with Harvard researcher, Ron Ferguson and his Tripod Project.

    • Barry – Thanks for checking out my site and especially for leaving your comment. I just checked out the Tripod site you linked to. It looks like a great project. I’ll definitely be looking into it more. I appreciate the tip.


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