Conducting as a viable form of music-making
and leadership arose relatively late in Western music.
It deals, nevertheless, with the same technical challenges
that any instrumentalist or solo performer must confront and
overcome in order to attain a high level of artistry. But conducting
has a unique dimension, peculiar to its form, mainly, its dependency
on others for tone production. The conductor alone is mute; but with others
playing or singing, she/he can begin to realize a vision of the score. This unique
and sometimes daunting circumstance highlights the conductor’s dependency on emotional and psychological factors–human factors–that may seem unrelated to the
music at hand. The conductor may be an outstanding musician but, at the same time, a poor communicator or an individual with a particularly unpleasant demeanor; the result of this unfortunate combination is often uninspired and average performances that do not elicit best efforts from the musicians. Conversely, the conductor may be a less-than-stellar musician but possess charisma or an imposing will power or physical appearance that motivate members of the ensemble with these extra-musical qualities; the result of this combination often yields technically deficient performances. But what glorious results sound from the individual who possesses both attributes–superlative musicianship and unquestionable charisma, for example, from Lenny Bernstein! What, then, are the conductor’s set of human factors, beyond physical appearance and separate from her/his rank as a musician, that motivate musicians of the ensemble to immerse themselves fully into tone production and sing or play with total mind, heart, and soul?
Before I could answer this question, I persisted to conduct on the basis of an assumption that ensembles simply accepted my leadership and that there were enough ‘magical ’ moments to justify a return to the podium (there were also moments that might send another less audacious personality to an alternate profession). But there was a pivotal awakening to the mystery and magic of great conductors. I will direct the reader to the historic video production entitled The Art of Conducting and to the episode with one of my favorite conductor–Wilhelm Fürtwangler. It is a fairly long account, so I will summarize: Fürtwangler walked into the hall where the Berlin Philharmonic was rehearsing with a guest-conductor and sat down at the rear of the hall, and instantly, the orchestra acquired a new and brilliant sound. His presence alone transformed the sound of an entire orchestra! For me, the storyteller, who was the timpanist playing while following a full score, answered the initial question: Fürtwangler possessed an amazingly open demeanor, and this demeanor invited members of the orchestra into that same state of “openness.” With a more mature approach, I became fully dedicated to being or becoming “open” and “inviting” with the musicians of an ensemble.
“First came the seen, then thus the palpable” (Pound, Canto 81). My conducting philosophy can be summarized in one word: preparation. Before I step on the podium, I prepare myself in three distinct ways. First, I learn the score. Second, I think through and practice the physical gestures to visually match the demands of the score; in essence choreograph the score. Third, I undertake a process in which, using Parker J. Palmer’s terminology from his landmark book–The Courage to Teach, I examine my “identity” and “integrity”: “identity lies in the intersection of diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death.” This is an examination of everything that converges on my ensuing work with an ensemble: the music at hand, facts and details about the performers, my frame of mind, my fears and expectations, the rehearsal and performance context, aspects of and insights into the composer’s life, etc. The result of this third phase of preparation lead to a sense of absolute sincerity or, in Parker’s words: “becoming more real.” It is this sense of reality that makes me “open” to others, to the music, and to unforeseen circumstances (which invariably surface). It is this sense of reality that “invites” others to fully participate in the process. Many conductors and authors speak about respect for the singers and players and the need for democratic exchange of ideas between conductor and player; respect is a given, but no such joint participation will ever emerge if the conductor (or the player) is either a closed individual or has nothing substantive to share. On the other hand, Mariss Jansons (whom Simon Rattle proclaimed as the world’s leading conductor) speaks of a need for collaboration with the players and, indeed, his work and the testimonies of those ‘under’ his baton evidence a powerful synergetic process. He truly is open to collaboration and the players feel and acknowledge this openness and immerse themselves with energy and total commitment; the performance results are superlative.
I certainly advocate "preparation" and the desirability of an "open” environment in my teaching; I try to model these attributes. But a more comprehensive approach to teaching is formed by innate and acquired elements along the lines of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” musicality described by Bruno Walter in his book–Of Music and Music-Making. By “innate,” I am referring to those characteristics that can be considered intuitive and inborn. My energy to teach comes from an innate love for music and music-making. I encourage my students to root themselves in their innate passion for music and, in some cases, first find that primal source within themselves. The “acquired” elements in my life are those layers of information and skills that were absorbed through observation and direct experience. In my formative years I had an insatiable hunger to watch acknowledged masters ‘do their thing,’ ‘spin their magic.’ I encourage my students to observe as many master musicians and conductors as possible and to immerse themselves into contexts that challenge their skill levels: analytic seminars, summer workshops, conducting seminars and competitions, music-making experiences under dynamic conductors, etc., and to read. My teaching philosophy is, thus, a balancing act between the intrinsic-innate, and extrinsic-acquired aspects of my own journey and of the student’s development. I am always searching for new and more efficient ways of gaining and imparting knowledge and skills. But my main concern is to present an image to the students of a man who knows his limitations, who is honest in his appraisal of himself and others, and who is constantly seeking ways of becoming a better musician and person. Awakening and nourishing a desire to examine and better oneself is the greatest gift a teacher can offer a student.