Twice a year for the last few years, I’ve played in a small orchestra for a course which trains choir conductors. Students are typically on the course for several years, and attend several weekends throughout the year at different locations around the country, plus a one-week summer school. Sometimes I’ve led the orchestra, and sometimes I’ve led the second violins. Today, I was leading the second violins.
Orchestras are not choirs
Choir conducting and orchestral conducting are very different things. For example, a choir conductor can typically maintain eye contact with the singers most of the time they are singing, mouth words to them, and so on. The gestures used when conducting are different. The player’s needs are different from those of a singer in a choir. A player in a string section, for example, needs to be able to follow the conductor with their peripheral vision while simultaneously reading the music, watching the principal of their section, and watching the leader of the orchestra (or concertmaster if you’re American). So the shape of the beat is very important. The orchestra layout amplifies this: some players see the conductor from the side, rather than from the front, and it must be clear for them too. A choir conductor will typically conduct without a baton. An orchestra will typically start grumbling if a conductor doesn’t use one. (The baton makes the beat larger and more visible, which is important for peripheral vision.)
Choirs, however, often perform pieces accompanied by orchestras. Typically, the orchestra is a small one (because it’s being paid), and will only be there for one or two rehearsals (because it’s being paid) or even only the concert day (because it’s being paid). So the conductors are suddenly thrown in to having to conduct an orchestra. This happens with varying degrees of success, as any orchestral player who plays for many choir concerts will tell you . . .
Thus, someone learning to conduct choirs also needs to learn at least some orchestral conducting.
The day I described two years ago was part of the summer school. It mainly involved preparing some choir pieces with orchestral accompaniment for a concert that evening—the kind of situation a choir conductor would typically have on their concert day. Today’s course was rather different: much more a tutoring event.
The orchestra was small: strings only, comprising
- 5 or 4 first violins
- 4 or 3 second violins
- 2 violas
- 1 cello
- 1 double bass.
(The numbers varied because two of the conducting students also played in the orchestra.)
There were three sessions of tutoring, followed after a short break by a very informal concert. The music was Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart, and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. Both are basic pieces in the string repertoire (though the Holst has some challenges to make things more fun both for the players and the conductor). During each session, the students took it in turns to conduct a movement of one of those pieces, with the course tutor stopping them every so often to comment on what was happening, demonstrate different aspects of technique and so on. Imagine an instrumental lesson, but with the orchestra as the instrument, and you’ve got the idea.
For a player, this is quite fascinating. Normally we’re just conducted one way by one person, and it either works or it doesn’t. Certain entries are easy or difficult; we forget that the reason some of them are difficult may well be that the conductor did something wrong, not us . . . In the normal rehearsal situation we’re not really aware of the conducting in detail; mostly just of things which go wrong or which require special attention, such as resuming playing after a pause. When it’s going well, we’re focused on playing the music. (And if the conductor makes a mess of something, we’re probably familiar with the music and will do our best to rescue it.) For the purposes of this course, though, we have to put a lot of our instinct aside. We’re not just being an instrument, but being one which answers back: the tutor will frequently ask us to comment on what the conductor has just been doing, why it worked or didn’t, what we need but aren’t getting, etc. Also we have to do our best to resist our “rescue instinct” and follow whatever the conductor is doing, even if they get it wrong—so they can learn how to put it right.
This time there were ten students. Previously there have been around seven, so I was startled at there being so many. Each got only a very short time slot each session in which to conduct us. This worried me initially. But they still managed to work on quite a lot in the time, and one of the them told me that he felt he learnt as much from watching the others being tutored as he did from his own conducting slots. Partly because when he was watching the others he could concentrate more on what was being said, and less on being terrified . . .
As ever, the music varied in difficulty from movement to movement. And as ever, a good job had been done of matching the music to the conductors; I felt that the tutor had a good grasp of who was capable of what. Several students were new to the course (they’re generally on it for about three years, progressing through the different levels). The one who said it was her first time in front of an orchestra did fine; and it was good seeing familiar faces from previous years, and seeing how their conducting had progressed since they first started the course. That’s one of the most satisfying things about playing for this: you go away feeling that you’ve helped make a real positive difference for someone. They’ve enjoyed the learning experience, you’ve been part of it, and an orchestra and audience somewhere are going to benefit from it.
The mini-concert at the end was very informal. Our contribution was to play one movement from the Holst piece and one from the Mozart one, with the two conductors chosen according to how the earlier sessions had gone.
Here are a few observations from this day and previous ones.
Every detail matters
One thing these courses bring home is that everything a conductor does affects an orchestra’s playing. I mean everything. If the conductor appears confident when walking on, the orchestra plays confidently. If the conductor moves stiffly, the orchestra plays less freely. If they smile, the playing lightens up. The way they stand has an effect. So does where they’re looking: if the conductor looks at a particular player, that’s who you’ll find yourself listening to.Suppose a wind player has a solo but the conductor is looking at the cellos: everyone will listen to the cellos and not realise that they’re drowning out the wind solo. If the conductor looks at the wind player, everyone will listen to that and back off to accompany it.
It fascinates me that these effects happen even when they depend on detail you don’t think you’re aware of while playing. Maybe you don’t think you can see the conductor’s facial expression, say. Yet when they change it, it still affects the way you play. It seems that the brain takes in a lot more information than we’re conscious of.
Daring to conduct
I’m not a conductor. But it struck me today that the less experienced conductors had a certain reluctance to wholeheartedly make the various gestures required. For example: loud passages require a larger beat than quiet ones. Small movements mean you should play quietly. I think all the conductors were aware of this, and all were trying to use it to differentiate between loud and soft passages; yet virtually all of them only adjusted the size of the beat by a small amount. When the tutor encouraged them to make a clearer distinction, they made the difference a little bigger—but in most cases nowhere near as big as it could have been, and not quite as big as it needed to be. (There were a couple of exceptions, and it was noticeable that with those conductors the orchestra felt much more confident to do the dynamics and phrasing that were wanted.)
This seems to me rather like what happens when first learning a new language. Many people feel an initial reluctance to pronounce the words properly. They use their own accent, rather than that of a speaker of the language. I’ve experienced this myself. When starting off, you feel as though you’re being asked to impersonate a German accent, say. And it feels a bit silly, because you know perfectly well that you’re not German. So, you’re tempted to say the German words in an English accent. But then at some point it clicks with you: you realise that you’re not impersonating a German accent; you’re speaking German words in the way that Germans do. Or to put it another way: you’re not pretending to speak German; you’re speaking German.
I think something like that was happening with the conducting students. Because the gestures are new and not instinctive, they feel unnatural. A kind of acting. Conducting technique is a new language which they are learning, for communicating musical expression. At some point, it will click with them and it will become their language, which they are comfortable to use and which orchestras will instinctively follow.
The size of the group
One thing which I think often receives far too little attention in planning an event is the effect of group size on the interactions and atmosphere. A while back, I played in a course for symphony orchestra conductors. The arrangement was similar: several sessions, a number of conductors, and a tutor guiding them through the process. But it was a full-size symphony orchestra. It was stressed over and over again that anyone who had any feedback for the conductors should give it. But would they? No. Because the group was simply too large; everyone went into well-behaved orchestral musician mode and wouldn’t say anything. At that event, students I spoke to expressed frustration that they didn’t get more feedback from the orchestra. But everyone’s experience of being conducted is important: if someone at the back of the second violins can’t see properly, they’re probably the only person who’s aware of the problem, and hence the only one who give that feedback.
I think this course works vastly better from that point of view. With only around twelve players, everyone who has a contribution to make can be free to make it. This makes for a much more interactive atmosphere, in which everyone can contribute to the learning experience. From past years I get the impression that this interaction is one of the things which the students most value about the sessions.
I may be tired out, but I enjoy playing for this course. 🙂