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August 2004 Conducting Wisdom From Harry Begian, By Barry Ellis

Veteran director Harry Begian, who led bands at both the high school and college level, explains the difficult process of learning the craft and becoming a skilled conductor.

How did you learn the basic techniques and nuances that make a good conductor effective?
   I learned a great deal by observing professional conductors, who worked in an entirely different manner from what I saw in school. Instead of talking to the orchestra, these conductors came in and all they said was “good morning gentlemen, the Beethoven please”— and wham, the stick came down. The conductor never stopped unless he had to. Only if there was something he couldn’t convey with gestures or by talking over the music as they played would he stop. Whenever this was necessary, the conductor always explained why he stopped and gave specific instructions about how the passages should be played. This efficiency of professional conductors in using rehearsal time impressed me the most. As I watched several conductors over the years, I was also impressed that no two of them conducted in the same manner. Each stood before the orchestra differently, used distinctive beat patterns, and no two of them used the left hand in the same way. I had read in books about the taboos of conducting, including that the left hand should never be used except to cue someone, but these symphony conductors used the left hand all the time, and they used it gracefully. I also began to notice that no two of them conducted the same piece of music at the same tempo or with the same inflections. I heard Fritz Reiner and Jose Iturbi conduct Roman Carnival Overture a few months apart and they took entirely different tempos on the same work. This convinced me that professional conductors don’t copy one another but conduct each piece as they see it in the score. The result is that the music reflects the conductor’s perception of the score, which I guess is what some people refer to as recreating the music from the score. These were the most important influences that professional conductors had on me.

How much did you learn about conducting in college classes?
   Strangely enough I was not influenced much by my school conductors or the conducting classes that I   took in college. Conducting classes were required, but I didn’t learn anything from them because I was already far beyond what they covered. I observed everything professional conductors did, from how they walked onstage and stepped on the podium to the way they took a bow. Most people think these things are not essential to the art of   conducting, but   they   are important to me.
   I was greatly impressed by how thoroughly professional conductors knew every score. They always kept a score in front of them but rarely consulted it. Occasionally when they stopped the orchestra and couldn’t remember a rehearsal letter or measure number they looked at the score.
   At Tanglewood everyone on campus was required to sing in the festival chorus. It was a pleasure to work under Robert Shaw, and from watching him I learned that if a conductor doesn’t work hard, the players will not work any harder. Five minutes into the rehearsal Shaw was dripping with sweat. It seemed that we didn’t really get into the music until he got the sound he was after during the warm-up exercises, yet many conductors just go through the warm-up as a necessary ritual and cannot wait to get into the first number on the rehearsal schedule. Shaw never turned to the repertoire until the choir produced the sound, balance, and color blends he wanted. Only when he got each of these would he turn to the music.

What are some of the problems you see in young conductors?

   I have often told conducting students that one of the hardest things they would learn is how to conduct slowly. Before this is possible a conductor has to be mature as a musician and as a person. Young conductors just cannot take a piece at a very slow tempo and still maintain a relaxed sound. If we listen to a tape of a recital when we were young, it invariably sounds faster than it should be. The same is true of young conductors. Another problem is that young conductors cannot maintain a fluid wrist motion on slow music. This is one of the hardest techniques for any conductor to develop. It is also difficult to convey everything an ensemble needs to know solely through gestures and facial expressions. I have heard cold leagues declare that they can do this and then watched some of them in action as they worked with an all-state band. They declare that they are different from most conductors, that with gestures and a few comments they will convey exactly what they want to hear. This never works. About seven measures into a piece they are forced to stop and explain a problem. Certainly it is better if everything can be conveyed through gestures, but this
 simply cannot be done.

What are your standards for choosing the music for a concert program?
   I believe a director should choose music that he, the players, and the audience will enjoy. I consider each of these to be essential parties in any concert. The conductor is the catalyst for everything, but players should be satisfied too. I don’t believe in forcing a bad piece of music on a group just because it is new. The only time I have played something the players didn’t like was for a C.B.D.N.A. convention. I won’t mention the composer’s name, but that was probably the only performance the piece ever had. I find it difficult to rehearse music the ensemble doesn’t like.
   In choosing music for a concert I always think in terms of the unity of the program as a whole. I want it to start somewhere, evolve to a high point and have some variety along the way. I want variety in the length of pieces, the key signatures, and the styles. Some colleagues probably type me as a conductor who doesn’t like contemporary music, but this is untrue. I played and recorded the Hindemith Symphony in 1954, just three years after it was published and Schoenberg’s Theme and Variations, Op. 43A, a few years after it was published. Before I ever heard the Michigan Band play it under William Revelli, my band at Cass High School performed it, and I am not ashamed to play those recordings for anybody. My view is that the issue is not one of liking or disliking contemporary music, but only whether each piece is worth playing.

How much contemporary band music do you program?
   Some of my colleagues feel an obligation to play any contemporary piece that gets written, but I do not, perhaps because I am older and have learned not to be taken in by everything that is new. The fact that something is new does not reflect anything about its merits. Most of the music I’ve heard university bands play in the last ten or fifteen years is just junk that isn’t worthy of the time spent fathoming all the difficult technical aspects of the pieces. Many recent composers seem to strive for the extremes, as if they are trying to write the slowest, fastest, loudest, or most technically and rhythmically difficult music. My view is that good music has inevitability in the sound of it, that it starts somewhere and progresses in a logical fashion. With so many contemporary pieces I get the notion that they are being played only to show off the guy on the podium, and I don’t see how players can enjoy it. I think some of the best music is being written for the jazz band. I hear good charts, and I’m not a jazzer and never have been, although I played in a jazz band in college. I just felt that it was work and didn’t love it the way so many others did. Some of the music jazz composers and arrangers are writing is very musical, and I especially enjoy those who are not afraid to use a melody. “Too many so-called serious modern composers have relegated melody to the trash can and wouldn’t even get caught using one. A few composers have come around in recent years and are starting to write melodies. I don’t know why composers ever abandoned melody, which is one of the basics of music.
   Now I am only interested in music that is good and is worthy of the many hours that I and 85 players will spend on it. I believe it is important that the audience will enjoy hearing the music and that no piece should be played on a concert unless it is thoroughly prepared, just as it is in poor taste to serve a bad meal to guests. Some band conductors will settle for half-baked preparation, but I think it is terrible to offer anything mediocre to an audience.

What advice could you offer for young conductors?

   One of my central goals in any seminar or class on the art of conducting is to impress everyone with the importance of working in their own style. All conductors are taught the basics of giving a release, but this is an awkward gesture for many young directors. All conductors should work in a manner that is comfortable and feels natural. I recommend that they watch themselves in a mirror and evaluate how graceful their movements are. I don’t want anyone to imitate me, Revelli, or Hindsley. In one-on-one sessions I try to get the person loosened up and able to conduct in a style of his own. Whenever I saw Fritz Reiner conduct, he worked in a manner unlike any other conductor, and no one conducted the way Ormandy did. Someone of my height can move his arms in a way that looks graceful, but a tall person who did the same thing would look like a scarecrow on the podium. My philosophy of teaching stick technique is that the physical aspects of conducting should feel natural for each person. How someone moves his hand when speaking may be what he could add to their conducting. What looked good when Revelli did it might not fit someone else. My philosophy is to never copy anybody else but to simply be yourself.

Do you find it helpful to conduct from memory or do you use a score?
   I could never walk into a rehearsal room without having studied a score extensively because I never want to be caught in the embarrassing situation of having something come up in a rehearsal for which I have no answer. The only way to avoid this is to thoroughly study the score. My first question about a new score is to determine how it opens. If it is a melodic piece, I will trace it through melodically. If it is more of a rhythmic work or primarily one of rich harmonies that set a mood, I will follow the most important aspect of a score until it arrives at another important musical idea. I try to read a new score through as I would a book or a newspaper. I want to identify the musical ideas that propel the piece from beginning to end.

As you study a score, what do you mark or highlight for future reference?

   I don’t believe in the ornate types of markings that the conducting method books discuss in great detail. I have seen many of the scores that professional conductors have used. The Arthur Luck Library rents music to major symphony orchestras and to university orchestras all over the world. The scores that were excessively marked by some big-name conductors, noted such obvious things as CL for clarinet or FL for flute, OB for oboe. I don’t do this anymore. Some scores I have used for decades may have a variety of markings and some in ink, but as the years went by I learned that fewer markings are better and that a score marked with a #1 pencil can be erased easily.
   I also do not like ornate markings or colored-pencil notations. I advise students to forget these, if only because most of us will move tin from one school and go to another. I certainly wouldn’t want to leave behind scores that are marked in red and green and purple pencils. The next director would probably wonder what kind of a fool or idiot had marked them up this way. Desire Emiole Inglebrecht, a European conductor, wrote a good essay on conducting, in which he refers to scores that are marked too much as musical graffiti. Before the first rehearsal I will probably go over a score as many as six or seven times. Each time I will find something I hadn’t spotted before, but I only mark a few things to jog my memory later. Anything I can remember should not be marked. At the first rehearsal of a new composition, I sometimes will start at a point where the composition has evolved into a full-blown work instead of starting at the beginning. Often the opening phrases are just a lead-in to the major sections. Music often becomes full blown near the end of the piece before the coda section, and wherever this occurs is generally a good place to begin because it gives everyone an idea of how the piece will evolve. I try to play through to the end and then go back to the beginning. At other times I find it best to introduce a new work by reading it through from beginning to end. I would never devote an entire rehearsal to just one piece, although some of my colleagues do this.

How carefully do you plan and outline each rehearsal?
    I never want to be bothered during the hour before rehearsals because I want to think through the rehearsal again and decide how much I should attempt to cover in this session. An experienced conductor may not need to write down how to spend each ten-minute segment, but Robert Shaw said that he did just that, although 1 never saw a schedule in his hand. After thinking through a rehearsal, it is rare that I cannot accomplish what I set out to do. Sometimes I may not get all the results I hoped to, but I move on and never revert to hammering away at any problem for hours on end. When it is clear that something will not happen, I simply leave it for another day. I have seen rehearsals go down the drain because the conductor spent an hour on four measures. To some directors persistence may seem to be the best way to achieve perfection, but in my view this is a waste of valuable rehearsal time.
   The first order of business in a rehearsal is to warm up on music that requires little technique. I usually warm up on a chorale because the band plays these with a full tone and has a chance to listen to the pitch and balance within the ensemble. The conductor can work on attacks, releases, phrasing, crescendos, diminuendos, accelerandos, and retinitis. Each of these elements can be practiced during the warm-ups and will awaken the players musically as they listen and respond to each other. Next, I think the rehearsal should turn to something that offers a technical challenge. I may have the band play through a standard march and then move into the real meat of the rehearsal when I work on a new number. I always try to end rehearsals with music the players enjoy and will get satisfaction out of. I am sure they enjoyed the final piece if I hear them singing or whistling it as they leave the rehearsal. I always listen for these signs that they like what we play as much as I do. Whenever a conductor hears something wrong during a rehearsal, I believe it is important to explain why he stopped, to give clear directions on how to correct this, and then move on. Mistakes that are not corrected in rehearsals will invariably show up in the final performance. Whenever I leave a mistake uncorrected during a rehearsal, perhaps assuming that it is so basic that the players will correct it themselves, it invariably happens again on the concert performance. Over the years I have learned that not all students hear mistakes they make, and some do not understand how the phrase should be played. If the rehearsals are productive, and every one likes the music, both the audience and the players will enjoy the concert performance.    

   Harry Begian began teaching at McKenzie High School in Detroit during World War II until he was drafted. He next taught at Cass Technical High School (1947-1964) and then directed the bands at Wayne State University, his alma mater, from 1964-1967. In 1967 he succeeded Leonard Falcone as director of bands at Michigan State University, and in 1970 he led the bands at the University of Illinois until he retired in 1984. He earned a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan and has been a Contributing Editor to The Instrumentalist for many years.

   Barry Ellis is associate professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where he conducts the Symphony Band Chamber Winds and Marching Pioneers and teaches bassoon, saxophone, music education, and conducting. Ellis received a bachelor’s degree from Furman University, a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a doctoral degree in music education from the University of Illinois.