The Methods To Mastering Conducting An Interview with Debra Traficante

Dan Blaufuss | August 2013

    Debra Traficante, assistant professor of music and assistant director of university bands at the University of Oklahoma, believes that sometimes conductors get in their own way. “If my students miss something the first time, I’ve learned to let it go. If they miss something a second time, I will still let it go. If they miss it three times, I will stop and work on it. I have found with this approach that the time that it took to get a piece ready was less than if I had stopped and talked about mistakes the first time. This is not to say I let students get away with playing poorly. However, because I give students freedom to make a mistake the first couple times, they know that if I stop to work on something, it needs improvement.”
    At Oklahoma, Traficante conducts the Symphony Band, teaches conducting lessons to graduate and undergraduate students, is the lead teacher for the undergraduate conducting and methods course, and oversees music education students. In addition, she was interim director of the Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band in the spring of 2013.

In which aspects of conducting are experienced teachers most likely to need improvement?
    Band directors are generally micromanagers, used to organizing things and making sure they happen. Sometimes that translates on the podium to wanting to rule it all, both during rehearsals and performances. It is natural to want to cue everything and conduct every aspect of the music, but we get in our own way when we do this. The first thing a conductor wants to do after hearing an error is stop the group and address it. The truth is that we could stop at every second of music, and some directors do, which is an extremely frustrating experience. This approach prevents students from getting the overarching musical nuance or an idea of where they fit in. Musicians never get to make decisions in a rehearsal like that.
    Many directors comment that they do not have time for students to figure things out on their own, but this is not true. What it does for students is train them to fix things faster. It might seem like it takes forever for students to figure something out at first, but it will come. Students in the same ensemble will play at different levels and sightread at different levels, and it will take some of them longer to figure things out. When they get it on their own they feel better about it because they solved the problem without help. This leads students to appreciate being in the ensemble more because they feel proud at the aha moments. It is difficult to shift to this mentality, but if you can do it, it is worth it.
    I see all sorts of hovering, jumping, and leaning, but my pet peeve is when a conductor scrunches down on the podium because he thinks it is the best way to get the band to play softer. When I have students who do this, I often hold their shoulders to get them to stand straight. A better way to get a group to play more quietly is to step back. We have different planes to conduct in and use of the whole body, so if normal is standing tall with the feet shoulder-width apart and then you pull the hands in together while stepping back with one foot, those two things combined convey better than anything else that the group should get softer. Conversely, if you want something more from the ensemble, step toward them and open the hands a bit.
    When you bend over, picture how you look: shoulders forward, head down, arms by the side. From a psychological perspective, that image usually portrays sadness, weakness, or sickness. It does not portray strength. As a conductor, you never want to look weak or timid, you want to be in control of the ensemble. This does not mean ruling with an iron fist, it simply means controlling what is happening.
    There is similar psychology behind trying to quiet down a section by holding up the left hand so your palm was facing them. We’re taught at a very young age that this gesture means stop. As a conducting gesture, there might be times when you want to hold up your hand like that, but over the course of a 30-year career, I might do it twice. I otherwise would not use that gesture because I don’t want them to stop, I want them to be softer. There are other ways to quiet the group, such as lowering your hand while the palm faces the ground. People make whole careers out of deciphering what messages the body produces through posture. If conductors notice what their bodies are saying to their ensembles, they will have much more success in sending messages without saying anything. Sometimes, I put music in front of students and ask questions about how they might conduct it. I want students to make decisions about what the visual representation of the music should be. I try to be as minimal as possible while still reflecting the style and the nature and character of the music. That does not mean I am always a small conductor, because I conduct very broadly sometimes. I try to make sure that the music can speak for itself.

How do you teach conducting?
    My approach to beginning conducting is to focus on the right hand first, and we do not jump into patterns right away. The first thing I have students do is move around the room to music – anything from Bach to Gnarls Barkley. Students do a good job of moving appropriately to the music. The aim of this exercise is to get students to think about reflecting the music in their movement.
    We then focus on moving the hands in different planes. We move the hands up and down through space, with the backs of the hands facing the wall moving up and the palms facing the wall when moving down. The idea is control of space. In a slow tempo, inexperienced conductors may rush to the top of the space. The first time students do this in tempo (q = 60) they might already be at the top of their range by count 21⁄2. We repeat this often to build muscle memory. Then we work on a similar idea with the hands moving outward away from each other rather than up or down. The wrists lead the hands both directions. These exercises are designed to get the students thinking about the acceptable frame of conducting.

    When students can control the space at different tempos and times, I combine the two sets of directions. The left hand might move up while the right hand moves out. What happens immediately is that the left hand starts to tilt away because the right hand is moving horizontally. Students have to learn to focus on moving one hand straight up and down while the other goes straight in and out. This is the first point in class when students are no longer mirroring hands. We try it in all possible combinations, which starts to incorporate some independence of hands.
    In week four of the class, we start conducting patterns, and I have students drop the left hand for a short time. There is much debate over whether to start using the left hand right away. I prefer to limit the use of the left hand initially so students do not get into the habit of mirroring, which, while acceptable when used sparingly, is a difficult habit to break in those who use it too often. However, I do not limit the left hand for long, so students do not get into the habit of always leaving it by the side. We start with the basic patterns: two, three, and four beats. When students are comfortable with those, I add the left hand back in, having students conduct a pattern in the right while moving the left up and down.
    Independence of hands is an extremely important skill, and it is one that some people have a difficult time with. Percussionists gain independence of hands quickly, but they face other problems when they conduct, such as an ictus that looks like playing a drum.
    After patterns with movement in the left hand, I address compound meter, styles such as marcato or staccato while still moving the left hand up and down smoothly. I look through scores of band pieces to find difficult passages to conduct, so students gain experience with something they might program in the future.
    The last task is conducting shapes, because it uses everything we have worked on to that point. I have students make a four-count circle in the right hand while making a square with the left or conduct a three-beat pattern in the right hand while making a triangle in the left. After that would be conducting a three-beat pattern in the right hand and making a square in the left. Eventually students work on conducting three in the right hand and four in the left. I have them do this to gain independence of hands. No one is going to conduct different patterns in each hand, it is just another way to push yourself, similar to playing a scale in various intervals. There is always a way to take things one step further on independence of hands, but the step that is often missed is applying that independence of hands to the music. Students can get to the point where they look good, but much of it is forgotten once a score is in front of them, because all they think about is not messing up. Each semester in the four undergraduate conducting courses, students arrange a piece of band music for the instruments available in class. This might mean twelve clarinets and a tuba. Students teach and rehearse the piece they arrange in class, and the final exam is a performance.
    Although one benefit of having students arrange a piece for conducting class is so they have something they know well enough that they can look up from the score once in a while, another reason I do this is because many middle and high school bands today might not have perfect instrumentation. Music education majors need to be prepared to work around that. I had a former student email me to say that her woodwinds were going to be outstanding this fall but she had no trumpets. She is going to have to do some arranging and get trumpet parts in the hands of some of her fourteen clarinetists.
    All of this relates back to stepping on the podium as a beginning teacher who has to practice his podium choreography – and conducting is much like choreography. Eventually a conductor studies the music more than how to conduct, but beginning conductors should study both. Few students think of conducting as another instrument and area of performance, but it is difficult to master. Using the major muscle groups and tiny joints conducting requires does not come naturally to most people. The key to crossing that line to just focusing on the music is knowing that you are going to stay out of the way. A veteran teacher should be able to take a new score and sightread it as well as the best ensemble members can sightread on their instruments.
    At Oklahoma, students take a year of conducting as sophomores, and then they take it again as seniors. The first time they enroll in a methods course, and the second time they enroll in a conducting course. However, the classes are combined and meet at the same time each year. By the time students graduate, they have arranged and taught four pieces of music, and by spring of the senior year, you can see that they are starting to understand communicating style. We throw quite a bit of difficult material at the sophomores, but their senior year, as they start to get it, they are enlisted to be mentors to the sophomores.
    The class is co-taught and covers both music education and conducting components. Students learn a methodology for how to rehearse. If you conduct an ensemble and then stop them, knowing something was wrong but not being able to immediately identify what, this gives them a point of departure. The first thing they focus on is pulse. If the ensemble isn’t together it is pointless to work on balance. This is the music education side. On the conducting side, undergraduates focus on looking like the music, and we teach all this while students are on the podium. We try to make it as real of a situation as possible by moving seniors, who have already taken all the instrument technique courses, to secondary instruments. This creates problems for student conductors to solve, forcing students to teach pedagogy in class as well.
    We have a specific way of teaching length of notes. Music education faculty talk about notes that are 100%, 75%, or 50% touching when referring to legato, accented, and staccato, respectively. As conducting faculty it is our job to relate things to how that looks. To conduct stylistically, the gesture should look like that 100, 75, or 50 percent of sound. We discuss approaches to those note lengths and what has to happen in the shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers, and baton. A conductor should look like the music. If someone is on the podium just flapping his arms, it is unmusical.  We’ve seen people who can talk their way into a musical performance and people who can conduct their way into a musical performance, but the ideal is to do both.
    As an example, staccato is initiated from the tip of the baton and should feel like flicking something off the tip, which will take the fingers and wrist. I tell students to put a postage stamp on a mirror and conduct so the tip of the baton never leaves the square of the stamp. Starting with an area this tiny forces students to focus on control.

How should conductors keep percussionists engaged in rehearsals?
    Neglect of percussionists occurs far too often. I’ve watched honor band rehearsals conducted by big names in music education and seen the percussion sit for an hour. It was an honor band, and the students worked hard to earn the opportunity to play in this ensemble, then they waited an hour with nothing to do. During score study, see how the percussionists are involved. They will compliment the melody or harmony, be an accompaniment, or play something entirely independent, which means the part should be considered a solo; all this goes for non-pitched percussion as well. For example, there are many times when the snare or bass drum has the same rhythmic component as the tuba line. Make notes on the percussion parts in the score. If the snare plays with the countermelody, write countermelody in the part and bracket it. If a percussion part is soloistic, that doesn’t mean it should dominate, but it adds something new to the texture that should be heard on an equal level to the rest of the ensemble.
    When you isolate parts in rehearsal, include the percussion. Percussionists need to know how they fit in, and they need to make musical decisions for themselves, and the only way to do that is to make them aware of what is going on. In rehearsals, I ask my percussionists who plays with them. If my bass drummer knows he compliments the low clarinets, I have just those instruments play together, asking the percussionist to match note lengths with the clarinets by muffling the bass drum at the right time. Now both the bass drummer and clarinets know that they play together, and everyone else knows that I’m going to start asking detailed questions about who plays with whom. This makes everybody listen more. No student at any level wants to answer a question with “I don’t know.”
    When percussion parts are entirely different from what the winds have, make sure each section knows what the other is doing. If you know the band is playing half notes while the percussion part is active, isolate the percussion so the rest of the ensemble can hear it.

What are the biggest trends in marching bands today?
    Trends change constantly, and the primary decision is whether to keep up with them. College marching bands already have long-standing traditions and are less affected by what the drum corps are doing, but many high school groups are following the trends set by the corps. I had a high school band director want to take an independent study course with me, because he is now the head director and faces making these decisions. Although it is not being widely discussed, there is a definite trend toward the straight-leg approach to marching, which has become fairly predominant throughout Bands of America marching bands. The tried-and-true glide step with its bent knee is still around, and some groups use a hybrid of the two, but the straight-leg style is becoming increasingly common.
    Straight-leg style marching is as it sounds. Students march with very little to no bend in the knee when moving either forward or backward. The idea behind this style is full-body projection. The glide-step approach is to make sure that the body is as smooth as possible, so an image of confidence can be projected from the upper body. With the straight-leg approach, marchers look a bit like toy soldiers, and the whole body projects confidence.
    This style feels awkward to those who have never done it before; it is not a normal way of walking. Glide step is much closer to the way we walk. In glide step, there are parts of the body that ought to be tight, but the heels receive the most attention. For straight-leg, almost the entire lower body is rigid, and the best approach is to think about keeping the knees together, so that the knees, when crossing, do not bend each other. When I ask students to focus on their knees, the straight-leg style becomes cleaner.
    From a judging aspect, I want to hear a good band playing musical phrases with good balance. This will never change. However, the marching focus and general effect have changed. In a Bands of America-style show, there is likely to be a period of two to three minutes during which there is no marching, just choreography. To make that type of show a success, I recommend including levels. This does not refer to dynamics, but rather to physical height, and it is more commonly used in color guard. A medium level would be standing normally. The low level would be kneeling or bending the knees, and the high level is raising or tossing flags. The top level is difficult for wind players, who cannot raise their horns as high as flags. Instead, they can stand on their toes, jump, or draw focus to their plumes with a head pop. If the front of the band is kneeling while the back third does a head pop and those in the middle have flashy horn movements, with the color guard tossing flags high, it can win substantial general effect points. It adds a lot to a show without having added much at all.  More traditional marching bands will have a lot more marching than choreography, but the same concepts can be added. You just can’t usually stop marching as long. The changes and layers would have to be quick – at most 32 counts.

What are the most important things to accomplish in band camp?
    When I taught high school, I felt that in band camp, the music is more important than the marching. Marching is closer to what we already do on a day-to-day basis; we already walk, and marching will come a lot faster than the music. Jump into the music first, get some notes under your fingers, and start memorizing. Second would be to get your show on the field right away. Although I run a two-day summer rookie camp covering basic fundamentals of how to march, I don’t dedicate time to practicing marching fundamentals during band camp. I started out teaching like every other first-year teacher, with focus on fundamentals block and a transition to teaching drill later in each rehearsal. I decided to try skipping the fundamentals block one day, figuring I could go back to it tomorrow if my idea failed, but it was just as good, if not better, skipping the fundamentals block and incorporating marching technique into the context of the drill.
    If I was going to teach a fundamentals block, and only work on fundamentals, I would include work on stop-and-gos. However, if our show that year never used one, it would be a waste of time to teach it in band camp. As I teach drill, I would incorporate fundamentals into the drill. It is similar to isolating a scale when needed rather than spending time learning a bunch of ways to play a scale before touching any music. At some point, you have to take the plunge and learn the scales within the context of the music.
    Section unity and morale should be built in band camp; this is when the morale of the season is set. As a band director, I have the music and the marching on my mind, but for the students’ sake I also want there to be a sense of unity and a sense of family. As a high school director, I would schedule different activities over the course of band camp to help students gain a sense of autonomy and bond together. At rookie camp, each section comes up with a marching routine over 64 counts to a piece of music we have been rehearsing. At the end of rookie camp, there would be a march-off. It made students extremely excited to show off what they had done, and usually there was added choreography. Students would dress in silly hats and really get into it.
    During full band camp, at lunch time every day, I have a topic for students to discuss. One subject for students is what makes their section unique and what makes it part of the whole? The sections eat together and talk about the questions, then at the end of band camp each day, we take about 30 minutes so a freshman from each section can get in front of the band to talk through what their section came up with. Students really bought in to that. It is important not to create too much autonomy, otherwise each section can turn into a clique.
    In the drumline, the lower set the instrument is, the worse posture gets. Bass drummers at the bottom of the line tend to lean back. Tenor players frequently lean back and often put one foot on top of the other when standing because it helps them rest their drums on their leg. Snare drummers don’t usually have terrible posture unless their drum fits incorrectly, and then they will start to lean backward to hold up their instrument as well.
    The height of snare and tenor drums can be adjusted on the carrier. If it is too low, that will encourage bad posture. When playing concert snare drum, it should be at the height of the belly button, and it should be the same for marching snare. Unfortunately, I see the carrier on the hip bones for both snare and tenor players, which makes the drum even lower than that. If the carrier pad is sitting on the lower part of the abdomen the drum will be close to the right height.

What are the best ways to get a small marching band to produce a bigger sound?
    When I started teaching I was the fourth director in 31⁄2 years and started in January. They fired the person before me in November, so this group hadn’t even had a director for a winter concert. There were 25 band students at a school of about 3,000 students when I inherited the program. It hadn’t always been that way, but it just dwindled to that point quickly. In addition, my first week there I kicked out two students – one for spiking a bass clarinet like a football. It shattered into a million pieces.
    At the conclusion of my fifth year there, which was as long as I was there, I had almost 200 students in the program. Building, recruiting, retention all came, in a large part, because of how we sounded, and if I had to pinpoint what changed the course of my band’s sound, it would be breathing.
    When I think of sound, the former Future Corps at Epcot comes to mind. This 15-piece ensemble put out an almost deafening volume while marching. They were professional players, but I wondered why I couldn’t get my students to sound the same way. I know how to get volume out of a drumline; that comes through velocity. For wind players, the keys were breath control and support. This was in 2001, so there was no YouTube and no way to go online and watch what others did, so I asked around and some friends recommended short sections of PVC pipe and doing breathing exercises with these. That one step changed my band sound completely. I incorporated breathing exercises daily, and students were required to keep that PVC pipe in their cases and have it with them every day. It was considered part of their instrument. We did a lot of breathing exercises. As a percussionist, this was a new world to me, but I knew our 23-piece sound was not going to cut it.
    We also played long tones. I wrote a cool-sounding chord progression that students loved to play. I made students leave no spaces between notes to build lung strength and make them able to carry things over bar lines and play complete phrases in one breath. Halfway through the season I spent rehearsal time with the band in a basics block and had students play the warm-up chord progression on the move, then had them breathe it only while marching eight-to-five down the field at (q = 160-180). This really made students exercise. On the first day of band camp, students can’t be expected to play an entire show at a high level; you have to work up to it a bit each day, similar to training to run a marathon.

    Debra Traficante earned a bachelor of music in music education, cum laude, and a master of music degree in instrumental wind band conducting from the University of Florida. She also taught at two high schools in Florida before being awarded an Alumni Fellowship at the University of Oklahoma to begin a doctor of musical arts in wind band conducting degree, which she completed in 2010. Traficante frequently judges, guest conducts, and is a clinician for ensembles across the United States and has conducted at the International World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles Conference in Singapore in 2005. As an active percussionist, she presented a clinic at the 2009 Oklahoma Music Educators Convention on how to inspire a more musical percussion section in bands.