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An Interview with Kenneth Kiesler

Dan Blaufuss | December 2010

    Kenneth Kiesler is director of orchestras and professor of conducting at the University of Michigan, where he has been since 1995. Kenneth Kiesler began as assistant conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony and was director of the Illinois Symphony from 1980-2000. At the 1986 Stokowski Competition he received the Silver Medal and special recognition by Morton Gould. He received the 1988 Helen M. Thomson Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League as the outstanding American music director under age 35. His teachers included Carlo Maria Giulini, Fiora Contino, Julius Herford, Erich Leinsdorf, John Nelson, and James Wimer. Among the orchestras and opera companies he has conducted are the National Symphony, the Chicago, Utah, Detroit, and Jerusalem Symphonies; the Osaka Philharmonic; the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris; and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. 

    Whether teaching in the rehearsal rooms at the University of Michigan or the woods of Maine, Kenneth Kiesler devotes his life to encouraging great conducting and musicianship. He notes that young conductors sometimes place far too much emphasis on technique, saying “Nobody comes to a performance to watch the conductor’s clear four pattern. People come to be excited, moved, and entertained.” He mentors conductors on ways to break out of rigid conducting and convey the true spirit and emotion of the music.

What are the keys to good conducting technique?
     There are just a few skills that, when mastered, form the basic foundation of a clear, expressive conducting technique: starting, stopping, and establishing the tempo; conducting accelerandos, ritardandos, and rubato; communicating what is on the beats and what is between them; and conducting pitch and sonority.
     Learning to conduct pitch, sonority, and shaping is difficult. The reason for paying attention to this is to be empathetic with the musicians in the ensemble. For example, if I look at the tuba player and give something that looks like it’s for the piccolo, there’s a disconnection; but if I resonate with the pitch that the tuba player is playing and show it in my face, hands, and body, then the tuba player will make that connection.
     This is similar to an opera singer feeling emotion on stage while singing an aria about a loss or death. If she glances into the pit and sees the conductor smiling up at the stage as if everything is wonderful, there is a disconnect. Everything a conductor shows should reflect the music. When musicians see the music in the conductor, they have an empathetic response. This is two-way communication.
     Fear may inhibit expression, and this often stems from mental chatter. It is easy for a conductor’s mind wander while conducting, to race on to other things uncontrollably, to think, “Go faster, no not so fast. That’s sharp, that’s flat. I told them about that the last time, why didn’t I say it differently? I guess I’ll have to say it again, but I’m running out of time. Who’s that standing in the back of the room? What are they thinking? Why did the bassoon player turn and speak to the clarinetist? Are they talking about me?” This could be someone evaluating our ensemble, a critic in the audience, or even someone on stage we perceive to be unhappy or disenfranchised. It can also be fear that we’re not good enough or prepared enough.
     Pianist Lorin Hollander tells a great story about how performers invent their own demons. He was to play a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and practiced on the stage the night before the rehearsal. He hung his winter coat on a coat rack before practicing. While playing he saw Eugene Ormandy out of the corner of his eye and thought, “I bet he wants it faster. I’ll go faster. Or what if he wants it slower? I’ll go slower. Maybe I should bring this part out.” He worked up a sweat and his heart raced until couldn’t take it anymore. Hollander turned to speak to Ormandy, but what he thought was Ormandy turned out to be his hat and coat on the rack. We create obstacles for ourselves instead of getting ourselves out of the way.

What are some common difficulties people face while conducting?

     The definition of conducting seems to many people to be conducting the beats, indicating the volume, and giving cues and cutoffs. I find that to be just the beginning, a jumping off point to add color, atmosphere, shape, and structure. I frequently hear teachers comment that all young people can do is conduct with a big pattern and give cues. If you conduct something and the ensemble does not respond as you want, there are two options: change your conducting or change how they read it. It is best to evaluate both options. If the group doesn’t respond to a gesture, check whether the gesture communicates what you want. If you are sure of this, figure out whether or why students misread it. Although young people may respond intuitively to certain body language, they may benefit from a quick conducting lesson during rehearsal to understand what the conductor means.
     We can communicate a great deal with our hands, bodies, and faces, but tension, poor technique, or poor understanding of technique may cause a conductor to resort to talking. Too much talking from the podium is generally the result of too little communication of ideas with gestures. Students should be trained to read what a conductor indicates with his hands. The first step is to say something meaningful with the hands. When an ensemble has too little to watch, or when gestures are often the same or don’t express the music, students get in the habit of not looking up.
     Some conductors can move their hands in a certain way that looks like good conducting but lacks musical meaning behind the gestures. It is as though they have memorized a vocabulary list in French but don’t know how to use the language. There are conductors who have a great deal to communicate but lack the skills to do so. It takes both gestures and words that grow out of the musical intention to have a good performance. Every moment, no matter how short and how fleeting, should be inspired by the music itself.
     The gesture should communicate the music, but a conductor who beats a four pattern that looks the same in every measure and always gives cues the same way does not characterize the music. In early conducting classes patterns are part of the foundation but only a starting point.

What are your favorite rehearsal techniques?

     It is important to get people away from whatever they have done before. For example, orchestral trombonists sit in basically the same part of the orchestra all their lives, and consequently they hear the orchestra from only that perspective. The same is true with a first violinist or cellist. When I move people to a different part of the room and put them near a player that they don’t normally hear, new worlds open up.
     I may mix things up by seating people in pods with unlike instruments, such as a stand of first violins, the second oboe, a trombone, and bass player. I may arrange these pods around the room as chamber music groups. I make a point of keeping the concertmaster in the middle of the room so when there is the need for someone to lead, this person can do it. Not everyone will be able to see the concertmaster, so I encourage the people who can see the concertmaster to move and communicate with those who cannot. Any group member can be the designated leader, which develops leadership and confidence.
     During these rehearsals I merely coach as if they are in a chamber group. I will ask which part lead or ask when the tempo is unsteady. One key to playing well in an ensemble is to know everybody else’s part as well as your own. By moving people to a different location next to unusual parts, they hear the music from a new perspective.

What led you to found the Conductors Retreat?
     As I grew up I enjoyed hiking and canoeing at a camp in Maine, and when the camp closed, one of my friends from this camp purchased the property outright.
     In general at the time camps were having difficulty surviving, and she sought a good way to use the property. I suggested a camp for conductors and was concerned that much of the training of conductors was designed as a survival test in which only the strongest survived. I wanted a place without competition among students and focused the camp on score study and physical expression.
      Conducting lessons throughout history have more often than not been taught publicly; private conducting lessons are unusual. This is because conductors need an ensemble and because conductors learn from watching and listening to each other. At Michigan, all the conductors gather twice a week to conduct a small orchestra. Each student conducts the same repertoire and can learn from the mistakes and good ideas. I coach students on physical technique, musical ideas, rehearsing, and what I call being a conduit for the music.
     I teach with the Socratic method and ask questions about phrasing and structure, what they hear, and which section of the orchestra they are conducting at the moment. After a series of unsuccessful responses I will give them the answer.
     I often ask who is playing what, what the rhythms are, and why are there two extra bars here or how is it different from the first time?
For example, there is a place in the Mozart Requiem where the second violins and violas roll back and forth between octaves the way a pianist might do in imitation of a lion’s the jaws. This idea was taken from the story of Judgment Day as we enter the jaws of the lion.
     I do teach private conducting lessons. They typically start with score study, some discussion of music itself, and then continue with silent conducting. If people sing while they conduct, they only hear in their minds what they’re singing and only conduct the lines they sing. Developing the aural imagination to the point that one can hear several things at once is of vital importance.
     Conducting lessons include a video analysis of a conductor’s past performances. I believe we have become too conscious of conducting as visual art rather than an aural art. I asked Carlo Maria Giulini, one of my teachers, what makes a great gesture. He responded that it is any gesture that makes the music sound right. It is important to turn off the video and just listen to the sound. When I was young, audio tapes were required from job applicants, but for some time the emphasis has been on how a conductor looks more than by how the music sounds.
     A few years ago I asked an applicant for the master’s program to name his favorite conductors. He mentioned Herbert von Karajan, and when I probed for the reason, the response was, “I love it when he moves like this,” but nothing was said about the sound.

What are the keys to score study?

     I try to form a complete, multi-dimensional image of the music, much like a sculptor who walks around an object to see it from different perspectives. The form, color, articulation, and instrumentation are all part of this perspective.
     Conductors should form a mental image of the piece, which comes from being able to hear correctly what is written on a page. With this image it is possible to compare what is played against this goal. When the image is clear, it is readily apparent what is missing from this play through.
      I often ask students to close their eyes and just imagine the color red. Then I say that I’m going to show them something red and tell them to open their eyes but show them something yellow. Their reaction is always immediate. If I tell students to imagine a fully diminished seventh chord but play them a half diminished seventh chord and they don’t recognize it, this is the equivalent of not knowing the difference between red and yellow.
      A conductor has to know what notes and intervals are in each part, what the chords are, and how pitches relate to each other horizontally and vertically. The key to a good rehearsal is having the correct image, and this comes only with hard work.

What are common pitfalls in score study?

     It is difficult to approach the score of a familiar piece objectively because what the composer wrote probably differs from what we heard in the past. It’s easy to miss important details and to see how a piece sounded last time we heard it.
     Memories of past performances can also be useful. I’ve heard Claudio Abbado perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and adore how he takes the slow movement – very slowly and expressively. However, I don’t do it that way because it doesn’t fit my concept of the score. I enjoy his interpretation, but it wouldn’t be right for me.
     The smallest mistakes a conductor makes may lead to big problems, and often this stems from a failure to observe what is on the page. I have seen a note in a phrase marked staccato the first time, unmarked the second time, then marked legato the third time. Conductors should honor these small details, which are often as important as the bigger concepts.
     The second most common mistake is to draw conclusions too soon, and to discard other information as unimportant. It is difficult to know which detail will become very important until very late in the process. At the beginning, the most important thing is to read what the composer actually wrote. Score study is the foundation of everything conductors do, and only with inspiration and the great deal of information that is written in the score can we form a conclusion. Never substitute ego or a preconceived idea or prejudices for the information in the score. It is beautiful and eloquent.