Overconducting, Getting in the Way of the Music

Anthony Pursell | March 2009

    Because most college conducting classes offer such a limited amount of time on the podium for each student, the result is that many new teachers do not have an opportunity to develop good conducting skills. Novice conductors generally fall into the trap of overconducting, almost as if more gestures will reduce the problems.

Conducting Every Beat
    In my first teaching job, the band booster president was at the school so frequently that people sometimes thought he was the band director, especially because I looked so young. One day he came into class and motioned to me. I started the band on some music we had been preparing for a festival  and stepped into the hallway. We could hear the  band playing and the booster president commented, “They sound better without you.”
    This was a huge compliment and an indicator of how far the band had progressed since the start of the year. They stayed together because there was a strong internal sense of pulse. This unexpected insight forced me to take off the training wheels earlier than expected. I concluded that in some way I was hindering further growth by conducting too much.
    The most common mistake conductors make is trying to conduct every beat and nuance. As the tempo of a piece increases, the conducting clutter tends to multiply, and the conducting motion becomes a whirlwind. In the late 1990s I attended a conducting clinic given by Robert Reynolds. We worked on Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which has a 32 fanfare near the end and a final bit at quarter = 180-200 in 4/4. When I conducted it in four, Reynolds didn’t like what I was doing and stopped me. I tried it in cut time, and he stopped me again and said, “I still don’t think you’re quite getting this. Try it in one.” The ensemble responded well but it felt awkward because I was in the habit of giving every beat to my high school band. I never gave students a chance to keep the pulse internally. A colleague once advised me, “If you conduct everything all the time, the ensemble will ignore you most of the time.”
    Over time I came to realize that a conductor should take the approach of conducting less and talking only when something has to be said. I have also learned that when answering a question, it helps to give a clear, direct answer. The person who asked the question will be more engaged in what I say. The same is true with conducting. Students will watch more if I only conduct what is important.
    In my concert ensemble at Kansas State a majority of the students are not music majors, so many of the techniques used with a high school group still apply. We recently worked on a piece by Charles Fernandez, who writes music for animated films and other studio settings. He adapted his 40-minute ballet into an 8-minute suite. The piece is extremely lyrical and I conduct most of it in two because the last thing the music needs is someone flailing away on the podium. With a younger group I might start in 4/4 and then shift to cut time once the pulse is established. To make the music sound as lyrical as possible, I try to imagine how the music would look with good choreography, as if a small group of people were dancing to the music in a small room.

Cueing Too Much
    Another common conducting mistake is giving cues too often. Cueing should be a gentle reminder. My mother is an old-fashioned Bayou type girl – she tells you something once and that’s it. If I delegate a task to a student or parent and they don’t complete it, I ask someone else the next time. I give reminders and check up on people, but it is a waste of time to do it daily. People benefit from having more responsibility, and this is especially true in rehearsals.
    I think of cueing as a parental suggestion from the podium, a way to help students learn what is expected. Eventually players have to help themselves. There-fore, I do not always cue. If a director cues every entrance, the ensemble members rely on the cue and quit thinking for themselves. This year I assisted a grad student in conducting Incan-tation and Dance. At one point I advised her to look at the cymbal player for a cue. If the player missed the cue, the conductor was advised not to cue or even to look in the direction of the cymbal player the next time. The cymbal player missed it two times out of five but eventually learned that he had to master the part without repeated help from the podium.

Meaningless Gestures
    The size of each gesture should fit the music without being overly showy or getting in the way. When you put in over and above what the music is asking for it starts to cloud up the interpretation and hinder the music rather than help it. Gestures for each piece will by necessity be different based on style and dynamics; the beginning of Incantation and Dance should not look like the end of Pines of Rome. It is also important to consider the rise and fall of the piece. If a work is consistently loud, then the gestures need not all match but should rise and fall based on phrasing.
    Many conductors give so many gestures from the podium that important messages are buried. Although anything from a change in style or mood to the entrance of a new melody can be signaled, a conductor should give only those signals that are most beneficial to the ensemble, a section, or an individual player. Younger students require more help, even on such simple concepts as shaping eight-bar phrases, and high school groups need far less help. Teaching musical independence should be a goal, however, I will shape phrases with young students until I know they can handle it on their own.
    The music of Percy Grainger commonly features interesting dynamic shifts such as the horns becoming more prominent while the rest of the band gets quieter. In this instance the horns become the focus and I look right at them, demonstrating that the cue is just for them. As students mature they become attuned to this type of cue for only one section.
    Conducting too much may be a good form of exercise, but it hinders students’ growth. Our job as conductors is to teach students to make music. It is important that conductors not get in the way of  students’ music-making. Students may sometimes make poor choices when  left on their own, but the musical lessons learned this way will be particularly meaningful as students take ownership of the ensemble.