Conducting Myths

Erik Janners | November 2008

Every conductor comes to the podium with distinctive techniques and beliefs. These approaches may work particularly well in producing smooth, efficient rehearsals. However, I have also heard several common myths about conducting that actually make conducting less effective. Some may disagree with my perspective, but these views seem particularly unhelpful.

How I gesture while conducting does not matter as long as the group plays well.

This is the most popular myth among band directors. In talking with countless college and high school instructors, I have found some consider boring conducting the best. They say expressive conducting is showboating and dismiss it as an egotistical display.

I believe, however, that if you can communicate such concepts as legato and forte with gestures, it is unnecessary to stop playing to express these ideas verbally. It requires a great deal of rehearsal time to stop the entire ensemble to single out a few players who need to make adjustments. Some directors will respond, “My students don’t watch anyway so it wouldn’t matter.” The reason they do not watch is that they have become accustomed to lifeless conducting with little useful information.

I have to correct every wrong note or students will think I do not hear them.

This view stems from insecurity. Those who exhaustively correct minor errors feel that they have to prove their abilities to students. It also shows inherent mistrust of young musicians, most of whom are making an honest effort to play correctly. Wrong notes are a part of learning music and will decrease as students become more certain of a work, especially the difficult passages.

I have seen sightreading rehearsals where well-known conductors stop to point out note errors. There is no faster way to upset a group than by correcting mistakes during sightreading. In some cases players respond by deliberately making mistakes simply because of indignation. Obviously there are situations where note corrections are necessary. If I hear the same mistake twice in a row, I will certainly say something. In the vast majority of cases students fix the problem.

Carefully tuning several notes with a tuner will produce excellent intonation.

No amount of tuning produces good intonation. Indeed, tuning and intonation have only a limited link because tuning occurs on a single pitch while intonation happens in musical time in association with many other notes. The flutes may tune perfectly to Bb but the first Bb the flutes play in a melodic line may be greatly out of tune.

Musicians who play with good intonation understand the tendencies of certain pitches on their instrument and know how to make minute adjustments to correct those tendencies. Studies have shown a tuner may indicate certain notes to be as much as 25 cents sharp or flat, yet these notes sound perfectly in tune when professional musicians play them within the context of a piece. Tuning involves one note; intonation involves a million. I recommend spending less time tuning and more discussing intonation difficulties in actual musical contexts.

I have to be strict to enforce discipline in rehearsals.

The best way to promote good behavior is to direct rehearsals efficiently. If students are playing instead of sitting around for long periods, they will have no time to become bored and talk. When players take part in productive rehearsals, they will come to class with a good attitude, ready to work.

I should select only the music that students like.

Although we all like music that is familiar, teachers fail when they allow students to dictate the pieces they play. Just as children have to be persuaded to eat their vegetables, there are also students who need to be coaxed to play good music that will expand their musical tastes and knowledge.

Competition is good for music students.

Competition seems to have taken over music education, particularly in the last ten years. I have seen the desire to win solo and ensemble festivals, concert band competitions, and marching competitions overtake many high school directors. These directors counter that because the world is so competitive, we do students a service by having them compete. I strongly disagree.

Music is not a sport. Competition teaches students that making music is worthwhile only if you win something. I have seen countless directors obsess over scores from festivals and competitions rather than simply and honestly praising students for their efforts.

Many young people have had such negative experiences with high school competitions that they burn out and decide not to continue playing in college. At a certain point, developing musicians need to learn that music is a competitive field but there is no need to do it with such a strong emphasis in high school. The musical world would be better served by instilling a true  love of music making for its own sake.

Listening to recordings of music I plan to conduct will ruin my interpretation of the work.

Music students are generally encouraged to listen to recordings of famous players to improve their playing, but many conductors do not follow the same approach. I firmly believe that all conductors, regardless of age or experience, should listen to recordings.

Great recordings help us to refine our concept of sound, just as a great flutist provides a model for young players. In addition, if your musicianship is so weak that the interpretation will be corrupted by a recording this may not be a bad thing. If you do not have strong interpretive ideas, it may be helpful to emulate the Eastman Wind Ensemble. Many people are still developing interpretive skills as conductors and hearing several interpretations of the same work can be a helpful part of the process.

I am still an effective educator regardless of how the band sounds.

The late Gerald Welker, former director of the Alabama Wind Ensemble, used to say, “Good conductors conduct good bands, bad conductors conduct bad bands.” We are responsible for what happens in our groups. Directors love praise, and I have seen many glow under the compliments heaped upon them after a successful concert. However, these same directors are often unwilling to accept criticism for failure. We make mistakes every day by spending too much time on a passage, overlooking an intonation problem, or failing to have the right percussion instruments.

If we are sincere about improvement we have to be willing to identify our mistakes – without ego – and work to correct them. The best performers demonstrate a persistent willingness to improve. If the band gives a bad performance, the director is responsible, even if the lead trumpet was home with the flu. By discarding some of the myths and excuses used by many directors, you can make great strides forward with students.

What’s your take on these myths? Share your views with us: