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So You Want to Conduct

Frank B. Wickes | Summer 2022

   There is a tendency today among some of our college graduates in instrumental music education to want to pass from the ranks of experienced student performer directly to conductor without acknowledging the important intermediate step known as teacher. Often their immediate goal is to conduct a group similar to the college band in which they participated. This pipedream is frequently nurtured by the presence of some outstanding high school programs nearby.The college music graduate comes by this desire to conduct quite naturally. Many have apprenticed for the band world since the fifth grade or earlier; they have spent up to 12 years participating in bands, orchestras, and small ensembles at all levels. Often they have played before solo and ensemble judges for years and have performed for college applied music juries. While in college they get high grades in conducting courses and learn all of the band instruments well enough to meet the requirements for the degree. Frequently we hear them say, "I can’t wait to get out and conduct."
   So they get their first job and in the early weeks they suddenly learn their greatest lesson. Whammo – their band breaks down trying to sightread. What’s more, the tone of the band in immature, the pitch is poor, and the rhythm is wrong. Technique, precision, balance, blend, and proper articulation are completely lacking. Style is a word their students seem not to understand, not to mention expression or musicality.
   To add to the musical chaos there are interruptions for PA announcements, discipline problems, equipment failures, improperly passed out music and absence from class. If they are high school directors they may also have marching band responsibility. Suddenly, reality sets in. They have to build their own kind of program from scratch. They must spend most of their rehearsal time teaching. Baton usage diminishes because they have to stop too often. These aspiring conductors begin to fall into a rut and join the vast throng in our profession known as time beaters.
   A closer analysis of the background of many young teachers will show that little actual conducting is done by most teachers before their student internships. College conducting classes provide only a few opportunities. Prior to college, few are tapped as student conductors or drum majors. Later, opportunities to conduct the college band are almost nonexistent. In short, the teachers’ conducting experiences have not been nearly as significant as their performance experiences.
   Is it possible to realize these early goals of wanting to be a conductor? My experience has been that it is possible if the young teacher will persevere, practice, and observe a few evaluative measures. Listed below are a few suggestions which can help young teachers realize some of their conducting aspirations:

  • Review the five basic beat patterns which will suffice for much of the band repertoire: non-espressivo, legato-espressivo, full staccato, light staccato, and marcato. (These patterns are diagrammed very clearly in The Grammar of Conducting by Max Rudolf). Unfortunately, we see band directors who use a legato-espressivo/non-espressivo combination to the exclusion of all others.
  • Avoid constant two-arm conducting. To eliminate this habit, practice with the left hand resting on your belt buckle.
  • Conduct all major dynamic contrasts with a distinct change in the size of the beat pattern. However, if you are a large or tall person, avoid excessively large gestures.
  • If you use a baton, occasionally practice true espressivo passages without the baton. This helps the wrists to become more flexible.
  • When standing on the podium, learn to stand still. Too many directors shift weight nervously, pace back and forth across the podium, lean forward too much, or bend the knees excessively. Also, make sure the podium is the proper size and height for your stature.
  • As much as possible, keep your head out of the score while conducting. Get in the habit of memorizing marches as a first step to eliminating the need for a score. This will take some study as your concert selections become more complex, but it allows you to focus your attention on the melodic line and will force you into eye contact with members of your ensemble.
  • In rehearsals, periodically check yourself for correct tempos with a metronome. It is a common tendency to speed up selections as the group becomes more proficient and es­pecially when the adrenalin is flowing at concert time. Practice various conducting patterns using arbitrarily selected tempo markings. Teachers often know where 120 beats per minute (or 60) is, but they have difficulty with tempos like 48, 80, 96, or 152.
  • Study Italian, German, and French musical terms. Our solo literature is filled with them. Do this with articulation markings, tempo markings, and style indications. We tend to forget some of these over time.
  • Use the next to the last rehearsal before a concert to videotape your podium technique. This way small faults can be observed, corrected, and practiced with the group before the concert. Don’t attempt this on the final rehearsal because a change of conducting technique at the concert itself may confuse immature performers. 

   Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions. Directors are always proud when admirers refer to them as good teachers. They are especially proud, however, when someone approaches them after a performance and says, "What a fine job of conducting." Work at it. It’s well worth the effort.