A few thoughts on the art of conducting
This article was published at the ORCHESTRA Magazine's №1–5 (61) December 2020 edition.
Challenging Factors of Musical Performances in Different Cultures through the Wind Band
As we all learned during our musical endeavors, performing music of different cultures of
different nationalities should present no issues of understanding because as the classical
statement explains: “music knows no borders”!
You can play/perform music originating from a particular culture in different geographically located concert halls representing totally different/other cultures without any similarities, still with great success. At the same time, if you perform poetry in a particular language for an audience who is not familiar with it, they might not get the message of
that specific other piece of art.
Why is this possible regarding music? Because music preserves forever-lasting human values(!) that are not critical to any nationalities/genders/races, but are familiar to all of us.
This fact still doesn’t necessarily mean you will not face with performing challenges of the same piece of music with other nationalities living, working and functioning in different cultures located on different continents of our planet.
Let’s take a look at those factors of musical performance I have faced both nationally and internationally, during my 40‑year performing history.
I think the most important element of successful communication for a conductor working in the music making process is love. You as leader of a performing group, for example a wind band, have to love the chosen and prepared/studied particular piece of music, the musicians you work with, and the audience, as well.
First time, I learned the importance of this love factor of the conductors’ communication was
during my high school years at the wind band rehearsals with one of my first wind band directors, also
an excellent wind band composer and arranger, Antal Farkas (1925–1992). He pronounced this issue
almost each rehearsal and we heard it frequently, but I realized that it takes time to really understand the
exact meaning of the sentence.
The love of the performed music and the group – wind band in this case – will help you to find the best
methodology to choose solving appearing musical issues, during rehearsals. Of course, love is not enough
for your work, you need experience, and you have to know what you are exactly doing, but being led by
this important human factor when approaching each other in both the rehearsal halls and the concert halls,
will be critical, for everyone.
I will never forget the scenario, when a very knowledgeable and experienced old conductor knowing the entire scheduled program from memory back and forth, rehearsing in a professional rehearsal
hall. He was also very famous to be rude, super critical, putting everyone down, giving negative comments
to the musicians every minute, demonstrating he is the musical god/genius, as conductor. What was
controversial in this situation is that he was actually correct about everything he said. There are people who
call that category of conductors as the representatives of the “old school.”
When he entered the rehearsal hall, the musicians were full of resistance, already. None said one word.
By the time he arrived at the conductor’s podium, the second trombone player – who was also a famous
trombone professor and kind of a troublemaker – couldn’t resist of the temptation – and told him loudly
in front of the entire group: “please master come in and teach us as we know nothing about anything
regarding music”. The old man turned to the entire orchestra and responded: “ …yes,
I know this fact, and I came here to help you all out so you will learn- very important things, today.”
What was the real controversy during the entire rehearsal is, that he was right all the time. But how he communicated with them was humiliating, during the entire rehearsal. I was thinking, how great results he could had gotten, if he was nice, encouraging, and complimenting them, by recognizing their excellent musicianship!
My suggestion is to follow – not like the mentioned old colleague did – the positive reinforcement principle, and you might have even more quality and productive results from the group you work with, with even additional great enthusiasm.
Musicians, all over the world, every level of craftsmanship of performance, want to be successful.
They will do their best to follow your leadership if it is meaningful and leading to the right direction, being
productive and making the piece of that particular music you work on sounding better every minute.
During the rehearsals, problems like tempo, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, and balance, all will
come to the front at a point. You as the conductor, you are responsible to solve those issues applying the most
productive possible methodology you know of.
For example, regarding the first and critical/fundamental element of music the tempo, I learned a very nice saying from a very famous conductor, decades ago that… ”every tempo is good if it is filled out with music.”
Please remember instrumental music exists since way before the invention of the metronome (Johann Nepomuk Maelzel 1772–1838) and people still enjoyed musical performances when tempo was based solely on the discretion of the conductor. The most important point to keep in mind to find the right applicable tempo is the playability of the smallest rhythmical unit. If you have any doubts about the written tempo mark, please keep in mind this suggestion of mine, and your problem will be solved, I promise.
Regarding the factor of rhythm, you might find in nationalities with traditionally dominating folk music might challenge you performing with them a piece of classical music. I faced this issue in Brazil. Those exciting big variety of “shuffle grooves” they apply in their called traditional folk music like the choro, the maxixi, the samba, and the rumba…etc… is in the subconscious part of the brain of their even classically trained musicians. You still want to apply the correct rhythm written in the score. In this case, and also in general, subdivision of the applied rhythmical pattern(s), and demonstration of it – maybe on the piano or on your/their own instrument(s) – might be a very effective method to lead them to your world that is the expected direction.
Regarding the challenges with the factor of dynamics my explanation is very simple. Don’t play louder than is nice!
Articulation (legato, staccato, tenuto, portato, marcato, martellato… etc) – meaning how short is the short and how long is the long – is again a challenging factor of musical performance, because it depends on tons of challenging elements having critical impacts on your decision(s). For example, the age of the performing musicians (students,
professionals), the orchestration, the style of the particular piece of music to be performed including the historical time period it is coming from, the acoustics of the room you are rehearsing/playing in (compare an outdoor concert with a possible soundamplified performance), the texture of the actual music….etc. Again, you have to find the solution
for these extra challenges you can’t learn from the musical score, but from experience.
Balance is another issue you
will be faced with as challenge, during the rehearsals . The texture of the music will give you guidance in this case. Is the music homophonic or polyphonic? Is there any included musical material(s) more important in terms of audibility than the other(s)?
In homophonic music, please make sure that the melody will dominate, while in the second case, when you might have more than one and equally important musical material(s) performed simultaneously, you have to equalize their representation in terms of volume. In this case you will be challenged by the orchestration that you might focus on and make some adjustments in terms of volume.
Please remember, in terms of compositional challenges for the conductor, we have only three types of scores:
When the composer did a great job in every aspect of composition so you as conductor do not need to worry about any above discussed factors. Just play the right notes at the right time in the right way as it is written, and your success is guaranteed.
In the second category of scores, you will be faced with challenges in terms of factors of performance you need to consider, when you might need to make
adjustments in one or more – maybe all – aspects of the performed music to make sure it will sound in the
best possible desired way.
I call the third category of musical scores as the “hopeless”.
During your conducting career you might have already faced those challenging moments, and in case you haven’t, I promise you will!
Here is the online version of the Magazine: