Finding the real magic

Jonathan Brett Information, Study 2 Comments

At its most simple level, what is our dream of a conductor? Perhaps for some it is something pragmatic, a person who has little more function than a race marshall who fires a gun at the start of a race and stops the watch at the end.  But for those who are passionate about music, it would surely be a person who can stand in front of musicians, move in a manner he or she intuitively feels to be right and in so doing stimulate the creation of sounds of breathtaking magic through connecting both musicians and audience with the deepest expression of musical material.

From where could such capacity derive? There seems to be a body of opinion in the world that it derives only from talent, an opinion which flies in the face of everything we know about other aspects of music or, indeed, pretty much anything else.  Ask any great instrumentalist how they came to arrive at their powers and they will all say the same thing: that innate talent is but a small part of the package and that a huge element of dedicated and disciplined work and experience is required in order to arrive at a worthwhile point of personal capacity.  Why then should conducting be any different? And why should the learning process necessarily be any quicker?

Whilst there are always exceptions, if we consider the trajectory of the majority of instrumentalists, most of those who succeed start the learning process at around the age of 4-6 years and 10-20 years later they reach a point of being what we might call employable, with what we might call their golden period – where the balance of increasing knowledge and experience is most favourable relative to the loss of capacity caused by aging processes – starting perhaps 20 years later.

For all the passion of our times for youthfulness concerning all musicians, I do not believe that this has actually changed in reality, and if the development of conductors is in any way similar then given that most start not earlier than the late teens we can add roughly 15 years to this timeline.  This would mean that the period where one starts to become employable is somewhere in the thirties, with the golden period from the late-fifties.  From my observation this seems highly credible, but it is a career path wholly at odds with our times: over the past thirty years or so there has been an increasing obsession with conductors who are energetic and youthful as opposed to those with any discernible capacity to stimulate the sonic brilliance mentioned earlier.

The tendency to favour what passes for charisma over skill is extremely pernicious, a veritable charlatans’ charter – one I start to think mitigates heavily against those who genuinely have talent at every stage of development. Whilst those whose confidence – or possibly arrogance – comfortably exceeds their potential value as conductors are able to thrive in a world which favours raw physical energy over musicianship, those who are serious about learning the real skills involved in creating the latter are effectively punished by being sidelined from every possible opportunity.  This is extremely dangerous for the art form because its success is – quite literally – so much in the hands of this profession.

My suspicion is that the issue arises because although it is possible to do a great deal of work without the need for other musicians to provide actual sounds, conductors inevitably have undertake a good deal of their development in front of others.  It is impossible, I think, to become a conductor without (at some point at least) making a fool of oneself in public. Even when the situation is entirely positive, skills must be acquired at the expense of others: show me a conductor who truly believes that he or she has never tried the patience of colleagues or audiences to the limits of their tolerance and I will show you someone who persists in doing so!

Obviously those people with the kind of musical sensitivity needed to be any good as a conductor should be painfully aware of and self-conscious concerning their shortcomings and the inevitable consequence is that parts of the learning process are extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. This discomfort, combined with the need to assimilate and analyse a huge amount of incoming data, is, of course, crucial if they are to develop the skills to manage sound to real effect. Unfortunately it also creates issues with the self-confidence needed in any leadership scenario and means that they often appear to be both inept and overly introverted until they reach a point where knowledge, physical capacity and experience combine to allow them to make a quantum leap past this point of misery.

The more the musical ambition, the greater the issue here: the confidence of those of more limited musical imagination, who are more quickly able to get closer to their aural goals, is naturally less affected. As we see most especially in the world of politics but in many other areas of life too, there are plenty of people whose desire for any kind of power or influence greatly exceeds their capacity to use it to any useful effect. Added to this, those with such propensities are more likely to concern themselves only with short-term goals – in the case of conductors, employing musical short-cuts in their work and devoting the greater part of their energy and time to finding opportunities to inflict themselves on others rather than figuring out how to improve their conducting in the long term. In short, I suspect that too many systems in place provide the potential for those of somewhat dubious long-term potential to gain opportunities which would be better given to others, too many of whom then become discouraged or simply forced to abandon their quest due to the simple practical issue of lack of facility to develop. Then, once opportunities lead to positions, it is a normal human characteristic that people recruit in their own likeness.

At the risk of being a little controversial, whilst there have been and doubtless remain places where there are substantial issues of misogyny, I doubt this is the case everywhere and wonder if it is the value of arrogance and aggression over latent potential at the early stages which has disadvantaged the progress of women in this profession? These are, after all, attributes more often attributable to males than females in which case, rather than ghetto-ising the development of female conductors as seems to be currently fashionable in certain quarters, I think it would be better to fix the underlying problem for everyone such that opportunities relate more to musical potential than to sex or domineering personality.

So, to those who are in any way involved in work with inexperienced conductors my message is to scrutunise those they support with huge care; to look at the personality, motivation and intellect rather than the current level of achievement, to be patient and not to expect too much too soon – this is a long game. To those enduring the misery of the chrysalis stage of conducting, or who feel they would like to find their potential but are put off by the obstacles, I can only say that if you truly believe you have something worthwhile to say musically and are working assiduously to develop your skills, however difficult the journey the goal is entirely achievable and the results will more than justify the trouble.

As I say regularly to my students, there is no magic in conducting itself – it should appear that this is the case but we must understand that, like stage magic, this is merely an illusion. The real magic is the miraculous world of human connection in sound which becomes accessible if we develop the right understanding of the workings of music and how to relate movements to them; then the results can be more astonishing than we ever dared to dream!

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© Jonathan Brett 2016

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Comments 2

  1. I believe that this excellent article should be required reading for all conductors, teachers of conductors, conductor search committee members, orchestra board members, and orchestra musicians. That said, there is still more to be explored on the subject of conductor education and selection. I’ll try to highlight a few points here with the hope of continuing the discussion.

    Conductor search committees need to be expanded to include more representation from the orchestra musicians. The system of selection needs to be carefully thought out in advance. All participants would be better served by the outcome of the search if there was a greater understanding of what makes a good conductor. I know an orchestra musician who recently served as the only musician on a conductor search committee of a prominent summer music festival. He nearly walked out of discussions when the search committee insisted upon choosing the first round of conductor candidates based solely on the candidates physical attractiveness, and this, based solely on publicity photos (which could be touched up or older photos)!

    I know from personal experience that there are still “substantial issues of misogyny”, and that many of my female colleagues would agree, though most are not willing to talk openly about their experiences. This is understandable considering the real obstacles that exist for women in this field. To the issues of misogyny I would add racism and ageism, which becomes particularly true for women conductors. One merely needs to notice who gets hired among the growing field of woman conductor candidates. It is not the women of a certain age, or race, or those who possess extra pounds or silver hairs. Of course this is a more widespread problem that exists across many fields of endeavor and not exclusively for women. But given the societal perceptions of middle-aged to older women, and of youth-driven marketing programs, these issues become a pronounced, covert problem for women conductors.

    There is another issue that is perhaps more subtle. Many people are simply unfamiliar with what a conductor, who happens to be a woman, looks like on the podium. In spite of the progress that some women have made in the field, a woman on the podium leading 80-100 musicians is still relatively uncommon. I am trying to change that by using social media to share images and video of women conducting, particularly older women, and women of color. But it hasn’t been easy, as there is not that much material available, and that fact is indicative of the broader problem.

    Author Jonathan Brett stated above, “…too many of whom then become discouraged or simply forced to abandon their quest due to the simple practical issue of lack of facility to develop.” So true. I would add to that, the practical issue of needing to earn an income, or having sources of financial support particularly because conductor training is a “long game”. I can quickly think of 5 colleagues who have enjoyed the good fortune of having significant financial backing from family, which allowed them the freedom to continue their study via conservatory programs, international workshops, travel abroad to study privately with master teachers and to hear world class orchestras, and to have the resources to produce multiple high-quality DVD’s and websites. This all takes money, and lots of it. Interesting to note that 3 of these colleagues are men, all of whom have continued their upward progression in the field, all increasingly well employed by major orchestras. Of the 2 women, only one is progressing, and at a much slower rate than the men. The greater point here is that there needs to be financial support and opportunities specifically for women – without age restrictions – because it IS a long game, and it is especially longer for women.

    Thank you for taking on this subject in a thoughtful, comprehensive, and serious way. Your article is most appreciated.

  2. Thank you Jonathan, for these thoughts, and for the beautiful writing.

    And thank you for the summary of the development of a conductor. It is a valuable insight that musicians and orchestral management could benefit from – as well as a comfort to all of us who are continuing to go through it: because in truth it is never-ending I think.

    I would add the following to what you have said, thinking from another angle:

    It seems to me that, from what I have seen, orchestra managements are promoting youthfulness in order to sell tickets. I can understand that. However, it means that orchestras are only giving concerts to people who like that. They are not providing concerts for people like me, who would like an intelligent reading of a piece – and admittedly I am in a minority and so not a very productive part of the market. I do however ask myself whether it is not possible to do both.

    I am driven to ask this because I rarely see orchestral musicians who seem satisfied with a concert, and I generally feel the most tremendous pity for them when trying to watch them endure the conductors hired for them. As a result, I get the impression that more and more fine musicians are refusing to work in orchestras and are seeking alternatives such as chamber music and ensembles without conductor. The loss of these fine people and the waste of talent of those who remain seem to me both a failure and a tragedy.

    It is also curious that, despite the fact that audiences do seem to buy tickets based on youthfulness, actually everybody does know, even unconsciously, if it is a good performance – just occasionally I have been part of an audience absolutely captivated by the music.

    I don’t have a solution except that I think you are on the right path – to explain and to teach, and hopefully in the end to achieve a new understanding among all those involved.

    Two final thoughts:
    A great difficulty is that very few people know what good conducting actually is. So managements do not know what to look for, and neither do musicians.

    And more positively, it is worth remembering the great many musicians who, to their enormous credit, put in the effort needed to help developing conductors. (I myself certainly have driven musicians to the “limits of their tolerance”.) However, these musicians know that in the end they can achieve more musically with a good conductor than actually is possible by themselves, and so it is worth the pain to help them. We certainly need to repay them better.