The Stick Makes No Sound

How a conductor does what he or she does

Furtseff Shutterstock
Furtseff Shutterstock

We have all seen stereotypical footage of the maestro standing on the podium in front of the orchestra, imperiously tapping his or her baton on the music stand with the bearing of a superhuman seeking the attention of mere mortals. This is the only occasion on which the baton actually makes a sound, as inappropriate and unwelcome as that sound might be.  As artistic director of The Discovery Orchestra and former professional violist, I can assure you this is not the way to get the attention of orchestral musicians.  

I recall that early in my studies one of my conducting teachers said that this initial moment on the podium was like the first day of school when the teacher greets the students. “Just stand very still and quiet, and make eye contact with individuals until they are all with you.” he said.  My favorite conducting teacher, Richard Johannes Lert, had this to say regarding how to begin a rehearsal: “Look at one of the players, and with your eyes say ‘what wonderful things do you have to share with us today?’”  Richard Lert’s comment gets to the heart of the matter.  Just what is the conductor doing up there?

From the audience perspective, it may appear that we are grand puppet masters, controlling every movement occurring before us. But that’s an illusion!  True, the conductor is establishing and re-establishing the speed of the music, but that is a far cry from total control.  I recall a concertgoer asking me: “Do you have to dictate when every entrance occurs?” The individual seemed surprised when I said: “No, they know when to come in.  Might they like a reassuring glance in their direction as their entrance approaches?  Yes. But professional orchestral musicians take great pride in being completely on top of their game.”

So, if the conductor’s job is not that of a traffic cop, what is it?  Let’s first remember that everyone on that stage is an individual human being with a highly trained skill set and an ego of his or her own.  Many of the string players aspired to solo careers… so to be just one of a larger group requires a significant psychological adjustment on their part.  Furthermore, each member of the orchestra has a unique interpretation of the music we’re playing.  Think about that!  How are we to get everyone on the same page?

A large part of our job as conductors is psychological.  Is it possible to make every person feel valued?  Feel that his or her individual contribution to this joint effort is important? This is not only possible, but essential.  Although conductors must do everything possible during rehearsals and performances to communicate their honest feelings about the music through physical gestures, facial expressions and especially their eyes…ultimately they must share the power to create the music with their players. 

While there is no one way to conduct, I am still very much under the influence of Richard Johannes Lert who was 96 years old when I studied with him in 1978.  He, like his mentors Richard Strauss and Arthur Nikisch, believed that ‘less is more’.  He recommended using the minimum amount of gesture to achieve the desired results. In fact, he believed that not all passages absolutely require conducting, he would say:  “Don’t conduct at all. Let them play and acknowledge them with your gaze.” During a master class I attended led by the legendary Herbert von Karajan, one of the Juilliard student conductors was leaping about in Bernstein-like fashion.  Von Karajan, stopped the proceedings and said: “You know, the players have to look at their music.  If you jump around that much, you will cause them to lose their place.”

Rather than being the baton tapping imperious ‘superhuman,’ it is essential to develop the virtue of humility. We all make mistakes… as players and as conductors.  I once forgot a repeat in a performance.  I was sure we had already played the passage twice, and I went on to give a large gesture signaling the loud dynamic of the passage to follow.  The orchestra did not respond to my gesture, but many smiled, acknowledging my mistake as they continued to play the repeat softly. “We know. It’s OK. You’re only human.”

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