How to Conduct an Orchestra

How to Conduct an Orchestra

1st of June 2020

Have you tried conducting? If you ever get the chance, you should. It’s the ultimate game of ‘rub your tummy & pat your head’, and, apparently, takes as much coordination as flying a helicopter, except pilots don’t have to withstand storm-force heckling from the brass section.

As a composer who conducts his own music, badly, I’m fascinated by the people who can do it properly. There’s a beautiful rise and fall of their baton, like it’s damped in oil, and every nuance of the music is contained within the gestures they use. It becomes more extraordinary when you realise that they’re not conducting ‘to’ the music, which is what we all naturally do when we hear something on the radio, they’re ahead of the orchestra, demonstrating, encouraging and inspiring the next musical thought.

And that’s the major difference between conducting in the studio and in a concert hall – our dear friend, the click track. When you see a photo like this when we’ve all got headphones on, there’s usually a thumping metronome click to keep everyone in time with the film, and so the job of showing everyone when to start and stop is thankfully delegated to the computer.

“If you watch carefully, you can still see me counting out loud during 15/8 bars and sometimes waving madly through tempo changes, but I think the players forgive a lot if they feel the composer knows their own music, and their opinion, and is standing baton to bow with them to make everyone sound great.”

So why do we conduct In sessions at all? Aren’t we just getting in the way? That’s where I think something wonderful can happen, and why I recommend you give it a go, if you ever have the chance. On a good day, the composer/conductor, if you’re freed from some of the mechanics of tempo and sync, can embody all kinds of details of phrasing and intention, and help the players create a fresh spontaneous performance even from their first read through. Importantly, you become an ally and one of the performers too, so it’s not so much about saying “why aren’t you playing my music right” down the talkback, and much more about being physically present during each take so you’re all making music together.

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