I’m Not A Conductor…

The other week, I had a revelation – I’m not a conductor. Now those who have been in ensembles I’ve conducted in the past may possibly be shouting “darn straight!” at this point, but before you get too excited bagging my conducting skills, let’s back it up a little and I’ll explain what I mean.

What I realised is this – my primary job when I am in front of an ensemble is to rehearse the ensemble. This is not quite the same as conducting an ensemble. The difference is subtle, but important. Changing how I think about my job, changes how I view my skill set (and thus where I need to improve) and changes what things I will spend time on in a rehearsal, and possibly more importantly what I will ignore.

Sidebar – I know that this blog is meant to be about composing for young bands BUT

  1. It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to… (for a more in-depth analysis of this worldview, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsYJyVEUaC4 )
  2. I think that the skills required to effectively rehearse a band have a considerable overlap with the skills required to compose/orchestrate music for young bands. After all, my approach to writing percussion is heavily influenced by my experiences in band rehearsals with 7 percussionists and nothing but a snare drum part on every piece. Being aware of how easy or hard a passage is to rehearse/perform is a key feature of effective writing.

So, with that out of the way, let’s go exploring!

I think rehearsing a band effectively involves four things:

  1. Knowing what you want the final result to sound like.
    • Listen to a professional recording of the piece
    • Think through the piece (look through the score) and decide questions like:
      • Who has the melody?
      • Who has the counter-melody (if there is one)?
      • Who has the accompaniment?
    • Remember, if you don’t have a target, you can’t hit it!
  2. Knowing what your band ACTUALLY sounds like.
    • Actually listen to them!
    • Don’t sing along – it’s all too easy to convince yourself that a line is being played properly when it’s not…see previous point.
    • It’s better to mess up your “5 against 4 beat pattern, whilst simultaneously indicating a slight staccato and diminuendo and accelerando” and actually listen, than the other way around (P.S. if you can make your junior band actually do all that by reading your beat pattern, you probably don’t need to be reading this blog)
  3. Realistically assess how close your ensemble can get to your ideal, final result given constraints of time and skill level.
  4. Have a bag of techniques and rehearsal tactics to get you quickly, efficiently and enjoyably to your final goal.

Notice the emphasis on having a solid musical concept, being able to listen critically, and having a suite of rehearsal (aka classroom management) techniques. Contrast this with how I’ve spent most of my time in conducting courses. Most conducting courses I’ve experienced tend to focus on things like:

  • Beat patterns
  • Tricky bits (fermata, cuts etc)
  • Technical beat patterns (6/8 to ¾ or alternating 5/8 and 7/8)
  • LH vs RH gestures
  • Prep beats/starting to conducting when the phrase begins on an upbeat (anacrusis)
  • Gestures to reflect musical elements such as dynamics, articulation, phrasing

Now, this is all good stuff. Technique is important. Please don’t take this post to mean that you should never improve your conducting technique. Good technique = more clarity = desired result faster.

BUT, I reckon you could get away with the following bare minimum, provided you have a solid grasp of what I described above in terms of rehearsing a band:

  • Count in at a consistent speed (if you can’t, then buy a metronome)
  • Count in at the right speed (if you can’t, then buy a metronome)
  • Keep a consistent speed (if you can’t, buy a metronome)
  • Be consistent at the “corners” aka “tricky bits” (always do the fermata the same way so students can understand, even if it’s technically “wrong”)

Much I what I’ve learned about rehearsing a band, I’ve either:

  • Stolen from other conductors I’ve played under or worked with
  • Experimented on the job
  • Read books to learn more

Some really helpful books I’ve read are:

In looking up those books titles, I once again re-read the first page of Francis McBeth’s book. I found myself once again shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Dear Bandmaster,

The above salutation is used because I want you to read this. If the usual “Preface” were printed here, it would be overlooked. In reviewing our beginnings as conductors, I’m sure we had similar educational backgrounds. This is not meant to criticize higher education, but the carryover of usable information from university to job tends to be infinitesimal. Ninety percent of the workable technique that I use as a conductor-clinician, I never heard of in school. Professional articles do not offer much assistance. With bated breath you read the articles like “Getting the Good Sound From Your Bass Clarinets,” where the writer tells you to be sure players have good instruments; to make sure they are seated while playing; to use a cane reed; etc., etc. The more serious periodical is no better. It usually offers something like a complete analysis of the accented passing tones in the Hindemith Symphony. Such an analysis may be interesting, but you are looking for solutions that actually work and that can be used in tomorrow’s rehearsal.

Hopefully, this blog follows McBeth’s example in providing real, practical advice on writing for bands, or in this case, what we are really doing when we stand in front of a band each week.

 

 

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