Conducting Technique - by James McFadyen

10-Aug-2004

Young composer and conductor James McFadyen explores the art of conducting technique.


Conducting Technique 

The role of the modern day conductor is forever changing, especially in the way Conductors are used in Brass Bands. Conducting is often a misunderstood art form and I would hope this article might shine a better light on the principle duties of a conductor, the techniques they must master and the level of musical proficiency required to the job at the highest level.

Baton Technique

Baton Technique is probably the first thing to master. The control of the baton is of utmost importance if you are to control and regulate the performance.

The best way to practice this is at home in front of a mirror conducting to a recording. There are a few people, although dying out, who believe this to conflict with the chief role of the conductor – to be a leader, since conducting a recording means that you are following the recording. However, that said, since it is impossible to have an orchestra or musical ensemble at your disposal everyday, conducting recordings is generally thought of the best way to improve your baton technique at home, in your own time.

The use of a musical score is preferred, but not essential. When conducting to a recording, you should imagine the player's right in front of you as if they were really there, cueing them appropriately where they would be located in the physical space. For many, this can be embarrassing and it is probably something most conductors will practice when no one else is home. I would recommend the use of headphones in this exercise so you can have the recording at a reasonable volume and so you can hear all that is going on within the music. This will also allow you to have the recording at roughly the same decibel level you would hear in a real band performance.

As well as practicing conducting along to existing recordings, you must practice your baton shaping. This is extremely important and usually sorts the men from the boys (or the women from the girls) as this demands practice and concentration. It is considered bad technique to fling your hands around the air going only up and down, and you must practice all the time signature shapes. Do this for about an hour a day if plausible, just stand in front of the mirror, in silence and conduct 4 in the bar concentrating on accuracy of the shape, consistency and speed as well how accurately and consistently you stick to your bounce point. You may wish to use a table or some other object which meet the height of your bounce point. This way every time you are hitting your bounce point, you are hitting the object, thus training you arm into the distance it needs to travel to hit each bounce point. It is generally considered that most conductors bounce point will be parallel to the ground.

Remember to practice the shapes for various time signatures and speeds.

The baton should always have continuous flow and the use of the ‘hot stove' technique should only be used for certain cues, like tutti hits. The hot stove technique is just like it says. Imagine touching a hot stove with your hands, you would immediately jump your hands off. This jerking action is often misused by would-be conductors.

The art of cueing is also important. Cueing performers in before they actually come in is important since if you cue them at the moment they are supposed to play, then you are to late, the whole point to cueing is to prepare the performer. Remember the key to conducting is leadership, you must demonstrate at all times through your technique that you are in control and that the players can trust you to keep them on the right path and not feel lost.

Interpretation

The heart and soul of any good conductor is the ability to accurately interpret the composers score. This mastery demands the utmost musical proficiency possible. Often in Brass Banding, conductors sometimes look to create a technically correct performance, one where all the notes are in the right place and where everything is clean and articulate.

Now, one must remember this is only a means to an end, and not the end itself. Musical notation only exists for the composer to record his/her thoughts in hard copy, embedded forever, so that musicians can interpret and perform the music at any given time. It allows the composer to ‘draw' his visions on paper so that others can understand what he is creating and can accurately recreate it in a real-time performance.

To better understand where the conductor fits in the chain, consider the model below:

Composer --> Conductor --> Musicians --> The Audience

As you can see from the above model, the objective is to take the composers creation and present it to the target audience.

I would ask you to consider an alternative, and this might help you realise why the above model is constructed as such. For most the above model is commonsense and makes good artistic sense also.

Once you understand and fully agree with the above model, it is not hard to see why interpretation rules out everything else in conducting. With exceptional conductors who interpret music very well, they can afford to be slightly less adequate at baton technique. The function of the conductor is to bring the music to life the way the composer visions it, breathing new life into it, bringing the passion and intensity out of the performance. With this in mind, the conductor should be ready to at least attempt to tackle the composers score.

There is much more to a music score than making sure that it is technically correct. Like I said earlier this is only a means to an end and comes with practice on the musician's behalf, as a conductor you must ensure that the music has life and character, this is something the conductor can directly control and have full leadership in – this is the chance for the conductor shine!

That said, it is of course perfectly plausible to get the piece technically correct, that everything is tidy and within the context of the music, however ensure that the balance is not lop sided, the more times you have to fix all the technical issues, the less time you have to do your job as a conductor by interpreting the music and seeking out the passion that lies deep within the music.

Let's face it, it's not as if, in the Brass Band world, you will be playing a piece by Györgi Ligeti or Steve Reich where the music is highly complex and indeed, should the Brass Band world ever venture out into this world, the aim would be to communicate the aesthetic purpose and not to demonstrate the technical accuracy of the piece of music. Composers do not write to show off, so why should performers be any different, all anybody is interested in is if you can bring it. It is important for musicians to realise their role within the music chain and what the ultimate goal is. 

The next thing you need to be aware of is how to communicate your interpretation to the players. This is where a big element of professional conducting comes in.

Conducting is about teaching not preaching – it's as simple as that. As the conductor, you must teach the music to the performers. This happens to two very distinct levels:

  • To teach the technical aspects of the music, where performers have shortcomings in performance techniques, in this case, the conductor is almost powerless to do any direct effect. A good conductor must ensure that momentum is kept up at rehearsals to enable performers to have the want and enthusiasm to practice. Learning double and triple tonguing is something which the player must embark upon on his own, but the conductor should also aid here. This is often the case in lower section bands where there are weak performers and sections.
  • To teach the performers the general vibe of the piece and to ensure everyone is communicating the same aesthetic goal. Most music, especially Brass Band music is very descriptive. The conductor should research the subject matter and realise what the composer is putting across at all times. The use of metaphor and symbolism is a huge trait in the majority of serious works.

As a conductor you must also be careful not to fall into the trap of that a set of harmonies are termed as consonant or dissonant.

The serialism movement (developed by the 2nd Viennese composers, Webern, Berg and Schöenberg) moved things forward in this respect, music was no longer thought of as being dissonant or consonant, but merely tensions of dissonance.

All music of sufficient length features some kind of dissonance tension. It is important to realise that dissonant harmonies do not sound ‘wrong' – they are merely indifferent.

I am reminded, as I write this article of the sublime beauty of the 2nd movement of Darrol Barry's suite, A Salford Sinfonietta. Entitled ‘Threnody' (a song in memoriam of the deceased) is filled with dissonant tension and release. The last 8 bars or so is where we hear real heartbreak and emotion, the rolling chords cascade into each other as if it were symbolism for a coffin being hoisted into the ground. The movement finishes with a harsh dissonant tension, which to the untrained ear sounds ‘wrong'. It is this thinking that leads conductors astray from the composer's mode of vision. That said this ‘wrongness' could very well apply, for death is wrong and not nice, it is harsh and it is devastating. These emotions instill the inner spirit with hope.

It is this line of thinking that will lead conductors straight to the top. Of course the above detail is of my own opinion and perception of the movement and in no way do I presume the above to be the definite interpretation.

But, it is an interpretation, one that I see as the composer's aesthetic goal and logic. You must apply this same line of thought to every piece of serious music you conduct.

Indeed harmony is very much a realtime property and it's effect is dictated by chords that surround them. Played on it's own, a [Cm7(9)] chord sounds dissonant, but if you place a

[Fmin Maj7 (#11 b9)] directly before it, the [Cm7(9)] becomes the consonant property, the effect this creates is dissonant tension and release. If you bear this in mind, this will allow you to work harmony into your interpretation, highlighting certain tones, adding very subtle interpretation effects like a slight delay before the next chord comes in. In this way you can add your own drama to music by using what is written and giving it life from the page.

Rehearsal Techniques

Rehearsal techniques and the ability to bring the best out of the performers is a combination of personal preference and tried and trusted techniques.

There is a school of thought that believes that a conductor is only as good as the band he has in front of him, and while this, in some circumstances may be true, I personally view it as the wrong way to go about conducting. Don't give up on your players! It is your job to nurture what they have deep inside them, by saying that the conductor is only as good as the band he has in front of him – you're basically saying that you can't do your job as a conductor, and when you are being paid by the band to do the job, it hardly seems reasonable to give up on them.

With lower section bands, a lot of time is spent on fixing performers techniques and less on the actual interpretation. This is a sad fact, but one we have to live with. However, it is a major advantage for a conductor to conduct lower section bands as this presents a challenge that should test him or her to the very limit.

Striking a balance of good rapport and discipline is imperative if you are to gain respect from the players and try to be as diplomatic as possible whenever your comments err on the side of derogatory.

The music you play from rehearsal to rehearsal should be looked at in depth, to ensure the performers are given the opportunity to sight-read a piece, rehearse it and learn what it is communicating and it's aesthetic purpose and then be able to deliver a convincing performance to a public audience.

During these rehearsals, here are some things to be aware of:

Balancing; Dynamics; Intonation and Tuning; Interpretation by the players; Style; Life; Sturdiness of the ensemble as a whole entity to ensure everyone is working as part of a team.

On the topic of Dynamics, it is important to realise that dynamics are there for a good reason, wither they be a whispering ppp or a roaring fff, you must ensure the sound is convincing, not timid and not overblown.

The answer is not to bring fff down to f, but to increase the performer's endurance and accuracy at such high volume levels. Tuning and balance tends to be the biggest problem, but the only way to overcome this is to keep working on these loud dynamics, training the performers muscles to get used to the pressures involved, as we all know brass playing uses a lot of muscles, for performers who tend to be a bit quieter, whenever they play loud it becomes distorted, the tone becomes uncontrolled and the tuning goes way out. As the performer gradually keeps playing loud dynamics, his or her body will soon get accustomed to the muscles that need to be used to sustain control, tuning and tone colour.

To whack a great big fff chord down to f may sound more convincing at first, but to the detriment to the effect the chord creates. Don't be lazy, train your players that loud dynamics are important and that thought consistent training of the muscles, the performer will gain control.

To put this in perspective a bit more, the common tendency with some conductors is to take the quiet dynamics right down and to bring the loud dynamics down a bit, what results is a safe performance, but one which may be out of character of what the composer wrote, after all if he really did want a chord to be played only f (instead of fff) he would have written it as such.

What you must be aware of is that dynamics are not separate from music. A fff will not only sound loud and upfront but it will allow the higher harmonics of the instruments to pull through, the tone colour will be different. This is a Brass thing!! I cannot stress this enough, Brass instruments have tremendous tonal colours, when quiet they are soft and cute, when loud, it's full and bright, when pushed louder, the room fills with ‘a wall of sound'. Phil Spektor may have coined this phrase but it can be equally applied to Brass Band performance. No other instrument type has so much variance in tone colour with different dynamics.

Here's a thing to try:

Get your players to close their eyes and put the instrument to their mouth. Tell them to imagine them in a huge empty theatre. Tell them there is someone way in the distance, way at the back, tell them to imagine the person sitting there. Now tell the players to play, still with their eyes shut and tell them to aim the sound to the person at the very back of the theatre. 

What should result is a very powerful and full sound by all members of the band, where everyone is all aiming for the same thing. This will teach the players that loud playing comes from projection and not about blowing the hell out of the instrument.

This is a technique adopted by Operatic vocalists to allow them to project their voice and fill the room with sound without resorting to screaming and shouting.

There is also the argument that you can only play as loud as your weakest player, which is true in a sense, but the conductor must ensure that players realise this is only temporary solution and I personally would not recommend this line of thought unless you are conducting a junior band or  band with very low technical ability. 

Final Notes

The purpose of this article is to make light of certain considerations. It is a formulation of my own experience, training and personal thoughts. All I am asking you to do is read this article and decide what you agree with and what you don't agree with and use it as a stepping stone for your own conducting method, or even try a few things mentioned in this article and see if it works for you and your band.

The only thing I do stress upon, though, is that you at least consider that the purpose of the conductor is to communicate the composers score as accurately as possible, understanding the symbolism, metaphor and aesthetic purpose behind it, all the while finding the right sound and balance to portrait what you believe to be the passion and heart of the piece. 

This is what I believe to be of utmost importance in professional conducting.  

James McFadyen, Composer and Conductor
www.jamesmcfadyen.co.uk
www.devilishpublishing.co.uk

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