“Do you really know what he means with all those hand signs?”
I’ve been involved in music virtually my entire life. For most of that time, currently not far from 50 years, that music has included some form of conductor. From the elementary band conductor who demanded watching by the constant threat of the occasionally fired pencil or drumstick through the drum and bugle corps drum major who couldn’t be seen most of the time, depending on where one might have been on the field, to several levels of demanding (or not) choral and instrumental ensemble conductors through college and adult musicianship. Even the great Aaron Copland, conducting some of his own music in a rehearsal was quoted as saying “why on earth would you follow me?” With all of that firmly in mind and including my own practice and subsequent experience as a conductor (for all you geeks I’ll swear to my dying breath that at room temperature I’m only a semi-conductor), I’ve not felt qualified to answer the question until just recently. Within the past few days I have come across the same unequivocal answer in two totally different places.
Just to try and avert some unhappy comments, let me say right now that conductor-less absolutely can work. And music can work very well that way! And sometimes the music actually works beautifully in spite of the conductor. Even when that conductor is me. Sigh.
The proof, as they say, though, is in the doing. This past weekend I had the privilege of conducting the Cantata Singers in Franz Biebl’s gorgeous setting of “Ave Maria”. We did the piece twice during dress rehearsal (the first time was because we had to, the second because we wanted to...) and once during the performance the next day. The amazing thing was that in those three runs of the tune we did three substantially different interpretations. That was, in a word, an amazing experience for me. It turns out that not only were the singers watching, they were actually following. Wow! Curious, and perhaps not coincidental that the question that opens this entry was overheard after the concert.
The second confirmation the conducting matters was a study that was reported on, where else, All Things Considered, NPR’s comprehensive news program almost a week ago. The article can be found here and is a very interesting read or listen if you are into to the nuts and bolts of music and music making. If you take the time to read the comments you’ll see there is still a great deal of debate about the subject.
To this humble semi-conductor at least, this issue is settled. I waved. I made hand signals. I made faces and moved around a lot. And those things all seemed to work together to make a big difference in at least one performance!