A sound connection

The Conductors’ Academy August 2016 retreat has further convinced me about the value of small group working, as we explored key aspects of a number of important works without the need to concern ourselves with the entirety. Over the six days we studied music by Beethoven, Dvorak, Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Verdi, considering the key principles which apply to all and the mechanisms for creating a different sound world for each.

The study format allowed us to explore technical and musical questions to the real limits of possibility and to fully expose the simple truth that in order to manage any one moment effectively, a conductor needs a strong connection to all of the musical material all of the time. Failing this, the consequent disengagement on the part of the musicians means that the conductor’s influence is reduced to an extent which means nothing can be achieved without excessive effort. I suspect that the main reason inexperienced conductors tend to make exaggerated gestures is an instinctive compensation for this failure, unfortunately one which simply compounds the problems.

Two key points we established as being critical to generating a strong connection to sound were:

  •  THE NEED TO GET THINGS RIGHT FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.This means really getting to grips with something I think we would all, deep down, prefer to overlook – that for the conductor the beginning occurs before the first sound is heard. It is so deeply tempting to take what seems to be the easy option – to try to work with sound after it actually starts, rather than accepting the crucial importance of providing an upbeat / auftakt of real quality; one which presents an appealing invitation to a stream of musical energy, colour and emotion rather than only defining some approximation of tempo and when it should start.  There is simply no escape from the need to set the sound up correctly before it starts, so we considered all the key starting points and connections in every piece we looked at and how to convey the information needed. In the process we reviewed not only how key principles work and when to break them but also in what order to prioritise where there is some possible conflict.
  • THIS MEANS WE NEED TO GET THINGS RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.Following from the above,  it also became painfully apparent that we need to get things right the first time, just when we are under the most pressure.  We clarified that sound produced by living people has its own desires and objectives and becomes demoralised if the conductor fails to provide what is needed before, rather than after it was needed.  The degeneration is immediate and irreversible: whilst producing the right auftakt on the the second or third attempt is far more effective than not at all, in order to build the vital trust needed to create a strong connection between gesture and sound there is simply no substitute for producing the right thing the very first time.

It seems so obvious – that the right preparation for sound (i.e. a really effective auftakt / upbeat, the first time the music is played) is a total game changer in the minds of those creating the sound, but despite that, my experience is that many inexperienced conductors pay relatively little attention to this crucial aspect of preparatory work.  Perhaps – as I did in my youth – they are hoping that a lot of honest effort and study of other aspects of the music will produce some kind of divine intervention at the critical moment?

If so then I have to say that my experience indicates that it never comes! Fortunately, though, however uncomfortable and challenging it may be to solve the problems, it is entirely possible: it requires only access to the right information, a capacity for analysis of what is needed, and practising the movements required until they can be produced with complete reliability without conscious effort.