Five Golden Rules

The popular view of the conductor of our times seems to favour a high degree of (mostly unhelpful) physical activity combined with passionate feelings about music – which are expressed only verbally, and, irrespective of the location, ideally in a foreign accent.  When added to an intrinsic capacity for big hair and a dash of mystic promise, these qualities apparently comprise something referred to as “charisma” but, although the results may suffice to excite an audience pumped on media hype, they do not actually fool anyone who understands that the reality of effective conducting is somewhat different, least of all those who actually have to make the sounds.

Maximising the value of the skills and motivation of these people is crucial to achieving real success. Certainly charisma plays its part but it must surely arise from the kind of personality willing to first serve the music and then the musicians, plus the inner confidence generated by genuine expertise – rather than the kind of ego which is comfortable about putting the needs of both the music and the musicians subservient to inferior musical and technical understanding on the part of the conductor.

If we accept that then, if we aspire to get as close as possible to some imaginary ideal, I think some further points to consider are:


We must be ever mindful that our purpose is to inspire – not to explain, to request or to dictate.

It is unlikely that anyone would argue the importance of inspiring others, variance of opinion tends to be in how to go about it, most especially because so many people labour under the misapprehension that the musicians are waiting only for words of wisdom from the rostrum and that they have no issues about playing to gestures which actually hinder rather than help.

The reality is that whilst a request might be complied with, a gift given as a result of even the most delicate direct request is of less value than one arising from a genuine desire to give, and that even if the “right” result is achieved through  a poor quality gesture then this can arise only through an excessive demand on the skills of the supplier(s).  There may be no immediate audible consequence but at some later point there will be a price to be paid.

If we truly want to generate inspired music-making, it is therefore crucial to avoid the temptation to abuse the inherent power of the conductor’s position through unnecessary verbal explanation or request, or poor quality gesture.  To do so is to play the short and easy game, but alas one with very limited musical rewards.  Perfectly personally rewarding if one is content to play a solo game using real people as the pieces but, alas, somewhat less satisfactory for the other protagonists – or for anyone else with a pair of ears.

The alternative is a long and difficult game, one which looks to find a level of cooperation which obviates the need for boring and unnecessary discussion but involves working with sound through gesture.  Doing this effectively means many “problems” simply never arise and others vanish into thin air without apparent effort on any part – simply because engaging the hearts and minds of the musicians changes the game beyond all recognition.

Those who aspire to achieve this, however, must guard against the ever-present and extremely powerful  temptations of the short game, one which so often shows itself as the better option when in fact it is invariably just a mirage.  It can be hard to resist, but in case of weakening, always remember that unlike some others, in this field of human activity there is at least some justice: whilst the cheats can too-often be seen to prosper in the material sense, they remain forever musically compromised.


We must assume responsibility for every problem – and give thanks for every solution.

Assuming responsibility means just that: we should always first assume that we caused any problems ourselves, it’s the musical equivalent of original sin.  In the case of anything and everything we might see as a problem the first question we should ask ourselves is “what did I do wrong which provoked this?” 

In most cases it will be possible to identify something we could have done differently but, even in the unlikely case that we were truly entirely blameless, thinking this way informs our awareness and hence colours our approach both to our colleagues and to solutions.

Where things are working well, we should only be grateful and never arrogant – and never take anything for granted, but constantly search for the answers which will lift the game further. As with all things artistic, if we sense that we are getting anywhere close to the imaginary goalposts, its time to move them again.


Good intentions are not enough, we must have the expertise to serve the music and the musicians effectively

There is a common misconception that anyone can conduct, that all that is needed is integrity, energy, charisma and great musical ideas.  This is not entirely true, because although I would prefer to believe that genuine conducting talent has value, at the most base level, gaining opportunities can be an issue merely of finance. Unfortunately, conducting has somehow become or remained a bastion of feudalism, one which allows people with little or no idea what they are actually doing to rule over those who do, but perhaps it was ever thus.  Getting to conduct is one thing though, how we manage this immense privilege is entirely another, for I believe that, whatever the merits of the process of acquiring it, a position of privilege brings duties as well as benefits.

The principal duty must surely be to ensure that we do it well and here the salient point is that, whilst some, perhaps, are born with an intrinsic capacity to inspire musicians, no one is born with the expertise required to manage collective sound effectively.  True, some may have more natural capacity than others, but to be of any real use everyone, however lucky, rich or exceptionally talented, is obliged to acquire substantial knowledge and tangible skills.

To be more precise, if the musical output is not to be in some way compromised then there is an inviolable need on the conductor’s part for:

  1. Sophisticated technique, which synthesizes
    1. Mastery of the practice and application of a language of advanced non-verbal communication, a system which allows the conductor to receive, process and transmit a wide range of musical information whilst involving a minimum of conscious mental processing power on the part of the musicians
    2. Methodology of rehearsal and performance
  2. A high level of musical knowledge and understanding
  3. A good deal of practical experience


We must remember that less is invariably more.

It is important never to confuse activity with effectiveness, a mistake often made when making assessments of managerial efficiency.

The need to be efficient applies to everything we do: the task of pursuing the “ideal” is so challenging (as for every musician) that, whether it be gesture, speech, score preparation or the way we manage a rehearsal, we must always ensure that we are not merely industrious but also highly efficient.

Inexperienced conductors sometimes devote an enormous amount of time to preparing scores but, if this activity fails to address the right issues, the time is largely wasted.  Indeed, the knowledge acquired can even be counter-productive because the desire to impart something the conductor views as important often leads to an excess of activity of every form – verbal as well as physical – with results which, to the objective listener, are of little value. Simply reducing the “white noise” of surplus activity and focusing on the information the musicians really need for the result to be achieved can have remarkable – and immediately audible – results.

So, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, the “ideal” conductor, if he or she could exist, would not be a whirlwind of hairy activity needing a change of clothing between every piece but, rather, would know precisely what information needs to be conveyed and be capable of doing this with optimal effect: that is, conveying both the tangible information needed and the appropriate musical energy without the necessity for undue physical exertion – reserving the whirlwind effect only for the moments when it could be musically justified.

In other words, as with any complex task, true virtuosity makes accomplishments which are difficult to acquire appear easy and natural.


We must be vigilant in our pursuit of these disciplines.

Because it is so much more comfortable for us to overlook them!  If we accept that our purpose is to serve music and musicians rather than ourselves, though, our personal comfort cannot be a priority.