I started out by saying that the thing about conducting is that people don’t know what it actually is. Still, the image of a conductor is kind of captivating: the maestro, the one who’s in charge and makes it all happen! Perhaps the mystery is part of the appeal. Conductors are popular as characters and metaphors, saturating pop culture with abundant examples of misconceptions. Perhaps I’ll spoil the mystery for people, and then they will no longer feel compelled to depict conductors in the ways shown below. I’ve never seen a fictitious conductor who was a great conductor. Instead, I have observed, fictitious conductors tend to be jerks who flail.
Below are some samples of t.v. commercials featuring conductors–I might add, I have never met a real-life conductor who was as bad as any of these. Even my undergraduate students, first time on the podium, do better than this.
Is this really how the world thinks we look? Or are non-conductors also aware that this is horrible, bad, completely unrealistic conducting?
In an Olay ad, this woman might win an award for most attractive conductor if she didn’t flail quite so wildly.
There are some good things here–women being depicted as the conductors of orchestras, for example. Hurray for that! Also, women seem to be depicted less like jerks than men, although these particular woman are no prize (can’t set up a music stand?!). But look at what actors do when they are supposed to be playing conductors. Ugh! The flailing of arms, the flapping of wrists, the reachy straightness of elbows, the clutching of batons, the frequency with which gestures linger above their heads…
And, seriously, “magic wand?!” Bleagh.
There’s another that’s on locally that features a very young woman in a suit, she is a sales rep at a home store, and the simile is that she’s like a conductor because she puts together all your appliances and flooring choices into a harmonious renovation project. Her technique is wretched.
Of course, these are little commercials with tiny budgets, but actors playing conductors appear in movies (The Money Pit, Prince of Tides…) and big t.v. shows (Law and Order) and these are not only jerks who flail, but often flamboyant European jerks who flail. Here’s one of those in a commercial (content warning–there’s some salty language, but how he says it actually made me laugh out loud, so I thought it was worthy):
I wonder if they hire a consultant to coach the actor in conducting. And if they do, how do I get that gig?!
A third-screen jerk who flails:
And finally, one that’s so incredibly well crafted and purposefully bad that I love it to pieces–particularly the little dance at 1:55.
I think that I, as an actual conductor and someone who has dabbled in acting, have a unique appreciation for just how much preparation went into this. For Rowan Atkinson to conduct this poorly, he had to know the music stone cold, practice the gestures like a dancer to ensure that they reflect the character of the music, move with emotional intention, unify gesture with feeling and sound… wow! Also, he’s kind of saying, “what if a conductor really were just a jerk who flails?” then answering the question in the most absurd possible way. And his asking that question implies that he knows that that’s not all there is to it.
Thank you, Rowan Atkinson!
So, this is what popular culture thinks conductors are. It is inaccurate, of course, or I would be done now. I’ll be spending the rest of the blog explaining what conducting actually is, and perhaps why this stereotype exists. My personal view is that conducting is work that opens a window to the best parts of our humanity, so I’ll try to demonstrate that, too.
In the meantime, here’s Victor Borge’s explanation. He talks about what a conductor does, assuming that you already know that a conductor is a flamboyant European jerk who flails.