When a singer or instrumentalist practices, she goes into a room and plays scales and arpeggios and other exercises to warm up physically and work on technique. Then she plays repertoire, applying the technique to the music and also examining musical, expressive content and using the technique to realize it.
What do conductors do when they practice?
Dr. Renshaw lays out a three step process of “read, analyze, interpret.” That works for any score, but the details of what each of those steps precisely means is flexible.
To read, I was taught “sing and play.” Sing one line (yes, even instrumental lines and, yes, out loud) and play any other. Be able to do this in every possible combination. This mandates repetition, which means you can’t help but learn it. It also explicates relationships and lays bare the relationships, which means it gives you questions to ask. “Why did he do that? Why is that so hard to hear?”
And then you answer the questions, which is where analysis comes in. “Ohhhh, it’s hard to hear that interval because this line introduces the new key.” And eventually interpretation follows. “Ohhhh, that crazy chord is there because it’s the word pain” and “ohhhh, the tenors and basses are in unison there because it’s the theme and the women are in a really high tessitura…”
“Practice,” for me, also involves research. I look into the text, the poet, the language, its IPA, often I have to learn more about instruments since my instrumental background isn’t strong, and finding out where in the conductor’s life the composition was written. For whom on what occasion? What else did he write around the same time? And then I can judge whether this piece is representative of that work or exceptional.
And then there is practicing the actual physical act of conducting. Once I’m pretty well familiar with the music, I can start actually waving my arms around, seeing what works, what the music would look like in my body. But unrelated to any specific piece of music, I admit that I don’t do exercises that keep my conducting “in shape.” I do Tai Chi, and I like to think that it’s physically related enough that it applies itself to my conducting gesture when the time comes. I don’t have any evidence, except that I know learning in one field can be transferred automatically to others.
It’s all about, as I have said before, spending time.