bland ambition

I’m postponing Multiple-Intelligence Monday so I can write about this article from yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

I have mentioned before that I was born and raised in Delaware, which made Philadelphia my home city.  Doing my master’s at Westminster just reinforced that.  So I keep up with Philly things.  I like David Patrick Stearns’ writing and classical music criticism in the Inquirer, but this is one article that makes the conductor in me cringe.

Buried in the middle of the article is this telling paragraph:

Few professions are as glamorous and artistically fulfilling as conducting – but only for a select few. Many others labor quietly in semipro orchestras or educational institutions. And far more sink into complete obscurity; a young conductor can land a prestigious master class with a titan of the podium, yet never be heard from again.

Glamorous?  For almost none of us.

But artistically fulfilling?  For almost all of us.  “Laboring quietly” isn’t quite how I’d put it.  I doubt any ensemble member would describe his conductor as laboring quietly.   

Before I expound on this idea, I’ll mention how interesting it is to read an outsider’s perspective on the career path of a conductor.  Conducting is an esoteric profession, but very public, so people don’t know how little they know about it, you know?  Anyway, it’s interesting to hear this take on conductors and ambition, seeking chances “for advancement,” and on how success can be determined by “alchemy:”

Philadelphia legend Eugene Ormandy’s inability to manage complex time signatures might have barred him from a major career today. Yet in his time, he achieved results by projecting complete authority, without which even well-equipped conductors might fail to impress musicians, leading to telepathic wars of the wills.

So why would any sensible person want to conduct? 

I’ve dedicated many posts to all the many skills and personal attributes that benefit a conductor, and the question of musicianship vs. leadership is well settled, I think.  So, we can see that conductors conduct because it’s not just their work: it’s who they are.  Everything in your life is about your work, and you are your work. And the more you are your work, the better your work will be, and the better your life will be.  But this only works for people who are made for it.   I think.

That paragraph is kind of a mess, but I think you get the picture.

A few other indications that  David Patrick Stearns, the author of the article, isn’t a conductor, include sentences like:

his conducting manner can turn on a dime. For choral groups, his batonless hands are fluid, almost balletic; for Beethoven, the baton is wielded. When the music-making goes awry, he’ll flash a smile at the offending section, which somehow corrects the problem immediately. He doesn’t confront difficulties as much as circumvent them with strategy. “You won’t go flat if you’re thinking through the entire phrase,” he told the New Amsterdam Singers at one recent rehearsal.

Oh, the misunderstandings, the things conductors take for granted that all conductors know, yet journalists glom onto as explication of the mystery.  I’ve already discussed how batons are an option most conductors can take or leave, depending on the circumstances.  But there’s also the fundamental necessity of a conductor to be able to express an unlimited variety of musical content.  It’s his job, so he’d better darn well be versatile.  And, yes, with pros, all you have to do is acknowledge a mistake and they fix it on their own.  If not, then the problem is probably a larger-stroke, bigger-picture musical one such as phrasing.  These are not mysteries or special gifts; these are the mandatory minimum skills of all conductors, trained into them and/or learned through experience.


Let me get back to the ambition thing, because that’s not just a matter of not knowing what conductors know, it’s a matter of perspective on what and who a conductor is.  It seems that the standard set for a successful conductor in the article is like saying the standard for success as an actor is being a movie star.  But there are thousands of actors putting food on the table and raising families whose names have never been heard by most people.  You don’t have to lead the L.A. Phil to call yourself a successful conductor.  Lots of amazing conductors are college professors, lead community bands, teach school, and minister to congregations.  

The article opens with this:

The romanticized image of the symphony orchestra conductor – arriving by limo at a grand music hall to inspire effortless beauty before thousands – is a world away from young Geoff McDonald’s catch-as-catch-can career.

Right.  The romanticized image of an actor arriving by limo at the Academy Awards is a world away from the vast majority of professional actors’ catch-as-catch-can careers.  From my career.  And, actually, I’ve never had the image of a conductor arriving to a performance in a limo.  Am I too close to it to be so deluded?  

Do people really think conducting is glamorous like that?  Like in the Depend commercial where they are impressed the conductor does her own make-up?  Of course she does her own make-up!  She doesn’t have a dresser, either.  Even in opera, where you really do need stage make-up, only the stars in pretty expensive productions have their make-up done for them.  

Mmmhhh…. sooooooo glamorous…


Maybe half a dozen conductors in the world have a hired car deliver them to their performances.  The idea of glamor may come from the prevalence of white tie (discussed here in so much detail!), but really, it’s just work.  It’s also art.  Do you need the glamor to have the artistic fulfillment?  Hell, no.  Those professors, leaders, teachers, and ministers I mentioned above experience a lot of artistic fulfillment.  *I* do.  That’s why I do it.

I doubt there is a conductor in the world who does it for glamor or prestige or even power.  If they do, then I bet they’re not as good conductors as the rest of us who do it because it’s who we are.  We conduct because making music is addictive, participating in performance and facilitating art are too wonderful to quit.  Too fun.  We do it because we can’t imagine ourselves being happy doing anything else.    

Ambition is an option.  We can try to become conductors of major orchestras–someone’s got to hold those jobs, right?  But that’s not all that conducting is.  The artistic fulfillment is what it’s about.  We can find that with amateurs, semi-pro ensembles, students, and congregations.  It doesn’t require fame and fortune.  Most of us aren’t seeking fame or fortune.  We are seeking artistic fulfillment; and we find it in the repertoire and in the people with whom we perform it.

Ahhhhh.  This is why I blog.  Because I “labor quietly” with choirs in a community, a church, a school.  I keep reading articles like this one that miss the point of what I do, and I’m thrilled to have this resource to say what conductors all know but no one but a conductor has a reason to know.  Not many will read it, but at least the other side of the story is out there, available.

Yes, a conductor is a leader, so it’s easy to think conductors must be ambitious.  But conducting is not about power, ambition, or glamor.  Artistic fulfillment, though.  Bingo.  Yep.  Absolutely. 

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One Response to bland ambition

  1. Pingback: Multiple Intelligence Monday: the equity of genius | Thoughtful Gestures

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