I’ve been taking horseback riding lessons, and they feel a lot like conducting lessons because my instructor says things like this:

When you are open, they can understand you more clearly.

If you have tension in your body, it will create tension in them.

Even if they tend to speed up or slow down, it’s your job to keep the tempo steady.

It’s not about control, it’s about cooperation.

They want to feel connection with you. Give it to them.

Use your eyes to communicate. If you look down they’ll feel you disconnect.

Have your intention firmly in mind in order to communicate it without confusion.

Plan ahead so you know how far in advance to give the cue. Know where you are now, and where you’re going next and how to get there.

If you don’t tell them clearly what to do, they’ll do whatever they want. They want to follow you… as long as they think you know what you’re doing.


It’s just the mechanics that are different. And they are totally different. Anything I do seated as a conductor or singer only requires me to balance on my ass. On a horse, the foundation has to continue into my feet, and that’s difficult for me — it’s a weird coordination of strength and flexibility. But the process just requires me to spend time doing it and allow my muscles to learn the new sensation. The process includes moments of me thinking so much about how I’m doing that I forget to do what I’m doing. I get so immersed in the placement of my weight, and relaxing my arms without opening my fingers, and listening to the beats, etc., that I forget about the actual horse.

This happens all the time in student conductors. They get so caught up in gesture and balance and cuing, etc., that they forget about the actual music.

Jeffrey Renshaw called it getting “conductorized.” It’s part of the process, and it only goes away when your muscles can execute their tasks without conscious control — unimpeded by the thought process, as the Car Talk guys put it. Like riding a bicycle. Like tai chi. Once you learn it, there’s no more “try,” there’s only “do.” But unlike balancing on a two-wheeled machine or executing a series of movements, horsemanship requires communication and leadership. It’s the most conductory non-conducting thing I’ve ever done.

I know dozens of conductors, but only one who rides for real; and that’s Charles Bruffy.

Who was just nominated for his fourth Grammy.

Now I think maybe it’s not a coincidence.

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