I asked my conducting students what they wanted to know that I haven’t talked about yet. They had several great questions, some of which I will definitely deal with in class where doing the work and watching their colleagues do the work is most helpful. But a couple of the things are best addressed in conversation. Or writing. So this post addresses one of those.
They asked about protocol, etiquette, how to deal/interact with the ensemble.
The short answer is, “love them.”
If that makes sense to you, you can stop reading now. That’s all the wisdom I have to offer. But if you wonder how love manifests itself in behaviors from the podium, I’ll break it down a bit more.
- Show them respect.
- Arrive early, start on time, and end on time.
- Be prepared. Know all their parts as well as if you would be performing them yourself. Anticipate potential problems and have some solutions ready. Do not get on the podium without a clue about what the sound will be, and figure you’ll learn the music in the rehearsal process — maybe you did this as an ensemble member, but conductors can’t. They all learn their own parts, but your job is to know each part and also to have a concept of how the parts all fit together.
- Plan your rehearsal in detail. Know what you want to accomplish, and tell them. “Today, we’ve got to get the second movement fugue cleaned up, and then blah blah whatever.” And then do that. If you don’t accomplish what you wanted to, don’t blame them. You planned too much. (Everything is always your fault.)
- Do not waste their time while you work on gestural issues. If you can’t give a clear cue or keep a tempo change consistent in rehearsal, drop it, work on it by yourself before you stand on the podium again, and rehearse it again when you’re ready.
- Share something you care about with them. Have an opinion, a perspective. Bring something to the music that isn’t on the page. Let it be personal. Let it be yours. Find space in it to be theirs, too.
- Listen to them; and trust them.
- Statistically, you are probably average. Average intelligence, average musicianship, average kinesthetic skills. Some of them will be smarter than you, better musicians. Unless they are students, they will almost certainly know more about the capabilities of their instruments than you do. Ask their opinions, be open to their ideas.
- Not only does this give you the benefit of their expertise, but also it makes your performance unique to the humanity of those individuals in the ensemble. And it’s easier for them to invest if they have a sense of ownership.
- Don’t dump your baggage on them.
- If you’re stressed or angry with the world or whatever, put it on a shelf until the end of rehearsal. Then, by all means, pick it back up and deal with it.
- Or, if it’s too big for a shelf, be honest with them. Put it into the music if you can. Your humanity if a gift to them and to the art. If you’re distracted and/or suffering, do what you can. Maybe the rehearsal won’t be productive the way you planned, but you’ll probably accomplish something valuable.
- Do not, by any means, snap at the ensemble because you’re cranky from traffic. If you’re cranky with them, ask yourself why. Is it really them? Or have you brought something into the room with you, left over from earlier in the day, or the week, or your childhood, or whatever? It’s almost always you.
Above all, remember that making music together isn’t just business. Well, it can be. But when it’s really good, it’s personal, too. The shared experience of creating music together is powerful and pleasurable, and should expose your heart a little.
Like your gestural technique, none of the logistics really matters as long as you go into it with the intention of caring for the ensemble and making some really interesting music.
Yeah, this is an annoyingly vague answer. “But, Amelia, what do we do?” And the answer is “it depends.” Who is in your ensemble? What repertoire are you working on? How many rehearsals do you have before the performance? Sometimes you’ll push them hard. Sometimes you’ll luxuriate in the music.
There’s this myth that conducting is about being in control. That you should be a benevolent dictator. It’s not true. A conductor is a servant to the music. Do whatever it takes to make the music everything it wants to be, but remember that this will inevitably require the musicians to be at their best mentally and physically. So, take care of them.