By Jeffrey Renshaw

The public school ensemble director must wear many hats–teacher, administrator, librarian, music arranger, graphic designer for marching band drill, counselor, conductor, and perhaps the most important–STUDENT.

Like any business, the research and development program we maintain has a dramatic effect on our product and future productivity. Without growth we become stagnant, and the excitement and dedication needed to advance students can dwindle, causing a burn-out to occur. Nothing ever remains the same. We move forward or backward, increase or decrease, intensify or relax our learning efforts. A fundamental reason why we choose our profession lies in our need to express ourselves, specifically in music. For the composer, these sounds are generated from within. For the instrumentalist and vocalist, these sounds are reproduced through a single instrument. For conductors, this is accomplished through an ensemble.

The conductor’s ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally is based on accumulated knowledge of music and the kind of ensemble performing. Conductors require a never-ending dedication and education. Continuing education for a conductor develops the skills needed to inspire, interpret, evaluate, and prioritize one essential goal: musical expression. These are not skills easily acquired and are difficult to refine. Attending the concerts of colleagues and other ensemble genres is important to the development of musical perspectives.

A greater opportunity for development can be offered when we are able to observe a rehearsal, whether it is a professional ensemble, a guest conductor at a festival, or a colleague in our daily routine.

The current technique of conductor education, practiced by most colleges and universities, places emphasis on classroom lectures and short master class evaluations, often in a brief clinic format. However, the oldest method of teaching the art of conducting comes from the European opera house of the second half of the 19th century, which is still practiced today. This apprentice program uses rehearsal and performance observation as the primary source of conductor education. The apprentice then pursues the information using his own intellect and curiosity.

“Continuing education for a conductor develops the skills needed to inspire, interpret, evaluate, and prioritize one essential goal: musical expression.”

The conductor is the intermediary between the creation of a musical composition and the re-creation of that work in performance. The conductor acts as the connecting link between the composer and the audience serving as the composer’s representative. The rehearsal is the point in which this connection must begin.

Sometimes conductors limit their thinking only to the score, conductor and ensemble. The conductor’s responsibilities must include an understanding and involvement of all areas in order to fully represent the composer and give an artistic performance of the composition.

The conductor’s responsibilities may be viewed in two categories. Constant review and re-evaluation of both responsibilities are necessary. The first set of responsibilities is the gathering of information. Research skills and insatiable curiosity are vital.

An understanding of the historical climate in which the composer was writing is essential since the social and political influences have as much of a relationship to our musical understanding as does knowledge of the musical practices of the period. Insight and examination into the composer’s life, compositional style and other works by the composer are all parts of the conductor’s necessary preparation. With this knowledge, the musical score can be examined with greater understanding from the composer’s perspective. Along with every detail in the score, an understanding of the music as a whole is necessary to give a representative and convincing performance. All these tasks must begin prior to the first rehearsal. Whether it is the first or tenth time that the composition has been performed, the process remains the same. Only when this first phase is accomplished should the conductor move to the podium.

Now the conductor shifts to the second set of responsibilities: Communication. The ability to communicate, evaluate, and adjust is critical to musical success. Every ensemble’s reaction to a new work is based on its past experiences and current development.

Each work possesses its own unique balances and challenges and these must be linked by the conductor. Only through studied examination can the conductor recreate the composer’s musical intentions. The conductor must then interpret tempo, dynamics, tone color, shadings, phrasing and style. The conductor gains the knowledge through study, actual performance practice and observation. The observer can evaluate the process of rehearsal from a number of perspectives. The goal is to gain insight from the conductor’s interaction with the music and the ensemble. The musical world does not need copies of a particular conductor. It needs individuals who express music through their own ears, eyes and soul.

The best approach is to continually ask yourself questions. Observation without prejudice is important. Typical questions in this mental checklist may include:

  • How is the ensemble seated and why?
  • What are the advantages and compromises of the physical placement?
  • Is the conductor working from a detailed-to-general approach, or a general-todetailed?
  • Are results achieved by conducting motions, speech, or a combination of both?
  • Does the conductor react to the ensemble using a variety of physical approaches, or does he insist on a single approach?
  • Can the ensemble’s tone quality and unique sound be expressed thoroughly in words?
  • Can pacing the rehearsal, mix of personality, and the “business of music making” be observed?

    This list can be very extensive.

The effectiveness of the conductor is apparent through observation. If not apparent, then that too is a part of the other side of observation and often the most valuable, i.e., what not to do. The only time a conductor can practice his or her skills is during rehearsal. Conducting recordings or a “silent” ensemble yields few results. In addition to observing conductors, many useful perspectives can be acquired from observing performers. Highly successful performers often treat large ensembles as ever-changing chamber music. Problems of intonation, phrasing and nuances are frequently rehearsed silently. We should avoid the temptation to limit ourselves to the familiar or commonplace. Wind conductors should observe orchestral rehearsals, and vocal conductors should observe instrumental rehearsals. Knowing the music is not as important as hearing the music.

We can gain much from works that are unfamiliar and part of other performance mediums. Because the rehearsal/performance is often the only time that we deal directly and exclusively with the music, it is the most significant task we attempt in our profession. It is the reason we have chosen our vocation. If we miss opportunities to expand on our education, we impose severe limitations on our growth and effectiveness, as well as that of our students.