Because of the pandemic, it’s been well over a year since I have performed with an ensemble or orchestra. That being said, this time away from my beloved performance space has allowed me to reflect on many of my musical processes and experiences, including conducting. Keep reading to join me in a handful of anecdotes that lead to me to be holding the baton on the podium.
So, You’re Joining Orchestra.
It’s a funny anecdote, how I ended up in my first orchestra. It was at the university,… Joining orchestra was not an option, but rather, something I was told to do. A few weeks before college classes started, my advisor said “ You are joining the orchestra, the music director thinks you’ll be great”
“On…Flute?” I queried.
“Uh, I don’t know, but it’s probably on the violin”
“Sir, I don’t know how to play the violin”
Immediate panic set it. How was I going to learn how to play the violin like a virtuoso in the three weeks before college band camp?
Luckily, it was intended that I play piccolo in the orchestra, not the violin. I quickly progressed to the first flute, which was a relief in some sense, because of how very easily the metal piccolo (yikes!) overtook the violins. Side note: Later, when I was on piccolo, I borrowed a grenadilla one.
An Arrangement Gone Wrong
My first experience conducting an ensemble was actually conducting one of my own arrangements. Comically enough, it had printed incorrectly, in more than one way: with one less page, and the wrong key signature (I had accidentally bumped my Ipad’s notation program before hitting print). Why the computer never printed the full arrangement is still beyond me.
Our arranging professor had chosen that very day to convince the Wind Ensemble director to have us all conduct our pieces in class. As I waved my arms around, I felt them sinking, sinking… The brass “womped” chromatically, and everyone ended unresolved before my cutoff. I thought “This is NOT how I arranged this piece. What is happening?!” But I kept conducting, no matter what. I guess that’s what we all have to do at some point, isn’t it?
I chuckle now that someone managed to allow me to graduate Summa Cum Laude after that one. My arranging professor even dinged my arrangement grade for “Asking for help too many times”. Really, it was probably because of my horrible performance.
After that, conducting became S-C-A-R-Y scary. Every time I imagined getting up on the podium, I swear I could hear those terrible clashing brass from my arrangement.
Conducting 101: Moving Your Eyebrows is Everything
Out of context, the sentence “Moving your eyebrows is powerful” sounds hilarious. That being said…It’s true. Moving your eyebrows is powerful, both as a conductor and an instrumentalist. Let me explain.
In Conducting 1, I felt extremely uncomfortable with my body. My face remained stoic, and my arms, tucked in. Perhaps this is a side effect of small yet continuous doses of sexism I experienced in undergrad from my male colleagues. Either way, I felt like a child on a bicycle that was about to fall over. That day, our professor told us that we were going to work, exclusively on faces. I had been assigned the angry Dvorak passage.
Half-asleep, on a Monday morning, I stumbled up to the large carpeted podium. I had moved my arms out further than usual, to compensate for my lack of facial emoting.
“No, like THIS!” My professor enthusiastically pointed to his eyebrows and produced a pseudo-menacing expression. I tried it. Again, and again. As my professor’s expressions grew more frustrated, I began to giggle.
I realized that I was deeply uncomfortable expressing anger.
By the time my professor started laughing raucously, we had been making faces at each other for over ten minutes. Pretty soon, our laughter grew contagious, and the whole class was chuckling.
As comical as this anecdote is, in all seriousness, as conducting classes progressed, I learned to reclaim my face and body for all people who tried to keep my arms metaphorically tucked in.
Private Conducting Lessons
In college, I found myself in many private conducting lessons. Oddly enough, this was not a private lesson class that I had signed up for, but rather, a mere fluke. The further I got into the music education program, the smaller the classes got. By the time I got to the third semester of conducting, there were only three of us students. Most Mondays, I was the only one who showed up.
This is quite a benefit of going to a smaller music college. I got to study with one of my favorite conductors privately, without signing up for lessons. One of my colleagues always skipped, and the other, seemed to never have a car that could make the hour drive to the University without something breaking.
This direct feedback from my professor was invaluable. He had a doctorate in conducting. And while I’m no pro at moving my eyebrows and arms, these classes definitely changed how the music feels when I’m in an ensemble. There’s a new sense of awareness.
In educational psychology, I learned that, when you know how to do something and you see someone else doing it, it lights up your brain. If you don’t know how to do this thing (say, you see someone riding a bike and you don’t know how to ride a bike), the sympathetic firing is not nearly as strong. I wonder if this is what happened here when I learned how to conduct. When I watch conductors now, it is like I can almost feel their arms moving.
Conducting: A Wordless Language
After feeling the motions of conducting, it is much easier to interpret conductors. I recall that once, in an orchestra, we had a line of guest conductors. One of these guest conductors that we worked with for the longest period of time was a conductor from Madrid.
Side note: This conductor had the most impeccable way of dressing classy in concert black. I wish I could tell her that I still wear lace under my suit jacket because of her.
She was hard to understand, and, most days, all I could recognize was the name of the piece she called for us to play next. That being said, her motions spoke far more clearly. I could tell which section of the Beethoven we were about to enter, because of how she would raise her arm. Conductors like this are powerful. So powerful that the first flute in the very back can go through an entire rehearsal and follow along, not with her words but her motions.
From Podium to First Flute: The Crossover
My experiences on the podium have made me a more open and communicative musician. I have also found it easier to communicate wordlessly with my conductor. If something goes awry, I find myself raising an eyebrow. Oftentimes, they give me a sympathetic “I know” look back.
About me: I am a freelance music writer, classical flutist, and artist. I teach tutorials on how to digitize music on the ScanScore Blog and create visual art and flute arrangements that you can find on this site.
I recently did a 3-part artist interview with Sam Rugg on the Agora blog. To read it, check out the link here.