Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"I want to be a conductor"

Today I received an IM from a young music student which simply said, "I want to study conducting with you.  I want to be a conductor.  It's my dream."

I really wanted to help him, and to help other young people who have said the same thing to me over the last few years.  It is not that surprising that he should ask me that question, because after all, my student, Trisdee, has become the most successful Thai conductor ever, measured by any standard that really matters, such as reviews by international critics, the ability to consistently be invited to perform with top orchestras like RAI and Royal Scottish, the breadth and variety of repertoire, the fact that he is on the client list of one of the world's top agencies, and the genuine respect of his peers and of orchestral musicians.

One may well wonder how it was that I taught him to do what he does, and how another young talented musician could be taught the same thing using some mysterious, secret "Somtow Method".

So to the young man who wrote to me today, and to the others who have asked me this many times, I have to say simply this: Conducting can't be taught.

One can teach the basic physical principles in about half an hour — how do you beat one, two, five, seven beats in a measure?  How do you cue an entry?  One can teach other things in a few weeks: what are the different techniques of playing various instruments?  What technical terminology do you use to extract certain effects?

One can go even further and teach "how to look good on stage" ... beautiful posture, impressive gestures, domineering sneers and expressions of profound ecstasy.  Yes, these things can probably be taught.

In pretty much all the music that musicians regard as classical or preclassical, i.e. the music of the great baroque composers like Bach and Handel, the music of Mozart and Haydn and indeed most of Beethoven, the use of a conductor isn't actually "authentic."  In those days, there were no professional conductors per se.  The composer himself, or someone he trusted, sat at a keyboard and kept time by banging out the chords.  The idea of a separate conductor as a professional musician emerged during the early romantic era and only gradually evolved into the image of the tyrannical egotist who controls everything.  

When a member of the audience asks "What does the conductor actually do," it is in fact a pretty relevant question because during most of the history of music, and during the creation of some of music's greatest masterpieces, there was no such thing as a conductor in the modern sense.  That probably did not prevent performances of Mozart's operas or Bach's cantatas from being deeply affecting experiences.

The emergence of the idea of "teaching" conducting as a separate art comes even later in history than the emergence of conductors.  Now, most conservatories have courses, and many people with degrees in conducting are churned out every year ... far more than available jobs.  And indeed, since having a degree in conducting is not a valid criterion for getting a gig as a conductor, one wonders what the piece of paper is good for, except to get a job teaching conducting.  So there is a self-perpetuating mill where those who teach have frequently not actually had real careers as conductors, and are turning out people who will in turn teach others.

Trisdee doesn't have a degree in conducting, yet he is represented by a top agency (Columbia Artists) and is currently the most sought-after Thai conductor in the world.  How does he do it, and what is it in fact that makes one conductor sought-after and another not?  I'd like to try to explain what I can.  What I can't explain is part of the great mystery of creation.  You'll have to take it on faith.

The traditional career path for a conductor in the European tradition was to begin in an opera house, as a repetiteur.  As a repetiteur you absorb a huge amount of repertory, learn to deal with singers, who are generally among the most difficult of performers, learn to explain to people how it goes ... and then you start to get to take rehearsals ... and then you find yourself conducting one day.  Conducting in the opera house is the best experience because there are so many variables, so many things to control, so many things that can go wrong, and so much meaning to hold in your head all at once.   Once you learn how to keep an orchestra, singers, and chorus in line while they are all moving targets and simultaneously trying to act, conducting an orchestra alone is a walk in the park.  My friend Fred Chaslin did these things, working for instance under Pierre Boulez at Bayreuth, and now he conducts regularly at the Met.

In Europe this career path is still possible, and many of the best conductors I know have taken it.  And indeed Trisdee is the only Thai conductor who went this traditional route, starting as a repetiteur with Opera Siam at 15, continuing as head coach at the Netherlands Opera Studio, getting his first major gig with The Magic Flute in Thailand at 20 which then caused the reviews to pile up and eventually netted him the Rossini Festival, the RAI Orchestra, the Verdi Orchestra of Milan, and Royal Scottish and so on.  It was the best hands-on training available to him.

In Asia and the U.S., there is not an active opera company in every single small town, so this career path is more difficult to undertake.  Nevertheless it is still best to learn by observing and doing, and young conductors frequently take an apprenticeship of sorts: my friend Viswa Subbaraman of Texas for instance served a stint as Kurt Masur's assistant.

When I look back through the history of recorded music, and at interpretations that have truly influenced me or been life-changing experiences for me, whether on disk or in person, I find that those conductors who "do it for me" have something in common.  They don't adhere to a "normative" system of "how to conduct."  They do whatever it takes to make a particular orchestra do whatever it does ... and they know how to get that orchestra to do it.  Furtwängler's vague gestures, Bernstein's ballet-like "acting out" and Klemperer sitting in a wheelchair and appearing to move only once every few minutes were all things that worked, but have little to do with how conducting is "taught".  The most important thing about these interpretations is that they were interpretations; they had something unique to say about the work, and the means to communicate what they had to say.  They shed light on the composers' work and also on our understanding of ourselves, our humanity.  These great conductors didn't seem to care about looking silly or uncool.  Sometimes the gestures they did seemed incomprehensible, and many were certainly unorthodox, but it didn't matter because the orchestra knew how to react to them.

So, to the kid who asked me whether I would teach him "how to conduct", I would say this: you can pick up all the basic skills just by keeping your eyes and ears open and watching conductors at work.

I would further say that you must respect four things:

1. You must respect the composer.   He wrote the work.  Presumably, he means what he says.  It's your job to figure out why.

2. You must respect yourself.  You have worked hard to achieve an interpretation of the composer's work.  If you don't believe in that interpretation, no one else will.

3. You must respect the orchestra.  You may not want to admit it, but they're actually doing the work.  Recognize that and they'll go to the very limits of their abilities - even beyond.

4. You must respect the audience.  If you talk down to them, if you look down on them, they will know. Without them you don't exist; don't kid yourself about that.

Apart from this, there is no "Somtow method."  I merely open the doors.  If they have the intellect, the ability, and the guts, my disciples (if they may be called that) will go through those doors on their own steam.  If I helped them a little bit, I was able to do so because it was essentially already all there, inside them, ready to come forth.

So, paradoxically, the answer to your question is this:  Yes, I can teach you to be a conductor … if you already are one.

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