Monday, August 29, 2011

What constitutes a great conductor - analyzing the components of a Maestro



Inspired by a list in this article by Marc Wigglesworth containing all the qualities orchestra musicians expect from a conductor, I will attempt to put to words what I, as a professional conductor, consider the traits that characterizes the truly great ones. And I don't mean just a good conductor, because there are a lot of those around - smart, reliable, efficient, easy to play with etc. - I mean the great ones.
The ones that make you cry.
The ones the orchestras and soloists talk about for decades.
The ones that, once they have arrived at the production, you hope they never leave.

But let's start with the original list of orchestra members' demands, cos' this is damn interesting.
In the original article, the list appears in a quite random order, so I have attempted to categorize the insane number of demands on the list.

Here goes:
  • Positive personality traits
    • enthusiastic, positive, humourous
    • confident
    • relaxed
    • approachable
    • respectful, humble, polite
    • patient, self-controlled, even-tempered
    • sincere
    • realistic
    • strong-charactered, perseverent, committed
    • clear-of-thought
    • reliable, competent
    • original, interesting, creative
    • empathetic
    • punctual
  • Negative personality traits
    • nervous, insecure
    • rude, sarcastic
    • egocentric
    • boring
    • intimidating, bullying
    • pedantic, cynical, blinkered
    • "detached"

  • Positive physical traits
    • well-dressed
    • has an expressive face
  • Negative physical traits
    • Ugly
    • Smelly

  • Inherent or natural skills
    • a 'natural' leader:
      • charismatic
      • authoritative
    • able to analyze and solve problems
    • good 'musicianship' - a somewhat elusive term, that includes
      • good rhythm
      • a good ear (i.e. able to hear mistakes, balance, intonation etc.)
      • choosing the 'right' tempi
      • phrasing well
  • Adapted or academic skills
    • Conducting'technicalities'
      • has good baton technique
      • has good repertoire knowledge
      • has good knowledge of style, interpretation
      • has good knowledge of string bowing
      • has a sense of musical structure (via analysis)
      • able to accompagny a soloist
      • has good rehearsal technique
        • includes structuring the rehearsal period to culminate in concert
      • adheres to the score 
    • Pedagogical
      • communicative
      • collaborative
      • explains why things are rehearsed
      • inspires, motivates, encourages people
      • empowers, trains people
      • stretches, challenges people
      • makes people listen (i.e. oratory skills)
      • is aware of all the musicians (i.e. acknowledges and distinguishes the individual player from the orchestra)

  • Various positives
    • has a command of the english language - lets clarify this, and say 'a language that is understood by the majority of members of the orchestra in question'.
    • is good mannered
    • is audible (i.e. orchestra members can hear what he says in rehearsal)
  • Various negatives
    • Under- or overrehearsing
    • talking too much
    • changing things 'for the sake of it' (i.e. without proper reason)
    • staring at musicians who make mistakes
    • hitting the stand with the baton

  • Circumstantial positives
    • popular with audience
  • Circumstantial negatives
    • over-familiar

It goes without saying, that no person in the world could possibly possess all the positive traits in this list and none of the negatives. Most of us have a useful mix, and a healthy part of a conductors education should go towards teahing him to build on his individual strenghts.
My personal 'fortes' lie mostly in the "positive personality traits" & "conducting technicalities" categories, and somewhat in the "inherent or natural skills" categories. I must also be completely honest at this point and say, that I really don't smell bad at all. I hope that also counts for something.
On the other hand, I do not consider myself very 'charismatic' or 'interesting', and have not yet found it a necessary part of my work to 'stretch' or 'challenge' people, at least not in that life-altering way that, for example, a Celibidache did.

Some qualities of a good conductor I consider core-qualities, without which you cannot (or I should say, ought not) qualify to actually conduct a professional orchestra, and in my opinion they include the following:
  • being sincere
  • having discipline
  • having a legible and conscious beat - not just a random large swaying of the arms.
  • being able to analyse a score
  • having a very good ear
  • being able to recognise and correct not just obvious mistakes, but even more so the relevant mistakes!*
* This is truly one of the most complicated disciplines of conducting. At a masterclass with Janos Fürst - then professor of conducting at the Paris conservatory - we were, as an exercise, allowed only one correction in an individual 10 minute rehearsal period. Several times he would let the orchestra members suggest what should be corrected, had the student not made the right choice. This was a great platform for getting wiser to this specific discipline.


And ultimately, I find there are certain qualities set the real maestros above the rest of us.
Here's my personal list: (which I retain the right to edit and expand as I myself grow wiser)


  • Having strong charisma and charm.
    • Being able to seduce people into doing what you demand, even if it exceeds standard personal limits, is a common trait among the legends of conducting. Being seduced - verführt - is often a part of a musicians vocabulary pertaining to the great conductors.
  • Understanding what a specific orchestra needs to make it play to its full potential
    • Can you spot an orchestra's strengths and weaknesses, and can you navigate through that? It takes alot of finesse in dealing with and developing the weaker players, choosing a suitable repertoire etc. - it's gardening work.
  • Always having a clarity of purpose
    • ...which comes from knowing exactly what to do with specific complicated problems that arise in rehearsal or from inherent weaknesses in a score. This simply requires a lot of experience from a lot of trial-and-error.
  • Being humble towards the music
    • This strikes me as being possibly the most common trait in all the really great conductors. They simply set the music before anything else, consider it worth more than any one person or institution, and will often offend or dismiss anyone who stand in the way of their noble pursuit. Carlos Kleiber put it to words, in a famous video of him rehearsing the 'Freischütz' ourverture (he is, coincidentally, leading the deserted-island-conductors vote at the bottom of my blog): 
"Forget the real world. It is useless."
Seems simple enough, doesn't it...
- Jesper


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    If you could magically create your dream conductor, but he/she could only posess one quality, he/she should preferably be...