Jeff Grossman wrote:
>Hello, everyone. I am interested in what you guys have to say about
>conductors. Specifically, what is it that makes a good conductor?
Many many elements contribute to this, and we also have to look at the
viewpoints of listeners as opposed to musicians. Being a perfoming
musician, let me give some of my observations.
For an orchestra musician, a good conductor is one who clearly and
effectively communicates the piece to the musicians, then lets them play.
This is more difficult than it sounds. Just as there is a technique to
playing the cello, there is technique for conductors too. How does he beat
time? Is it clear and consistant? Does the stick go to the same place for
every beat, or do we have to watch it wave around, go behind his back, and
indulge in crowd-pleasing histrionics?
I was talking to a friend tonight, a talented young pianist with
aspirations to be a conductor. I told him: The downbeat must go down
(with the stick) 2 goes to the left, after a "click" at the center, 3 to
the right, and the upbeat goes up. You'd be amazed how many conductors
ignore this. The left hand is used for expression, cues, and dynamic
indications. A good conductor shouldn't have to talk much, because he (or
she, there are some very fine women conductors indeed, Marin Alsop springs
to mind) can show everything that is necessary with his hands, face, and
A good conductor knows the score intimately and has the ability to teach
it to the musicians. Many, many lesser conductors will simply repeat to
the band what they already see on the page, i.e. dynamics. This doesn't
teach us doodly, and an orchestra will quickly become impatient with this.
But a conductor that can point out things that we might not notice, give
us perspective on the piece, make us listen to each other, and communicate
his feelings and knowlege of the work is one that will get an orchestra to
Finally, a good conductor has a very special rapport with the musicians,
and will make the orchestra want to play at their very best. This involves
not talking down to the orchestra, not telling them "how" to play, but
"why" to play a certain passage a certain way. He is the leader, first
among equals, another member of the orchestra.
>Is it necessary to be somewhat of a tyrant to be a good conductor?
No. It is necessary to be the authority, the one making the musical
decisions, but not a tyrant. An orchestra is not a democracy, but there
is a difference between a dictator and a popular president.
>Must one play every instrument well, or is it only necessary to have
>working knowledge of all instruments?
Very few conductors play an instrument virtuosically. Some certainly
do, but not the majority. The conductor's instrument is the orchestra.
He must have a thorough knowledge of all the instruments and their
capabilities, but not necessarily play them.
>And how does the level of orchestra influence this standard?
Well, there's an old phrase, "There's no such thing as a bad orchestra,
only a bad conductor" and to a large extent, this is true. I play in an
orchestra that is not by any means Major (Palma de Mallorca, Spain) and
the difference in the quality of the performance is amazing, depending
on the conductor. One week the musicmaking will be on the very highest
level, exciting and involved, and the next week the same band will sound
listless and un-together.
>When you hear an orchestra that sounds particularly good or bad, do you
>think the conductor gets the credit for it? All the credit, or just some?
A lot, and rightly so. A conductor brings out the best and the worst of a
professional orchestra. Orchestras are moody creatures. Every tiny detail
of a conductor's manner is reflected in the performance and rehearsal.
>As members of an orchestra or an audience, what do you have to say about
It's said that conducting is the easiest thing in the world to fake and the
hardest to do well. So many elements go into it, and it is rare to find
one that can put it all together and make a performance memorable for a
conductor. The most outstanding conductors I have worked with, in no
particular order, are Dmitry Kitajenko, Franz-Paul Decker, Kurt Sanderling,
Marin Alsop, and Garcia Navarro, who once conducted a brilliant Ravel
Bolero with out moving a muscle in the whole performance!