Leadership and Conducting

In a way, I consider the vocation of conducting as being one of the best examples of leadership.  Doing my job well on the podium is contingent on maintaining a balance between leading and following.  The conductor provides direction that initiates the production of sound (tempo, dynamics, articulation, phrasing) and then he/she must immediately listen to the feedback in order to assess whether that information was conveyed properly, in the first place, and if the information is subsequently being incorporated into the production of sound.  Then, for the remaining duration of the musical work, that balance of leading and listening informs the basis of the collaboration.  A healthy collaboration engenders trust—while the conductor hopes that the musicians will trust his/her judgment, the musicians also hope that the conductor will trust them to do what they do well.  Respect, flexibility and personal culpability are imperative aspects of a successful and nurturing work environment…and this goes for both sides of the podium.  Good leadership does not find its roots in a concern about the advancement of status and career but, rather, within the state of being dependable in the present with foresight for the future.

I believe that the art of conducting is about being a bridge between creative and re-creative art.   The composer creates the music and the performers re-create the sound that the composer heard in his/her head.  It is the conductor’s responsibility to get inside the head of the composer, understanding not only the musical gestures and form that are written down but also the implied intention or emotions resulting from any particular circumstances, personal or political, that may have been present during the composition of the work.  After gaining this understanding, the conductor then does his/her best to bring that music to life in collaboration with 100 other people: the orchestra members.  Collaboration is the operative word because no one performance will be the same as the next.  These 101 people will feel differently about the music from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance to performance so, with orchestral playing being , ultimately, a live and ephemeral medium one must attempt to coordinate the spontaneous living reaction to the music with the scholarly responsibility to the composer’s original intentions.

For all intents and purposes, once the composer has laid down his/her pen, the music is “owned” by the world at large (in the metaphysical sense rather than the legal sense, because the composer retains rights to the artistic creation until said rights are transferred to another party, of course).  The performers and the audience are equal in their participation of the musical experience as broadcasters and receivers.  The reaction that an audience member or orchestra members has to a particular piece of music will be unique to that person and each person will have the right to claim a piece of the experience once having lived through it.

An audience’s perception of the music, however, is unfortunately more often determined by the conductor’s podium manner than by the orchestra’s playing.  Audiences tend to look to the maestro for clues about how to react to a particular passage because, in his/her attempt to convey the musical gestures to the orchestra, the conductor is the most visible representation of the music as it passes.  This is a truly bizarre situation because, it must be pointed out, the conductor is the only silent member of the musical collaboration.  It is, therefore, the conductor’s obligation to not simply put on a choreographed show on the podium, but rather be a subtle guide for the music, leading with grace and strength but not stealing focus away from the music or the musicians that are actually creating the sounds.

Traditionally, all the elements of orchestral music-making (the performers/musicians, the score/parts from which they are playing and the composer him/herself) must be tied together by one vision and that role is left to the conductor.  If one considers this to be an imbalance of power, one must also realize that, without the leadership of one, musical anarchy and chaos will most likely be the end result rather than a unified depiction of that which the composer originally intended.