Conductor

Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do.

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May 21, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

I’m standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between my fingers and sweat dampening the small of my back. Ranks of young musicians eye me skeptically. They know I don’t belong here, but they’re waiting for me to pretend I do. I raise my arm in the oppressive silence and let it drop. Miraculously, Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni explodes in front of me, ragged but recognizable, violently thrilling. This feels like an anxiety dream, but it’s actually an attempt to answer a question that the great conductor Riccardo Muti asked on receiving an award last year: “What is it, really, I do?”

I have been wondering what, exactly, a conductor does since around 1980, when I led a JVC boom box in a phenomenal performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in my bedroom. I was bewitched by the music—the poignant plod of the second movement, the crazed gallop of the fourth—and fascinated by the sorcery. In college, I took a conducting course, presided over a few performances of my own compositions, and led the pit orchestra for a modern-dance program. Those crumbs of experience left me in awe of the constellation of skills and talents required of a conductor—and also made me somewhat skeptical that waving a stick creates a coherent interpretation.

Ever since big ensembles became the basis of orchestral music, about 200 years ago, doubt has dogged the guy on the podium. Audiences wonder whether he (or, increasingly, she) has any effect; players are sure they could do better; and even conductors occasionally feel superfluous. “I’m in a bastard profession, a dishonest profession,” agonized Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the New York Philharmonic in the fifties. “The others make all the music, and I get the salary and the credit.” Call it the Maestro Paradox: The person responsible for the totality of sound produces none.

My guides through this mystery are Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, and James Ross, who with Gilbert runs the Juilliard School’s conducting program. I’ll be leading a student orchestra in a half-hour rehearsal of Mozart’s six-minute overture to Don Giovanni. Throughout the fall, I drop in on Gilbert and Ross’s course, in which four students take private lessons and meet for seminars, attend Philharmonic rehearsals, and conduct the school’s lab orchestra in weekly two-and-a-half-hour sessions.

Pianists can work through their failures in solitude; conductors live each one in public. As the students take turns on the podium, Gilbert prowls the room, giving cues from the sidelines—“You’re not showing that pizzicato!”—or sneaking up and grabbing a proto-maestro’s wrist. Ross stays behind the violins and lobs little flares of wisdom: “A lot of great conductors are shy, even though you wouldn’t know that from how they handle large groups of people. That shyness can actually help in intimate music. You have to let people see what’s inside you, even if you don’t do that in the rest of your life.”

I’m not a naturally demonstrative person, so I find this idea both consoling and counterintuitive. Not only am I letting the musicians in on my own inner life, I’m also asking them to express it for me. The idea of conducting as a kind of emotional ventriloquism helps deal with one especially thorny bit of the Maestro Paradox: Leadership requires confidence that is difficult to acquire and impossible to fake. Orchestras are psychic X-ray machines. They judge a new chief within minutes, and once scorn sets in, forget it. I’m going to have to project the sense that I am entitled to be there, and first, I must convince myself.

“Knowing the score”—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind: I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain. In the weeks I spend fussing over just my six minutes of Mozart, Gilbert conducts Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande; symphonies by Mahler, Brahms, Dvorák, and Beethoven; and assorted pieces by Webern, Bruch, Berg, Bach, Corigliano, Dutilleux, Haydn, Sibelius, Wagner, Janácek, and Mozart—dozens of hours, millions of notes, pieces he has performed for years and pieces he’s never seen before. During one session, Gilbert demonstrates for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrects a bowing in the violin part, sings the bassoon line, and points out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score. “I haven’t looked at this piece in five years,” he says, “but it’s still in there somewhere.” If the entire symphonic tradition were incinerated, a team of conductors could write it all out again.

Adapted from New York Magazine

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This was an article on Music.

Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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26 Comments


  1. author is a conductor
    respective of conductors.
    maestro paradox; even maestros doubt their role. but they must master the music.

    Reply

  2. conductors have doubt, leadership = confidence

    Reply

  3. Conducting = mastery and leadership = requires confidence. Author = positive

    Reply

  4. Author questioning what a conductor does
    Conducting=leadership=author finds this through confidence

    Reply

  5. The author’s understanding about the role of conductors. Conductors = show inner life = confidence.

    Reply

  6. The author questions the role of a conductor, only to realize the power and knowledge one has in the world of music.

    Reply

  7. Author questions what the true role/purpose of a conductor, and through his past experience, is enamored by the role. He analyzes the psychology and paradoxes of being a conductor: 1) the person in charge of producing sound doesn’t actually make any himself and 2) many conductors are shy, which can help bring the music to life, yet one must be truly confident because orchestras know when the chief is faking it and won’t respect that. Lastly, he states his knowledge for the reality of being a conductor: the long road and mastery it will take to know the music inside and out.

    Reply

  8. MIP: Conductor role = ? ; role = leader + skilled + public expression

    Reply

  9. Skeptical of conductor
    Composing = practice

    Reply

  10. Through question the role of a conductor, the author recognized that they help bring music to life

    Reply

    1. Through questioning the role of a conductor, the author recognized that they help bring music to life

      Reply

  11. author answers the question what do conductors do by showing that they’re vital in leading & correcting the orchestra. author shows that conductors require confidence, knowledge of many different songs – skills not everyone has.

    Reply

  12. conductors shyness=counterintuivite

    Reply

  13. A conductor’s role is often misunderstood and undermined, but it is actually a complex and significant component of a musical performance.

    Reply

  14. People skeptical of conducting
    Conductors show inside

    Reply

  15. The author believes that being a meaningful conductor requires and attention to detail and self-confidence

    Reply

  16. Conducting is a talent that comes with much judgement, but requires countless hours of preparation, emotional portrayal, and unwavering leadership.

    Reply

  17. conductor = what I do? —> realizes = knowing roadway, shyness = consoling, counterintuitive

    Reply

  18. Questioning the importance of an conductor. The history, the knowledge, skill, detail it takes.
    The power they yield & false appearances.
    They are a library of music

    Reply

  19. MIP: always wanted be conductor (AU); conducting = awe + skepticism (AU); project confidence important –> orchestra assesses quickly (AU)

    Reply

  20. MI: Au skept about effect/role of cond and doubts self (is shy and needs to convince he is a leader b4 the orch), but concludes that cond are very knowledgeable and useful
    tone: neut

    Reply

  21. MIP: conductor role = lead (mastery)+maestro paradox.

    Reply

  22. Conductor = interesting position = skills & talents required with big responsibility; Shyness can be helpful (RTA Gilbert)
    good conductor = let people see inside & know the scores by heart

    Reply

  23. MI: Author questions the role of conductors, but that have their role in knowing the music well

    Reply

  24. As a conductor, author feels unworthy and slighted by his orchestra. He even gives in to his insecurity. Tone: Oppressed, indignant. Example: they know I don’t belong here…waiting for me to pretend I do.
    Author is passionate about his work yet not fully convinced by the true meaning of his work. Tone: doubtful. Example: bewitched, fascinated, in awe; sceptical
    His insecurities are not unfounded, many before him felt the same. Example: Mitropoulos, Maestro paradox
    Author realises that conductors have huge responsibilities and failures are harder to bear because their work will be critiqued more heavily than individual contributors in the orchestra, their faults are in full view.
    Another difficulty is that conductors must learn to be expressive and share their intimate parts with the audience and orchestra which is not easy if they are introverts by nature. Author feels consoled that his job may not be that insignificant after all and it does require a tremendous amount of confidence and leadership. He feels that conductors definitely need to grow a thicker hide if they were to do their job well and ignore the scorn and disdain by their colleagues. Tone: positive, confident, reassuring, encouraging.
    Author comes to realise that a conductor needs to have mastery of the score, possibly know every nuance of the score better than anyone else in the orchestra. He needs to know the terrain of the score well. Example: every pothole, deer crossing, correcting techniques without having to glance at the score, entire symphonic tradition incinerated..could write it all out again. Tone: sense of pride, empowered, no longer doubtful of his abilities, renewed faith in his role

    Reply

  25. MP: Although many don’t realize this, conductors play a major role in music

    Reply

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