Back to basics

I once had a conducting teacher who would often tell me about a friend of his who went to study with the great Italian maestro Franco Ferrara. During the years that he spent as Ferrara’s student this conductor worked continuously on only six different scores. My teacher would always wonder aloud what those six scores might have been. I’ve no idea if this was Ferrara’s teaching method, and it always slightly amused me that for all the frequent retelling of this story my teacher never thought to contact his friend to seek an answer to his question. Regardless of whether this was the way that Ferrara taught, though, there’s a lot of sense in such an approach. All conductors, I think, live with the constant knowledge that there are more pieces out there than we could possible learn in a lifetime. Working with a view to be constantly adding to our repertoire can, I think, make us neglectful of the lessons that pieces that we already know can continue to teach us. Stripping things back to those fundamental lessons contained in a few pieces might give us the kind of laser-like focus that we need to bring to our technical study.

Though the makeup of Ferrara’s six scores might by mystery, I imagine that almost anyone who has been a teacher or pupil of conducting could give you a fairly good rundown of the pieces they have or continue to use in a similar way. Often these are also the kinds of pieces that one might encounter in an audition or competition, since they are effective indicators of mastery of various technical skills. Off the top of my head I would come up with a list like “E Susanna non vien” from Figaro, the opening of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Strauss’ Fledermaus overture, the first movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony, Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and the Danse sacrale from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. All have fine examples of the sort of knotty technical problems that conductors need to be able to overcome. I think there is a risk, though, that the pedagogical potential of these pieces can end up doing them something of a disservice. I’m sure I’m not alone in having been driven mad by the constant repetition of a piece in a teaching setting. I also wonder if the focus on certain pieces as teaching tools ends up running the risk of producing a Pavlovian response, with clinical conducting that masters the technical challenges but dulls the shine of brilliance that this masterpiece might otherwise bear.   

If we were instrumentalists then our daily diet would include both the repertoire we are working on, and the technical exercises that are a vital ingredient of disciplined practice. A violinist does not perfect their double stopping by playing the Sibelius concerto, yet all too often we as conductors seek to address far more fundamental technical issues through similarly precocious repertoire. That begs the question, though, what are the etudes for conductors? I should say here that I have extreme reservations about technical conducting exercises, particularly those that are designed to be performed in silence. Imagine practicing cutting an onion without the vegetable in front of you. The exercise would be pointless: the application of the skill – chopping an onion – is only possible when the two contingent elements – knife and onion – are present. A conductor’s gesture is the expression of sound in physical motion: without sound it is choreography.

The work that can be done in silence is, to my mind, contemplative. Blessed with the ability to watch video footage of our conducting we can consider in minute detail that relationship between gesture and sound, seeking to bridge the gulf between what has and what can be achieved. Though this is possible with any piece of music, with those works that are so completely within our knowledge that the remembrance of them is second nature we have an ideal yardstick with which to closely monitor our own development and progress, free from the distractions of the unfamiliar. Here we can find ways to improve, and to decide when our “improvements” detract from the result. If the goal of musical study is to mingle of our mastery in technique and interpretation, then it stands to reason that the results will be most visible in those pieces where equal creativity is required of us to develop both these strands of our craft. Sometimes it’s only when we revisit something at the base of our repertoire that we have the chance to address the basics of our conducting.