Yes, conducting is an art, and I suppose in some respects a science.
I know you will probably be sitting there reading this and thinking “All they do is stand in front of a group or band and wag a stick around”. Well, that is true but is only the tip of the iceberg, the truth is that there is a lot going on before and after an event to prepare, and there are lots of skills needed to be able to achieve the MD’s goals.
Preparation is of course key to this, when looking at an upcoming event then it is handy to know what music is going to be performed and it is the musical director’s job to anticipate and prepare. Programmes are often planned weeks if not months in advance (yes really!!) and music has to be rehearsed and worked up to a performance standard. The MD is also well advised to look through the pieces, and listen to recordings of them to get an idea of what they sound like and how difficulties might be overcome. This obviously saves time and looks better than trying to work this out when rehearsing with a live group. It is also a good idea to practice the stick work whilst listening to a recording, particularly where there are tricky time signatures and rhythmic challenges, and some MD’s practice this in front of a mirror.
After the preparation work then rehearsals can start, but the MD should really look upon every rehearsal as a personal performance, after all it is little different from somebody delivering a PowerPoint presentation. Both are trying to communicate a point or action and expect others to listen and take it on board. So anyone who conducts a group and is used to presenting should find very little difference in the two, apart from the genre of course.
If the preparation has been done thoroughly, and the MD knows what he wants to achieve, then things should go smoothly, but the unexpected will almost certainly happen. Perhaps a passage isn’t quite as easy for players as anticipated, or key members may be absent which may necessitate a change of plan. MDs however can plan for this and, when working out their rehearsal plan, then as many ‘what ifs’ should be incorporated as possible. This may not cover everything, but it may not need to, just try to incorporate all the obvious things and it should work if needed.
Rapport and understanding are also required, and a positive approach helps. Players who may be struggling with a part will normally respond to a solution or suggestion which will help them play more confidently. A controlled level of banter also helps foster a team spirit although the MD must always be able to reimpose focus when needed.
Stick work is also important, and with less confident groups a strong downbeat and a clear beat generally is desirable. The activities of the non-conducting arm are also important, often indicating cues or dynamic changes required This can though require considerable practice to perfect, and some MDs find co-ordinating the hands doing different things quite difficult.
So, there are a lot of skills required for a musical director, knowledge of music and how to train a band are important aspects, but patience, tact, good humour, a sense of authority and an ability to defuse potential disagreements are also important. We have discussed the technical matters of strong beats and communicating but the most important skill though of any musician is listening, both to what is being played and to what is being said. If a question from a player is misunderstood or not answered then that can lead to frustration and a reduction in authority and not listening intently to what is being played and working out what is needed to fix it can have the same effect.
In conclusion, the conductor is not merely a ‘stick wagger’ but the musical manager of the band, from making sure everyone is playing in the right place through rehearsing, p to performances that the players (and the MD of course) can be proud of. The MD will of course never be completely happy with a performance and perhaps shouldn’t be!