Conducting an ensemble takes more than a few waves of a baton and a fancy suit — it takes imagination, patience, knowledge, experience and humility.
Prof. Jerry Blackstone, chair of the conducting department in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, said that since ensembles generally consist of people from a variety of backgrounds, a conductor’s job is to unify them.
“The ensemble is as a good as the conductor,” he said. “The choir will only be as good as the person standing in front of them, same is true for an orchestra or band. Just like a football team, the members might be really talented, but until there is someone there to unify and build a team and perspective, it’s not going to work.”
Arian Khaefi, a choral conducting graduate student, said he fell in love with conducting because it allows him to create music in a collaborative setting.
“I think that (conducting) is a wonderful way to communicate with people,” Khaefi said. “It’s about the ability to help people make fantastic sounds and shape the music.”
Although conducting might be something a selection of undergraduates have a strong passion for, Blackstone said it isn’t offered at that level because the department wants the students to have experience as a vocalist or instrumentalist.
Students interested in conducting degrees are usually those who have an undergraduate performance degree or a liberal arts degree from a prestigious college.
“People who want (the degree) are people who have a passion for ensembles, whether it be vocal, orchestral or band,” Blackstone said.
Since potential conductors are required to have a deep understanding of the piece, they usually have an undergraduate focus in theory, musicology or performance.
“They aren’t amateurs,” Blackstone said. “They are professionals that could go in any direction but chances are, they got bit by the conducting bug due to their love for working with groups of people and making an ensemble.”
Khaefi’s decision to go into choral conducting started when he was young, at his grandmother’s wake. He was intrigued by the classical music playing.
“I’ve never heard anything like it before,” he said. “Turns out it was Mozart’s Requiem. After I heard it, I knew I had to be a part of whatever that was.”
Music, Theatre & Dance junior Ken Sieloff said he has a strong interest in pursuing a graduate degree in conducting — most likely choral, due to his natural inclination as a leader and his passion for music.
“I’ve always been a leader,” Sieloff said. “Not only musically, but with things outside of music as well. There’s something about the preparation that goes into conducting and actually conducting a performance that is really satisfying to my inner musician.”
Sieloff added that, as a conductor, the relationship that develops with the members of an ensemble and with the music is highly rewarding.
“Being able to study a single piece of music so deeply that you know it inside and out really gives you an interesting connection,” he said.
The University’s program has three divisions of conducting classes — vocal, orchestral and band, each led by a faculty member who focuses in that area. In those classes, two or three times a week, a student will stand up and conduct while everyone else sings or plays. At the conclusion, the professor responds to the student’s conducting. The sessions are recorded for the student to look back upon and improve. In addition, students will continue to have private lessons in their major instrument, where they will learn to polish their aural skills, as well as taking classes in music theory and history.
Generally speaking, Blackstone said finding a conducting job post graduation is very competitive and difficult, though University students tend to find positions.
“If a conductor is willing to go anywhere, then you have a much better chance of getting a job,” he said.
The secrets to conducting
Sieloff said one of the main characteristics a good conductor needs is humility.
“You don’t want to come across as arrogant; you want to come across as knowledgeable,” he said. “It’s about not acting boastful or arrogant but rather helping to lead.”
The long process a conductor goes through begins with the selection of the piece and the decision of how many members will be in the ensemble. After that, the conductor has to determine the ensemble’s skill level. Other factors that need to be decided are how long to rehearse, how many rehearsals to schedule, what the performance venue is like and if there are enough players.
This already very difficult and exhausting process also requires additional technical knowledge. Blackstone said it is the conductor’s job to know absolutely everything there is to know about the selected piece, including its history, information about the composer, where it was written, for who it was written and the musical qualities of the piece throughout, like dynamics and texture.
The conductor is also expected to know where anticipated problems might occur and how to prevent them. After the conductor has done all that, he then has to practice the gestures and be able to sing along.
The best way for a conductor to be successful, Blackstone said, is for them to come into the first rehearsal with a dream that turns the black-and-white-noted sheet paper into music.
“The rehearsals are meant to develop the orchestra, choir or band’s ability to match that dream,” he said. “If a conductor has a strong, detailed dream or imagination, the rehearsals will be focused, effective and get a lot more done.”
Blackstone said conductors are also required to know how to make their bodies produce the sound they want. Though it doesn’t hurt, conductors don’t have to be great singers, pianists or able to play all the instruments, but they need to understand how the voice works and how to get the sounds they imagine out of any instrument.
“Conductors need to have done a lot of homework, so when you conduct you’re not green,” he said. “You’re an expert at the piece. You’ve done your homework in such a way that you know it better than anyone in the room. That way, you have the right to lead it.”
It takes more than mere musical details or theory to be successful in both the rehearsal and the concert.
“A lot of conductors stop at pitch and rhythm of the song,” Khaefi said. “That’s the very basic mechanics of a piece – it’s not even music at that point, it’s just mathematical proportions.”
While Khaefi is in front of an ensemble, he has a million thoughts running through his head.
“When I’m conducting, I’m thinking about tone, diction, unity, the ensemble and balance,” he said. “I’m thinking of interesting ways to teach a passage, innovative ways to get the choir to bond on a sound, the rehearsals coming up.”
Since the University conducting program is small and allows the students to have plenty of conducting practice, students like Khaefi get the experience and feedback necessary to continue improving and learning to balance the aspects of leading a group.
Khaefi said the University’s program is the ideal place for his dream to become a reality because of its comfortable atmosphere and positivity.
“There’s no negativity or mean-spiritedness that you might find at other music schools,” he said. “I’ve seen departments around the country that don’t have that camaraderie. This one is fantastic.”
Ultimately, the type of person who is inclined to pursue the challenging yet highly rewarding profession that is conducting need to truly love all aspects of music and the desire to unify and lead a group to its greatest potential.
“Are you a person that’s in tune with the people you are working with?” Khaefi asked. “Are you able to be commanding and inspiring? Can you inspire people to perform the music they are performing better than if you weren’t standing in front of them?”
It’s these qualities and more that allow aspiring conductors to paint music across theater halls and into the hearts of listeners.