Conducting Words: The Impossible Job

Just finished Mark Wigglesworth’s The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters, which is a sort of apologia for that sometimes maligned profession (‘the phoniest job in music’ in the words of one mid-century British critic). Conducting, as anybody who has played in an orchestra, sung in a chorus or performed in a musical or opera, emphatically does matter–something paradoxically proven when things go off the rails.

Cover of Why Conducting Matters

Wigglesworth’s personal account is candid about the job’s pleasures and difficulties, insightful and personal (rare that, as many conductors don’t disclose much, preferring perhaps to preserve the mystery). It’s a fun read for any fan of orchestral concerts and budding conductors. Many quotable bits, but I liked this from the final chapter entitled “Conducting Yourself.”

I once asked some players to write down what they looked for in a conductor. There collated response revealed a daunting job description.

Conductors need good baton technique, rehearsal technique, musicianship, knowledge, interpretive conviction, an ability to communicate, to stretch and challenge people, to make the performance better than the rehearsals, to be inspirational, have a good ear, clear thoughts, reliability, competence, rhythm, an expressive face, sense of structure, ability to accompany, style, suitability for the repertoire, originality, knowledge string bowing, an ability to collaborate, analyze and solve difficulties, explain why things need to be repeated, empower people, train people, make people listen. They must not talk, over-rehearse, under-rehearse, or be musically detached. They must have good manners, humor, respect, approachability, enthusiasm, encouragement, humility, positive spirit, patients, leadership, sincerity, audibility, creativity, and an awareness of everyone, strength, self-control, and strength, of character. They must be relaxed, self-confident, empathetic, punctual, motivating, polite, authoritative, realistic, interesting, charismatic, persevering, committed, well-dressed, and even-tempered. They must be popular with audiences, and show chastity, poverty, and obedience to the score. They must not be egocentric, intimidating, sarcastic, rude, boring, nervous, bullying, ugly, smelly, over-familiar, detached, pedantic, cynical, insecure, or blinkered. They must not change things for the sake of it, glare at mistakes, or hit the stand.

Wigglesworth closes this passage with “I am glad I have never hit the stand.”

I’ve certainly not met a conductor who checked all those boxes (although many were fun to sing for). Judging by this enjoyable intro to an English National Opera Magic Flute a few years back Wigglesworth probably meets many of these requirements. He certainly is a fine conductor and a modest one.

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