Friday, October 24, 2008

The conducting vs. playing perspective

I've discovered over the last 12 years that there is a big difference between conducting and playing as a performer, and it mostly has to do with perspective and placement. If I were to move a violinist to where a percussionist sits in an orchestra, it would be a completely weird experience - not because the music would change by putting one person back there, but because for that person the way they hear the music would change dramatically. It would feel different and their perception would be completely altered.

To take it a step further, when I was a percussionist/timpanist, I felt that my part was at the center of the music - not because I was being narcissistic, but because I perceived its importance as I was playing simply because that is how I focused my energy. I knew intellectually it was a piece of a puzzle, but when performing, I was aware of how everyone fit around me on an aural level.

As a conductor what I thought would be important as a player turns out to be radically different. It's not that a conductor isn't aware of what's happening in the back row - one is. But because the conductor's focus is broad, there is nothing that becomes primary in a sense, unless something is going wrong. Rather your awareness, especially in performance, stays present in the whole, and the level of detail that goes into each instrumentalist's performance is not something in your vision. You are hearing and sensing how it all fits together. As a conductor, there is much less specificity at a certain level, because you simply can't think the way an instrumentalist does with the energy they put purely into their instrument on both technical and musical levels at every moment. You are much more aware of broader implications of musical choices that are made at individual and collective levels, and because you are placed at the center of where the sound is directed, your aural perspective also influences how you hear everything, including how energy is distributed with regard to a composer's holistic wishes.

Also the sensation of making sound is so different than just responding physically to it. I say this because, while there are times a conductor must lead, a good conductor wants to let the orchestra play - to give them freedom to be expressive, which creates buy-in and more of a chamber music aesthetic - you are responding to their sound in the present tense. I believe that when music is singing you, you in turn become a much greater leader than if you are trying to control sound. For an instrumentalist, there is a sense of action combined with response to what you are hearing, where as a conductor, I feel the needle leans more to the response side of the equation.

It's interesting because I think that there corollaries to effective leadership practice in a variety of media. If someone in a position of power does what they can to empower the people doing the work on the front lines, then the leader really is creating opportunities for motivated, connected, passionate response. That way the credit for success is placed where it should be, and in the case of an orchestra, toward the people making the sound. Having been both a player and a conductor, I can tell you that I feel I've had a successful concert when I have let the players use their gifts fully by not controlling them, but by helping them do their jobs and by allowing myself to be inspired by their artistry. When a conductor did this for me when I was playing, I would do anything to help make a performance magical.

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