Paging Dr. Freud!

We have been discussing how a conductor prepares to stand in front of the orchestra and flap about meaningfully. And now that the music has been

thoroughly digested and assimilated in the conductor’s mind, let’s talk about the psychology required to get 100 musicians to want to work with you.

Simon Rattle, the great English conductor, said that the first rehearsal with an orchestra and a new conductor is very tribal; each is sizing the other up and figuring the other out. A good conductor knows this and approaches it like a first date. You want to seduce the orchestra, not control them by force. The goal is to make them want to cooperate.

Body Language

Conducting is wordless communication. From your posture, to your facial expression, to the way you grip the baton, every detail will impact the way the orchestra plays. Whether they are aware of it or not! And none of this is premeditated by the conductor, it is simply instinctual, the same way you just naturally use your hands to express yourself in conversation.

Let’s look at two action-shots of my adored Leonard Bernstein. Lenny was a particularly emotive conductor and was often criticized for being melodramatic on the podium. This is partly why he is such a good test subject for us.

Have a look at this first picture.

What does it communicate to you? How would you play or sing if you were sitting in front of him? Both hands are slightly extended forwards, reaching out to the ensemble to harness their attention. His right hand is gripping the stick with only the thumb and forefinger, like we would do in the air if making a point about something very specific. The remaining three fingers are also extended quite rigidly. The baton is telling the orchestra that this part of the music requires precision and intensity. His left hand is elevated to face-height, in a palm-down controlling gesture, with the wrist locked and the fingers all extended and separated. The chin is dropped, which means the whites of his eyes are showing, and the ensemble would also notice the furrowed brow, adding darkness to the intensity. The posture is also very upright, which again reinforces the intensity of the moment.

Now let’s look at another photo.

Both hands are pointing upwards in parallel, palms facing the body, arms close to the body, with the fingers relaxed and slightly curled. The body is leaning back, as is the head. The eyes are closed but the mouth is gently open. This all imparts a kind of rapturous, gently ecstatic, reverent mesmerism.

None of that needed to be scrutinized to intuitively understand what Lenny was saying in either picture. And so you see how the body language a conductor uses is both very subtle and very natural. And how musicians would not even be aware what they are specifically responding to.

Who's the Boss?

The father of the famous conductor and composer, Richard Strauss, was a very respected French Horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra. He used to say that the way the conductor walked from the wings to the podium at the first rehearsal would tell the orchestra who was going to be in charge, them or the maestro. Just like high-school kids with a substitute teacher.

I had a conducting teacher who used to say that the conductor is the lion tamer and the orchestra the lions. He said, ‘They can smell fear!’

This is not really true any more. It sets up a false opposition between conductor and orchestra. An orchestra might not trust you until you have proven yourself, so they'll play the notes but not give you much heart necessarily. But outright antogonism is rare unless you are disrespectful first.

A collegial approach works best. All over my early conducting notebooks, I have written in big letters ‘We not I’. Through diligent training, I taught myself to speak to ensembles about ‘our’ musical goals so that everyone feels included and that we are working together.

There is a cute story where the shy and diffident composer, Anton Bruckner, arrived to conduct the premiere of his latest symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra clapped respectfully when he ascended the podium, and then there was a long awkward silence. The lead violin gently leaned forward to prompt the composer, saying, ‘Maestro, whenever you’re ready,’ to which Bruckner responded, ‘Oh no, please, after you.’ 

Kirsten Hicks