How to tell a story – conducting indulgences, lesson 1

I think if I ever teach a seminar or college in course, the first month of classes will involve gesture based emotions and story telling.  While a wealth of music throughout the centuries has been written for its serious academic and formulaic properties, owing nothing to external influences, all music has the potential to be affective to any individual.  I think this is one of the defining elements of what separates the perception of “music” and “noise”.  For more about that, please see my essay “Towards a Definition of Music”.  In either case, there exists an abundance of repertoire that does draw from external references: poetry, literature, paintings, personal relationships, personal crises, other composers, events in history, mythology, cultures and heritage, to name several.  These influences may be trivial, subtle, over-the-top, profoundly hidden ala the Hemingway iceberg, or blatantly professed in a superficial manner.  Even more profoundly invigorating is the notion that a composer’s intentions may align separately from the performer’s perception which may strike a different resonance in that of the listener.  This is what makes great music “great”.  I think this applies to all of the arts.

In any case, as a conductor, the ultimate responsibility of music performance lies in that of ensemble preparation, guiding interpretation, and communicating with performers and the audience.  The interpretation of a work offers the most flexibility for personal touch.  Certainly there are schools of thought that dictate the amount of liberty a conductor has in this endeavor; while we currently exist in a fairly restricted environment for conductor interpretation, there have been periods of extreme flexibility (which I believe we will be entering again in the next 15-20 years).  In any case, it is the conductor’s duty to navigate the ensemble and listener through any given work, creating points of contrast through carefully chosen phrasing, sensitivity to musical color and texture, and moderation of pacing in regards to tempo choices, etc.  What these strict elements of musical terminology essentially mean for the non listener can be summarized as being told a story.

That’s what music essentially is – well, a bulk majority of it – it’s a journey from start to finish.  Through lyrics, through motivic ideas, and so forth, the listener is presented with a fleeting thought that is in turn explored and considered.  The aggregate of these thoughts and musings comprises the work as a whole.  A great composer takes care that every note, every episode, every idea, fits intricately within a larger framework.  As a conductor, the ability to make these formal structures seem visceral in the shape of a story provides the foundation for which music is listened to.  Without this direction, the conductor is not a visionary.  He is nothing more than a traffic cop.

On a personal note of enlightenment, I am working on Beethoven 9 next week with the CSU Symphony Orchestra.  The way I’ve been approaching Beethoven 9 has been from a very technical perspective, with critical eyes towards harmonic progressions, key areas, formal structures, orchestration, motivic development, and theme areas.  What I had forgotten in my month of preparation, only to be realized about 3:00 this morning when I couldn’t sleep, was that I have to tell a story.  That it’s okay if I miss a cue (at least one of secondary importance) at the expense of truly communicating with my ensemble to collaborate a story for an audience.  The german augmented sixth chord before the recaptiulation of the first movement is not nearly as important as the tension of sound, pushing forth to the angered motive breaking out of its shell to release its wrath of frustration.

Lesson one for conducting, know the correlations between the written note and its ability to inspire stories through sound.  Tell a story.


Easter Greetings: Festivals, Practicing, and Chamber Music, oh my!

For those of you readers who didn’t see my facebook status update (or I didn’t tell personally), I was accepted on Thursday into the Round Rock International Conducting Workshop!  It’s kind of an interesting story how all of this panned out.

On Tuesday or Wednesday (I believe Tuesday), I received an early e-mail from my conducting teacher Wes Kenney with a forwarded message about this workshop.  Apparently there were two last minute cancellations, so they were reopening up the applications for two more (the workshop wanted exactly 12 particpants, which it stated well before these cancellations).  Luckily, since e-mail is synced to my phone, I got the link almost instantly.  The workshop will take place May 16-22 in Austin, Texas.  The timing couldn’t be any more perfect – I arrive into Texas on May 14th, have a graduation at Angelo State University (my alma mater) on the 15th, and a church gig early morning on the 16th.  So I decided to apply.  I sent an e-mail to the info address with links to my website and youtube page.  They seem to have liked my stuff (the Corigliano was mentioned specifically), and I was told I’d be hearing back in a few days.

Thursday, I got the official e-mail (along with one other individual), and a notice to respond quickly because there was quite a waiting list behind me if I chose not to go.  In a non-competitive way, it’s always a great feeling to know that somebody higher up in your field appreciated what you did enough to give you the opportunity to work with them.  So, as soon as I come up with tuition money, I’ll be gearing up for what should be a wonderful week with Peter Bay (Austin Symphony), Silas Nathaniel Huff (Astoria Symphony and Manhattan School of Music), and the Round Rock Symphony.  The repertoire for the program will include Corilianus Overture (Beethoven), Die Zauberflöte Overture (Mozart), and Dvorak New World Symphony (No. 9, published as No. 5, referred to by Dvořák as no. 8….strange?).

A quick tangent, the numbering of certain symphonies is such a bizarre and complicated situation that it’s irrelevant to give numbers.  This can be really frustrating, particularly for those symphonies without common nicknames.  All right, moving forwad.  One more tangent: I can’t decide if it’s worth copying and pasting certain letters to get the correct diacritic markings or not.  More on this later.

Today’s practicing goals: memorizing a Bach prelude and fugue that I’ve been working on for about three weeks, starting the Schumann a minor piano concerto cadenza (first movement), and do some metronome work with Waldstein.

As far as chamber music goes, I think I was only going to comment on how chamber music as an entity is certainly a comparatively weak area of repertoire knowledge for me.  One of the greatest things about being at Colorado State is the abundance of chamber music recitals that occur here.  My knowledge of the repertoire has grown immensely in just one short year.  For example, my love for Schubert has grown exponentially this year, after being exposed to his chamber music (whereas previously I was familiar with his symphonic writings and lieder primarily).  The Bb Major Trio for violin, cello, and piano?  Heaven.  I hear Brahms in a slightly different light after being exposed to new works.  And so on.  I think chamber music repertory is an absolute must for any budding conductor, or musician for that matter.  As a conductor, it’s extremely noteworthy to see now chamber musicians utilize nonverbal communication without a gesture based system.  This can certainly be transferred over into the conducting idiom, offering yet another tool in our arsenal of nonverbal communications alongside with gesture-based phrasing and articulation.  Plus, it offers such a great alternative window of perspective of a composer in a more intimate setting.

All right, Happy Easter, Passover, or whatever suits you, everyone.  I’m off to practice.