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  • Nathaniel Efthimiou

Thoughts on Teaching Undergraduate Conducting

Goals


On the very first day of teaching any of my conducting courses, I always ask the students to share and expound on a simple, personal prompt. As we introduce ourselves to one another on the first day of class, I always ask students to expound on a mentor or teacher in their lives who has either had an impact on who they are as a musician or who they would like to become as an artist. High-school orchestra or choir teachers, private teachers, and parents are naturally commonly shared. After everyone shares, I open the floor to discussion, beginning by asking students if they observed any common threads or similarities in the qualities these mentor figures exhibited in the lives of their colleagues. A few qualities always come up: Passionate, committed, selfless, encouraging…the list goes on. After recognizing these qualities, the conversation always evolves into the underlying values and beliefs that these qualities illuminate in the lives of the mentors. For example, many students describe the way their mentor exemplified what it means for life and art to remain interconnected—what it means for all of life to impact our artistry. After enjoying some time exploring these concepts, we eventually arrive at the question “So what?” Why start a conducting course discussing personal teachers and mentors? The answer is simple: I consider these personal examples of meaningful, musical relationships in the students’ lives closer to the heart of what it means to be a conductor than conventional notions of what a conductor is and does. Some of my students have no concept of what a conductor does, practically, in front of the orchestra, but as soon as I start talking about conducting as developing a human connection, it instantly expands the field of vision, so to speak, for students to grasp the foundational principles of conducting. For the purposes of learning outcomes for my class, it opens up possibilities beyond mere technique and knowledge that are immediately relevant to any music student’s artistic life.


I have two goals with my conducting courses. One represents the hard skills of conducting, and another explores a musical leader's “soft” skills. The first falls in line with the requisites of the course, namely fundamental conducting technique and knowledge. It is wonderful that Berklee College of Music requires two semesters of conducting for all students (currently 5,500 on campus!). Even though most students of the course (if not all, in some classes) are not sitting there with the intention of becoming a conductor, every one of them will eventually be in a situation where they will have to conduct. Whether it’s a youth ensemble, a group of friends, a church choir, etc., they will all have to navigate a situation where they need to guide a group of musicians through a given work. So, my task as professor of these courses is to give them the necessary tools so that when they are in that inevitable situation, they can focus entirely on the musical task at hand, without fretting over how to conduct 7/8 time, navigate different types of fermatas, etc. The purpose of technique is to allow us to focus on making music and providing that guidance to develop that technique is a fundamental purpose of the course.


However, there is another aspect of my conducting courses that I consider to be equally important. I believe that the study of the craft and art of conducting, the process of considering what a conductor must think about, can provide many useful discoveries that any musician can transfer to their own work. Whether it’s musicianship, leadership, psychology, managing the interpersonal environment of a room, rehearsing, etc., these undertakings of a conductor introduce patterns of thinking that students can take into their practice rooms, rehearsal studios, and performance spaces. I explain to my students that even though these courses are required, hopefully, they will add value to their education beyond their expectations.


Methods


The methods with which I explore these two aspects of my courses (the hard and soft skills of conducting) are done through discussion and conducting repertoire in class. The semester outline for the course is constructed around systematically building on foundational skills. We begin with my approach to movement (a topic for another essay), which leads to basic patterns, cues and cutoffs, expression and articulations, and so on. Providing students with exercises to develop muscle memory is essential. I explain to students that the process of practicing these exercises is similar to practicing scales or etudes on their own instruments. The purpose is to develop a technique that can then be deployed in a given musical context—the more comfortable we are with our technique, the less we have to think about it at the moment and the more it works for us instead of being a perceived block to our own expression. In a busy world such as ours, taking the time to develop technique can seem like a distraction from the “real work” of developing our artistry and expression. For a time, indulging ourselves can be rewarding, but eventually, our artistry will outrun technique (leaving us unable to communicate effectively and leaving us frustrated), or a lack of technique will hinder the continued development of our artistry. Either way, we have short-changed ourselves, and our ability to express ourselves is hindered.


As we progress through the repertoire of the class, I always try to use each student’s time on the podium to do two things: 1) Help the student improve personally and 2) highlight underlying principles for the entire class’s benefit. One of the challenges of teaching conducting in a classroom setting, particularly with a large class of 16 students, is that conducting is a solitary activity. To gain helpful feedback as a young conductor, you have to have individual time on the podium. Assuming 100 minutes of class time, without taking into account teaching time, this only leaves 6 minutes and 15 seconds of podium time per student per class period. With such limited time available for each student, I think it is important to draw out underlying truths, so to speak, that will provide educational value to the remaining 15 students not on the podium for the remaining 93 minutes and 45 seconds of a class period.


Conducting is naturally a silent art form—the conductor doesn’t make any sound and is present to unify and inspire the artistry of the musicians. As such, the conductor’s ability to empathize at all levels with what the orchestra (collectively) and musicians (individually) are experiencing is essential. The more accurately a conductor can understand and anticipate the musicians’ needs at any given moment, the greater their connection with the orchestra will be. This is why I always ask students for thoughts and comments after one of their colleagues conducts in class, even before giving my own feedback. When students know they are expected to give feedback, they watch and respond in a more intentional way. When they watch and respond more intentionally, they develop a self-awareness about their own thought process as an ensemble member, which they can then bring to the podium in the form of empathy for musicians.

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