I read a book by berlioz on conducting and a lot of his complaints about orchestras were hilarious but very old-fashioned
he complained about how string bassists simplify their parts because they’re unskilled, and clearly that doesn’t happen at a professional level anymore
he complained about flutists who would choose to transpose their part up an octave when the clarinet or oboes were playing higher than them which definitely sounds like something a flutist would do, but no flutist who intends to keep their job would do that nowadays
he also complained about horn players who exclusively used horns that have valves and pistons and I’m sorry berlioz but I think you lost that battle
and then he complained about the fact that violinists just zone out when counting rests and some of them don’t even come in at all because they’re too busy staring at the ceiling, and I just think it’s brutal of berlioz to attack me specifically even though he’s been dead for 150 years
I just observed a conducting masterclass for the second year in a row and picked up on some more things conductors should avoid. here’s part 1
1. conducting ahead of the beat: it’s similar to how musicians rush. we anticipate what comes next and as a result the tempo is unsteady. the problem with doing it as a conductor is that it forces everybody to rush and the first movement of beethoven 2 ends up being half note=115 instead of 100 (true story, almost died at the concert last night). I think being aware of it is enough to fix it.
2. no eye contact: the conductors who were the most successful at the masterclass were the ones who looked at a specific section or soloist before an entrance and maybe even made some sort of hand gesture. this is particularly important if the entrance is unclear, like in a fugal section, or for the inner voices of an orchestra who often don’t quite understand how their part relates to the melody. all you need to do is have a meaningful look with the principal player of the section. so with the picture below I would prefer a conductor to do more what’s on the left (smiling, encouraging posture). smiling doesn’t always fit the music, so the one on the right would work, but the lack of eye contact actually can affect a musician’s confidence in they’re playing (more so for less experienced players. professionals will just ignore bad conducting and do their own thing).
3. small conducting movements in fast passages: the conducting coach pointed out that part of the reason the strings rush in fast passages is because conductors sometimes make their beat patterns too small. (so instead of moving the baton outwards with their arm on beat 3, they would just sort of flick their baton). if the strings in particular see small conducting movements, we immediately think “fast.” if you give more space between your beats, it will discourage rushing and make it more difficult for you to get ahead of the beat as well.
4. distracting faces: your facial expressions should more or less express the nature of the music. there was one guy at the masterclass who looked perpetually constipated and upset and when the conductor asked him to smile it looked unnatural, like it was his first time ever doing that. it honestly sort of scared/distracted me. a conductor needs to be like an actor in some respects. if you watch a video of yourself conducting and you mute the video, it should still be obvious what the feeling of the music is.
5. making unintended beats: common culprits are lifting the elbow before lifting the wrist, and unconsciously retracing back to where the strong beat was (so in a 12/8 pattern, making a big clear beat 1, and then going back to where beat one was to make beat 2, and then retracing to the same place to make beat 3–each beat should have its own specific place in the pattern).
6. inhaling without exhaling: firstly, breathing in before you want the musicians to play is super important. if you do it right, everyone else will breathe with you, everyone will play the first beat at the same time, the winds and brass will have enough air to make sound, and everyone will feel more relaxed. honestly, if you breathe with the orchestra, you shouldn’t need to do much else (which is why chamber orchestras work). however, if you never exhale after that first initial breath, it will cause a number of problems and your conducting will look a bit awkward and unsure.
7. not knowing how to make change: if you accidentally start the piece too slowly, or the violins are a full beat ahead of the rest of the orchestra, you need to know how to fix that. the best way to enact change is to do something new that will force the orchestra to pay attention to you. if you are conducting a steady pattern and you want the tempo to pick up, conducting a slightly faster steady pattern will not help. if you want the orchestra to look at you, make some sort of big movement, like standing slightly on the tips of your toes or crouching down a little, or begin using your left hand if you hadn’t been doing that before.
also just something I’d like to add, see if you can get a chance to lead a group without using a baton (think first violin in a quartet or something). being able to change the tempo or start a piece without a baton is a great way to learn some of the nuances of conducting that you won’t really pick up on if there’s a baton in your hand.