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Eye contact in orchestras

Controversial conducting style raises questions, argues Ariane Todes

Thursday, 20 January 2011

News of conductor Alan Gilbert’s appointment as head of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School has provoked a variety of responses, including a rather unhappy one from an anonymous Juilliard source: http://seatedovation.blogspot.com.

Leaving aside the politics of it all, I found its insights into orchestral playing thought-provoking. For example, according to the source, ‘Gilbert's opinion was that if you're not looking at the conductor, it's impossible to play with the other musicians around you.’ Is this really true? It seems rather extreme to me. Of course eye contact is vital to the sense of communication between players and with the conductor. As a player it gives you a sense of the conductor’s meaning, of there being a true relationship that’s occurring, and I imagine it gives the conductor a sense that the musicians are obliging them and that they are putting across their point.

But there’s a certain ebb and flow to such eye contact, just as there is with any conversation between people. Can you really regiment it? Doesn't it lose power as a spontaneous moment of expression and the instant communication of meaning? I am lucky to have been in some amazing amateur orchestral concerts and my experience of a conductor such as Colin Davis is that I only had to lift my eyes from the music for a nano-second for him to return the gaze and to be making direct eye contact. At those moments I would have truly lain down my life for him and so of course I would look up as often as I could. Would I have felt the same if I was told to look at him constantly and if I wasn’t supposed to be looking at the music for particularly tricky passages? And anyway, what about peripheral vision? It’s possible to know everything that your conductor, concertmaster and desk partner are doing without looking directly at them.

The other sentence that made me smile - ruefully - was this: ‘Alan Gilbert is exactly the type of conductor a young musician should not play with, because the way he rehearses will make them hate playing in orchestra.’ Maybe with the current economic climate, putting off students from becoming orchestral players is a sensible policy.

Is constant eye contact important in orchestras? Tell us what you think.

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