In The Strad’s March 1930 issue, G.W. Johnstone gave tips for players thinking of taking up the conductor’s baton – drawn from years of witnessing less-than-exceptional conducting as an orchestral musician
The Chatty ConductorProminent among them is the annoying and nerve-racking habit, affected by some conductors, of holding a band at attention with outstretched baton, while they relate anecdotes of their school days, or are ‘reminded’, by some trifling circumstance, of a story they heard at the club the other night. Shun this practice as you would the plague. Your addiction to it may earn you a reputation as ‘a lad’; it will not establish your fame as a conductor.
Avoid also the temptation to adopt what you flatter yourself is a distinctive and individual style of stick wagging. If your taste inclines towards baton hyperbole, use it only on those occasions when your orchestra are so well rehearsed that they can get along without looking at you. In other instances employ something less ornate and more serviceable; something that your men can readily grasp when you have to divide allegiance between you and a difficult passage. You know the sort of beat that you, as an orchestral player prefer, and that helps you most; use it.
Do not, as a matter of course, use both hands in marking tempo; you need your left for transmitting signals and emphasising nuances; your right hand should keep the marching rhythm of your little army steady; your left should comment on their general demeanour and deportment. Take heed that your every gesture conveys its definite and separate significance to an instructed band. This is important, and worthy of emphasis. Formulate at home, before taking baton in hand, an alphabet of signals, silent perforce, yet as eloquent as you can make them. Invent, or steal from good conductors, a distinct sign for every effect you are likely to require. At rehearsal, teach your men these signals, and insist on it that they follow them. Time spent in this fashion is not time wasted.
It is a good plan to choose an intermezzo or other short piece occasionally, to ask your men to disregard the composer’s nuances entirely, and to introduce your own. It makes for alertness, and is, as Pooh-Bah says, ‘a useful discipline’. The players may be jocular and even restive at first, but in the end they will recognise the value of your system.
It is very advisable that you should have a special warning sign in the nature of an SOS, easily distinguishable from others, and easily recognizable from others, and easily recognizable in cases of emergency.
Assume that your brass is slightly ahead of or behind (the latter for preference) the rest of your orchestra. You will be well-advised not to interfere with them at the time, for two reasons. Firstly, the momentum acquired by brass fairly under weigh is about as easily checked as that of a battle-ship under full steam; secondly, no section of your orchestra advertises more patently than does the brass the fact that it is under correction by the conductor. In the case instanced you will be wise not to attempt to bring your brass mountain to your wood and string Mahomet. Rather, reverse the process. Send out your SOS to your guiltless strings and wood, and having put them on the alert, nurse them, by means of a slightly retarded beat, into the line with the ‘sagging’ sinners. At the first convenient stopping place tell the brass what you have done, and why you have done it. You will kill two birds with one stone. You will give necessary correction to the culprits, and afford the rest of the band practice in the art of adapting themselves to an unexpectedly changed beat.
You may at times feel an urge to improve matters by stamping out the tempo, or rending the air with shouts of ‘forte’, ‘crescendo’, ‘rallentando’ etc etc. Put the temptation from you. Why advertise your incapacity to adapt the recognised vocabulary of the conductor to your own needs? You will not be able to stamp and yell at a public performance, unless you are bent on courting a reputation for insanity. Why stamp and yell at rehearsal? Why not accustom your men, at every opportunity, to the conditions that will exist at the concert?
This article was first published in The Strad’s March 1930 issue. Drawing:
Read violinist Joshua Bell's blog on the art of conducting
The Strad’s March 2015 issue, out now, investigates the increasing number of string players who are expanding their horizons – and musical skills – by turning to conducting.