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Get rid of the conductor for real musical excellence

A Facebook friend pointed me to this article today:  The Best Way to Improve an Orchestra:  Get Rid of the Bloke with the Baton.
 
An interesting proposition using a few orchestras as examples (or prototypes):
Spira Mirabilis represent a transformative vision of what a symphony orchestra can be. They are a revelation, proof that musicians can not only survive but prosper when liberated from the variously benign or malevolent dictatorships created by the world's conductors. There are already famous examples of virtuoso ensembles who choose life without a maestro: the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. But mostly, the bands who play without a conductor replace the stick-wielder with a musician who leads from the first violins – so they're not as democratic as they seem.
While my various choirs might do better without me in charge, I doubt yours would.  Or would it?
on December 8, 2011 2:12am
There are times where I have found I have gotten in the way of my ensembles and I have stepped away.  My question would be, how would an ensemble regularly rehearse without one person planning, anticipating errors, listening, balancing and leading?  When I have stepped away, I still rehearsed the choir to the point where I was no longer needed.
on December 8, 2011 4:36am
Been there and it depends very much on the repertoire. With a group that really knows their music and have sung together a lot, the experience can indeed be exhilarating and an arm-waver up front only gets in the way. For bigger groups and for more complicated music I'd say no.
 
My choirs sang in The Messiah last Friday under Matthew Halls - a conductor like that makes magic. If you get the chance to work with him or hear a concert, don't hesitate. That concert would have been oh-so-much-worse without a conductor.
on December 8, 2011 6:38am
As I have maintained for many years, the egotism of conductors is the real issue here.  What the public sees in performance is but a tiny fraction of what conductors really do.
 
In reality, "the rehearsal is the conductor's performance." (excuse the self-quote)  What is described in these so-called conductorless ensembles is merely a shifting of the coordination and decision-making process from a person on a podium to one or more of the actual performers.  Also, bear in mind that conductors on podia are a relatively recent development.  Kappelmesiters from the organ, concert masters (1st Vln), keyboardists of various types were all there before the one with the baton!  Hence, most musicians (and I am one in this number) have little to no respect for the so-called conductor who actually can't cut it as a performer in some musical area (vocal and/or instrumental).
 
However, I dare say that few Mahler symphonies or Stravinsky ballets could be performed with proper precision without someone whose sole responsibility it is to coordinate the performance.  Conductors became necessary in the Romantic era as the orchestra grew and the music became too complex (often) to be coordinated by one of the musical performers. 
 
Back to the rehearsal issue, I generally make my ensemble aware that 95% of my job as a conductor is over when we reach the performance (concert, worship service, etc.)
The 5% left, IMHO, is to start the music, stop the music at the end, and in between remind the performers what we rehearsed by use of agreed gestures; and if very fortunate, to have a sense of "oneness" with the ensemble that allows that mystic moment of special expressivity that often only happens in the performance itself, where everyone has released their own ego and given over to the magnificence of the music and the ideas of the composer brought to life in the moment.
 
After years of ego adjustment,  sincerely,  Tim Banks
 
on December 8, 2011 6:51am
Well, smaller ensemble groups like Chanticleer and Cantus have proven year in and year out that conductors aren't necessary; I remember after Cantus did a masterclass with our Chamber Choir at Wingate, we performed several pieces including the Durufle "Ubi Caritas" without a conductor, and it was a wonderful experience. As for my church choir... I'd be skeptical.
on December 8, 2011 9:05am
I'm always amused by choral directors who conduct small ensembles of less than 12 singers.  If you want to develop musicians, teach them to listen and watch each other.
on December 8, 2011 9:51am
I've founded and directed small ensembles of amateurs over the years.  And it's all about listening.  Some singers don't want what they perceive as the responsibility of singing without a conductor.  (You also can't wrench the music out of their hands either, no matter how well they know the piece.)  Other singers warm up to the idea, begin to pay attention to the rest of the ensemble, and there can be marvelous music.  Try it and see what happens.
on December 8, 2011 12:28pm
My chamber choir hovers between 8 to 14 singers--we're at 14 now.  Most have degrees in music and even make their livings in music.  Most of our rep would probably be FINE without me .......but then there are a few pieces that beat the crap out of us.  Billings "Anthem for Thanksgiving" comes to mind and several Poulenc motets.  I always try to underconduct anyway--the real trick is knowing when they REALLY need you and when to step out of the way.  That's when the ego thing comes into play.
 
I feel if I've prepared them enough, I can occassionally wave my arms and we're all good.  Singing together for a while also promotes an ensemble feel--knowing and trusting each other, musically, makes a difference in my singers and I can step away more often.
 
~Marie
on December 8, 2011 4:35pm
 
Spira Mirabilis spent 3 1/2 hours rehearsing one ten-minute Beethoven movement?  Think for a minute. Most orchestral concerts are at least one hundred minutes long. Ten times 3 1/2 is 35 hours. Orchestras, such as Cleveland do not come near that amount of time rehearsing.
The conductor makes the decisions, rehearses them and reminds in concerts the details worked out earlier. Some orchestras rehearse four times and perform the concert three times. Figure The conductor is first and foremost, an ECONOMIST. He saves time. He saves money
 
Little choruses or orchestras may do without a conductor, but not those with large numbers performing. Yet, Joseph Jennings did a lot of conducting
with Chanticleer; it was just not from a podium and obvious.
 
The bloke from the old country and others might like to read an article by Tallis Scholars' Peter Phillips: Cult of the Conductor.                                    He trashes Robert Shaw and us. It can be found in the archives at: www.MusicaSacra.com
 
Ed Palmer
Stick Conductor
on December 8, 2011 6:20pm
This reaches the level of what could be called a 'pet peeve' with me.  After all, we "prepare" opera choruses, musical theater choruses, and show ensembles of all kinds to perform on stage without a conductor.  So why should "choirs" be any different?  The ensembles that routinely perform without conductor could just as well be as large as those who do not.  So what's the difference?
 
One thing only, in my experience.  Rehearsal time, and the way that time is spent.  "Prepare" is indeed the key word.  Opera choruses, musical theater choruses and show enembles not only routinely perform without a conductor, they ALSO routinely perform from memory, and don't tote scores around with them on stage.  So rehearsals are scheduled and structured to TEACH THE MUSIC, get it off book and into people's minds, and to TEACH THE INTERPRETATION.  (And please don't argue that there IS a conductor in the pit for opera or musical theater.  If you think the people on stage actually pay attention unless they are specifically blocked to do so at a particular point you've obviously never actually done it!!!  Once the show hits dress rehearsals the conductor is a traffic cop, with some influence on the orchestra but limited influence on the actors.)
 
Chamber music can obviously be performed without conductor.  In fact it would be an insult to suggest that a conductor is needed.  Johanna's comments on Anonymous 4 are right on and much appreciated, and while she cites 10 as an ideal size my son's experience in Chanticleer with 12 is very similar.
 
But of course we all realize that actually conducting in public is only one facet of what a conductor (or perhaps more accurately a "director") actually does.  The first question is one of interpretation.  There MUST be a unified interpretation.  That can come from a single individual, but it can also come from a consensus among the members of a chamber ensemble IF they are good enough musicians to both contribute to the discussion and to accept the consensus decisions.  And this ALSO depends on the amount of rehearsal time and how it is used.  For 20 years I was a member of a quartet that did not have a leader, but was a cooperative and consensus group (admittedly in entertainment rather than hard-core classical music), and this is a very INefficient way to operate, even though the ultimate results can be outstanding.  When Chanticleer was "at home" they didn't have time off, they maintained a pretty rigorous rehearsal schedule.  And even opera choruses or musical theater choruses often need a "brushup" because things can get sloppy if the run goes beyond a single week or weekend.
 
But the second question is one of mechanics.  Yes, someone has to start things, stop things, and give any necessary cues along the way.  But there's no reason that 'someone' can't be a performer.  And it doesn't even need always to be the SAME performer.  In a string quartet the tradition is so long that everyone knows when to look to one or the other for the necessary cues, and if it isn't obvious it's immediately asked and answered in rehearsal.  Same thing in a barbershop quartet.  So yes, there can definitly be a "leader" who is not actually a "conductor," and we shouldn't forget it.
 
Which leaves the question of how small or how large is "chamber" music, and when (if ever) does a virtuoso conductor actually become necessary.  Tim wrote, "Conductors became necessary in the Romantic era as the orchestra grew and the music became too complex (often) to be coordinated by one of the musical performers."  Well, maybe and maybe not.  I can't help remembering that after Arturo Toscanini died, his NBC Symphony Orchestra performed a memorial concert with NO ONE on the podium.  And they could do it because (a) they were all superb musicians who brought chamber music skills to their orchestral playing, and (b) they knew Toscanini's interpretations perfectly well because he had drilled them in rehearsals for years.
 
BUT, the key (or at least one of the absolutely necessary keys) is, as others have said, LISTENING!  And too many of us allow our performers to get away without really listening, without engaging with the music, and with using US as a crutch to take the place of thinking about the music and their own part in it.  And there is a level of amateur performance (and I use the term in its original and positive meaning) at which yes, we ARE needed simply to keep the tempo steady and to keep things together.  But IF AND WHEN we have the rehearsal time to take our ensembles past that point, why not give them an occasional chance to fly without training wheels (to mix and mangle a useful metaphor or two!!)?  And I would suggest that chronological age has nothing to do with it.  Yes, our young musicians have to learn to watch and follow, but why can't they also learn to take their own musical responsibility, after good and thorough preparation, of course.
 
All the best,
John
on December 9, 2011 4:48am
 
Readers:
 
The article I mention is more easily accessed by good old Google.   " Peter Phillips: The Cult of the Conductor" will get you there in seconds.
 
Comment to me if you will.
 
Ed Palmer