10 Questions and Answers: An interview with TMD on conducting with a baton

The following is a reprint of an interview with Boko Suzuki, a valued colleague and administrator of Theatre Music Directors. Looking forward to your feedback.

Joe – it’s an honor to have you do this. There are so many areas of music direction we could talk about but for the purpose of these ten questions I want to focus on baton conducting, simply because I know it’s an area of insecurity/terror for so many music directors.

Well, first off, Boko, thanks for asking me to participate.  It’s an honor to join you and the membership of TMD, and it’s a pleasure to re-connect with you.  I remember those crazy times in Germany with Tommy

I think it’s important to preface all of my answers by pointing out the sweeping changes in musical theatre music, and how it’s being presented, that have occurred during both of our careers—in particular: shifts in musical styles, shrinking orchestra sizes, and the increasing dominance of computers and synthesizers, as emulators of real instruments, as guide tracks for performance, and as instruments on their own.  (I promise I’ll avoid rhapsodizing about “the way it used to be” when orchestras were bigger and the music needed big orchestras.)  Of course, a lot of what comprises the musical theatre scene is still revivals of older, more orchestrally driven musicals.  Whether they are performed as such, without drastic reductions or replacements,  is another matter… Therefore, “standup” conducting has simply become less commonplace.  There are fewer productions requiring a standup conductor, and more shows whose music does not lend itself to traditional “standup” conducting.  With those thoughts in mind, on to the questions!

1) I know that you have the training to have always felt very comfortable with stand up conducting; how important in your opinion is formal conducting training for a theatre music director?

Obviously, many successful music directors get by just fine with virtually no formal training in “stand-up” conducting, except what they learn on the job.  What’s more, the sort of formal conducting training offered in universities and conservatories is still geared toward classical music performance.  So in a way the question is moot.  However: the approaches to and techniques of performing music and leading other musicians—both in rehearsal and in in performance—that one learns in formal conducting training are absolutely invaluable to good music direction.  Beat patterns, yes, and communicating through gesture and demeanor, but also how to run a rehearsal and wrangle a bunch of diverse musical sounds and personalities.

2) Today I’m seeing more and more highly trained conductors coming out of college but we still have the scenario where somebody sticks a baton into a rehearsal pianist’s hand and says, “you’re on!”. For those many members of TMD that have mostly or exclusively conducted from the piano, how would you advise someone like that to get their feet wet with stick conducting?

It’s not easy finding opportunities to practice conducting.  If you play an orchestral instrument and play in an orchestra, you can offer to conduct rehearsals or sectionals.  Some orchestras and opera companies hire associate conductors for similar purposes.  They might hire from within the group, or from the outside.  Conducting singers in groups is also quite similar to orchestral conducting; indeed it is a way to discover even more ways to communicate effectively with other musicians and find more nuance in your gestural language.  (I may be biased, as my Master’s degree is in choral conducting.)  College can offer lots of unseen opportunities.  As an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts college where I was given many chances to conduct, simply for the asking (or, I suppose, pestering).  What’s more many of my fellow students played music as a sideline (there were only a few music majors), and they were always eager to hang out and read through music under my baton.  Perhaps you could do the same with your musical friends and classmates?  Offer pizza and beer as enticements?

3) Although the topic of these ten questions is baton conducting, you make the excellent point in your book that often eschewing a baton is better. When I was a young associate conductor on the Canadian production of The Who’s Tommy, you taught me how to create a “cupped hand” shape for clarity when conducting without a baton. What factors do you take into consideration when deciding to conduct with or without a stick?

You remember the cupped hand!  Awesome!  There’s a photo of my hand in the book…  That’s a technique I learned from my superb U. Of Illinois choral conducting professor Bill Olsen, who made magic with the Illini Mens’ Glee Club and many other groups during his long tenure there.  What a great teacher, and fine conductor—he taught us so many invaluable techniques.  Usually, what determines whether to use a baton or not is the style of the music, and/or the size of the orchestra.  Bigger groups and more classically oriented or orchestrated music gets the baton, while rock music and smaller groups do fine with a hand.  It’s also a matter of visibility.  If the baton in any way helps others see you better, go for it.  That was the case with Tommy in La Jolla and on Broadway, where, although the music didn’t really call for it, I used a really short stick so everyone could see me properly, on camera, in the pit, and on stage.

4) Typically I see many music directors do a lot of mirror conducting (the left hand doing the exact same thing in the opposite direction from the baton hand). How important is it to reserve the left hand for cueing and emphasis and when might it be appropriate to mirror?

In many orchestra pits, mirroring the two hands often makes good sense because the orchestra is often spread out laterally.  This is not always true, but in general a pit orchestra is laid out more horizontally than a symphony.  However, the advent of “conductor cams” renders that academic—nowadays, as often as not, the conductor just aims at the camera.  I’m not really a big fan of this, and I prefer to place my cameras a bit farther away from me, so that my conducting field still has some room to wander.  If you are conducting a larger orchestra or in a deeper pit that does not require as much mirroring, yes, the left hand is free to be more of an expressive tool.  But it also serves other functions, including conducting those who cannot see your right hand as well (often the violins).  Even when mirroring, I still try keep the right hand (the baton hand) dominant, as a rule farther away from my body, and with broader patterns.

5) Speaking of cueing, one of the most important skills for a theatre conductor is the ability to clearly cue into and out of safeties and vamps. I’ve seen many different methods, some clearer than others. What is your preferred method?

There are many ways that are equally effective, so let’s limit the question to baton conducting.  What’s most important here is mastering the technique of “marking” with the baton hand: continuing to beat time, but in such a way that it is obvious that time is not moving forward. The left hand can then signal the hold in a variety of ways, like the raised finger, the Heisman, the fist, whatever you and your orchestra understand (I’m a finger guy).  Both hands lead you out of the hold.

6) Hopefully everyone in TMD has read your book and blogs (BTW, I believe that A View From the Podium should be required reading for every MD) but in my opinion one of the most salient points you talk about is the ictus and how it can change depending on the musical context. Do you mind recapping that topic for the TMD group?

This is something that’s much easier to demonstrate than discuss, and it’s such a wide topic that is so much at the essence of conducting technique that a short answer is nearly impossible.  Let’s put it this way.  The conductor’s primary function is to organize and be the timekeeper for a group of musicians.  As a conductor, your main intent and activity is indicating to that group where the time is and how it and other elements of the music should be interpreted.  You enact the beats via a series of icti—points that mark where the beats occur—within whatever beat pattern you are conducting, based on the musical meter.  There are standard beat patterns that are (mostly) universally understood for all meters.  Icti indicate not only beat points and, in groups, the rate of speed (= tempo), but they can also communicate musical character, that is, dynamics, articulations, and any other expressive qualities, based on how those points are shown.  For example, an ictus that you approach rapidly, strike firmly, then stop upon probably indicates a forte, marcato note (or afterbeat).  As well as tempo, the way you indicate and move through icti in a beat pattern can also indicate how close to your beat the orchestra should play.  A soft ictus with more bounce than attack, for example, invites the orchestra to react to your beat more relaxedly.  See, I told you it was complicated… and hard to explain.  I’d be happy to show you!  (P.S. I have a new book, too, called Rock in the Musical Theatre: A Guide for Singers.  Also Oxford, 2019.  And thanks for the plug on A View from the Podium!  Both books were labors of love, but the music direction book was especially close to my heart.)

7) Another essential topic you cover is clarity in the preparation (for the purposes of this discussion not score or rehearsal preparation, which is also important, but the preparation beat). What are your best tips for a clear prep?

Again, there are many ways of giving a preparatory beat, but all of them share two common factors.  Again, this is hard to explain without demonstrating, but I’ll do my best.  First, the preparatory beat must be in the character of the beat it prepares.  “Character” includes not just tempo (and often prepping a tempo in not feasible), but also strength, feel, mood, and other musical values.  Second, the preparatory beat must be enacted with particular clarity, and at times a bit of exaggeration to  ensure that it communicates effectively. The most common “mistake” among conducting students is that their preparatory beats reflect of how they themselves feel the lead-in to a musical event.  More important is to communicate clearly through gesture how the group you are conducting should collectively and objectively feel the lead-in to a musical event.  The importance of leadership and collective intent will be evident in the quality of the prep.

8) For a first time conductor on a pit podium, it can be daunting to have the cast on the stage, the orchestra several feet below and a video camera, all of which need your attention. How do you divide your focus between those elements?

You got that right.  Even for an experienced conductor, it can be daunting.  And the more technology gets involved, well… at times you can feel as if you’re piloting an airplane, and with similar risks (not really).  And quite often you’re thrown into the fire, as you can’t really suss out fully how everything works together on the podium until everything and everyone is in place.  So… just relax, take your time to settle in, and eventually it should start to feel normal.  And know that everyone shares in these terrifying experiences.  This might be a good opportunity, as well, to exercise your humility.  As someone in charge of and responsible for a lot of people and their successful performance, it’s often easy to forget that as much as you are their leader, you are also just a member of the band.  No, your job is not easy, but neither is anyone else’s.  We all make mistakes, and we’re all in this together.  (Sorry…)  So give yourself, and everyone else, a break.  As for how to divide your focus, I think that’s something that’s part of your music direction “plot,” so to speak.  What I mean is, you know what it is that you want to communicate, or indicate, or attend to, pretty much at every moment of a piece of music.  That’s where your focus is, that’s what your “plot” is, that’s what you practice when you practice (if you get to practice) conducting.  What’s more, your plot itself divides your focus; seldom are you focused on just one thing.  Beyond your plot, what you focus on is what’s happening in the moment.  You react to what occurs in real time, and at times, that becomes your primary focus.  Certainly, one of the trickiest things is sound—learning how to hear the people you’re conducting, while you’re conducting them.  I always try to work this out as soon as possible, so that sound issues do not disrupt my true primary focus, which is leading the performance.

9) Traditionally a conductor is fluent in reading a full transposed score and speaking to, for example, an F Horn player by referring to their written, rather than concert pitches. In your opinion is this skill necessary for a theatre music director?

Transposing fluently is very important to successful music direction, and is of course very helpful in symphonic conducting.  But it’s one thing to transpose a single line or even play a song at the piano in a different key, and another to read and understand or play at the piano full scores with transposing instruments.  For musical theatre conductors who don’t always work with full scores, but are more dependent on piano reductions and rehearsal scores, the latter skill is not really necessary, and I am certainly proof of that.  Score reading used to be a bear for me.  I’m good at it now, and at last I can hear full scores in my head at sight, but it took me a long time, and a lot of conducting and orchestrating experience to get there.  More crucial is the understanding of how each individual instrument operates within an orchestration, and how the different instrumental parts combine to form the score.  That includes each transposing instrument’s transposition(s).  For a baton-based theatre conductor, skill in transposing usually factors mostly into score preparation and rehearsal.  There is one exception, which is when musical changes are being made to a show when once the orchestra is seated in the pit, and a conductor receives an orchestration prior to any sort reduction.  Here, of course, a conductor’s ability to hear a score at sight is quite valuable, but these situations are not that common.

10) Final words of wisdom about stand up conducting for the group?

Well, back to where I started—conducting won’t have a lot of meaning without orchestras to conduct!  So ok, now I’ll rhapsodize—or rather proselytize…  Let’s keep big orchestras alive!  What can possibly match the excitement created by the sound of an orchestra tuning up before a big musical?  What can compare with those big brassy stabs and soaring string lines?  Horn calls, violin runs, cello and viola thumb lines, tootling clarinets and tweeting piccolos!  You gotta love ‘em!  I know, often they have no place in rock or rap or modern pop, but when they do, let’s make sure that they’re there, and let’a not always take the easy and inexpensive routes of samples and sequencers and synthesizers.  It may mean that you’ll have to stand up to producers, bosses, department chairs, etc., but keep on fighting the musical good fight!  No digital environment can truly substitute for the real thing.  Especially in the post-COVID age, when presenters will be jumping on any excuse for making bands even smaller—Hold your ground and fight for the sound!  If you want to conduct, you’ll need an orchestra.  And those of you who have conducted on a podium know the sheer bliss of music seemingly emanating from the tip of a stick.

One thought on “10 Questions and Answers: An interview with TMD on conducting with a baton

  1. Ah, the prep. I was associate for a conductor on a tour back in the day of a show with a largish orchestra. Her prep was sheer comedy. She would consistently mistime the cue lines, her hands would go up for the big “AND…” …and …and hang up there, for seconds (sometimes seemed like hours) until a sudden karate chop down, and off we’d go, with no indication of tempo. Sadly the tour never sat down long enough for, say, the local 2nd violinist to learn the cue lines in order to bring herself in, so they had to learn to look for her upbeat as a warn and then to me for a head nod to indicate tempo and go. (The conductor never noticed.)

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