In my travels around the country, I get to see a lot of conductors of bands and orchestras. There are some really good ones, and some not so good ones. What has always mystified me is that we spend years practicing and taking lessons on our chosen instrument to demonstrate our musical skills, but most music education majors take two semesters of conducting and poof! – they’re a conductor! That just makes no sense to me. It is understandable that many school band and orchestra conductors have limited skills in this area, and slip into bad habits when conducting.
There are, however, ways that you can improve your skills in this important area. First of all, just as with your instrument, you need to practice. Stand in front of a mirror and watch how you conduct. Video record your rehearsals and watch them. It’s sometimes painful to see yourself on those things, but very necessary for improvement to take place. Start out by getting a good conducting position. I find that most people conduct way too low, down at their waist and have their head buried in the score, because they don’t really know the score, but that is another clinic! Suffice it to say that if you don’t look up, they won’t either. One of my teachers used to say “the problem is right in front of your face.” What he meant is that if you cannot make eye contact with the students and see your baton at the same time, then you’re not communicating with the players and your stick is way too low. Put your baton up so that you can look through it at your students.
The second thing is that most conductors do not conduct the style that they want their ensemble to be playing. Many conductors have a lot of trouble conducting legato. Again, get in front of a mirror and work on making your pattern smooth and connected so that it matches the way you want your students to play legato. More often than not, the conductor’s pattern is only beating time and it is way too big. Try getting more legato when needed and conduct smaller. I sometimes think that the older I get and the lazier I get as a conductor, the better I get, because I conduct smaller, and less.
Third, and this is the point of this clinic, try to conduct less. You are NOT responsible for ensemble time. That lies within each and every player in the ensemble. You will never be able to pull them along. Pulse must be out in the group. It is every member’s responsibility, not yours. I find it best if you don’t conduct in these situations, and let them fight it out to find the ensemble pulse. With younger bands it is also imperative that you make the wind players keep pulse without the aid of the percussion. The other point of conducting less is to try conducting time less. Once ensemble pulse is established there is no need to constantly beat metronomic patterns. Use your hands, your face and your body to be more expressive and pull the music your want out of your students. Consider practicing your craft as a conductor with the same attention to detail that you used to learn your instrument back in college. Improvement in this area will only come if you put some work into it. It is what we do, and we should be as well versed in this skill as any in our musical arsenal. Good luck!