Last week, I got to witness my friend Jojo make his orchestral-conducting debut, conducting the Brahms’ first symphony. It was an incredibly moving performance to say the least, and it was particularly special to me because Brahms’ first symphony is a work that I have always loved.
Many people think that conducting is about the motions, and understandably so because that is the obviously visible part of a conductor’s work that you see every time you witness an orchestra perform.
However, having talked to conductors, it seems to me that that is actually not what conducting is about. Even though I sometimes hear reviews that focus on the motions, such as “that conductor was so into the music” or “that conductor was a bit tense,” such reviews might be missing the most important aspect of conducting. Conductors tell me that conducting is much more about the skill to rehearse an orchestra in a limited time to unify their playing so that the group performs as one, instead of 100 independent musicians. Simply put, conducting is not about the conductor. It is about the music.
Joshua Bell once said this in an interview: “A bad conductor is someone who can get in the way of the music. I mean, the great secret is that an orchestra can actually play without a conductor at all.”
Talking to Jojo after the performance, I gained some insights that parallel my desires to produce good works as a fellow creator and a musician.
For one, a conductor’s work begins long before the first rehearsal with the orchestra. That is actually true of any genre of art, but especially important for a conductor. Conductors who show up to rehearsals unprepared are not only useless, they are almost criminal. They are essentially taking the precious time away from the lives of the members of the orchestra, and throwing it down the garbage.
In Jojo’s case, he studied meticulously the music and created in his mind the sound that he wanted, months before he even met with the orchestra for the first rehearsal.
It can be a bit misleading when you see any kind of a music performance, because all you’re allowed to witness is the final performance. But it turns out that music is actually so much more about what happened behind the scenes long before the music was produced: all the preparations and the rehearsals. For many aspiring musicians, this is a turn off. They like the idea of performing a beautiful peace of music, but do not want it enough to actually get up in the morning everyday and go through the process to develop the required skills. That is such a shame, because it is precisely in this process from which I gain my happiness and a purpose for my life.
I often hear people tell me, “I wish I could play music like you.” My response is usually the same. “Do you really? There is nothing stopping you.”