Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela. Just a handful of names that might appear on a list of great leaders. What do all these people have in common? All of them had a vision and set out to achieve it, bringing people with them and convincing them of their ideas along the way. They might have had differing leadership styles, and a variety of approaches to achieving their goals, but they were able to influence and inspire; command respect and trust; and empower and encourage, resulting in a successful legacy.
A conductor must certainly have a clear musical vision before they step onto the podium. He or she must know what they wish to achieve with the music they are about to conduct and know exactly how to achieve this using the available resources: the musicians in the ensemble. For that to happen it is important that the conductor can convince the musicians of their ideas both on and off the podium by demonstrating leadership.
What is Leadership?
One of the leading texts on leadership is The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell (Harper Collins). Maxwell asserts that ‘the true measure of leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.’ He uses the example of Mother Teresa: at first glance, she may not have looked like a leader, but old and frail though she was, she exerted such tremendous influence that she could be extraordinarily critical of a room full of world leaders and they would sit there and take it. If she didn’t have so much influence, either they wouldn’t have been there in the first place or they would quickly have left.
One might contrast this with the now outdated view of a conductor as an autocratic dictator who could hire & fire his musicians (almost always a ‘he’) at will, and wielded power by virtue of his position. A conductor nicknamed ‘The Screaming Skull’ by the orchestras he conducted, or who was legendary for berating his musicians may not go down too well in the 21st Century.
Try searching YouTube for “Toscanini” and “bassi” and see what you find!
Maxwell states that leaders possess seven key attributes. Click on to look at each one of those in turn and explore how they relate to conducting.
The character traits identified by Maxwell are important for conductors for a number of reasons. Here are some examples to reflect on.
Conviction: in order to stand up in front of a group of musicians and tell them what to do, a certain strength of character is required – especially if the musicians are more experienced than you are. To quote Sir Mark Elder ‘Orchestras employ conviction’.
Inspiration: not everyone has the charisma of Leonard Bernstein or the charm of Carlos Kleiber but conductors need to be able to command the attention of the ensemble and inspire. We are the focus of everyone’s attention (hopefully) and so we must accept responsibility for setting the atmosphere in the room.
Positivity: our business is to criticise, so it is vital that we learn to do so in a positive and encouraging manner, and that we remember to give positive feedback as well as constructive criticism.
Humility: it is important to remember that as conductors we do not make a sound. Without the musicians in our ensemble, the concert will not be very successful – we need them more than they need us. We must also show humility to the music: our job is to realise the composer’s intentions.
Passion: if we are not able to make this evident to the musicians, how can we expect them to display passion in their playing or singing?
Decisiveness: nobody respects a conductor who can’t make a decision. Ultimately, that is our job. A bad decision is better than no decision at all – although try to make your decisions good!
Observing Leadership in Action
Observing how conductors command attention and convey leadership is both entertaining and useful as inspiration. Using your internet search engine, key in the search term “conducting with face”.
You may find several items in your search, but hopefully you will also see examples of how great conductors such as Leonard Bernstein communicate using just the eyes and other non-verbal means.
You can only be a leader if you have followers. As mentioned above, the conductor is the only person involved in the performance who is not making a sound – the odd bit of grunting, heavy-breathing or singing along excepted! This creates an interesting relationship dynamic because whereas the ensemble can very possibly manage without you, the reverse is manifestly not the case!
Less experienced musicians need the conductor to teach them the music and make them play together, therefore there is a certain degree of authority by virtue of necessity. As the ensemble improves, so their reliance on the conductor in basic practical terms decreases. Professional orchestras can play almost any piece in the repertoire without the conductor. It might be a little scrappy in places, and it probably won’t be the most unanimous, coherent interpretation, but it will work. In this context, trust and respect are voluntary and the ensemble can choose to withhold them. If the conductor hasn’t been able to develop good relationships, he or she can easily end up not being in control of the performance. The concertmaster or leader can assume that role.
It is also very important to understand the complex hierarchy of relationships that can exist in ensembles of any kind or level. The concertmaster, leader, and section principals all have responsibility for certain aspects of how the ensemble functions and empowering those individuals can be hugely beneficial. As the conductor, we cannot solve everything so giving responsibility to others can only be positive. In a professional context, even if you are the chief conductor, you are probably only with the group for somewhere between a third and a half of their concerts. In that context, the concertmaster and section leaders may have more influence than you.
Here is James Clark, one of the UK’s most respected orchestral leaders, discussing the role:
Knowlege and Intuition
Clearly, knowledge is fundamental to the conductor’s role. Without detailed knowledge of the composer, the score, and the context in which it was composed, the musicians will not respect us and will be unwilling to buy into our vision of the piece. Even young and inexperienced musicians will pick up on a lack of score knowledge, more expert players will sense it immediately. As Maxwell says, “knowledge doesn’t make a leader, but without it, you can’t become one.”
This is another incredibly important area of conducting, particularly in the context of rehearsing. Conducting is management in real-time. We rarely have the luxury of mulling over something for a few hours or discussing options with trusted colleagues. We are constantly making decisions without being in full possession of the facts. Play something again or trust it will improve by itself? Rehearse a tricky section slowly or break it down into sections? Finish a bit early because you sense concentration is slipping, or use all the time? How to answer that loaded question from someone in the ensemble? In the concert, do we go with the section that came in a bar early, or with the rest of the ensemble? All these decisions require us to exercise intuition, and an ability to successfully “read the room” is vital.
Experience doesn’t guarantee credibility, but it helps. Of course, you can only gain experience of conducting by conducting, so it stands to reason that there may be a deficit here initially. However, even if opportunities to actually conduct are limited, it is possible to gain useful and relevant experience by playing in the best level orchestras or ensembles you can, and by attending rehearsals as an observer.
Maxwell makes a firm connection between Experience and Intuition. The more experience you have, the stronger your intuition is likely to be, and this allows you to develop the ability to make good decisions earlier.
Masterclasses, competitions, fellowships and assistant conductor positions can be important avenues for gaining invaluable experience of standing on the podium in front of an orchestra. In this short video from 2015, Alpesh Chauhan talks about his role as Assistant Conductor to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Five years on from that, Alpesh is chief conductor of the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini in Parma, Music Director of the Birmingham Opera Company, and Associate conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra!
Past Success and Ability
If you have a successful track record it is easier to get people to buy into what you do, even if that success comes in a slightly different context. An orchestra will often regard a well-known soloist or experienced orchestral player as having a track record relevant to the field of conducting, at least to begin with. This is another potential challenge faced by young and inexperienced conductors at the beginning of their journey.
The bottom line is can you make the group sound better? Is the combination of fundamental talent, preparation, technique, rehearsal skills and people management good enough in that particular situation? The matrix of skills required to be a successful conductor is complex, and it is important to monitor all facets of the job in order to be able to identify areas that need development.
Everyone’s approach to leadership will be different and it can be difficult to work out exactly how to get better at it. Of course, your intuition is an important tool, as are the relationships you have with musicians who work with you. Get feedback on this topic from someone you trust, as well as finding out whether they liked your tempo for the finale or your bowing suggestions in the slow movement.
We encourage you to carry out a self-analysis exercise on your leadership attributes. Give yourself a score from 1-10 on each of the seven attributes in section 2, then ask friends and colleagues who know your work to do the same. This will help you work out where the weaknesses might be. Give it six months or a year and repeat the exercise.
Finally, YouTube is a great place to explore this topic further. There is also an excellent series of DVDs called In Rehearsal and Performance on the Euroarts label and much of that material is available online.
Here is a great Ted Talk by the conductor Itay Talgam:
And here, the very funny but also very astute TwoSet violin discussing conductors: