5.1 Being Able to Hear on the Podium and Improving Your Ear

This is really another aspect of rehearsal conducting. One of the most challenging aspects of rehearsing, especially for less experienced conductors, is being able to hear clearly. Most of us have sat in someone else’s rehearsal, or in a class, wondering why the conductor doesn’t seem to hear the (to us) very obvious issue. The reason for this is that they don’t hear it! This can be a result of nerves, an overly energetic technique, or a combination of both. The brain is devoting so much to the physical movements that they are simply incapable of hearing accurately. 

In rehearsals, it is often a good tactic to consciously conduct in a calm, slightly passive way. A small, straightforward, fairly neutral beat, perhaps with only one hand, requires a lot less brain activity than an exuberant, energetic and quite possibly very descriptive series of gestures, therefore maximising the amount of brain space left to process what is happening aurally. 

There is a balance to be found here, because passive and neutral can easily become dull and uninspiring. If you conduct like it’s a concert all the time, the musicians will tire of the constant energy. If you are too calm and calculating, they will write you off as boring – even if you are exciting in the concert, which might be too late. The balance will be different every time, and it will depend on several factors such as the musicians themselves, complexity of the repertoire and familiarity with it, and whether they know you or not. On a “first date” with a new ensemble, you will probably need to give them a hint of what you are fully capable of at some point fairly early in the process. When you are re-invited for subsequent concerts, they already know that your concerts are exciting so you may be able to take a calmer approach to rehearsing. Also, if you are rehearsing a complex new work for a premiere, your approach to rehearsing should be different to a Beethoven symphony that the orchestra could perform backwards. 

Sir Mark Elder often speaks to young conductors about how he tries to improve his ear, in some way, every day. This can be simple as listening critically with great concentration to a high-level artist, or doing some sight-singing, or working on your ability to look at a chord on a page of a score and hear what it sounds like in your inner ear.

Here he is on the subject:

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