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How to Conduct Beethoven and Mozart If You’ve Never Picked Up a Baton


Paul Solman gets a lesson in conducting music from Diane Wittry, conductor of the Allentown Symphony.

In shooting our story on “starving artists,” which is slated to air on PBS NewsHour Thursday, Allentown Symphony Conductor Diane Wittry tried to school me in the art of leading an orchestra. That lesson didn’t make it into the final story, but for those of you who, like me, have always wanted to know what a conductor actually does, this excerpt from the interview with Wittry is well worth watching, or reading.

Paul Solman: Excuse me for asking, but what exactly is it that a conductor does?

Diane Wittry: You know, it’s interesting, because I have a new book coming out, which I just got the contract for from Oxford, and it’s all about conducting gesture, because so many people don’t understand that actually every single gesture we do affects the sound that comes out of that orchestra. And if the orchestra trips, we’ve caused it. We may not even realize at the time that we’re causing it, but it’s so connected. So first and foremost, we basically do signals that tell the players where the beats are. But that’s — a kindergarten person can do that. I can teach you to do that, and you could count: one, two, three, four; That’s not conducting.

Paul Solman: Well, a metronome could do that.

Diane Wittry: A metronome can do that. A blinking light can do that. That’s just basically setting a tempo. But, what I’m interested in as a conductor, is how what I do as a gesture creates a different quality of sound. So if I do this, I make it a different sound than if I go like this. And if I’m tense in my body, even if I don’t realize I’m tense in my body, I will get a tighter sound out of the orchestra; and if I’m able to relax my body, I can let that sound lift.

And so, as I’m conducting, I’m just constantly listening and adjusting so that I’m getting the sound that I want. It’s all about quality of sound. And of course, you need to be clear because you need people to know where they are, but that’s just the beginning. And then beyond that, it’s all about how do we create sound. I call it sound sculptures in the air, and every single motion; if I speed up accidentally, I will bump it — I will make people trip and it will affect the sound.

Paul Solman: So, take a snippet of some piece of music we all are familiar with, like — I don’t know — Beethoven’s “Fifth [Symphony]”: “Dadadadum…” Show me some different ways to do that.

Diane Wittry: You know what’s interesting — because there are a lot on the internet — and a lot of crazy ones, because you have to sort of give the prep. Everything is set by the prep. The breath sets for the downbeat, and if you try to affect the sound on the downbeat, it’s already too late. They’ve already created the sound. It’s already gone. So I always, when I teach people — I could teach you how to conduct. You just pretend like you’re pulling a rubber band; pull back and then snap, “babababum.” And then you’ve got it. But you’ve got to be able to connect to something first. If I just go down, you don’t know when to play, right? It’s all in the breath; it’s all in the prep.

But you’ve got to breathe at the same time, see, because I would not be able to tell where you wanted to come in just now, because you were just going like…and I’m going like, “Where…?” So you have to give them something; you have to breathe. It’s sort of like lifting up a hatchet. If you’re going to lift up a hatchet and swing it down, there’s a momentum to it that has — it’s like a pendulum. You know, if I swing a pendulum, you know from my swing that at this certain point it’s going to hit at the bottom. And that’s how they know how to play.

Paul Solman: Okay, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” — “Da da da da da da da da da…”

Diane Wittry: Well, so if you’re going to conduct that piece, you’re going to have to give a prep beat, so our normal prep starts down here and comes up with a breath, and comes down. So, you’re going to want to breathe, but you don’t want to go like this — you see a lot of conductors and they go — and if I do that, I’m sending multiple signals. Do I come and play when the chin comes down? Do I play when the shoulders go down? Do I play when the hand goes down? So you have to isolate just the hand. And you have to be careful not to try to conduct with the eyes and the hand at the same time. You really have to focus the energy here: breath, boom.

And so the breath has to connect to something. You can’t just go like this, right? How would you know where to play?

I can give a bounce at the bottom which we call that an ictus, you know; you have a bounce beat, but if I want to play “bom,” I would do a different type of beat if I want them to sink into that note a little bit. I have to think what type of sound; do I want “bom, bom, bom,” or do I want “daa, daa, daa,” and the sound I give, I have to show in the prep.

So that’s how I prepare — is really thinking my hand has to communicate, or my baton, has to communicate sound.

Paul Solman: And what about if you did that with — I don’t know — Wagnerian bombast?

Yes, I would give a very — I would probably do the gesture with two hands, and give a very sort of, you know, something we could sink into, and I might even slow the tempo down a little bit at the end.

Paul Solman: What would that sound like?

Diane Wittry: It would be a “bomm, bomm bom…” You know, it might be sort of a more Wagnerian type. And let’s see who else could we do? Ravel or something — something more lighter. French music — whenever I conduct French music, I’m purposefully very vague, because I want the sound to be very transparent.

And so we think of German sound as very much a good attack, and Russian also has a good attack. But with French music, I just, I have where they really can’t tell exactly where to play, and then I get this very hesitant sound, which is exactly what I want.

The book I’m writing, basically, compares conducting gestures to gestures that everyone already knows. And so it’s a lot easier to understand and communicate it because it would be like a “pick up your cup of coffee.” You reach out; you impact with something; you pick up something that has weight. And it’s the same thing when we conduct; We have to connect to the sound and we have to transfer that sound from beat to beat.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.


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