Practical Applications For Conductors

A lesson from Wilhelm Furtwängler

I was sitting at my timpani – I had studied composition and conducting so I always had a score open on my timpani, which I followed during my long breaks. I was following the composition with the score. One gets used to the particular sound of the rehearsal. Suddenly I noticed a totally new and fascinating sound developing. I looked at the podium – nothing special there. Then I looked at my colleagues, and they were all staring at the entrance. There stood Furtwangler, he was just coming in. It was his personality alone, his presence which created this incredibly beautiful sound.

A person who carries the sound so strongly inside himself that he brings out the sound in others is the most beautiful thing an orchestra can experience. When you know this person is totally open and you are invited to join them, that is when you make this kind of music…. Werner Thärichen, legendary timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1948-1984

How could Furtwängler transform the sound of the orchestra simply by being in the room?

It was the quality and intensity of his LISTENING, both internally (to the exquisite sounds he created in his imagination) and externally that influenced everyone in the room. Musicians who worked with Furtwängler were invited to join him at the deepest level of listening and this transformed their music making.

The first stage on the road to genuine conducting is to learn to REALLY listen to the orchestra, moving towards an ability to hear each musician individually as part of the collective whole. (This is a far, far deeper level of listening than the generic checking of tuning, balance, ensemble etc).

Research has shown that this level of listening is impossible unless the head is relatively still – If the conductor is “thrashing about” (giving the vestibulocochlear nerve extra work when the ears need to focus on sound) he or she is living their own internal fantasy of conducting rather than experiencing the reality of an intense connection with the orchestra.

For the conductor, the moment this deep connection with the individual musicians is experienced is the moment they understand what conducting is about, it is the turning point in their development. This begins to have a profound effect on the sensitivity, subtlety and pliability of gesture. The conductor becomes physically open, the body relaxes and becomes intuitively responsive to the interplay between the internal musical vision and the reality of the physical sound of the orchestra. The conductor, now acutely sensitive to the sound of each individual musician begins to realise in exquisite detail how gesture and intention can be harnessed to unite individual sounds, and the “sound” of the performing space to create a living work of art.

The importance of listening for conductors is summarised here:

Hearing Spaces 2

Use an extended version of the Hearing Spaces exercise (outlined in the Hearing section of this site) as a daily part of your practice. Be intensely aware of the acoustic properties of every room you work in. It is always good to refresh your ears by clapping outside away from any potential reverberation. Listen intently to the sound of a simple clap without reverberation. Then walk into the concert hall or rehearsal space – maybe your footsteps are reverberating? If so that already provides you with very useful information regarding reflective surfaces in the building. Now stand in the centre of the room and execute a single forte clap.  Aim to isolate in your mind the initial clap (the sound you experienced outside) and its reverberation.  Focus intently on the reverberation, become aware of the sources, volumes, pitches of the individual echoes that comprise it. This enables your subconscious musical mind to build a sonic map of the performing space – a vital element of good conducting

Listen to these reverberations!