Jobs of a Conductor

When I began conducting musical groups professionally (lo these many years ago), I figured out that a big part of conducting is simply wanting something to happen at a certain time – the secret is in knowing what you want. Conductors are good at willing singers to do what we want them to do. This benevolent dictator image has worked for me and I’m comfortable with it, but now I realize that the primary job of a conductor is to listen and respond. This sounds easy but isn’t, and it makes for a very different image, one that is certainly not as enticing. Who wouldn’t rather be the power source than the seemingly passive reactor?

Listening is tricky. A conductor knows, before rehearsal begins, where the musicians will have problems – it’s part of one’s preparation to locate difficult or transitional places and have solutions ready to help with them. But it’s equally important to be open to hearing all of the other spots that go wrong, and to not be impatient about them when they happen. It is easy for any leader – of a rehearsal, a class, a meeting – to resent an unanticipated problem.

So I’m trying to listen, without judgment, and to respond, without impatience. I’m trying to hear actively. It works both ways – Charles Bruffy has this mantra: “Don’t start fixing until they’re committed to listening.” He didn’t mean until they were committed to listening to a conductor; he meant until they were committed to listening to each other. It’s a good resolution for our new year.