What do conductors actually do? Review of 'Inside Conducting' by Christopher Seaman

20 July 2013

Inside Conducting Christopher Seaman

University of Rochester Press, pp.268, £19.99, ISBN: 9781580464116

Conductors love telling stories, especially stories about other conductors, and every chapter of this otherwise determinedly pragmatic book begins with one. Perhaps the most telling concerns a ‘famous conductor’ who mistakenly gave a massive downbeat in a bar that was supposed to be silent. The orchestra, reading the score correctly, did not play. Voice from the back of the violas: ‘He doesn’t sound so good on his own, does he?’

The anecdote illuminates the driving question behind this book, the one we’ve all wanted to ask while fearing to sound ignorant: what do conductors actually do? Some are sceptical. The Polish pianist André Tchaikowsky told Christopher Seaman that he never looked at conductors ‘because he couldn’t understand what any of them were doing’. Others find it a hard question to answer. In 2012, the music journalist Tom Service interviewed six great conductors about ‘how they do it’. It was fascinating, but you walked away from Music as Alchemy almost as mystified as when you walked in.

Now Christopher Seaman, who is renowned for his teaching work at the Guildhall School of Music, and has conducted at the highest level, provides a barrage of straight answers. Most are directed towards real would-be conductors, rather than bedroom-mirror amateurs, but there’s plenty for the outsider looking in.

Getting started is one answer — and it’s about more than just giving a big downbeat (in the right bar). ‘Your whole personality (especially your face and eyes) has to give the sense of assurance and expectancy that inspires an orchestra to play.’ Controlling tempo and dynamics is another answer. Baroque ensembles can get away with having no conductor, Seaman argues, but the 80-odd musicians of a modern orchestra could never agree on the shape of a Romantic rubato (‘robbed time’, a kind of lingering that’s paid for later) without a conductor to describe it in the air for them.

Things a conductor can do with his left hand


The conductor’s work is not often discussed in such plain detail. Conducting is ‘like riding a horse not driving a car’. A tighter grip on the baton produces a harder tone. Keeping the arms moving upward very slowly can restrain an audience’s desire to rush to clap after a quiet ending. In a revealing chapter (the chapters are very short) on why orchestras can seem to play late, rather than with the baton, Seaman asserts that the opening chord of Mozart’s Magic Flute overture ‘has more majesty and radiance if I allow an orchestra to place it slightly after the beat’.

Demonstrativeness, above all, is to be avoided: ‘I sometimes tell students who thrash around ineffectively with paroxysms of emotion that they’re meant to be cooking the music, not eating it.’ (Or, as Richard Strauss said, ‘Don’t sweat — let the orchestra sweat. Don’t weep — let the public weep.’) Even on less tangible tasks, Seaman is plain-spoken. The conductor acts as the ‘artistic conscience’ of the orchestra, he believes, and its human face: ‘Musicians dress like Victorian morticians,’ he jokes, ‘so the public needs to see that we’re real people.’

At times, the practical-mindedness teeters on the maniacal. We are offered a way to teach audience members how to cough into a sleeve, and a method for carving our own baton out of a wooden dowel and some cork sheeting. (‘I break about one stick a year, usually by accidentally hitting a music stand,’ he mentions, as an aside. He is very much not the kind of conductor that would break it on a dunder-headed timpanist.) On the necessity of ‘travel and packing’ (chapter 45), Seaman advises decanting ‘shampoo and other liquids into small plastic bottles (nalgene is one of the strongest materials) unless you don’t mind using the stuff the hotel provides.’

The problem is that Seaman isn’t quite sure who he’s addressing. Anyone who can read his musical quotation of Rosenkavalier well enough to see that the way the harmonies are written creates a ‘giddy’ effect is unlikely to need to be told that conductors must ‘learn to listen for what works and what doesn’t’, or that ‘big choirs go flat’. And there’s disappointingly little on choral conducting (surely one of the biggest consumers of semi-amateur conductors around).

One priceless choral observation does stand out, however. ‘I’ve often noticed that in the chorus “For unto Us a Child is Born” from Handel’s Messiah, the sopranos wear a glum expression with “oh no, another mouth to feed” written all over their faces,’ Seaman declares. ‘If I ask them to look like happy midwives, their sound brightens immediately.’

This book certainly demystifies the art and the figure of the conductor. The danger is that it takes it too far. After reading this book, you may now know why conductors wave their arms about in the way they do, but you will still need Tom Service to tell you what magic Gergiev has got that Mariss Jansons hasn’t.

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  • Studley

    Very interesting. I note also that the cartoon conductors do not, with their other hand, proffer the prongs — though a coughing, over-applauding, programme-rustling audience must surely tempt them at times.

  • stevemeikle

    Most of the arm waving and prancing is mere histrionics for the audience. The same conductor in rehearsal is far more restrained. I was an orchestral musician for long enough, I saw it often. But they are essential, even though most of the time their beat is unreadable (i call a circular beat with no visible definition “stirring the pot”). A large group of players sitting twenty or more feet from those on the far side of the group cannot keep together by mere listening, for sound is too slow. A conductor is the only way a large group can stay together.

    The trouble is they know this and the egos of conductors is one reason why I left the profession

    • Archies_Boy

      While I don’t agree with your reason for leaving, I envy you leaving with all your senses intact. I had to leave because my hearing went sideways. Broke my heart, music was my life.

      • stevemeikle

        it was not the only reason for leaving. i was mistaken for thinking music was my life. It never was. As I remember that in my heart of hearts i never really liked music that much so I could not give 100 % as a professional player because I had lost interest in doing so. The only thing to do in that position is to get out. Talent alone is never enough.

        Professional Music is such as hard and demanding life that if one does not love it with everything (as I never did) one does not belong there

        But as for my hearing, i too am going deaf in one ear – Meniere’s disease.

        Yet the thing is I just don’t want to play contrabass anymore. If I did hearing aids would still help me. So my bass sits untouched in an alcove. I better sell it before it starts to deteriorate

        • Archies_Boy

          I’m sorry to hear about your hearing. Meniere’s is indeed a tough one! But by all means do sell your bass, so that at least someone may get the instrument back into good use.

        • The Wet One

          Sorry to hear about the Meniere’s. A friend of mine has it too. Both ears though. I know what you mean about not loving a profession as well. I left a profession for pretty much the same reason.

    • post_x_it

      “Most of the arm waving and prancing is mere histrionics for the audience. The same conductor in rehearsal is far more restrained.”
      Yes, and it’s interesting how many conductors do away with it as they get older – partly perhaps due to diminishing physical stamina, but also because they realise they get on perfectly well without it. In the last 20 years of Karl Böhm’s career, his hand movements were all but imperceptible to the audience, but the orchestra always knew what he wanted.

      • george

        And presumably, the orchestra knew what he wanted after so many rehearsals…. People talk about the role of the conductor as if the time of performance is the first time they meet each other!

  • jmall

    Sceptics should watch the astonishing BBC documentary on Gergiev in Rotterdam, The Master & His Pupil, about his masterclasses with 3 young conductors.

  • Archies_Boy

    It looks like it’s going to be an entertaining book to read, especially to me, a retired musician. During my career I had opportunities to conduct various groups, some at public concerts, some as substitute conductor during rehearsals, some in my university’s music department, some in someone’s living room with a bunch of us just playing for the fun it.

    When I was in a formal conducting class as a student I learned that, basically, the right hand is for broadcasting information about meter and speed; the left hand for volume and emoting. The right hand goes about in patterns (so you know which beat of the measure you’re in) and the left hand goes up and down for volume, and anything else needed for emoting and for cuing in various sections. Well, those are the basics. As you gain more experience, you veer off from that. And there’s the rub. The idea is that no matter what you do or how you do it, you must convey your intentions in a crystal clear manner to the orchestra. Believe me, they appreciate it! You’re not supposed to just stand there with face contorted and writhe while the orchestra wonders if you’re having some sort of seizure.

    And of course it’s not enough to merely wave your arms and make faces. All of the arm-waving and gesticulating is, ideally, the clear expression of a deep knowledge of the score. I don’t care what mastery you have of the mechanics of conducting, if you’re not operating from a total knowledge of what your piece is about, if you don’t know what every section of the orchestra is doing at all times, and you don’t know when to throw a crucial cue at the precise moment needed, then you need to go sit down and let someone else take the podium.

    And that’s what conductors do. :-)

  • mr_ed

    I’ve watched conductors hundreds of times over the last 40+ years as an usher and patron at various venues. Two of the ones I’ve seen often have developed their techniques slowly after learning what their orchestras and halls do for the performances and maybe what response they get from the audiences and critics. Example: Watch their hands.
    The two I’m referring to at first conducted with many palms down gestures, thus telling the orchestra to play more softly and less dynamicly. Over time, their hands show palms up, tellng the orchestra to let ‘er rip. Result is a more electric performance, which pleases the audiences. This sells more tickets and gets more fund raising support. Remember that ticket sales are no more than 30-40% of revenue. Begging and investing cover most of the rest. As recording sales are almost gone anymore, and audiences are aging, this seems the way to survive. One of only weekend sellouts last season featured the Beethoven 5th symphony, one of the ultimate warhorses.

    Guest conductors have learned this lesson. Many of the most robust concerts I’ve heard over the years have been led by outta towners. And yes, they can conduct delicate stuff, too.
    I’m not a musician. But, as an artist friend said: “I don’t know much about sex, but I know what I like.”

  • The Sanity Inspector

    That sweat-drenched face was bearing down upon us like the
    archangel of vengeance himself as we almost disemboweled ourselves
    with feverish effort. Then suddenly, a spine-chilling wail:
    “Pi-a-a-a-n-o-o! Bassi! Contrabassi! You grunt away like pigs! You
    sound as if you were scratching your bellies–szshrump! szshrump!” he
    would bellow, while, tearing at his clothes, he viciously pantomined
    the scratching. “Corpo del vostro Dio! PI-A-A-NO!”
    “But Maestro,” a player would sometimes protest in a small,
    hesitant, and resentful voice. “My part is printed ‘forte.’ ”
    “What you say?” the Old Man would growl menacingly,
    unbelievingly, distracted for the moment from his tirade.
    “It says ‘forte,’ ” the player would reply, this time in an
    even smaller, more apologetic voice.
    “What? Forte? FORTE?” with an air of incredulity. “What
    means ‘forte’? Ignorante! Is a stupid word–as stupid as you! Is a
    thousand fortes–all kinds of fortes. Sometimes forte is pia-a-a-no,
    piano is forte! Accidenti! [Damn it!] You call yourself a musician?
    O, per Dio santissimo! You play here in THIS orchestra? In a village
    cafe house you belong! You don’t listen to what others play. Your
    nose in the music–szshrump! szshrump! You hear nothing! You cover
    up the oboe solo! One poor oboe–one!–and you szshrump! szshrump!
    Where are your ears? Look at me! Contra-ba-a-ss-i!” in a long,
    drawn-out wail. “Tutti! Tutti! Vergogna! [Shame!]”
    –Samuel Antek, _This Was Toscanini_, 1963

  • mrsatyre

    I’ve always understood a conductor to be not only the metronome, so to speak, but also the mood ring for the entire orchestra as a group. Each musician has their own interpretation of how strong or soft a note should be, etc., regardless of how it;s written on the page, and the conductor has to bring everyone to a compromise. Not much of a mystery there.

    • stevemeikle

      quite right. the conductor is the interpreter of the work. But the metronome function must not be forgotten.

      Try following the beat when the score is full of cross rhythms and that fool with the stick is waving it in circles with no clear definition, and note well who will then blame us players when we come apart!!!. I saw this often enough in 25 years an orchestral player also

  • The Wet One

    Thanks for this informative piece. I’ve always wondered what a conductor does myself. I really had no idea prior to this though I used to be a regular concert-goer. The things I’m ignorant about always astonish me…

  • therealguyfaux

    Pardon my complete and utter ignorance, but does a conductor’s own “axe” make a difference in how (s)he conducts?

    Somehow, I’m thinking someone who had played strings would have a different take on things to someone who played brass, and a reed might think differently to a percussion, if you will. In other words, however unconsciously, they might hear their own section more sensitively and critically than another. Likewise, they might be more objective in their conducting of another section, hearing things a veteran of that section might, however unconsciously, have so taken for granted in how to perform a piece, that are “wrong” but are commonly-accepted “variations” on the piece (my technical vocab is, alas, lacking).

    I’ve often wondered if this carries over into the attitudes of the musicians as well– “Well, of course (s)he’d conduct it like that, they’re a violinist/trumpeter/bassoonist etc., aren’t they?”

    In any field of endeavour where you have to meld persons with different talents into one coherent well-oiled machine, to use a well-worn phrase, there’s always going to be the challenge of overcoming the fear that one subgroup will be favoured and another not so much– I’ve wondered how the symphonic orchestral conductor overcomes it. Do conductors eventually have to “learn to play every instrument” (not necessarily well, of course, but enough to know what can and can’t be played as they would like it to be)?

    • stevemeikle

      yes it makes a difference. one conductor i worked under, talented and of course arrogant, was a trombonist. In conducting Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, piece which string players utterly luxuriate over, even me as a one time bassist, he demanded that the solo viola part, where the solos start, be taken much faster than usual. The soloist nearly came to blows with this young upstart.

      Brass players!! trying to understand one of the greatest works in the string repertoire and willing to bow to the experience of a soloist twice his age? forget it

      And, no I am not suggesting his arrogance was through being a brass player, but rather from being a professional conductor. Such is so common I have had me fill of them all

      • therealguyfaux

        The brass neck of the man!

  • Antiehypocrite
  • John Smith

    Make a sign to start?

  • Candicemarie54

    Loved the video clip! Must be the son of a conductor?

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