Conductors are made as well as born
My teacher often remarked that although conducting could not be taught, there were still plenty of aspects to it that could be learnt! This sounds rather like an abdication of responsibility, but the best teachers are those who teach you how to learn.
Conducting students are constantly encouraged to go to as many professional rehearsals as possible. I went often, loved doing so, and felt privileged to be able to get to know the music in its 'backstage' form. But I'm not convinced I learnt that much. In fact I would often go home feeling extremely confused by what I'd just seen and heard, and over time realised that the greater the conductor, the more confused I was. I remember a Herbert von Karajan rehearsal that was thrilling on the level of celebrity, but did little to enlighten me as to how to achieve what he did. And there was a Mozart Requiem in which Carlo Maria Giulini said nothing and moved even less. The music sounded sublime, yet I was none the wiser. Even the players I talked to would disagree about the specifics involved and despite an occasional unanimity of appreciation, there was never a consensus on how the results were obtained.
The problem with trying to learn from watching great conductors is that one of the things that makes them great is that they are unique. Of all the great conductors, dead or alive, I cannot think of any two who are similar either musically, physically, or psychologically. Everybody is unique of course, but not everyone immediately appears so. The best conductors do however, and the moment any student starts to copy one is the moment they identify themselves as a student. Perhaps more usefully, watching others can also show you what not to do, but the best conductors rarely give you those insights. Though you would probably learn more by attending bad rehearsals, it’s hard to believe that as a young star-struck wannabe.
The journey away from being a student is the journey towards finding out what you have to offer as an individual, discovering what you feel about the music, and working out how best to align your own physiology to express it. If you can strip away everything you do that’s unmusical, that’s unclear to orchestras, and that gets in the way of the composer’s expression, you will be left with all that matters. And if that isn’t enough you should probably do something else!
The most successful teachers see their role as allowing you to reveal who you are. For them, education is literally a leading out of your musicianship and of realising the best technique for you as an individual to express it. Nobody can give you your uniqueness. It may feel negative at the time, but having everything bad removed and being given nothing to replace it, is probably the best sort of teaching there is. What’s left is purely the voice of an individual and the ability to express it.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)