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It's Not Just About Waving Your Arms

David Searle, CUA's director of conducting studies
Tucked away inside the John Paul Music Hall within Ward Hall on a Friday afternoon, 15 violinists, cellists and violists are slowly making their way through a labor of love: Richard Strauss’ famed symphonic tone poem, Don Juan. Nearly every instrumental part is ambitious in its difficulty level, making the piece a staple among orchestral audition lists.

Standing before the students is Tsuna Sakamoto, a violist with the National Symphony Orchestra and an adjunct professor of viola at CUA. The string players have gathered to study proper technique for playing in an orchestra. But they are not the only ones learning about the required skills and work habits of a professional orchestral player: Another group — CUA’s conducting students — is seated just beyond the players. They are also paying careful attention to Sakamoto’s instruction. In a few moments, each will have a chance to try his hand at conducting these players, but for now they listen. And watch. When training to be a conductor, you’re as much a student of the orchestra as you are its leader.

The new two-part course, “Repertory Orchestra,” is the brainchild of David Searle, CUA’s director of orchestral activities and conducting studies. The innovative hybrid course he has created lets conducting students lead a live orchestra with a professional player — the NSO’s Sakamoto — in its midst. The presence of Sakamoto also offers student musicians a chance to study string techniques from a master.

Searle, for his part, joined the CUA faculty in the summer of 2007 and was formerly the chief conductor of the Helsinki University Symphony Orchestra in Finland. He has conducted many orchestras in Europe, including the Royal Stockholm Opera, the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

A video camera records class.
An hour into this two-hour seminar, there is an explosion of sound. The crescendo comes from an additional cavalry of students piling into the music hall, clunking down instrument cases and dragging stands and chairs. They are French horn players, flutists and percussionists, coming to round out this ad hoc orchestra. Together, they form what Searle calls an “orchestra flight simulator” for the student conductors.

Nearby, a video camera stands ready to capture every hand pulse, every dip of the conducting baton — all of which will be reviewed after class by Searle, Sakamoto and the conducting students. As the second hour begins, Sakamoto takes her seat among the strings, ready to be led by the student conductors — but also sure to be taking mental notes.

Master’s student Yeong-Su Kim takes the conductor’s platform.

“Let’s try in tempo,” he tells the orchestra. It is an ambitious request, considering that the strings have been practicing Strauss’ piece — a whirlwind of scales and chords — at half-tempo for the past hour.

With the baton in his right hand, Kim begins. He is conservative, if consistent, keeping steady time with his right hand while offering cues with his left, occasionally pointing at one particular player.

“He has the tempo, has the basics right,” Searle notes from his observational perch just beyond the orchestra. Yet he points out that Kim was too ambitious in the pace, given the difficulty of the piece and how recently the players were introduced to it. “Anything new to players should be more bare-bones.”

Kim needs differentiating gestures so that players know who he is cueing or trying to instruct, Searle notes. He needs to work on giving more specific information.

“If you show with your face or the contour of your beat, you can say something without talking, or talking as little as possible,” Searle says. All of these techniques work toward a conductor’s central aim: stopping the orchestra as little as possible to instruct them. Call it musical sign language.

Depending on the number of conducting students slated for a given week, each gets between 15 and 30 minutes in front of this ensemble of 25-plus musicians. This semester, Searle has two master’s students in conducting, as well as three sacred music students in the course.

“The thing young conductors don’t get enough of is a regular working routine,” Searle says. This course gets them in front of an orchestra to fine-tune their technique and learn how to conduct. For sacred music students, whose main experience is in conducting choirs, this is also an important opportunity, because most choir leaders don’t get much practice conducting orchestras and often have to learn “on the job.”

“You can’t just pick up your instrument and practice when you’re a conductor,” notes Searle. “And you can’t conduct to a recording, because then a conductor reacts to what’s being played, rather than facilitating the playing.

“They need a lot of practical experience leading an orchestra, and this environment provides a safe place to make mistakes,” he explains.

Master's student Robert Goeke leads the student orchestra, while NSO violist Tsuna Sakamoto (seated third from the left) plays with the group.
Searle hovers nearby if a student loses his or her way at the podium. And by having Sakamoto as a member of this band of players, a student conductor has a rare benefit: critique from a professional instrumentalist. Sakamoto tells the conductors exactly what she needs — and expects — from the person leading her, e.g., a more dramatic cue or a certain verbal instruction.

“Can I just hear winds?” Kim asks. It is a section of the orchestra that the student conductor knows well. He is a professional oboe player who holds a doctorate in that instrument from the University of Maryland. In fact, most of Searle’s students have a background in a musical instrument and are supplementing this conducting class with courses on musical theory and musicology.

“Give more help off of the tied note,” Searle calls out to Kim. It is a rare interruption by the professor during Kim’s time at the front. The suggestions and comments are primarily reserved for a session following the class. That is when Searle’s conducting students return to his office to review a videotaped recording of their performance. Like football coaches critiquing last Sunday’s plays, Searle and Sakamoto watch through every upswing with each conductor, pausing here and there to offer praise and criticism.

In addition, the conducting students have a weekly private lesson with Searle. They are invited to bring in other video recordings of conducting they’ve done, and they analyze musical scores to learn how to pace a work and spot potential problems for the orchestra members.

“It’s not just about waving your arms, it’s about listening to and solving problems,” Searle says. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your body movements are, if you’re not solving problems.”

In conducting, the left hand shows expression or urges on some individual performer, while the right hand keeps the tempo. But, says Searle, beyond hand motions, a conductor must be both a leader and a facilitator. “You are a leader in rehearsal, coordinating the orchestra to find unity amid individual players who have strong ideas about a piece,” he explains. “In a concert, you become a facilitator; you have to make sure certain transitions happen. You become a representative of the audience.

“You can show something in the character of your rebound that reflects what you want them to do,” Searle advises Kim during the orchestral session, referring to the upswing of the hand.

Kim recalibrates. Almost instantly he has more attitude, more bravado. His rebound is a defiant flick of the wrist — a cue for the percussionist.

“That’s what we’re looking for!” Searle exclaims, seeing the change in Kim.

Kim asks the orchestra to stop and go back a few bars. With each instruction, they play a bit longer without a mistake. Later, in Searle’s office, there will be other suggestions, other encouragements — but for now, Kim’s orchestra is playing Strauss.

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Revised: August 2008

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