The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters

The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters

by Mark Wigglesworth
The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters

The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters

by Mark Wigglesworth

Hardcover(First Edition)

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The conductor—tuxedoed, imposingly poised above an orchestra, baton waving dramatically—is a familiar figure even for those who never set foot in an orchestral hall. As a veritable icon for classical music, the conductor has also been subjected to some ungenerous caricatures, presented variously as unhinged gesticulator, indulged megalomaniac, or even outright impostor. Consider, for example: Bugs Bunny as Leopold Stokowski, dramatically smashing his baton and then breaking into erratic poses with a forbidding intensity in his eyes, or Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, unwittingly conjuring dangerous magic with carefree gestures he doesn’t understand. As these clichés betray, there is an aura of mystery around what a conductor actually does, often coupled with disbelief that he or she really makes a difference to the performance we hear.

The Silent Musician deepens our understanding of what conductors do and why they matter. Neither an instruction manual for conductors, nor a history of conducting, the book instead explores the role of the conductor in noiselessly shaping the music that we hear. Writing in a clever, insightful, and often evocative style, world-renowned conductor Mark Wigglesworth deftly explores the philosophical underpinnings of conducting—from the conductor’s relationship with musicians and the music, to the public and personal responsibilities conductors face—and examines the subtler components of their silent art, which include precision, charisma, diplomacy, and passion. Ultimately, Wigglesworth shows how conductors—by simultaneously keeping time and allowing time to expand—manage to shape ensemble music into an immersive, transformative experience, without ever making a sound. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226622552
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/21/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mark Wigglesworth is an internationally renowned and Olivier Award-winning conductor. He has written articles for the Guardian and the Independent and made a six-part TV series for the BBC entitled Everything to Play For. He is currently the principal guest conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Read an Excerpt


Conducting Movements

The body never lies.

Martha Graham

In most cases, a conductor's passion for music will have been kindled from an early age. Learning to play an instrument as a child initiates a fundamental relationship with composers that for most musicians offers lifelong reward. The seeds of this relationship are nurtured with hard work and patience, neither of which could be described as run-of-the-mill qualities in an average five-year-old. But technical challenges are best met before the hard-wiring of the teenage nervous system sets in, and endless hours of solitary practice link the formative years of most professional musicians. Such youthful dedication creates a connection that facilitates the camaraderie of the profession, and there is a shared, if unspoken, understanding of the sacrifices that everyone has made while growing up. There is a human bond even before the music turns this into an artistic one.

Conductors choose, perhaps subconsciously, to take one step away from that bond and, in doing so, opt for a more semi-detached professional life. I don't believe the vast majority of conductors think of themselves as better musicians than the players in the orchestra, but there's no denying that the job sets us apart, and the choice we make to move from sitting within a circle of egalitarian music-making to standing at its edge to direct proceedings from the sidelines is a relatively unusual one. The initial decision might have been musical but its consequences affect your life as a whole, and the personal, social, and financial ramifications are just as significant as the musical ones. Even if these are not a valid indication of who you are, they go a long way to affect how you are perceived by everyone else.

There are many different reasons why conductors want to make an entire orchestra the outlet for their love of music. Some might simply not have been good enough on their instrument for it to have been worth them pursuing a career as a performer. Others might have felt that their instrument did not offer enough musical variety, and that the almost limitless repertoire of the symphony orchestra was a more fulfilling vehicle through which to express themselves. There are also those for whom the essentially human dynamic of an orchestra was the most appealing aspect of the job. For me, and I imagine many others, it was a combination of all three. But whatever the motivation, following the career path of a conductor is less a realisation of your skills as a musician than an honest reflection of who you are as a person. In that sense it's not a choice at all. You are who you are and if your personality is more comfortable on its own than in a group, that is a trait that you need to respect. Some people feel more secure as an individual than within a team, and I suspect whether you choose to be a tennis player or a footballer probably says as much about your psyche as it does about your talent.

The idea that the orchestra itself is an instrument on which the conductor plays is a misconception – even if this is an image occasionally fuelled by the reluctance of some in the conducting profession to contradict such delusions of grandeur. But notwithstanding a few material idiosyncrasies and the undoubted personal connection many instrumentalists feel with their unique piece of wood, metal, or brass, the suggestion that a large group of individual musicians is akin to an inanimate object is a significant misunderstanding of the relationship between conductor and orchestra. Although it can sometimes be tempting to wish that the same player would give the same musical response to the same physical gesture on every single occasion, the ever-changing variety of all the people involved is always going to be more interesting than any kind of musical machine.

Conductors do not 'play the orchestra' any more than theatre directors 'play the actors'. It's true that we have a direct involvement in the performance, but we still don't make any of the sounds ourselves. If we have a relationship with any instrument at all, it would perhaps be a fairer analogy to say that it is with our own physicality. This is how we express ourselves. This is how we shape the invisible, and as such, it is through our own body that we need to learn to 'speak'. Although verbal communication is tolerated in rehearsals, it is never especially welcomed in performance. At the most important part of the musical process, a conductor's expression has to be visual not verbal.

In 1971, a study by Albert Mehrabian concluded that face-to-face communication, specifically of feelings and attitudes, could be broken down into three separate components: the words we use (7 per cent), the tone of voice with which we use them (38 per cent), and our body language while we do so (55 per cent). And if the words themselves are contradicted by the speaker's non-verbal behaviour, the latter is the more likely to be believed. Although the results of this research are often oversimplified, it's clear that some form of physiological expression lies at the heart of human communication. Without it the role of the conductor would be very different. Physicalising emotion is something people do every day. Conductors simply take a basic fact of life and use it as a means of creating a clarity of musical style and a strength of emotional feeling.

There are distinct advantages to expressing your attitude to the music with your body alone. However specific the emotion is, it is stronger if not limited by a choice of vocabulary. Words can be easily misunderstood. We all have our own set of linguistic references, and the players' reaction to what they hear us say is unlikely to be as unanimous as their response to what they see us show. Music turns the complicated into the simple but using words to discuss it can easily do the reverse. It is a universal language, yet one that cannot be translated. Body language is the only other means of communication that comes as close to describing the indescribable. Conducting is a combination of the two.

* * *

One of the things that distinguishes music from speech is its propensity for regular rhythm. We talk in phrases that often lilt towards a form of melodic inflection. But although every sentence has a rhythm of its own, only in exceptional cases does this rhythm lead to an expectation of its pattern being repeated. Human beings are very good at keeping time and our reliable grasp of rhythmic gesture and pulse is why so many mnemonics have a rhythmic basis to them. We often use rhythm to embed things deeply into our brain. And because our brain responds so significantly to rhythm, it's the rhythm of a piece that turns the listener into an active participant. Even if we are not specifically marching or dancing, rhythm activates the brain far more than melody or harmony. It is rhythm that has the power to move people the most – sometimes physically as well as emotionally – and like a poet's use of prosody, a subtle manipulation of the listener's rhythmic expectation is a simple yet profound tool for expression.

Rhythm is the quality of the music's movement and how strict or loose rhythms should sound is a matter of expressive opinion. A composer specifies the music's notes and rhythms, yet neither is an exact science. A pitch can be inflected up or down for an expressive end with the vast majority of instruments and most humans can detect at least ten different frequencies within any one note. But control of rhythm is an even more fundamental part of every performer's contribution to the interpretation of the piece, and the level of rhythmic freedom, insistence, stasis, or rigour is a valuable means of musical storytelling. Our attitude to expressive movement reveals a lot. Even a piece as rhythmically free as Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending offers performers a choice in how muscular they want the bird to sound. The greater the rhythmic emphasis the less likely the sense of carefree flight. Emotion is energy in motion. And in an orchestra the lead for this emotional energy comes from the conductor. A physically controlled conductor will channel the music's energy with a clarity that players find easy to understand. A good technique can unambiguously express an untold range of pulses, whether the music is as static as a moonlit lake or as hectic as a desert storm.

It is difficult for conductors, especially inexperienced ones, to practise expressing rhythmic energy without the reality of the sound, and of those making the sound, in front of them. Hearing an imaginary sound is limited in its relevance, but there is still value in learning how to become comfortable with your own physicality in private before facing the pressures of needing to be comfortable with it in public. Waving your arms about at home is not as stupid as it looks. It becomes comical only if the motivation for doing so is a vain one. Conducting along to a recording is harmless fun for an amateur who has no real desire to stand up in front of an orchestra, but as a means of practice for a conductor it is pointless. Even if you like the interpretation of the recording you are 'conducting', the experience inevitably forces you to follow the sound you hear rather than discover in yourself the physical responsibility for creating it in the first place. You are just dancing in reaction to the music's energy, not actually generating it. A conductor has no practical equivalent of an instrumentalist's scales but the benefit of developing a familiarity with your own movements is not insignificant. A physical dexterity and calmness is something orchestras find very reassuring, and it is equally reassuring for conductors to be able to trust in the muscle habits that frequent gestural repetition creates.

Every conductor's body is different, and every conductor's technique unique. Physical habits and characteristic gestures are related to whether we are tall or short, lean or not, and our natural posture underlies our appearance when we conduct. If our body is indeed our 'instrument', it stands to reason that we should learn to use it well, and good technique for a conductor is essentially the same as it is for any instrumentalist: an awareness and mastery of one's muscle movements in order to produce a desired result. Conductors who have no command of their own bodies have no direct control of an orchestra. They might achieve what they want through other means but if everything has to be explained and rehearsed without, or in spite of, the visual signals a conductor is giving, it will take significantly longer to achieve. The practical and financial implications of that are obvious but the loss of musical freshness and imaginative freedom that comes from excessive description and repetition can be even more damaging.

Great conductors rarely get complimented on their technique alone. Technique is a means to an end, and assuming your body has a natural ease of uninhibited motion, it will be intrinsically linked to the music you are conducting. Physical clarity is meaningless, if not impossible, when divorced from a clear understanding of the music itself, and an unequivocal belief in one's own view of that music is crucial to being able to show it. A confused or broad-brushed musical opinion leads to a vague and indecisive physicality. This in turn produces a similarly generic musical response from the orchestra. But when conductors are convinced as to what the music is saying, this conviction physically communicates itself directly, and unavoidably, to the players. There are a hundred different ways the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony can be played, and a seasoned orchestral player will probably have played most of them. Although it probably would be possible to achieve a unanimous response through understanding the purely physical leadership an orchestra needs, separating a technical solution from a musical one will never be fully persuasive. Lead with the music and the body should follow.

The clarity of our gestures is a direct result of the clarity of thought and feeling that lie behind them, and when our physical motions are a true consequence of the music's emotions, there is no difficulty in them generating the relevant expression in others. I know from personal experience that whenever an orchestra I am conducting is untogether, it is almost always the result of a musical indecision on my part that my body then subconsciously communicates. Nine times out of ten I can tell a microsecond in advance that I will hear the uncertainty of what I just felt. Doubt and disappointment are a combination worth working hard to avoid.

* * *

The first thing most conductors do when standing in front of an orchestra is to try to establish a physical connection with the players. Every orchestra has its own physicality, and although the players will adapt in order to fit their conductor of the day, it is often easier, and quicker, if we do most of the adjustment ourselves. There is only one of us, after all. Sometimes it can feel as if you are thrashing around in the dark searching for something to hold on to, but I've learned that it is better if you can be open to letting the connection come to you. That is not a passive solution, but an understanding that the orchestra is looking for something to grasp as well. You might feel all at sea but if you give the hysterical impression you are being attacked by a fish, that only makes it more complicated for anyone to come and help. You are not seeking anything specific, but you know it when you find it, and the ensuing sense of synchronicity is comforting and empowering for both conductor and orchestra alike. Without it one has very little control and certainly minimal fulfilment from what can then feel like a purely coincidental relationship. Knowing when to collect and when to release the energy of the players are musical and psychological questions, but it is one's physicality that reveals the answers. It is the physical relationship between orchestra and conductor that defines the quality of the communication between them.

Nietzsche said that we listen to music with our muscles. It would seem logical therefore to believe that in reverse musical choices can be made in response to what we see. I once heard that a very famous conductor began a rehearsal with an equally celebrated orchestra by conducting them in a G major scale. Whether this anecdote is true or not, the seriousness behind the undoubted humour of the situation is that he wanted to establish a physical relationship with the musicians before they started playing any music. An invisible thread of connection could be spun separate from the specific demands of whichever piece they were about to rehearse.

A link between music and physicality runs deep. It's probably not a coincidence that most works are divided into sections known, in some languages, as 'movements'. Just as young children can distinguish the varied character of different pieces of music and improvise dances accordingly, the ability of performers to convert gestural shape into musical meaning is intuitive. Apparently human beings are unique in being the only animals able to synchronise their movements to music. Contrary to some people's perception of conductors, it appears that in fact a monkey would not be able to do a better job. Good news for the conductor. Bad news for the monkey.

* * *

It is human nature for an orchestra player to start to form an opinion of the conductor as a person first and as a musician second. The impression we make matters as soon as we enter the rehearsal room. Some take a politician's view that 90 per cent of power is in the perception of power, and that surrounding themselves with the trappings of authority is going to make asserting it easier. They make a grand arrival, maybe even engineer a late one, in order to create a hierarchy that they might not feel qualified to trust on purely musical grounds. But the relative intimacy of the relationship between orchestra and conductor means players see through such disingenuousness instantly. A sprinkling of bravado is no bad thing but sincerity trumps pretentiousness every time. It is the most genuine conductors who have the most authority.

At the other end of the spectrum, a perceived lack of confidence is equally problematic and can be transmitted physically just as much as verbally. In many cases nerves come from a place of respect for the situation, an appreciation of the knowledge and experience of the orchestra, a recognition of the expectation of the audience, and an understanding of the demands of the music itself. How you deal with that awareness privately is one thing; how you reveal it physically is another. An orchestra is not going to feel comfortable if it doesn't think its conductor is comfortable.

There are some conductors whose charm and innate ability to light up a room and be the centre of any stage can achieve a great deal. They make people feel good about themselves. Then there are others who have all but no charisma away from the music. Charisma is not something that can be learned, but for those lucky enough to have it, such presence attracts opportunities, and eases relationships with large groups of people. It was actually only a hundred years ago that the German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber first connected charisma to the idea of leadership through force of personality alone. Its true meaning is religious in origin, denoting a special power to perform miracles, divinely bestowed by the Holy Spirit – enough perhaps to make even the most egocentric of conductors blush.


Excerpted from "The Silent Musician"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mark Wigglesworth.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Shaping the Invisible

1 Conducting Movements
2 Conducting Musicians
3 Conducting Music
4 Conducting Drama
5 Conducting Performances
6 Conducting Yourself

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