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Advanced Conducting Techniques 101

February 15, 2017 at 11:00 am

Of all the musical tasks I’ve had to do, conducting is by far the weirdest. On one hand, the conductor is of supreme importance as the leader of the troops. On the other hand, the conductor makes no sound, and is therefore essentially useless. I’ve worked with ensembles who want every nuance clearly defined by subtle hand gestures coupled with eyebrow lifts, and I’ve worked with ensembles that want a downbeat and nothing more. I’ve messed up conducting pieces I had studied for ages and perfectly conducted pieces that I had never seen before. A great conductor with a bad ensemble will probably make a bad performance because the musicians won’t bother to look at the conductor, while a bad conductor with a great ensemble will probably perform well because the musicians will just ignore the conductor anyway. And yet, even though the performers claim to “never watch the conductor”, when something goes wrong, guess who gets the blame? The Sword of Damocles constantly hangs over the conductor’s head.

So what makes a great conductor? Here are some totally legitimate conducting moves that will up your conducting game. In no particular order:

1. The CLAW. This is legendary conductor James Levine’s signature left-hand move. It was first unveiled in 1990 at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner‘s Siegfried. Note how at first, you see The Claw slowly taking shape, but at 1:50 it completely takes control of his body – nothing can stop the awesome power of The Claw once you allow it into your conducting.

And here is Levine, much later in his career. You can see how The Claw has consumed and destroyed him; it dominates nearly every musical moment.

2. The MINIMALIST. When you’ve been asked to lead the best classical orchestra in the world, why bother doing anything at all? What could you possible do to make the best musicians any better? Even Leonard Bernstein, one of the world’s greatest conductors (and a composer), knew better than to try to mess with perfection. So he stood there, listened, and sort of smiled.

3. The MOMENT OF REALIZATION. This is a move created by Simon Rattle. After giving a handful of very specific cues, begin conducting as the Minimalist (see above), except with a stunned, euphoric face as if God has just revealed the secrets of the universe to you. That’s what happened in the video below – well, either that, or he just realized that he forgot to comb his hair for an entire decade.

Speaking of combing …
4. The HAIR. Some conductors like to use a baton to exaggerate gestures and make it easier for large ensembles to stay together. Some conductors prefer the expressiveness of the empty hand. The best conductors, though, conduct primarily through their hairdo.

5. The WHATEVER. If the performers know the music backwards-and-forwards, the conductor doesn’t have to worry about technical things like cues or keeping the group together. If you find yourself in this lucky position, just wiggle your fingers or make little goofy motions to ensure you don’t get fired for being redundant. Here are some expert examples:

6. The SPARKLY SEXY SHINY SHIRT. A tuxedo might be the standard conducting attire, but if you need a boost to your skillset, a Gold Shirt +1 will increase your CHA and your dancing abilities.

7. The COMPLETE IDIOT. If these masterful conducting moves are too difficult for you, don’t give up. Anyone can be a conductor, given the right circumstances.

If you know of any similar videos of masterful conducting, please post them in the comments!

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Music for the Apocalypse

February 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Thanks to current events and to a certain person who has recently come to power, the Doomsday Clock has been set forward thirty seconds. What will you do when the end comes? And more importantly, what tracks do you have on your phone for the occasion?

The idea of the world ending is certainly not new; there are loads of artwork devoted to the idea, from ancient through modern times. We’ve all thought about “what if” at some point in our lives. I hadn’t really connected the end of the world and music until very recently – the inspiration for this post came to me in the middle of a video game: Fallout 4. To oversimplify, it’s a game where you shoot baddies in post-apocalyptic setting.

What happened was this: I had turned on a radio in the game to the “classical music station”, when I was attacked by a horde of zombies. As I exterminated this crowd of undead enemies, I laughed because the radio was playing the dulcet tones of Edward Elgar‘s “Salut d’Amour“. The juxtaposition of murdering horrific humanoid mutations and sweet, lovely music was perfect irony, and completely opposite of the typical battle music of video games.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this sort of irony. The most glorious moment in the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V comes when Henry (who by this point is barking mad) orders all his soldiers to sing a Te Deum and a Non Nobis in praise of God, who helped them slaughter the French in a bloody battle. The magnificent music plays during a single, four minute long shot of the battlefield, covered with mangled bodies and limbs: Not unto us, Lord, but to thy name be glory.

But let’s be realistic, we can accept the beautiful music coupled with bloody scenes because we’re removed from the situation. To have to face these horrors in real life is very unsettling. A more appropriate response would be the music in the 2011 film, Melancholia. To sum it up: people live screwed up lives, but it doesn’t matter in the end because a giant planet crashes into earth and destroys everything. This sort of despair is perfect for accompaniment by Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde (tragically, edited to fit the footage.)

Why so serious? If the world is going to end in flames, you may as well have fun while doing it, like in Dr. Strangelove! Don’t just drop that atomic bomb, ride it like a cowboy!

Did you know there’s an opera about the atomic bomb? Check it out!

So, nuclear war might end the world. If it did, would humanity descend into tribal warfare, fighting over food, water, and fuel? Brian May‘s killer soundtrack to Mad Max 2 will help you prepare for that.

But it turns out nuclear war is only one of many possible doomsday scenarios that threaten us. Climate change could turn our planet into a Waterworld.

Did you know there is a symphony about climate change? Check it out!

So, what are we to do? Well, on one hand, we could go into a panicked frenzy of despair:

or, we can stand up and do something about it:

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On Joy, Freedom, and Walls (An die Freude, Freiheit, und Waende)

January 29, 2017 at 3:46 pm

On Christmas Day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in Berlin – on the program was Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony. Germany was celebrating its reunification – the Berlin Wall had been torn down only a month earlier. The text of the “Ode to Joy” was altered – “Freude” (joy) was replaced with “Freiheit” (freedom). Some scholars argue that the original text indeed used the word “Freiheit”, and that the poet changed it out of fear of persecution.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a marvel. It is a symbol of the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil, always looking towards beauty, always dreaming of a better world. It’s no surprise that it is the Anthem of the European Union. It’s a symbol of the hope for human unity:

[Joy’s / Freedom’s] magic brings together what old traditions has unjustly divided. All men shall be as brothers where your gentle wings hover. Be embraced, you millions; this kiss is for the whole world!

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany was celebrating its unity, we Americans are building a new wall and actively dividing ourselves from our fellow humans. It is disgusting. We must do whatever we can to stop this. I am not a warrior, I am a musician; I cannot fight with weapons, so I will fight with Beethoven.

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