Beyond the Baton Conducting Workshop


FRIDAY, MARCH 23, 2007

NSO’s Wittry Takes Readers Beyond Her Baton


For many, the image of the orchestra conductor is linked with the first time they saw Leopold Stokowski in the Walt Disney film “Fantasia.” Erect, dignified and in total control of his milieu, the maestro exuded a hauteur that could no be denied, a sense that he was not of the orchestra but above it, a musical sense demigod who had deigned to descend from on high to deal with mortal musicians, and woe betide any trumpeter or violinist who played a wrong note or came in a second late.

Reality, of course, is a different matter, and it is this reality that Diane Wittry, the music director of the Norwalk and Allentown symphony orchestras, deals with in her recently published book, “Beyond the Baton.”

In a recent interview, Wittry talked about her book and the challenges that young music directors and conductors face, challenges that are seldom discussed in the colleges and universities that train those who one day hope to stand at a podium, raise a baton and bring life to a symphony by Brahms or a Palestrina motet. As Wittry explained, she wrote the book because of these unaddressed challenges.

“There is no book for conductors,” she said, sitting at a table in the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra’s offices, her mail piled next to her. “I saw so many colleagues and people that I knew who were getting jobs and not being really aware of what their jobs were. There just seemed to be so much confusion in the industry as to what the role of the music director was.”

She noted that music directors, or conductors were well trained to be conductors. “We have excellent musical training,” she said, “but we are not well trained in all the other aspects of the job, and so I thought at least if there was a book it would give people a fighting chance of being successful, especially on their first job.”

Job? How many people who attend a concert realize that the conductor is working at his or her job, a job whose many aspects he or she often does not fully understand? “ What surprised me,” Wittry said, “was that colleagues who have been in the business for 30 or 40 years are writing to me now and saying that not only did they wish they had had the book when they were first starting out but that they were actually still learning things from the book, so it’s applicable for people who have been in the field for a long time because it makes them re-think how they do things.”

A neophyte conductor is immersed, quite often at an early age, in music, but as he or she matures, as dreams start to become realities, the focus is on bringing the music to life. Budgets, people management, board member proclivities and the listening skills and musical sophistication of audiences are rarely dealt with.

“Usually, a conductor will have an undergraduate degree in a specific instrument,” Wittry said. “All conductors will normally go on to graduate level study, at least a master’s and sometimes a doctorate, and in the master’s program you’ll have your music theory, your theory, your composition, your ear training, and you’ll have your active conducting and score study and piano, but most of it is focused purely on the musical side."

That is all well and good, but then there is the reality of earning a living in a world that often cannot differentiate between a composition by Bach and Beethoven but knows what it likes, whatever that is, a board of directors with its eyes on the bottom line and musicians with fragile egos.  Wittry compared the classically trained conductor to a doctor well skilled in the medical arts who doesn’t have a clue about how to run an office. “Probably,” she said, “more music directors lose their jobs over ‘the other stuff’ - it’s the small stuff, not the big stuff, that kills you.”

Wittry said that there were only a few programs in which “enlightened teachers’ deal with the full range of a music director’s duties and responsibilities. “Pretty much,” she said, “it’s still a situation in which [young music directors] are a little in the dark as to what their role is...and that role has changed.” She went on to note that a majority of the 1,500 or so orchestras in the United States are what are called “per service” orchestras, “which means that they are professionally paid orchestras but as opposed to having a full-time contract they are paid per service. The nice thing about these orchestras, and why I think these orchestras are going to survive and thrive in the United States, is that they are very flexible - if you want to add more concerts you can. You’re not stuck with a contract in which you have to use up services that you have already paid for that you don’t need or you have trouble shrinking when you have financial problems.”

Her book deals primarily with this type of orchestra, an orchestra such as the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra. This type of organization can place great demands on its music director, demands that those entering the business out of college are often ill-prepared for.

One of the most obvious of these demands is programming, that is, selecting the music for a season of concerts. “Programming,” Wittry said, “is something that I think is key and that is not taught. So often you have young conductors who come in and they don’t understand that it’s not about ‘them,’ and that there are a lot of issues that have to be weighed to program properly for an orchestra given its current audience, budget and level of musical ability. Many orchestras are destroyed through bad artistic leadership. Too much of the wrong type of music can run off your subscribers. Doing to many ‘light’ things can run off other subscribers.”

In “Beyond the Baton,” Wittry offers a full chapter on programming for subscription concerts as well as for thematic, “pops,” and educational and family programs, plus a list of resources young conductors can turn to for help in selecting music. in the chapter, she notes that each organization will have its own “general philosophy of programming” that the young music director must take into account. Although she stresses that the music directors must begin the programming process based on their particular passions, these passions cannot override the reality of the orchestra being dealt with. A music director must also take into account the number of rehearsals that have been budgeted for, when the concert will be occurring and audience expectations and listening abilities.

She uses and interesting metaphor to explain what a successful program should consist of, noting that “almost all musical pieces have weights and textures” that must be taken into account. She urges young conductors to “select your programs like you would choose courses for a fine dinner,” balancing the tastes and textures of the appetizer, the first and second courses, “ and the intrigue of dessert.”

Some neophyte music directors, Wittry noted, have a natural gift for programming, nut most of them “are driven by what they love and they don’t step back and say, “okay, I love chocolate and I love squash,’ but that doesn’t mean that they are going to taste good together in a meal. They have to look for a balance beyond their own personal likes and dislikes.”

They also have to take their own audiences into account. Wittry cautioned young conductors not to be too adventurous in their first few years as music directors. This requires that the new music director do a little research to learn what has been previously programmed and what “works” for that particular community.

“You want to program your first couple of years inside the parameters of the audience’s expectations.” This, Wittry noted, establishes a level of trust between the music director and the audience. Once this is achieved, the conductor can start, ever so slowly, to introduce the audience to musical pieces that it is less familiar with in order to “stretch” the audience. “The relationship between the conductor, the orchestra and the community has to be built,” she said. “You have to program to build that relationship. Any audience can be developed so that it begins to ‘buy into’ interesting types of music, but you have to meet the audience half way.”

Then there is the need for the conductor to prepare to conduct each of the pieces selected for the program. “I often compare a [musical] score to a map. Everybody really understands that when you look at a map you’re not really looking at the countryside. It’s the same with music. When I look at a score, that’s not the music. My job is to use this ‘map’ to clarify things for the musicians as well as to create the ‘countryside.’ You want to have your basic tempo relationships already established but I believe that performances are spontaneous and depending how you come into a [musical] phrase alters how you might come out of that phrase.”

The “countryside” is slowly brought to life in the rehearsals, and Wittry offers a great deal of guidance on preparing for and running these rehearsals. This includes making sure that before the first rehearsal the scores are marked for “bowing” for the entire string section.

“This is critical,” Wittry said. “So much of string sound is in the bowing, and for players to properly prepare, they have to actually train their bodies to have their arms going the right way. It’s very frustrating for string players if they have been practicing it one way and all of a sudden everybody changes. It throws them off and, of course, the sound is going to change. In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, the parts have to be bowed. The better marked the parts are, the better the results.”

The book also provides suggestions on how to handle many of the situations that can arise during rehearsal, offering young music directors ways in which they can convey what they are looking for and what they want changed without stepping on too many toes or demanding from an orchestra more than it can deliver. Among other things, Wittry suggests that the conductor should “invite the orchestra to play, don’t demand,” and cautions against substituting “tension for intensity; tension will squeeze the sound, intensity will release it.”

The overall advice she gives in the book is often cautionary, especially in the areas of career expectations and “ownership” of the orchestra. She suggests that rising too quickly up the ladder may, in the long run, be detrimental to a conductor’s career.  Realistically, there is just so much to know,” Wittry said. “Very few young conductors have the experience to be able to handle the pressure. Time and time again you see people put into ‘big’ jobs and they totally burn out because they don’t have enough experience under their belts so that they can do the vast amounts of repertoire that the ‘big’ jobs call for. Many conductors will say that you need more experiences so that you can bring something to your music.”

Then there is the question of “ownership” of the orchestra. Wittry noted that conductors, especially young ones, often feel that the orchestra is theirs to do with as they wish. “Sometimes,” Wittry said, “conductors will go fire half the orchestra because they have this vision of improving the orchestra but they really haven’t looked at the size of the community or considered where they will get other players to replace them or even if these other players can be afforded. They have to ask themselves how their decisions fit into the bigger picture, not just ‘Me and what I want artistically at this moment.’ They also have to understand how to grow the orchestra without actually killing it, because if you kill the orchestra you haven’t gained anything. So remind them that it’s not your orchestra, it belongs to the community. It’s going to be there after you leave and your job is not to sink it; your job is to move it forward on a path that is the right path for that orchestra in that community. If your vision begins to outgrow that community, you need to find a new job.”

In the book’s epilogue, Wittry offers conductors words to ponder and perhaps live by. She writes: “My personal goal is to bring quality music to as many people as possible and through this music to change their lives for the better.”

Being a music director for a symphony orchestra may be a demanding, tension-filled job, but if in the process of doing that job lives can be changed “for the better,” then it is certainly worth doing well.

“Beyond the Baton” will help any music conductor to do so, and that’s why Wittry wrote it.



Beyond the Baton - What every conductor needs to know

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