Beyond the Baton Conducting Workshop



A book about the business of conducting,

explored by PAUL SARCICH 

"'Beyond the Baton - What Every Conductor Needs to Know"

Diane Wittry. © 2007 Oxford University Press 

This is not a book about conducting. It is a book about the business of conducting and the conducting of business. Wittry considers the conductor as Music Director or Artistic Director of an orchestra, and goes into great detail about what that involves, on a personal, professional and public level. Tyro conductors totally focused on learning their scores and arguing about the bowing of bar 23 may find this book daunting, as it posits the music director as a mixture of musician, leader, diplomat, financial manager, educator, people manager, fundraiser, PR fronts-person, good committee member and plenty else besides; and demands skills in all those areas. As the author points out, it can be a full-time job without the music.   

One necessary thing to point out is that this book is entirely American, and considers everything from the point of view of the USA orchestral scene. Readers from other parts of the globe will have to extrapolate the principles enumerated into their own regions and make their own adjustments. The 100-plus pages of resource lists are splendid, provide an instant guide for the USA, and give a pointer to what one's own resources lists need to be like in whatever region one is functioning. 

Wittry is nothing if not thorough: by page ten we are being exhorted to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and retranslate every vocal text we deal with. That could come as a bit of a shock to Anglophones, who tend to be notoriously bad at other languages. But Wittry is only pointing out the obvious -- if a conductor doesn't know what all the symbols in a score mean, it bodes ill for their credibility in front of an orchestra. She rightly points up the overarching function of the conductor being bound up in leadership, then explores that idea at numerous levels, covering not just being in front of the band, but dealing with boards, managements, musicians, the public, sponsors, unions -- no stone is left unturned. 

Particularly impressive is her section on programming, and the systematic way she outlines the process. Along the way she has many valuable things to say about the difference in program types -- subscription, pops, educational, outreach etc. When someone can offer advice for pops programs like 'Many shows will call for a lead trumpet player who has a great high register and truly understands jazz improvisation' and 'A good drummer is worth every penny. They can save your show', you know you are not dealing with just a theorist. 

One might have the suspicion that a lot of this would read like a management handbook, and yes, some of it does, but always related to the real world of orchestral music and oriented to the person, not the management theory. As daunting as it all may seem, young conductors could save themselves a lot of angst by considering what Wittry has to say -- certainly a lot of problems could be pre-empted by a smart person taking a lot of this on board.

Included are passages of interviews with Leonard Slatkin, Robert Spano and JoAnn Falletta; not surprisingly what they have to say backs up the author's points, and what comes through very clearly is the need these days for the music director to be very good at public speaking -- not something the old warriors had to worry about. But now is now, and Wittry is right up with what the present-day scene constitutes -- what orchestra now can get away without having educational and outreach programs, for example, and they are now part of the director's brief as much as the Mahler nights. 

Some might bridle at things like Slatkin's airy statement that 'There is plenty of work for a good conductor', and to be fair, Wittry herself includes sections about dealing with rejection and the odds against even getting auditions let alone a job. The overall tone of the book however, is relentlessly positive (in a somewhat American self-help book kind of way), which may grate a bit with more cynical Euro types who have been banging on doors for years without getting an answer. Every book has its boundaries, and Wittry's does not cross into areas that are too messy. 

While pointing out the obvious, that it is a good idea to study with people who can open doors for you, she does not tackle the peculiar mixture of nepotism, favouritism, out-and-out brown-nosing and misogyny which attends the rise of conductors through the ranks, and partly explains why so few are actually any good. Perhaps things are more open in the supposedly meritocratic USA rather than closed-shop Europe, but I doubt the difference is vast. Koussevitsky's favoritism of Bernstein was notorious, and anyone who has read Norman Lebrecht's book The Maestro Myth will have had a view of the scene at the 'star' end -- but it applies at all levels. The would-be conductor needs to be a dirty-dealing politician too. Every orchestra has its own politics and the director is in the middle of that stew, and this is what Wittry most misses.

Perhaps however, Wittry did not want to go into these contentious areas. Perhaps that explains what I felt to be the most glaring omission of all -- what it's like for women who aspire to be conductors. Neither Wittry nor Falletta has much of importance to say about this (apart from an admonition to wear low-heeled shoes and a few pieces of advice about dress). God knows it's hard enough for men, but for women? Could either of them tell us about glass ceilings and how to break them? 

But perhaps that's another book entirely (but not, please, by Norman Lebrecht)! Meanwhile we have this one -- which tells us that we will have to deal with board members who aren't interested in music beyond Brahms but have fat check books, and divas who throw wobblies because they're insecure. What the book does not do is cross the line and tell us how a young conductor on their first big job might actually deal with a cantankerous but 'name' fifty-something soprano who is past her use-by date and can't face it. Wittry confines herself to basic communication principles. Well, there will always be some things that have to be learned on the job. 

Wittry has done a wonderful job in producing what is surely a first: a guide to what lies beyond the music in the modern orchestral scene. And please note: a woman wrote this book. It's long overdue, and I suspect the guys are all too macho and self-absorbed to deal with this stuff. Wittry constantly reminds us that 'It's not your orchestra, it belongs to the community', but when did you last hear a male conductor with a residency refer to anything other than 'my orchestra'? Small wonder that arts admin is more and more a women's profession.



Beyond the Baton - What every conductor needs to know

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