An Interview with the Author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music

Chase: “All right everybody, this is Chase March. I am talking to the author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music, Michael Miller. How’s it going, Michael?”

Michael: “I’m doing fine, Chase. Good to be with you.”

Chase: “You’ve written a good book. It’s something that a lot of music teachers could use, especially novice music teachers. I’m a musician and it’s simple enough to conduct a common beat time, 4/4 time, but I wanted to get your book to see a little bit more of what conductors have to do. You’ve divided the book up into five sections; behind the scenes, basic skills, interpretation and expression, different types of conducting, and finally you have some interviews with famous conductors.”

Michael: “Yeah, the interviews were the fun part of the book for me. I got to talk to conductors who conduct different types of things, whether that’s Broadway musicals, Hollywood soundtracks, choirs, or orchestras. The conducting job really changes a lot depending on who you’re conducting.”

Chase: “For sure, but it all starts from the same, basic principles. Your first part of the job is, ‘What makes a great conductor?’ Could you answer that question for us? I know it’s in the book, but briefly for everyone listening right now. What does a great conductor have to do?”

Michael: “You’ve got a couple different levels you have to operate on and those levels actually change depending on the type of performers you are conducting. At the most basic, the conductor has to set the tempo and keep the ensemble on the beat. The most basic stuff is the beat patterns. But beyond that, the conductor helps the musicians. So, if you are conducting an ensemble of younger players, let’s say a high school ensemble, they will need a lot more help than if you are conducting a professional symphonic orchestra.

The younger players will need help knowing when to come in, knowing their cures, tough rhythms, and that sort of thing. Wo, while you are keeping the beat, you’ve got to help these players do what they need to do. If you’re dealing with more experienced players, you probably need to do less of that because they know how to do it already.

In most types of music, the conductor can really help shape the performance, the end sound of the piece. This is done primarily in rehearsal. Your prep them to do that so when you get to the performance, they’re doing it. This is why when you listen to orchestra performances of a single piece of music, take New World Symphony or Beethoven’s 9th or whatever. You can listen to three different recordings from three different orchestras and they will sound different. They’ll have different energy levels, and dynamic levels, and tempos. All of that is set by the conductor. The conductor really does shape the overall sound and performance of the piece.”

Chase: “In the book, you talk about how we need a band in front of us to practise our craft. But you also suggest that we can do that by conducting as we are listening to a piece of music. You suggest on page 31, ‘Instead of listening to a single recording five times, listen to five recordings one time each. This approach also helps you get a feel for the various interpretations possible.’

Michael: “Definitely. Different conductors approach things different ways. You can get radically different or subtly different interpretations. These days there are a lot of orchestral and choir performances on YouTube, so you can see some classic conductors doing there thing and get a sense of how they are approaching it differently from others.”

Chase: “That’s another neat thing about your book, too, because there are certain points throughout the book that you direct us to your website to find out more.”

Michael: “Conducting is something you can talk about, and of course, I do, but a lot of it you have to see. Obviously, we have diagrams of the different beat patterns, but I also created a series of videos showing how you conduct the various beat patterns.”

Chase: “I just got a music job. I’m an elementary teacher so I’ve always done choirs, but for the first time this year, I am going to be doing Grade 7/8 band. That’s the first time the kids get their instruments. It’s brand new. So reading your book has been homework for me, to help me figure out what I am going to be doing this year because this it is a new experience.”

Michael: “So much of what a conductor does is not the conducting. The conducting during the performance is maybe 20% of the job. The majority of the job is prepping for that, primarily in rehearsals, especially in youth and student ensembles. You’ll have issues well beyond playing a piece of music.

If you are dealing with 7th and 8th Grade band, you’ve got intonation issues to deal with. A big part of the job is getting the clarinet section to sound like one section as opposed to ten folks all playing different notes. I’m not putting down the musicians at all. At that age, they are learning. And one of the things they are learning is how to play together as a group. That’s job number one for the conductor.

All of the conductors I interviewed in the book said, ‘No matter what level you are at, you’re a teacher.’ Even when you are dealing with professionals, you are teaching them the way you want it performed. When you are dealing with younger performers you are even teaching them the instrument and how it should be played. And that is one of the most rewarding things about being a conductor, as you are teaching when they ‘get it.’ That moment when it all comes together for the first time is one of the most rewarding things a conductor can do.”

Chase: “The Manny Laureano interview was pretty eye-opening for me. On page pg 136 of your book, he says,

‘assign homework every week. . . I told the kids, ‘You need to practice. You need to practice. You need to practice.’
Well, the problem was, and I didn’t see it until the end, that the piece is just so gigantic. You tell them to practise but they need
to know where, what, what do I do?”

Michael: “You really have to give them explicit directions, especially with younger musicians, but even if you are conducting a community choir, you have kind of the same issues. You’ll have people who don’t go home and practise three hours a day because they just don’t have the time for that. To me, that’s one of the fun parts of the book, and one of the most useful, is being able to interview guys like Manny.

A little background on Manny. He is the principle trumpet player here in the Minneapolis Orchestra, but he also is the conductor and leader of the Minneapolis Youth Symphony, so he gets to see conducting both from being a player and being a conductor. He’s played under some of the most famous conductors in the world, but on the next day, he goes and conducts the Youth Symphony. He gets to see it from both sides, so he knows what works and what doesn’t.”

Chase: “That’s very cool. I learned a lot from this book. I played the French Horn starting in middle school. I played it all the way through high school, and then in the army’s marching band. One thing I found interesting though is how not only you, but some of the conductors you interviewed, mention how you should mark up your own piece of music so you can remember certain things. I’ve never done that.”

Michael: “It really helps. Even if it’s just a matter of saying, here is something difficult, look up, here’s a key change, here’s a tempo change. Just as you would expect musicians to mark up their music for difficult passages, the conductor should do the same. Depending on the pieces you are conducting, there is a lot of homework involved in being a conductor. Some of the conductors say, if there are prepping a major piece for a professional choir or orchestra, they will do months of preparation in advance before they ever step in front of the orchestra. They learn the history of the piece, when it was written, and what the performance standards were then, to really get inside the mind of the composer so when they do step in front of the ensemble, they’ve got it all down, right from day one.”

Chase: “They do that, as you say in the book, using coloured pencils to mark different sections. For example, red for cueing, green for dynamics, and things like that. And if you use the same colour all the time, your brain gets used to it and it’s a lot easier for you to recognize, over time, what you have to do with each piece.”

Michael: “I think that’s a great tip because a conductor is doing so much. At the most basic level you are setting the tone and keeping the beat, like a human metronome. But beyond that, think about it. You’re dealing with dynamics, rhythm, solo passages, groups passages, tempo changes. You’re dealing with all these things. And in front of an orchestra, you are dealing with a hundred different people with a hundred instruments in front of you. You’ve got the most complex job of the whole group, trying to corral all this stuff, so the easier you can make it on yourself, the colour-coded marking up section being an example. the easier the whole ordeal will be.”

Chase: “That’s amazing. I didn’t realize there was so much prep work. I thought a lot of it might have been sight reading and learning a piece though multiple run-throughs. But a lot of it is the homework you do beforehand so you can be comfortable with a piece to know how it sounds and know when people need to come in.”

Michael: “Yeah, because they are relying on you. You’re the boss. You’re the leader. Especially with student ensembles and younger players. They’re really relying on you. You’ve got to know your stuff. You can’t rely on them. I guess if you are working with a professional symphony, any fool could stand up there and wave there arms because the musicians know what they are doing so well that they could probably play blind. But any other type of ensemble, they depend on you. You’re the leader.

In terms of the prep work, that does differ on the type of work you are doing. In one of the chapters toward the end of the book, I interviewed a couple of guys who conduct movie orchestras for movie soundtracks. One of the things that fascinated me there was how little prep work they have. They are on such a tight schedule. Making a movie is such a condensed thing, especially at the end. The music always comes at the end, after the movie has been cut.

You might have the composer compose the music one day, have it sent to an orchestrator the next day, then have it sent to a copyist the next day, and the fourth day you are in front of the orchestra recording. A lot of the guys I interviewed said they were lucky if they go the music the night before to look at. So, in a lot of these cases, the Hollywood conductors are sight reading along with the musicians to try and get it down on tape for what we see in the movie theatres.”

Chase: “I couldn’t believe that when I read it. There is so much time given to writing of the screenplay and casting it, so why do they just make the music come in the last thirty seconds as quickly as they can. That seems really strange to me. Music is such an integral piece of the whole thing.”

Michael: “It does come down to the very end. They’ve filmed the movie, they’ve edited it, they’ve cut it, everyone has been there and then they add the music. It literally is the last thing that goes on, and they’ve got a firm release date of when it goes on. That’s the way it works. A lot of times, you’re recording music which has only been copied the night before. If that.”

Chase: “That’s crazy. I can also appreciate the Tim Davies interview because he mentions the French Horns, in particular, a couple times there. I think that’s an instrument that is often over-looked. When I was at the interview for the job I just got, I asked them if they had a French Horn and they said, ‘No.’ It seems like, ‘We don’t need a French Horn.’ That’s crazy to me. It’s such a lovely instrument.”

Michael: “Well, as you know, it’s a difficult instrument to play, or to play well anyway. If you have a good French Horn player, it’s a wonderful sound. With a bunch of seventh graders, it can be horrible sometimes. It’s an instrument that is difficult to master, but when it’s mastered, it’s a great instrument.”

Chase: “I definitely agree.”

That concludes the first half of the interview I did with Michael Miller, author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music. Please come back tomorrow to read the rest of the transcript. You can also download the entire show to listen to whenever you like, or stream it with the player below. Thanks for tuning in. See you tomorrow.

Read Part 2

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