This is Part 2 of an exclusive interview I did with Michael Miller, author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music. If you missed Part 1, you can go back and read it now. You can also listen to the interview for free. Stream it with the player below or download it to listen to later.
Michael: “A conductor has to know a little bit about every instrument out there. If you are conducting your seventh grade band and your French Horn section is having trouble with a particular passage. You have to figure that out. Why are they having trouble with it?
You have to know how that instrument works. Are they having fingering problems? Is it breathing problems? You have to know a little bit about the instruments.
If you are conducting a choir, you don’t have to be a singer yourself, but you have to know how to sing and what proper vocal technique is. So that’s another part you have to layer on your skill set. You really have to know about the instruments or the choral vocalists that you’re conducting.”
Chase: “A teacher colleague of mine told me a neat way to do that. She doesn’t remember the fingering position for the French Horn, specifically, she told me that. But there are fingering charts in the back of the student books. She’ll go to the student and reinforce where to find they can find answer without having to admit that she doesn’t know.”
Michael: “You’re not going to be a virtuoso on every instrument. You’re the conductor. A few of the conductors I interviewed told me they rely on the concertmaster, the first violin, for example. If we have an issue with the string section, I go right to the first violin and to that section to see if we can figure it out. You have to rely on your players to some degree.”
Chase: “When I was in high school, I was really impressed with my bandmaster because if you had trouble, he would take an instrument and sit down beside you. He could do that with every instrument in the whole concert band. It just blew me away. I want to be able to do the same thing but I don’t know how to play every instrument. I’ve been learning the woodwinds this summer. I already knew the brass. I want to be able to, at least, play a couple notes on each one.”
Michael: “This is why I think the more difficult conducting jobs are conducting youth players because you have to do much more individual teaching. Not that it’s easy conducting a professional orchestra. It’s not. There are different pressures and challenges, but those guys know what they are doing.
Dealing with younger players, you have to teach them so much about dealing with their individual instruments and about how to play together as a group. With older, more experienced players, you take that for granted. But the conductors who have the hardest job and who I admire the most are the school conductors, the people who are conducting junior high and high school choirs and bands.”
Chase: “Ah, you’re scaring me. I’m just kidding, Michael. On page 58 of your book you say, .You should strive to maintain as much eye contact with your musicians as possible—and encourage eye contact in return. Keep your head out of the score, and the score in your head.’ Why is that important?”
Michael: “You need to make a connection with the players. You don’t want your players to have their heads buried in their music and you don’t want to have your head buried in yours either. You want to have that direct connection. So much of conducting is body language. It can be your hands, it can be posture, it can be the way you raise your eyebrows at a certain passage. That’s how you get across your point.
You need to be looking at them. They need to be looking at you. If you don’t know the music and you’re actually reading the score as you go along, you are missing a big opportunity to connect with the musicians.”
Chase: “That’s a really key point. Thank you. Another thing I was wondering is how exactly I’m going to cue the students to come in. On page 115 you say, ‘You should avoid pointing while conducting; there are better ways to let a section know they need to be ready. A former teacher of mine called pointing the ‘the finger of death.’ . . . The less you use it, the more effective it will be when you do.’
Michael: “This varies from conductor to conductor. Everyone has their own personal style. It also varies from ensemble to ensemble. With more experienced ensembles you have to cue them less. But pointing should probably be used judiciously. If you are pointing every other measure, pointing loses its point. Looking at a section and giving them a nod is a good cue.”
Chase: “Yeah, and it gets the students following you if you are conducting a good pattern while maintaining eye contact. You conduct the beat pattern with your right hand, but your left hand can do different things to cue people in without having to point as well.”
Michael: “Obviously, your right hand keeps going with the beat. Your left hand does everything else and the less it does the better. I think one of the temptations for a less experienced conductor is to cue everything. Your welcome wears pretty thin when you do that. You should try to use your left hand only when it’s necessary. Train the musicians to do what they have to do without having to be pointed at all the time.”
Chase: “So, your left hand should normally be relaxed at your side?”
Michael: “If you don’t have anything to cue, get it out of the way.”
Chase: “You have a four step plan in the book that shows how to use rehearsal time appropriately. On page 37 you say, ‘Start with a warm-up period, where everyone settles in and gets in tune. Use this period not just to warm up your vocalists or instrumentalists, but to also build a sense of ensemble, develop intonation, and solidify other basic skills.’ I want ito touch on e on point there – build a sense of ensemble. How do you do that?”
Michael: “It’s a matter of teaching the musicians how to play together. There are lots of practice techniques you can use. I talk about some of them in the book. It’s a matter of getting them to think outside of their own heads.
If you are dealing with brand new musicians, those in 5th or 6th grade or whatnot, they’re just concentrating on their own music. They’re not listening to anyone else. You’ve got to get them out of that so they are hearing what the person sitting next to them is doing. You can do it with a very easy piece of music, even if it’s just playing a scale, something where they don’t have to concentrate on the reading and you can get them listening instead. This is key.”
Chase: “I really like this quote on page 40 of your book. It says, ‘Finally remember to be positive, even when things aren’t going quite as planned, Let the group know that you enjoy their playing, and offer profuse (but honest) compliments throughout, Don’t focus on the negatives, but instead try to turn them around; instead of saying ‘that really stunk, do it again,’ try ‘that was pretty good, but now let’s try it a little faster.’ And if you do find yourself reacting too harshly to an error, try tempering that harsh comment with humor, a little laughter goes a long way.’
I think that can be applied to teachers in any capacity, not just in music.
Michael: “One of the guys I interviewed in the book, I forget which one, said, ‘I’m as much a psychologist as I am a musician when I’m dealing with a group of 20, 30, 40 people of all ages and experience levels. You’ve got to use a lot of psychology to deal with them.’
And just how do you deal with people? Some people come in very blustery and yell, and that might work for some but for most people that doesn’t work so well. You need to encourage them, not discourage them. That’s why during the rehearsal time, you always want to end on a piece that they can play well, so they end on with positive feeling about the rehearsal as opposed to a jumbled train wreck of a rehearsal.
You want everything to be as positive as possible. You’ll get the most out of your musicians that way, especially those who might be struggling otherwise.”
Chase: “There are those sections we need to work on and tough pieces but your advice is to do that in the middle of the rehearsal. Then towards the end, work on something more familiar, something they can have success with so they go out remembering that, but then also remembering that we are going to assign them homework and they need to practise this specific section.”
Michael: “Your rehearsal process almost looks like a Bell Curve. You start on the left side as you start the rehearsal with something easy to get them playing together well. Then you move into the harder stuff and you woodshed that. And you end up with something easier that you know they can play well and everybody feels good about it. That’s a successful rehearsal.”
Chase: “You know what’s amazing? I’ve taught music every single year of my career and I’m coning into my tenth year. I’ve taught primary music so it’s mostly singing, but I’ve also done recorder. I thought I knew a lot about music. When I started reading this book, it’s called The Complete Idiots Guide to Conducting Music, and for the first twenty pages I thought, ‘Woah, this really is for idiots.’ But then I started getting stuff out of it, even though I am a musician and I know a lot of this stuff. I took six pages of notes and wrote in the margins.
I think this is a book that people should get. If you are conducting music and you’ve done primary choir or something like that. You can still learn a lot from this book.”
Michael: “It’s designed for anybody. There are a lot of folks who get thrown into conducting, whether it’s the church choir, the high school musical, and even people like you who’ve been doing it for a while.
There is a lot more to conducting than just waving your arms around. 80% of it is the rehearsal process and how you interpret a piece, how you get the musicians to play, and there are always new things you can try. Hopefully, my book does some of that for people.”
Chase: “The interesting thing to is about whether or not to use a baton. When I did primary choir, I never used one. But I just recently bought one and it feels so good it my hand. I love it. Even though conductors are doing the same job, per se. You have a whole chapter in your book about that. But there are different ways to do it. Certain choirs or jazz bands don’t use batons. It’s interesting to see that it’s not just the conductor’s preference but also the style that seems to dictate that.”
Michael: “In the real world, a lot of choirmasters conduct bare-handed, a lot of orchestra and band conductors use a baton. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. A choirmaster might say, ‘Oh, I can’t get the finesse and the emotion I need with a baton,’ and that’s just bull. Of course you can. Or a band conductor might say, ‘I can’t get the precision with my bare-hands that I can get with a baton,’ and that’s bull also.
You can be as precise as you want bare-handed and you can be as emotive as you’d like with a baton. It really is just a matter of personal preference, what you get used to, and what you’re good at.”
Chase: “That being said, speaking as a musician sitting in the orchestra pit, I find it a lot easier to see a white baton than a hand.”
Michael: “That’s one of the reasons I prefer a baton. It does give the performers something to focus on. I’ve seen a lot of bad choir conductors in my day, like where’s the beat? They’re just waving their arms around, whereas with a baton it will cause some conductors to focus more if there is that thing in front of them and in their hand as opposed to just being bare-handed. But again, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it that way. It’s just about perfecting your craft whichever way you decide to go.”
Chase: “Besides conductors learning the basic patterns of the different time signatures, there are different ways you can conduct to indicate phrases and dynamic with your left hand. It’s very complicated. It looks like someone is just waving their hands around, but it is something that we are doing to communicate to our musicians in front of us.
I’m glad that you’ve written this book and that I’ve had a chance to read it. There is a lot in here that I didn’t know. I think I’ve learned a lot out of it and hopefully I’ll be better to go on the first day of school this fall.”
Michael: “If a conductor or an aspiring conductor reads the book and gets a half dozen useful things out of it, I think that’s money well invested considering how important the job is. A lot of people are probably going to get a lot more out of it than that, especially if you’ve never conducted before. It will take you from square one on up. You can jump in wherever you need to jump in. I’ll tell you that there are a lot of conductors who probably need the help, so I’m glad I wrote the book for them too.”
Chase: “Excellent. So tell our listeners and readers how they can get this book and get in contact with you.”
Michael: “This book and all of my books can be found at molehillgroup.com. There is contact information on there as well. I’ve written a lot of books about music, music theory, playing drums, that’s my main instrument. There are also books from different fields as well. I do a lot of writing.”
Chase: “Well, it has been a pleasure talking to you. I am thankful that your publisher sent me a copy. I’ll podcast it and transcribe it for the blog so hopefully a lot of people can enjoy the music. Thank you.”
Michael: “Take care.”
Download the MP3 of this interview or stream it with the player below.