Mind Tools: Applications and Solutions


What to Think About When You Conduct:
Perception, Language, and Musical Communication
Part 1 (of 4)
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Lee Humphries



During the 1968 primary campaign, a group of business leaders asked candidate Eugene McCarthy why he was qualified to be President of the United States.  He replied that when you got right down to it, probably nobody was qualified.

The same goes for conductors: Probably nobody has the complete set of skills the job calls for.  Yet, some people still want to do it.  If you're one of those, you're going to need a plan of action.

In this essay, I'll propose a way to go about it, an approach that I arrived at over a number of years while conducting various professional ensembles in performances of new music.  The approach is based not only on musical structure, but also on psychological and linguistic structure.  In that respect it is somewhat unusual.

I am grateful to the many fine players who served as guinea pigs while I surreptitiously slipped little musical experiments into the rehearsal, trying to discover what subtle aspects of conducting they were unconsciously responding to.  I am also grateful to the many composers whose interesting works provided me a wealth of novel conducting problems to come to terms with.


Hearing Difference

Let's begin by noting that all the information in a score isn't equally important.  As you prepare for rehearsal, you need to distinguish among the score's various features and determine their relative significance.  This is the first step in building a useful mental image of the work.  That image—filled out and refined over the course of score study—will guide you in organizing the rehearsal and gauging the ensemble's progress.

Difference and attention.  Listening to music is an act of perception.  The mechanisms of perception are highly relevant to conducting, so I'll take a few paragraphs to discuss them.  Then I'll show you their application to score study.

The fundamental unit of perception is difference: the difference between simultaneously occurring phenomena, and the difference between phenomena separated in time.  Each perceived difference is a psychological event.

Our fundamental response to difference is attention.  Music holds our attention with its ongoing flow of parametric differences—temporal, metric, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, tonal, textural, formal, dynamic.  These differences take place at all levels of musical structure and vary in their attention-capturing potential.  But what determines that potential?  To answer this, let's look at how we make sense of incoming data.

To find meaning, we spontaneously carry out an internal search, looking for a mental framework in which the incoming data plays a concordant role.  This operation is usually done in a split second.  The result is a foreground-background structure of "role-within-framework," which makes up our mental organization of the moment.

As more data arrives, we're likely to encounter some new element that doesn't fit our current framework: It has no role there.  This lack of fit triggers another search for a different mental framework where it can play a role.

The amount of attention we pay to an element is a function of its incompatibility with our current mental framework.  The greater an element's potential for reorganizing our framework, the more attention it commands.

This psychological principle is of the utmost musical importance.  It is the key to identifying the compositional elements that will dominate the listener's attention.  And it is the perceptual foundation for effective stick technique.

Levels of attention.  The events that attract the most attention are those which have no role within our current framework—which make sense only when our existing framework is replaced with a different one.  They have a quality of surprise about them.  They are novel, unexpected, discontinuous.  Some musical examples are: a change of tempo with no mediating accelerando or ritardando; a change of dynamics with no mediating crescendo or decrescendo; a shift of tonal center with no mediating modulation; a change of texture, register, instrumentation, meter, phrase structure, articulation, scale, harmonic style.

The events that attract moderate attention are those which become meaningful when our current framework is retained, but modified.  They have some novelty, but are felt to be a logical extension of what has preceded them.  They contribute to a sense of progression and growth.  Some musical examples are: tones that extend the boundaries of the melodic range; crescendos or diminuendos; accelerandos or ritardandos; modulations; systematic changes in rhythmic density; systematic addition or subtraction of instruments.

The events that attract the least attention are those which reinforce our current framework.  They lack novelty and fit smoothly into the existing mental organization.

The most significant musical event at any point in time is the one that most challenges the listener's current mental framework.

The limits of attention.  There is a limit to the speed at which we can repeatedly shift our attention.  The maximum rate at which a conductor can give cues and/or transmit expressive details is an absolute value, independent of the tempo of the music.  Experience has shown me that this is approximately one instruction per half-second.  At mm. = 120, that amounts to a cue every beat; at mm. = 60, two cues per beat.  But this value is an upper limit: It is difficult to sustain for more than a few measures without making yourself dizzy and drowning the ensemble in excess information.  A more comfortable rate for both conductor and ensemble is one transmission every one to two seconds—allowing for momentary increases or decreases in the rate when called for by the music's structure.

You can apply this concept to score study in the following way.  First, find a base rate of attention shifts with which you are comfortable—say, a shift of attention about every two seconds.  Then, taking the tempo into account, find a logical metrical unit that approximates this time span—perhaps a half-measure.

Marking differences in the score.  Go through the score, and for each half-measure (or other appropriate unit) determine the most attention-commanding difference contained therein—the most important change in the music.  It might be an instrument's entrance, a sfz, an increase in rhythmic activity, a chromatic alteration, a change in melodic direction, an irregular resolution.  The possibilities are endless.

Mark each significant difference in the score.  I recommend the following method.  In the appropriate instrumental part, mark the specific beat where the difference occurs.  Do this by writing that beat's number there in red pencil.  For example, if the most significant difference is an accent in the oboe on the fourth beat, then write a red "4" there in the oboe part.

Marking the score in this way routes your attention.  It guides your eye and ear through the maze of musical information to the dominant event of each moment.  In the process, you acquire an image of the score as a timeline of rhythmic attention shifts.

This approach also makes your learning more efficient.  It saves you from having to figure out the significant differences each time you go through the score.  Additionally, it enables you to think ahead during the heat of conducting.  You can quickly see where important events will appear in upcoming measures, so you can prepare for them well in advance.

Once you've created this timeline as a conceptual scaffolding, you can incorporate other dimensions of musical awareness into it.  We'll consider these next.

Continue to Part 2 (of 4)


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