Learning Conducting from the Inside Out - Part 1: How & What To Observe

Every time I move to the other side of the podium, I’m reminded how different that experience is and that I need to keep that in mind when I’m conducting.

Improve your conducting while sitting in the ensemble as a player or singer? You bet you can! Here's how...

At a recent workshop I was asked by a musician “What can I do when I’m sitting in an ensemble as a player to get better at conducting?”

There’s SO much to learn about conducting from sitting in the ensemble, that I’m devoting a whole series of posts to it!

Part 1: Why & How to Observe Rehearsals (this one!)

Part 2: Observing Communication, Relationships & Feedback

Part 3: Observing Productivity, Pace & Structure

Part 4: Thinking & Listening Like A Conductor

The other side of the podium

Conducting is a complicated job. When we’re on the podium there is SO much vying for our attention. The music. The people. The schedule. The concert.

In the moment, it can be really challenging to manage and juggle all those things at once, much less monitor and imagine what the experience is like from the musicians’ point of view. So being on the other side, sitting as a player or chorister, can give us crucial insights into conducting.

This perspective is essential for all of us, and I find, the longer it’s been since I’ve sat in a rehearsal (or observed one) the less connected I am to the musicians’ experience. Every time I move to the other side of the podium, I’m reminded how different that experience is and that I need to keep that in mind when I’m conducting.

If conducting is something you want to do, but haven’t done yet then observing rehearsals in a structured way will give you an excellent head start and loads of insight. When you do step onto the podium, you’ll be armed with lots of ideas, phrases, strategies and tips that you can try out, and a clear sense of how they impact the sound or psychology of an ensemble.

But I’m not in an ensemble…

No problem! These strategies can be used to watch and analyse videos of your own or others’ rehearsals, or to observe other conductors from the sidelines.

If you’re not playing/singing in the ensemble, you have the advantage of exploring many viewpoints. Get out of your comfort zone! Try out as many different vantage points in the room as possible. Sit with or behind different sections to really get a feel for what it’s like in their world. You’ll get especially interesting perspectives sitting as far away as possible from where your primary instrument/voice sits.

If you’re videoing yourself, set the camera up in different places to get a feel for the experience of different people in your ensemble.

There are also loads of YouTube videos of great conductors rehearsing - both professional ensembles, and master educators working with youth orchestras or honour ensembles. These are excellent sources of inspiration and great for flexing your observing skills if there’s no one nearby to go watch.

Have to do peer observation as part of your teaching? Why not use the time to observe a rehearsal?

How long to observe for

The beauty of observing others is you can learn something valuable in ANY time frame - from a 2 minute snapshot, to years’ worth of observations.

Got 1-2 minutes off while the conductor is rehearsing another section? Observe!

Walking past a colleague’s rehearsal? Take 30 seconds to pop your head in.

Got an hour off while your ensemble is rehearsing a piece you’re not in? Observe!

Got time available to go see another group or a conductor you admire? Do that!

Observing over a longer period of time (like for a group you’re playing/singing in) can give you valuable information on how progress happens over time, and the impact of repeating a certain strategy or tactic. Conductors often set up particular concepts or phrases so that they can then refer to them in shorthand later. Following or being in a group over a long period helps you see this being built and applied.

On the flip side, there might be things that have been repeated so many times they’ve lost their sparkle and their impact. They no longer change the sound. That’s useful to see too.

Conversely, observing over a short period can bring laser focus - helping you see and hear if what the conductor is saying/doing is getting the response they intend.

Who to focus on

When observing, you can also focus your attention on different people or groups. You could observe one individual, a section, a whole ensemble, or focus on the conductor. What is the experience of that person or group like in the rehearsal? Why?

You can of course also focus on your own experience as an ensemble member. How do you feel when things happen? Why?

Each perspective will deepen and enrich your understanding of this deeply complex thing we call conducting!

Observation - it's S.A.C.R.E.D.

Whatever area you’re focussing on, it’s good to have a clear framework to organise and evaluate your information. A simple one could be:

Situation: What was going on at the time? What was the ‘problem' to be solved (musical or relational)?

Action: What happened? Identify the event, phrase, behaviour, choice or action by the conductor (or ensemble member)

Change: Did something change as a result? If so, what? What was the response or impact of the event?

Reflect: Why do you think this was the impact?

Evaluate: How useful is this action/behaviour/approach? When could you use it? Could you tweak or improve it?

Do: What will you do differently now? How will you incorporate what you’ve learned?

Download a FREE PDF template you can use next time you’re in a rehearsal, observing or watching a video.

The most important question to ask

When observing, the most important question to ask is:

What changed?

Did the sound change? Did an improvement happen? Did the mood in the room change?

Observing the action, direction, behaviour or choice of the conductor or ensemble member is useful:

The conductor said “Clarinets - make sure the tip of your tongue is on the tip of the reed” <-EVENT

But until you also note what change happened in response to that direction - you won’t know whether this is something you want to use (or avoid).

= The clarinets tonguing then suddenly became clearer <-CHANGE

Once you start making connections between events and the change they elicit from the ensemble, you’ll get much clearer on what you want to use/steal/avoid in your own conducting. If you don’t connect the event with the change or outcome you may end up misattributing value to certain phrases/actions because they sound good or clever, but don’t actually get results.

On reflection and evaluation, you may also uncover reasons why something didn’t elicit a change this time, but might in another context.

If something did change, Is this change something you want or value? When might you want it (or not)? Different things work in different situations.

Sometimes: Tell Joke -> Tension Broken & Focus improves

Other times: Tell Joke -> Distraction -> Focus disintegrates

Be Smart with your Data!

Come to my house, and there are random boxes full of notebooks with random, unclassified observations from years of rehearsals. I know I’ve heard some absolute gems and been to some killer rehearsals. But digging out that one gem is a right pain! So my best advice is to collect all your observation notes in one place. This could be:

- A small notebook you can keep in your instrument case/music bag (pro tip, buy in multiples so you never run out)

- A folder or running document in a note-taking app like OneNote, Evernote or Google Docs

If you write in a paper notebook you can scan in your notes later to keep them all in one place, and tag particular topics. You can also make an index on the back page to record what’s in there & from when. Digitizing your notes means future you can easily find specific topics.

The next time you’re trying to find a neat phrase to get the ensemble to play with better dynamic contrast you can just search “Dynamic” and you’ll find all the references to it. Thanks past you!

With the permission of the conductor (and the ensemble/organisation) you may also be able to video/audio record rehearsals you’re playing in. Do the right thing and get permission first. No one likes conducting and seeing a camera in their face without notice!

Such recordings can be very useful, but my experience is that I rarely go back and listen or watch these recordings unless they’re with an absolute master conductor/teacher. You might be different. Experiment and see what works for you.

If you do use audio/video - follow the same system for file management. Make a folder just for these recordings and tag them with where/when/who and notes on what was valuable.

Next in the series we’ll be talking specifically about questions to ask when observing Communication, Feedback & Relationships.

Download a FREE PDF template you can use next time you’re in a rehearsal, observing or watching a video. Print it out and put it in your folder, instrument case or music bag now, so you’re always ready to learn.

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