Why I Got Myself into Conducting

This article was originally published at Ahmad’s previous blog on 31st January, 2020.

I am always amused by how conductors bring music to life. The same musical work can be interpreted differently by two different conductors. They do it simply by using their conducting gestures; a choreography of hand and body movements. Based on their ability and experience, conductors can either uplift or ruin an orchestral performance. The reason I got myself into conducting is purely intrinsic. I was inspired by great conductors, appalled by terrible conductors, and motivated to help others perform music better.

Conducting masterclass with Maestro Vladimir Ponkin @ IMPA 2017, Moscow, Russia

I became passionate about classical music when I started playing in orchestras. I met many inspiring conductors who were enthusiastic and insightful about music. Each conductor had their own way to get their point across to the musicians. Some were stern and critical, some were diplomatic and encouraging. Regardless of their ways, they helped me grow as a musician. When conductors are passionate about the music, their energy resonates around the entire orchestra. On some occasions, I witnessed conductors improve the musicians in a single instance, by giving them graphical or metaphorical ideas on how to play the music. Some conductors exuded authority as if they were the embodiment of the music themselves. Every gesture they made, every word they uttered, the way they glanced at the musicians – everything was done with conviction. I was inspired to become a conductor because I saw those great conductors as my role models.

Conducting ‘Simfoni Aidilfitri’ with Orkestra Cerita Muzik, June 2018

Alas, I have also met many bad conductors while working as an orchestral violinist. Some were clueless during rehearsals; not knowing what to rehearse or how to fix problems. Once the orchestra finished playing the entire piece, they would kill time exclaiming, “Alright, let’s do it again from the top!” Some conductors tried very hard to make themselves look smart. They would blurt out random (useless) facts and vague musical terms, or explain the background of the music excessively. They loved to nitpick on little things to the point where the musicians became unaffected. Other conductors went in the opposite direction. They would say everything was perfect even when the orchestra was obviously a big mess. All of the bad conductors had one thing in common: they did not help the musicians. I felt the urge to take up the baton because I believed that I could do a better job.

You don’t have to do anything to the orchestra. If possible, help.

Vladimir Ponkin

The true purpose of a conductor is to help musicians play together. Conductors may be assigned to direct anything from a 100-piece symphony orchestra to a duo performing a contemporary piece. Their gestures can point out the tempo, dynamics, articulation, phrasing and cues of entry. Musicians may have different ideas on how to interpret the music – conductors have to be the arbiter in making the musical decisions. They also have to listen carefully to whether or not the music is being played faithfully to the score. If something is played incorrectly, they have to point out the mistake so corrections can be made promptly. In addition, conductors need to be the reassuring figure when things get complicated. Sometimes there can be difficult passages or drastic tempo changes. Conductors must know how to give the right advice and provide the right solutions. I became fascinated by the complex task of managing both music and people at the same time. I wanted to guide people to perform music at their highest level.

Conducting Clap & Tap Children Orchestra, November 2015

Conducting is an art of making music without a musical instrument. Equipped with only a baton, conductors have to harness their talent, energy and experience to bring out the best of the orchestra. Like a mime artist, they have to transmit the character, mood and expression of the music by using themselves as the medium. I find it absolutely captivating, and to be a conductor is the greatest musical pursuit for me.

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