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.

5 Things You Need to Learn Music

Many people feel the urge to learn a musical instrument after watching a great performance. They may have been impressed by the skills of the performer or were attracted to attributes of a particular instrument – be it the soothing tone of a piano, the expressivity of a violin or the rebellious twang of an electric guitar – as something which reflects their inner voice and personality. They then shop around for an instrument and look for tutorials online. Some may contact teachers for private lessons. After a few weeks, they find out that playing a musical instrument is more difficult than they thought. They start to expect less results from themselves. They procrastinate on practice and only play the easy tunes. The instrument gathers dust as their interest wanes. Soon enough, they look for a new hobby.

Without knowledge, learning music can be a daunting task and it is easy to be misguided. This article is meant to guide you before you begin your musical journey. Here are the 5 things you need to learn music.

1. Expectations

You need to be realistic about how much money you are willing to spend, how many hours you can commit for learning and practising, and how far you want to go in your musical journey.

Music is a money pit; there is always something to pay for, be it instruments, books, lesson fees, accessories, maintenance, etc. If finance is an issue, it is strongly advisable to improve on that aspect beforehand because music is not a no-frills hobby.

Mastering this art requires time, patience and consistency. You cannot expect to be a virtuoso after the third lesson while practising 10 minutes a week. Many students lose interest when the task gets more complicated or when they do not sound great. Simply put – no pain, no gain.

You need to think about what you want to do with music. Not every music learner can or should be a professional musician. Nevertheless, one must always aim for the stars. If the expectation is low from the beginning, you will have no motivation to improve. It is human nature to be lazy because our minds are wired for familiarity. However, learning music is about embracing the unknown and overcoming oneself. Music is tedious at the beginning, but it is mentally and spiritually rewarding when one has mastered the art.

2. Commitment

Spoiler alert! Learning music is much harder than you think. It is a highly complex activity as the brain has to process aural, visual and kinesthetic signals all at the same time. Progress requires momentum. Music is definitely not a pastime which you can engage in whenever you feel like it.

Every person has a different learning aptitude and every musical instrument has its own difficulties. As a general rule, the more time you spend with the instrument, the faster you will progress. It is recommended to spend around 30 to 60 minutes a day for music learning. The key word here is discipline. It is common to get disinterested when you do not produce a good sound or when things become too difficult, but you have to keep going.

Contrary to the instant gratification of our modern age, music learning requires sacrifice. If you are used to getting things done quickly, you will have to forego old habits. You may need to spend a lot of time and resources for music. You must look for references, listen to recordings and attend concerts. You must participate in activities that can help you grow musically. You also need to be humble and have the passion to improve yourself. Music has no room for mediocrity – it is all or nothing. Therefore, you must put all your heart and mind into it.

3. Guidance

In today’s information age, we are blessed with the abundance of knowledge and learning materials. Nevertheless, having too much information makes it hard to distinguish right from wrong. It is essential to find a music teacher who can guide you onto the right path.

A good music teacher is someone who can give clear instructions, analyse your weaknesses, give you the right advice and keep you motivated. Avoid picking music teachers out of convenience and price; honest music teachers are short in supply. Do attend music events, ask around, schedule trial lessons and find out which teacher suits your learning style.

Additionally, stick to only one teacher for a certain period of time. Art is highly subjective; different teachers have different opinions on how music should be played. Learning from several teachers at the same time may cause confusion in terms of playing methods and styles. You may switch to a different teacher when you no longer see improvement in your playing.

4. Environment

You need a conducive place to learn and practise music. In order for music to take place, it needs silence. You need to hear your sound, so noise must be avoided as much as possible. Additionally, you do not want to do your private practice in a room with distractions such as gadgets, television, family members, external noise, etc.

You may also need to do some acoustic treatment to your practice room. Practising in a room with a huge amount of echo may make your playing sound louder. However, you will not be able to listen to every detail of your tone production. As a result, you may not hear your weaknesses, and it will shock you when you perform at venues with little reverberation.

You do not need to spend a lot to set up a practice studio. Fabrics, cushions and furniture can help to absorb sound. Do consider the level of comfort of the room with ventilation, temperature and lighting. If practising at home is not conducive, consider practice studios in your area although they may add to your music learning expenses.

5. Tools

Getting the right tools is a must. When buying your first instrument, it is best to ask the assistance of an expert – be it a teacher or a professional musician. Your teacher may earn commission from the sale but it is better to trust the teacher than the music store salesperson.

I would not recommend buying acoustic musical instruments online unless you really know what you are doing. There are so many factors to consider when buying online: whether the instrument works, where to set it up, whether the shipment will be done properly or whether you can return the instrument if you do not like it. It is best to leave these troubles to the professionals because buying the wrong instrument will cost you. On the other hand, for digital or electronic instruments, you may get better deals online but ensure that you make an informed purchase.

You must also be willing to spend to get the best instrument you could afford. In music, you get what you pay for. Find out how much the average price of a particular instrument is for intermediate players. The beginner’s instrument should not cost significantly lower than the step-up model. When the instrument is priced too low, it is likely that corners have been cut to reduce the cost. As such, it is better to save your money to get a high quality instrument than to choose the cheapest item – and you will also help to save the environment.

Sometimes, you can get better deals with used instruments. Musicians tend to upgrade their instruments from time to time. You can get instruments that are still in great condition at unbeatable value. Some of them may require light servicing and replacement of accessories; some may need a major restoration. Therefore, it is advisable to get professional advice if you wish to purchase a used instrument.

On another note, do some research on the commonly used accessories and supplies to accompany your instrument. You may need a music stand, tuner and a metronome. Also bear in mind that musical instruments require maintenance over time. It helps if you know where to get your music supplies and where to service your instrument.

In conclusion, learning music requires dedication and attention to details. Before you start your music lessons, you need to set your expectations, be fully committed, get proper guidance, have the right environment and possess the right tools.

Hello. Selamat Datang!

Welcome to my website. Here, I will be sharing my thoughts on music, especially in the context of Malaysia. I also plan to post music resources and educational content. Feel free to comment or give suggestions as long as they are civil and faithful to the topic. Spammers will not be tolerated. Until then, happy browsing!