Conducting Research: Science vs. Real Life

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cond-choir-bond.jpgThe current issue of Research Issues in Music Education has an article examining the various functions of a conductor. In some ways it is an exemplary bit of research: well-rooted in the literature, clear in its rationale and methods, logical in the the drawing of its conclusions. But in other ways it demonstrates the problematic disconnect between conducting research as it appears in doctoral programmes and education journals and the lives of real musicians.

The article reports a study that tested the picture of conducting you’d get by reading current research on it against the views of actual conductors. A detailed scouring of the literature identified a long list of conductor functions which can be grouped into a number of wider themes, and a questionnaire was devised to ask how much conductors give their attention to each. The findings were that real conductors think about some things that the research literature doesn’t talk about.

So this finding is undoubtedly useful. But what bugs the heck out of me is the way it is presented:

Two functions that are traditionally associated with conducting (Bergee, 2005; Boardman, 2000; Chapman, 2008; Manfredo, 2008; Wöllner & Auhagen, 2008) were verified: a Mechanical Precision Function and an Expressive Function that serve to communicate different sets of characteristics in the musical score. Four nontraditional functions that focus beyond the music to address musicians also resulted:

  1. A Motivational Function…
  2. A Physical Technique Function …
  3. A Psychosocial Function …
  4. An Unrestrained Tone Function …


The overall findings of the present study can be interpreted two ways. First is that traditional music-related functions of conducting do not represent the full extent of a conductor’s attention and effort in conducting. Beyond the musical score, a conductor also attends to the musicians making the music—alerting them, guiding their physical performance, collaborating with them toward a mutual interpretation, and freeing them to release a beautiful tone.

Can you see what’s bothering me? It’s not the content – that seems perfectly reasonable, and indeed, clearly describes real musical life. It’s the classification of these elements as ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’. All six of these elements are abundantly apparent in the literature written by conducting practitioners going back a century and more. But the ones that don’t appear in the pared-down world of empirical conducting research, are labelled as ‘non-traditional’.

I have written at length in my second book about the epistemological difficulties associated with the limitation of variables required by experimental models of research into conducting. As I put it on p. 29:

It is therefore by no means obvious why it is appropriate to theorize complex, nuanced interpersonal behaviours using a paradigm that not only erases much of this complexity, but that regrets doing so.

This article takes this difficulty to the next level, by effectively presenting that simplified world as the standard model of conducting, and these extra functions as added richness not ‘traditionally’ present. I am trying to imagine what Karajan would have said if you told him that facilitating an unrestrained tone was not part of the ‘traditional’ concept of the conductor. Or Henry Coward, come to that.

And that in turn draws attention to something not unique to this article by any means, but amply demonstrated by it. Its field of reference is exclusively limited to dissertations and research articles emanating from the university sector. There is not a single reference to the work of actual practitioners.

Of course, one of the founding principles of this genre of research was the problems of what my friend Sarah Martin used to refer to as ‘musician waffle-speak’. Musicians do talk a lot of subjective nonsense in their writings, it’s true. But it’s also artistically-intelligent nonsense a lot of the time, informed by a depth of experience, and shared cultural heritage beyond that which most of us have been able to acquire by the time we finish our doctorates. It may take something of a leap of the imagination (or indeed a method that has a means to make sense of metaphor) to handle some of the stuff that prominent practitioners come out with, but it would make it less of a ‘unique and unexpected’ discovery that conductors are focused on simultaneously controlling and handing control over to their players.

The other question this article raises is whether it matters if research methods have any kind of compatibility with the processes they examine. (Every time I have this thought, I find myself singing ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ from The Mikado.) I think from an epistemological angle, this is a luxury rather than a necessity – probably a taste I picked up from the study of Schenkerian analysis. But this study shows that there are pragmatic reasons why it may be useful.

One of the problems the study had was getting a big enough sample of respondents. They contacted over 500 potential participants, but received only 84 completed questionnaires. The authors recognise that the length of the survey was probably a barrier, but then wander off into discussing the logistics of extrinsic incentives to increase the response rate. But perhaps they should think in a little more detail about the people whose views they seek, and what might motivate or discourage them from participating.

Conductors are inevitably busy. It you’re the kind of person who takes on this particular challenge, you are the kind of person to fill your life up with lots of other stuff too. And you have learned to be efficient – to fit everything into your own life, to make best use of limited rehearsal time, to abstract holistic musical gestalts from complex musical details. A long and nose-bleedingly detailed survey that requires lots of attention but little actual intelligence is going to sit right at the bottom of your to-do list.

Conductors are also opinionated, however. We like to hold forth (self-deprecating grimace). I can’t help wondering what kind of response rate you’d get if instead of asking them to rate other people’s ideas, you asked the same 500 people to state what, in their opinion, are the primary functions of a conductor. If you asked by phone and gave enthusiastic thanks, you’d probably do even better. I notice that conductors like to be listened to, and they like it when people respond to them.

So, kudos to Gumm et al for good science, and for cross-comparing research-world and real-world views of conducting. But a shift of focus whereby it was the latter that defined ‘normal’ rather than the former would make it all more useful.

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