On Conducting and Emotion

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I had a really interesting conversation recently with a conductor I’ve been working with about the conductor’s experience of musical emotion. He was reflecting on how he feels all the music the conducts – and ‘still feels’ it in the case of very familiar repertoire – and was wondering to what extent he should allow himself to experience that while conducting. On one hand, the whole point of so much music is to shape our feelings, but on the other he didn’t want to be self-indulgent.

You won’t be surprised to know that from a standing start, I was all for allowing himself to connect emotionally with the music. The reason we started doing this and keep doing it, the reason the singers participate, the reason that listeners value what we do is this connection. Music offers a way to access rich and varied emotional landscapes that bind us together in shared experiences. Those leading the creation of those experiences both deserve and have an obligation to participate in them.

I suggested that conductors should follow the advice we’d give to singers. Allow yourself to feel the emotion the music evokes in you, but don’t let it take you to a place beyond which it stops you singing well. Emotion in the voice does wonderful things to tone quality and expressive shape, but if you let yourself get overwhelmed it stops you singing at all.

Likewise, a conductor who is fully connected to the expressive content of the music helps singers to find that place in themselves, but if they get so lost in it that they lose contact with the singers’ needs in the moment, they stop being helpful and may even become counter-productive. Get the Communicator involved as much as possible, but don’t let the Manager leave the room.

But allowing yourself to connect to musical emotion is not the same as creating overt displays of emotion. Just because you feel deeply does not mean that you need to go into extravagant Bersteinish gestural worlds. You can stay committed to economy and clarity of gesture, and singers will still perceive your personal involvement in your shared music. The point, after all, is not to exhibit your own emotions, but to help singers, and then listeners connect with their own.

It is not self-indulgent to care deeply about and respond sensitively to the art we participate in bringing to life. It only becomes self-indulgent when we thereby bring the focus onto ourselves. The conductor is after all conceptually invisible: we want listeners to come away from a performance remembering the beauty of the music and the expressiveness of the singers. Our emotional commitment will help them be carried away by the experience; it should not distract them from it.

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