Curiosity Visits the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute

“I am a mathematician and an engineer,” I explain. “I don’t know anything about conducting an orchestra. Uhm, so, what does a conductor do?”

Most of the time – not always, but generally – I can admit that I don’t know something, and proceed to ask the most basic of questions. If you admit you don’t know, you’re allowed.

“As a conductor, basically, your hands are a metronome,” says Anna Edwards, founder and music director of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute, which took place last month on Whidbey Island. “The better you become at conducting, the more you emote musicality through your body. There are certain characteristics or emotions that an orchestra is trying to bring out of the music, and the conductor is the person to help with that. They convey the character of the music in a meaningful way to the musicians.”

This is the first year for the institute, which welcomed 14 students of varying experience – “fellows” and “associates” – from across the country.

I dropped by for a day of observation as the participants were preparing for a public concert, the culmination of their week-long workshop. Joining Anna on the faculty was Diane Wittry, Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

A session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. (Photo: Larry Heidel)
A session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. (Photo: Larry Heidel)

The workshop is fast-paced. Within a few hours, I could perceive the challenges, learnings, and insights required to take up the baton. During a two-hour block, conductors were given 10-12 minute segments to practice.

During this time, Diane does not have a moment’s rest. She’s running back and forth behind the orchestra observing the conductor, writing notes, gesturing, shouting instructions, or halting a segment to give more personal coaching:

“You don’t need to look down at the score! If you’re looking down, you’re not engaging the orchestra.”

Or:

Diane: “That transition…”
Conductor: “That was terrible.”
Diane: “Well, no, that’s too strong a word. But we need to do it again.”

Diane: “That was better.”

Or:

“Don’t tell [the orchestra] what you’re going to do. Just do it!”

During a segment, conductors work on individual details; a 30-second slice might be used to hone a hand gesture, or a particular horn-to-string transition. The clock continues ticking throughout do-overs, spontaneous teaching moments, and random interruptions:

Diane: “How much time is left?”
Larry (time keeper): “Four ten.”
Diane: “What does that mean?”
Larry: “Four minutes, 3 seconds.”
Diane: “What?”
Larry: “Three minutes, 58 seconds. 57 seconds. 56 seconds.”

During one session, Diane stops the conductor and whispers in his ear. Whatever the gentleman did, the next attempt sounds better, richer, tighter. Diane then addresses the orchestra:

“I asked if he could change the sound of the orchestra with his hands. And he did! Did that feel different?”

(A quiet chorus of “yes” responds.)

Conducting is hungry work! (Photo: PNWCI)
Conducting is hungry work! (Photo: PNWCI)

I’m learning that conducting is about passionate gestures – strength and grace – to non-verbally emote one’s intent to the orchestra and to communicate the emotions of a piece to the audience.

“The conductor has to think about how you are going to start an ensemble, the correct character of the music, the correct tempo of the music, the correct style of the music, and then you have to think about where you want the music to go – what dynamics – if you want it louder or softer or if you want different energy coming from different parts of the ensemble,” Anna says to me later. “The conductor is the ears of the ensemble and is able to articulate, through their hands, through gestures, what has to be done [by the individual musicians].”

I conclude that conducting is akin to dancing, except backwards. When you dance to music, you are physically reacting to music that is being played – you react to what exists. When conducting music, the physical movements shape the music; a metronome, sure, but the conductor is giving the music life, emotion, and vitality, microseconds before it exists.

In addition to founding the conducting institute, Anna is Music Director of the Saratoga Orchestra, a professional orchestra on Whidbey Island that sponsors the institute. She hopes the institute will help extend the orchestra’s season into the summer, expand its audience into the tourist season, and become a summer destination in its own right.

The next session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute will take place July 30 – August 4, 2018, on Whidbey Island, Washington. Visit their website for details.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.