It was my turn to conduct the elementary school orchestra that I'd played in for over two years. I stepped onto the podium. Mr. Marcy wanted each of us to conduct a few bars so that we'd understand why he wanted us to watch him as he conducted.
I knew little about conducting except this: a conductor beats time and keeps the ensemble playing together. I raised the baton and brought it down. To my surprise, the orchestra played. Together. What a relief.
Years later, while researching conducting for my first novel, I walked out to the podium after a rehearsal of the Seattle Symphony — a long way from my elementary school orchestra. My back faced the empty hall, but it felt like eyes bore into me, making me intensely uncomfortable. I wondered: what do professional conductors think about when at the podium?
Most professional conductors are world travelers, always on the go. They love to talk about their work as much as anyone else, however, so I managed over time to interview several and ask my burning question.
Their answer, without exception: "The music."
Yes, but what did that mean? My challenge as a writer was to take the reader inside the mind of my novel's protagonist conductor while he's conducting, and I had a feeling that if his thoughts were only about the music — i.e. when to cue players for their entrances, when to speed up or slow down, when to signal a louder passage, and how to beat through a meter change — it would be too boring for the reader. I suspected that much more goes on in a conductor's mind. Conductors are human beings, after all.
It's the conductor's job to guide the musicians and keep the ensemble together. But could the music trigger an emotional response, which in turn could trigger a memory or a physical sensation? I introduced this idea in my conductor interviews by first talking about my own responses to music, saying that it was important to me that I make the conducting experience as humanly interesting as possible for my readers. Then I asked if they'd experienced emotional sparks while conducting.
The answer? "Yes, of course. But it's essential to keep one's emotions from taking control of the music." I asked about fleeting memories, thoughts, physical sensations, and the answer was the same as for emotional sparks. A conductor must maintain a concentrated focus on the music throughout a performance. That's the conductor's job. The musicians are depending on it.
When I asked what they feared the most, the conductors I interviewed surprised me with the uniformity of their replies. They feared walking on stage with an open pants zipper, and they feared having a memory lapse while conducting. The first could be easily remedied, but the second could not. I've seen a conductor have a memory lapse in concert maybe twice in all the years I've been attending concerts. In each case, the concertmaster kept the beat going while the conductor recovered his place in the score.
I will be forever grateful to the conductors I interviewed for their help and giving me the material I needed to create a fully human protagonist for my novel. And now when I watch a conductor at work on the podium, I have a good idea what he or she is thinking.
Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minneapolis. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.