While writing my dissertation “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor,” I had one of my most life changing conversations with Conductor Laureate of the Charlottesville Symphony and Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia, Kate Tamarkin. This conversation touched upon gender, but the entire discussion was about the beauty of conducting movement and ways we all approach music with our bodies through movement and gesture. This initial conversation led me to reach out to Kate again to explore more about her thoughts on teaching, conducting, and how we choose to walk our path.
Towards the end of our conversation, Kate made an intriguing comment that has given me much to think about. Conducting at its best, she said, “ is when you realize that you are just not in charge.” As a conductor we should strive towards, “the least amount of in charge you can get away with - with allowing the most inspiration to come through.”
It is always interesting to hear stories from people you admire. Collecting nuggets of historical perspective makes such a difference in how you take the information as well as how you use this knowledge going forward. Kate touched upon subjects concerning: finding meaning in what you do, preparing yourself to utilize what you know, and allowing the freedom for music to happen at our performances.
Like so many young women at the time, Kate was encouraged to pursue music education rather than a performance route. She came from a family of teachers and excellent teaching was clearly in her blood. However, she discovered conducting as part of her music education training and chose to go back to school after a year teaching in the public school system to receive a master’s in conducting. Soon after completing this degree, she initially won a position with the Fox Valley Orchestra and other posts followed, including the Associate Conductor of the Dallas Symphony and music directorships with the Vermont Symphony, East Texas Symphony and the Monterey Symphony. Wishing to include her passion for teaching conducting as part of her career path, she became the interim conductor at the University of Minnesota.
After teaching at University of Minnesota, she went on to teach at The Catholic University of America and later continued her teaching career at the University of Virginia where she conducted the Charlottesville Symphony and taught conducting until retiring in 2017. As we chatted about philosophies on teaching and finding meaning in what we do as conductors, a quote came to Tamarkin’s mind that she had heard many times from the famous Spanish/Puerto Rican cellist and conductor Pablo Casals, “We must have exaltation!” As an impressionable young woman, she wanted to clearly understand the exact meaning of this powerful word that means “to raise aloft, in dignity.” This quote has stuck strongly with Tamarkin throughout her career.
As conductors, we have a duty and responsibility to lead. Conductors make dozens of choices on a daily basis and this is where we can choose how we can make a difference in our worlds and how we can find meaning in what we do. Kate said, “You never know what kind of experiences you are going to have with other people, but you can control your attitude and actions every day and affect the world in some manner. It is quite amazing.”
Because there were so few female symphonic conducting teachers and certainly no conducting books geared with women conductors in mind, Kate relied heavily upon self-education. Though there were conducting books out there, “none of them really “jived” with me so I made my own course.” One of her first teaching revelations was known as her “conducting circle.” As she explains, conducting encompasses so many qualities including, “score knowledge, hearing, imagination, heart, and all of you (conductors) have these things in different amounts. We have to figure out how much of the various qualities that each person has in their pie.” To understand where students excel or have deficiencies is fundamental in the process of providing a fabulous education. In finding meaning with her own conducting fundamentals allowed Tamarkin to utilize her knowledge to her many students.
Kate had so many fantastic nuggets to pass along to conductors. Here are three suggestions that every conductor could add to their bag of tricks right now!
Stereo ears and clear (and needed) gestural intentions
First questions every conductor should ask themselves are
“How do I convey my musical image of the score?” “What does the orchestra need from me?” and “what can the ensemble do without me?” As the ensemble plays, how do your ears hear the ensemble? How can you maneuver your gestures to change specific dynamics, correct articulations, grab the attention of specific players to fix ensemble, etc.…?
Stereo ears help to hear if the dynamics are too loud in the brass, or too soft in the bass section. They allow you to hear the articulations of the bassoons, or the ensemble of the percussion with the low strings. Clearly developing this sense of hearing allows clear and needed gestures.
Kate so brilliantly discussed that self-confidence allows you to know when you are needed versus when you are not. She has found that the orchestra “level of engagement goes up when the level of ego goes down because if there is a whole lot of you there is not a lot of room for the music.” She continued that allowing ourselves to open ourselves to a nonphysical realm that all musicians feel and sense and just get more of that. That comes from being willing to be a little less in charge.”
Breath, preparation, and vocabulary
If you are a string, percussion, or piano player you must learn how to breathe with the wind players. Tamarkin suggests that every conductor join a chorus so they have a sense of vocalism. If you are a wind player, percussionist, or piano player, make sure you know the correct vocabulary of the string players. If you are not a string player, Tamarkin would highly suggest finding a string colleague (better yet a close friend) to chat with to make sure you have appropriate vocabulary to address the strings. If you are unsure of your vocabulary, it is always best to refer to the concertmaster to translate what you want to hear!
Finally, take your space and find comfort
Tamarkin describes how we as conductors should, “consider how your upper body and shoulders feel and looks to see if you are showing tension or conveying discomfort in any way.” We must consistently be mindful. If you question whether you need to address this subject – videotape yourself. Even better, ask a colleague to view your video.
As we progress and find comfort in our path of conducting, Tamarkin reminds us to question, “what do we value in our own music making?” Questions to ask ourselves include: Are we an orchestral color person? Does the rhythm drive us? Do we like to concentrate on details, or do we prefer to paint with a broad brush?
As conductors we learn, adjust, and find our path, Tamarkin offers the gentle reminder that, “Control is a lifelong issue – it is not easy.” However, once we do find comfort and pursue the art of control in our own conducting, the variety of possibilities to allow freedom of music becomes endless and we find ourselves in what Tamarkin describes “as a sense of channeling.” In her experiences, she sometimes “would give the first beat, and something would happen that would carry us, then all of the sudden, the piece would be over and the audience applauding.” This feeling of otherness, or freedom, takes us there. She describes these magical performance experiences by standing “before the orchestra in dignity. It is much easier to have people give you power versus taking power. Allowing that power is something that can happen.”