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Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 3

Music is not an Art Object

A num­ber of ear­ly philoso­phers debat­ed what is meant by “Art.” Do we mean by Art what the artist has in his mind, or is it the actu­al man­u­al activ­i­ty of the artist or do we mean by Art the fin­ished art object? The ear­ly Church fathers reject­ed all three, say­ing, No, the cred­it must go to God for he made the artist.

The ques­tion is even more com­pli­cat­ed, yet more inter­est­ing, when the sub­ject is Music. The ancient Greeks sep­a­rat­ed Music from the oth­er arts, pri­mar­i­ly because Music alone among them can­not be seen. This caused them to clas­si­fy paint­ing as a craft, but Music as some­thing divine.

Cer­tain­ly Music is some­thing dif­fer­ent from a Paint­ing. A Paint­ing is a past tense com­plet­ed object hang­ing on a wall, where­as Music only exists in live per­for­mance in the present tense. For this rea­son, a Paint­ing is a noun, but Music is a verb. A Paint­ing can be owned by an indi­vid­ual, but no one owns Mozart. It is for these rea­sons alone that Music must be treat­ed sep­a­rate­ly from Paint­ing and Sculp­ture. Dance is even more prob­lem­at­ic but it depends fun­da­men­tal­ly on Music. In fact, some ancient Greeks referred to Dance as the 6th part of Music, the part you could see.

But for the world of the con­duc­tor there is anoth­er dis­tinc­tion, hav­ing to do with the means and the end. Michelan­ge­lo, it is clear from the com­ments of his con­tem­po­raries, con­sid­ered Art to be in the artist’s head and that the fin­ished art work was a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this. In between these two lay months of labo­ri­ous work which was nec­es­sary but of lit­tle impor­tance in com­par­i­son with the oth­er two.1 And we as observers of Art are not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the means, only the end.

In Music the “means” is the rehearsal process. In ear­li­er times because they had more pow­er, con­duc­tors took advan­tage of the “means,” often requir­ing great amounts of rehearsal time. The first per­for­mance of the Stravin­sky, Rites of Spring, required 120 rehearsals; today an orches­tra requires per­haps three hours. I recall a rehearsal in col­lege when the con­duc­tor spent two hours on the first five bars of a march!

There is some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong with the phi­los­o­phy of such con­duc­tors. First of all, they were, in my expe­ri­ence as a play­er in such rehearsals, devot­ing them­selves to the rehearsal of the detail they saw on paper. But there is no music on the paper, only the gram­mar of music. Even worse, they regard­ed the rehearsal time as a time for work and only the con­cert as a time for mak­ing music.

That is how I learned to con­duct from my uni­ver­si­ty expe­ri­ence. In my first semes­ter of my first job, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tana, I held one rehearsal per week for the con­cert band, to allow all of us some relief from the kinds of music used on the foot­ball field. One of these rehearsals was vis­it­ed by a dis­tin­guished music edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at the uni­ver­si­ty, Lloyd Oak­land. After rehearsal he said to me, in the most gen­tle voice, casu­al­ly hold­ing his pipe, “It seems to me that you don’t enjoy rehears­ing.” “No sir, for me rehearsal is a time for hard work in order that the con­cert will be musi­cal.” “Oh, well,” he recalled from his own days as a con­duc­tor, “I always enjoyed rehearsals for they too are music mak­ing.” That com­ment changed my life as a con­duc­tor and my next rehearsal was quite dif­fer­ent.

If the read­er will for­give me I should like to offer anoth­er per­son­al illus­tra­tion regard­ing the pur­pose of rehearsals, the “means to the end.” In the year I stud­ied with Eugene Ormandy, I was present for the first rehearsal of the sea­son, a Bruck­n­er Sym­pho­ny. With noth­ing more than a brief wel­come to new mem­bers, Ormandy began with the first move­ment and there was no break for more than 20 min­utes. I, being still in my 20s and very inex­pe­ri­enced, was sit­ting there won­der­ing when he would begin to rehearse. I was eager to observe his rehearsal tech­nique. When the orches­tra stopped, the assis­tant con­duc­tor sit­ting with me in the hall leaned over to me and said, “Oh!, it sure ruins a good rehearsal to have to stop.”

So how should one rehearse? First, one must real­ize that the stu­dents in the ensem­ble prob­a­bly already have more tech­nique, as need­ed in their etudes, etc., than is required for any piece of band music. And, assum­ing there are no errors in the parts, they can prob­a­bly quick­ly learn the notes in rehearsal with­out fur­ther com­ment. Sec­ond, the con­duc­tor must remem­ber that the stu­dents are there because they love music and they love to play. Any time spent in lec­tur­ing them on the gram­mar of music will turn them off. What the stu­dents need, and what should be the point of the rehearsal, is the music which is not found on paper. Remem­ber there are no sym­bols for the emo­tions on paper. The con­duc­tor knows, from his score study, what the com­pos­er was try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate in terms of feel­ing. The pur­pose of the rehearsal is to bring into align­ment the music heard in the room with the music heard in the conductor’s head. If this is the goal, then all rehearsals, even the first one, will con­sist of music mak­ing.

And, as a bonus, you get to hear and have those won­der­ful musi­cal expe­ri­ences over and over again and not just once in the con­cert!

David Whitwell


  1. It is nec­es­sary to keep one’s com­pass in one’s eyes and not in the hand, for the hands exe­cute but the eye judges.” Quot­ed in Gior­gio Vasari, Le Vite de’ piu excel­len­ti pit­tori, scul­tori, ed architet­tori (Flo­rence, 1878), VII, 270. []