Monday, May 23, 2011
Have you ever wondered what it is that an orchestra conductor does? A few weeks ago on Thursday, April 7th, a group of faculty and graduate students had the distinct privilege of discussing this topic with Maestro Robert Spano at the final CMBC lunch of the semester. Maestro Spano has been the music director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the past 10 years. He is also Emory University’s Distinguished Artist in Residence, an appointment sponsored by Emory’s Creativity & Arts Initiative.
In this highly engaging discussion, Spano provided a glimpse into the process conductors go through in preparation for an orchestral performance. It was great fun to learn about a topic I don’t typically come across as a psychology graduate student. Equally exciting though, was to take note of some overlap between music and the study of mind and brain.
Activating the Imaginative Ear
In preparing for an orchestral performance, Maestro Spano describes the first step conductors go through as activating the imaginative ear. This means that when conductors first inspect the musical score, they are able to translate in their minds the musical notations from the score into the sounds they represent. Spano noted that this capacity, also referred to as “audiating”, is not an ability unique to conductors. Some musicians can do this and, to some extent, non-musicians can engage in this process as well. Think of how we read an email from a family member and we can hear the person’s voice as we read. What distinguishes what conductors do is that they don’t only imagine one “voice”, they imagine many, and all work in concert.
What makes the task of audiating an orchestral piece complicated is not only the number of instruments but also the non-uniformity of their notational systems. For example, you may have heard a musician say, “the clarinet is in b-flat”. What this means is that the clarinet is in a different transposition than other instruments, and what is written as a C on the score for other instruments will actually be a b-flat for the clarinet.
The process of audiating is so integral to conductor training that for many the activation of sound upon sight is virtually an automatic process. In fact, Spano described it as akin to the phenomenon of Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is the condition whereby some individuals report perceiving involuntary stimulation in one sensory dimension in response to stimulation from a different dimension. One of the more common examples of Synaesthesia is that some individuals report perceiving certain letters or numerals in particular colors (for example the letter “A” is perceived as inherently red). Spano revealed that some conductors actually report the same types of cross-sensory connections as those commonly reported by synaesthetes. For example, one conductor perceived sounds as being in particular colors. Another conductor, Spano said, associated sounds with specific scents.
The Musical Score Is Merely a Map
Although conductors possess the capacity to automatically hear the music when they read it, this doesn’t mean that a score elicits the same sound for all conductors. This fact reflects a second aspect of a conductor’s preparation, which is to engage in an act of interpreting the score. This decision process occurs at multiple levels. For example, conductors must decide, as Spano put it, “how loud is loud, how slow is slow, and how long is long”. All musicians engage in this decision making process but conductors must make these decisions for the group.
Maestro Spano drew a loose analogy between a musical score and the directions provided by his car’s GPS earlier that morning. The GPS provided the basic route to Emory’s campus, indicating which roads to take, where to turn, etc. But alas that morning the campus’ main entrance was undergoing major construction, requiring drivers to navigate around the construction and along detours to arrive at the destination. Similarly, the score is merely a map and conductors must interpret what the sounds mean.
The byproduct of these two processes, audiating and interpreting, is a mental template of the piece to which conductors can compare the music during the actual performance. Spano describes this as the difficult, if not impossible, task of objective listening. The idea is that the conductor can notice errors or inconsistencies that violate his or her expectations based on the constructed template.
The Many Gestures of a Conductor
One thing that many of us likely associate with conductors is their distinctive gesturing during orchestral performances. As it turns out, some of these gestures are conventional and part of a universal system that all conductors, and orchestral musicians, learn in their training. These gestures can be used as a guide to musicians, when they need it, about where they are in the piece. The gestures are also used to establish the beat of the orchestra and ensure all instruments are playing at the same tempo. This is important given that orchestras can be large enough that musicians on one side of the stage may not be able to hear those on the other.
Not all of a conductor’s gestures follow the same universal code though, and this is what leads to the general percept that different conductors behave very differently on stage. Maestro Spano pointed out that for the most part, the conductor’s goal is to produce gestures that are rather low key. From what I gathered, these are the gestures that tend to be the universal, grammatical motions. These movements are made subtle so that they can then be contrasted with the more emphatic gestures conductors employ when they are trying to elicit particular things from the musicians. These gestures tend to be conductor-specific. The high degree of contrast between the subtler gestures and the more emphatic ones is due to the fact that conductors are mostly in the peripheral view of the musicians. Musicians’ central attention tends to be directed at their sheet of music or their own instruments. Thus in order to be able to capture the attention of the musicians when they need to, conductors create this large contrast between the calm baseline gestures and the forceful statement-making gestures.
A Final Note
It was a real treat to hear Maestro Spano talk about conducting and the lunch was a testament to the diversity of topics the CMBC offers in this series. Although it was certainly the case that many of us were learning about an unfamiliar subject, there was also the sense that many of the issues discussed were related to topics regularly associated with the study of the mind and the brain. For example, one obvious connection was the discussion of how the experience of translating sight into sound for conductors, and perhaps professional musicians more generally, relates to the phenomenon of synaesthesia. The nature of synaesthethic experiences, and in particular why it happens, has long been of interest to scholars in fields such as neuroscience and cognitive psychology. To the extent that the cross-sensory connections experienced by conductors are a result of years of practice and training, might this provide insight into the origins of other synaesthetic experiences?