We are just about a month away from the publication of Conducting Business on July 24. Amadeus Press has graciously allowed me to post the introductory chapter. I hope this makes some of you interested to read more.
There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning. — Louis L’Amour
There is an old joke about the audience member who comes up to the conductor after a performance. Having heard a full program, she says, “That was lovely. What do you do for a living?”
At one time, this question would have hardly surprised him. Conducting an orchestra or playing in one was a part-time job. And, back then, it was a him. These days, salaries for musicians at the higher levels are not only competitive with other fields, the income may even exceed some people’s wildest dreams. A simpler way to pose the question is, “So, what do you do?”—period!
The orchestral conductor is a relatively new species, having originated in the nineteenth century. In just under two hundred years, conducting has evolved into an extremely complicated profession. It requires much more than wielding the baton, score reading and the ability to listen. The conductor also serves as father, mother, psychologist, teacher, referee and many other roles to his hundred-plus orchestra members. He or she operates as a CEO, a visiting team leader, a production supervisor and a social butterfly. The willingness to participate in fund-raising and a knack for those activities have become necessary duties in today’s musical marketplace.
Conducting Business answers the question of what we do. The book is essentially about the profession; it is not a manual on how to conduct. Numerous volumes have been written about conducting technique. The profession’s history, likewise, has been well documented. Biographies abound in print, but not much exists to explain what the conductor actually does on an everyday basis. How do we study? Do we need a stick? What is our relationship to the composer? Where is the stage door? I try to unravel the mysteries of a most misunderstood profession. And, I have tried to remove some barriers that stand in the way of those who are attempting to unlock the secrets of the baton in pursuit of a conducting career.
It was not my intention to write an autobiography, but when I began the book and its ideas developed, I realized that stories about my own life and the people who helped shape my career would provide a more thorough understanding of how a conductor comes into being.
So, in the first of the book’s three parts, I tell about my background, education and experience, my personal path to the podium. As my dreaming shifts to becoming, the second part gradually moves away from my chronological life story and into greater detail about the challenges every podium minder faces. The final section offers answers to questions I often am asked. Another chapter shows ten problematic musical examples and illustrates how the conductor figures out and solves them.
In many ways, I was just a normal kid, going to public schools, playing ball with the guys and blaming my brother for everything. Most of my friends were in the school band and orchestra. The big difference between them and me was that when I got home, it was practice, practice, practice. Once, when my pals wanted me to come outside and play, I actually stopped pounding on the keyboard and brought my baseball glove to the front door. My mother threatened to lock up the piano if I did not finish my Czerny. I did not believe her, and out the door I went. Upon returning home, sure enough, she had secured the lid of the keyboard and it could not be opened.
I was in heaven. No more scales, arpeggios or exercises in thirds. After a few days passed, I started to feel lonely. Beethoven and I were just getting acquainted with each other and I missed him. My mom would not budge. Screaming, kicking and yelling did me no good. Only when I finally agreed that practicing came first was the lid unlocked and a newfound lifestyle kicked in. With virtually everyone in my family a part of the music industry, I had a front-row seat to witness the degree of discipline these music professionals applied to their work. My parents, devoted to film industry soundtracks, chamber music, popular recording and freelance classical performance, certainly packed a lot into their lives. Sadly, as much as they might have tried, raising a couple of children did not come so naturally. My brother and I grew up as independents, struggling to fathom the perpetual stress that seemed to surround us. Eventually, we managed to figure it out, and despite the obstacles, both of us have done well in our chosen musical careers.
The book’s second chapter elaborates on our family’s rich musical history. My mother came from a musical dynasty which originated in the Ukraine and my father, likewise of Russian heritage, possessed musical gifts so prodigious that he more than compensated for the fact that he was the sole talent on that side of the family. To grow up in Los Angeles with parents who were “stars in the musical firmament” enabled us to get to know practically every prominent musician on the West Coast. Imagine the likes of Frank Sinatra, Arnold Schoenberg, John Williams, Art Tatum, André Previn and Jascha Heifetz visiting your home! These acquaintances led to a variety of wonderful anecdotes, a number of which I recount in Part One.
Living in a household filled with musical talent should have given me a strong head start in the field and an easy transition into the profession. But this was hardly the case. Personal tragedy also made things very difficult. My father died at the age of forty-seven and his passing dramatically altered life for me. I left the musical fold for a little while, but with encouragement from friends and family, decided to pursue the path my dad had begun to forge for himself, that of conducting symphonic ensembles.
It was my good fortune to learn from two of the finest, Walter Susskind and Jean Morel. These two opposite personalities, plus the disparate disciplines of Aspen and Juilliard, provided the necessary technical skills I needed to make progress on the path to professional conducting. However, as this book repeatedly demonstrates, conducting is about so much more than just waving a stick.
Conducting Business continues with my entry into the workforce, which started after I pursued the typical opportunities available to aspiring conductors, with student, amateur or community ensembles. In October of 1968, I took the podium of a professional symphony orchestra for the first time. I was standing in front of dozens of experienced musicians who possessed a lot more knowledge, individually and collectively, than I did. What could I possibly say that they did not already know?
My professional career began as assistant conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony. In this capacity as assistant, or as a répétiteur or coach, the would-be maestro poises him- or herself for a professional career. Most conductors spend their apprentice period watching and waiting, sometimes seeing the very best conductors and sometimes merely observing what does not work. From learning patience to walking on stage for the first time, these early forays are critical for meaningful musical development.
After six years in various secondary capacities, I was catapulted into the international spotlight with three major debuts in one season, New York, Chicago and London. My top priority, then, was to seek the career advice of two men who would become mentors to me, John Edwards and David Hyslop. Mentors are vital: no conductor can do this job alone.
Through a focus on my experiences in Saint Louis, Washington DC, Detroit and London, the book proceeds to examine rehearsal technique, hiring and dismissing musicians, and the position of music director. I discuss at length the art of score study, every nuance of which a conductor must master, and the learning of various tricks to enhance visual and aural acuity. This part of the book provides guidance on matters as diverse as effective communication with members of the board of directors, fund-raising, public speaking, choosing musical editions and even concert attire. The conductor is the voice of a community’s musical education: leading local young people’s concerts, working with student orchestras or passing along whatever wisdom he or she has acquired as mentor to the next generation of podium talent.
This section covers practical matters conductors often skip when discussing their work. These include managerial skills for successful dealings with artistic committees, executive directors and journalists, as well as organizational skills required to make recordings, arrange tours and conduct alfresco performances in the summer. Although my own visits to the world of opera were infrequent, the subject matter is important. In earlier eras, the opera house was the starting point for most conductors; later, they climbed out of the pit and onto the podium. Whether at home, on tour or in the recording studio, the conductor must learn the art of creative multi-tasking.
Sometimes it seems that controversy accompanies the job description, and as an example, this chapter addresses one such unpleasantness in my musical life. It occurred during an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera, and I happened to be writing about those appearances, contemporaneously, for my website. That act in itself seemed to generate a buzz, just because I told the truth. Though circumstances prevented me from continuing the narrative on my blog, the entire story is contained in these pages, exactly as I wrote it in March 2010.
Another area terribly neglected in print is how conductors react, or do not react, in the event of labor strife. I have endured three such times of turmoil, the most recent being a horrendous half-year work stoppage in Detroit. A would-be music director must know every aspect of the union contract, as almost every word in the document will affect the future of his or her orchestra members. On the brighter side, I have included some personal reminiscences of significant people and milestones in my own life on the podium. Leonard Bernstein was the very model of the American conductor, both in life and in death. His profound impact on the American musical scene can never be minimized. Even though he and I did not know each other well, there is no question that he influenced my musical persona, mine along with the majority of American conductors.
One can never know if fate plays a hand, but sometimes, being in the right place can transform a conductor’s life. For me, two premieres in Chicago were particular turning points, with works by Carter and Del Tredici. Fast-forward to London, just four days after the attacks of September 11, where unexpectedly I was summoned to lead what had to be the most difficult and emotion-laden concert of my career. The video of that evening’s performance of the Barber Adagio for Strings has become a much-viewed hit on YouTube. A conductor simply needs to be prepared for anything, and it is not always so simple.
Legend has it that conductors are among the most long-lived of professionals, but there are health perils aplenty. Although I have rarely been forced to cancel an engagement, a heart attack put me out of commission for three months. In this section, I describe why and how the conductor must maintain physical, as well as emotional, strength.
Although this volume is not about conducting technique, I decided to show the reader some musical challenges, passages from symphonic works with problems in common with many other pieces in the repertoire. These excerpts present musical puzzles that the conductor must solve before rehearsal. To understand the challenges, the ability to read a score is unnecessary. This book is intended for all music lovers.
Finally, I close with some thoughts and observations about the conducting profession and music in general. Some comments are lighthearted and some are of serious import.
So far, I have had a wonderful life creating and recreating the musical experience. For those readers who have spent a good deal of time developing their own lives as conductors, some of what these pages contain will be old news. But for readers just setting out on the path or those who are curious about this most mysterious of occupations, I hope you will find the observations and advice helpful.
And entertaining: there are some good stories along the way.
© Leonard Slatkin; used by permission of Amadeus Press
The publication date for Conducting Business will be July 24th.
It is available for pre-order on Amazon.