The widely-held belief that a conductor’s job is to follow a soloist is rarely accurate. Rather, it is our job as conductors to learn what the soloist wants at different places in the music, then make it happen by leading. “Following” a soloist rarely gives them the accompaniment they need, because if we are following, we are by definition behind them rather than with them. (One notable exception is that when departing from a fermata, we usually follow the soloist’s lead.)

But that brings us to the hard part: learning to tell the difference between intentional, interpretive tempo changes and unintentional changes of the kind often caused by technical difficulty in the solo, a weak sense of rhythm/tempo, or worst of all, inconsistency from one rehearsal/performance to the next on the part of the soloist. And that isn't so much about learning to accompany as it is about using our musical experience to recognize which sections should be cruising along at a constant tempo and which ones lend themselves
musically to ritardandi, rubati, etc. In other words, many of the considerations that come into play accompanying are the same as those we bring to bear interpreting anything else we conduct.

I’ve always felt that accompanying soloists is the hardest kind of conducting. I thought I was pretty good at it until the Coast Guard Band added a vocalist to our complement. She sang a lot of opera excerpts, which have more fluctuating tempi than constant ones, and I grew more as a conductor in the first couple of years she was with us than I had in many years before that.

But you don't have to be accompanying opera to develop your own accompaniment skills; and a good first step is understanding that following is not true accompanying.



My first private conducting teacher told me never to listen to recordings because if I did, I would never develop my own interpretations.

I now believe that is the worst conducting advice I have ever been given.

If you were taught to include recordings in your score study, then you can probably skip the rest of this particular entry. But if you’re still trying to figure it out, here’s how I arrived at my belief on the subject.

I became Director of the US Coast Guard Band at age 27, which meant that, a) I was immediately faced with a new program of music every month; and b), though I knew a lot of the standard concert band repertoire as a player, I knew virtually none of it as a conductor. I was doing a whole lot of music every year, and virtually all of it was new to me.

As a result, I either got bogged down trying to learn the music solely through score study, which meant I ended up “learning it on the podium”; or I listened to recordings and felt guilty about it. Neither was healthy.

From a purely practical point of view, recordings can be a huge help when you have to learn something in a hurry.

But even from an artistic perspective, I came to believe in listening to recordings. Here’s my thinking:

Even as experienced as I have become at score reading, I don’t pretend I can always “hear” complex harmonic structures by looking at the score, particularly in non-standard tonalities. Music is an aural experience, not a visual one; I don’t feel I “know” a piece until I’ve heard it. So the question becomes, do I want to hear the piece for the first time on the podium? For me, the answer is No.

And here’s another way to consider the “no listening” rule: If as a trumpet student all my teachers encouraged me to spend a significant amount of time listening to the interpretations of great trumpet players (and vocalists, and singers), then why as a conductor should I avoid doing so? I haven’t heard a good answer to that.

I also believe that the whole “you’ll never develop your own interpretations if you listen” argument is based on a false premise; it assumes that by listening to someone else’s interpretation, we will become a slave to it. That has not been my experience.

I find that we apply our own values to what we hear, taking from it what we like and rejecting what we don’t. We have our “wow, I would never have thought of that” moments and our “hmm, that doesn’t really work for me” moments, and both are valuable.

Having said all that, let me be clear: Listening cannot replace studying and marking your scores—it is only a part of the learning process.

I recommend beginning the score study process visually, marking in the “big picture” indicators but not the details yet (I’ll discuss effective score marking in another entry), and then beginning to listen as you start marking details in the score.


We conductors nearly all talk too much in rehearsal; we seem to be hard-wired to respond to mistakes by explaining something. We should resist that temptation, because explanations are usually unnecessary and a waste of valuable rehearsal time.

When we have to stop in rehearsal, I strongly believe in the 85/15 rule: 85% of the time, we should be back making music in 15 seconds or less. The key is 1) clearly and succinctly articulating why we’ve stopped, and 2) immediately resuming playing.

Some routine examples of how to do that:

“Low brasses, a little lighter please; let’s go two before F.” That takes five seconds.

“Flutes, not quite so much separation in the line after letter E. Three before E please?” Seven seconds.

“Trumpets, intonation please at letter B. We’ll start right at B.” Four seconds.

“That attack wasn’t quite together; let’s go again please from four before A.” Five seconds.

I once watched a conductor stop because of a poor attack, drop his hands, settle back in his conducting chair, and launch himself into a classic self-serving, time-wasting soliloquy. “That attack wasn’t together. Attacks have to be together, because the spark created by good attacks is what makes good performances exciting. When attacks aren’t together, even though an audience might not realize exactly…” and he was off to the races while his players’ eyes glazed over.

Even if this had been one of the few times (the 15%) when something did need explaining, efficiency should still have been the guiding principle. We really have to resist our human tendency to get carried away with the sound of our own voices.

Here’s an example of how to effectively explain an important concept while still keeping it short:

“Saxes, the clarinets have the line; please don’t compete with them. Every time you play, your style, sound, and volume should say to the audience either ‘Listen to me’ or ‘Listen to someone else.’ In this spot, we’re looking for ‘Listen to someone else.’ OK, let’s go from the third bar of D.” Even this example of both explaining what we want and teaching a concept takes only about 20 seconds. The key is keeping the additional explanation short, simple, and memorable.

But even if we get good at short, effective explanations, “unnecessary” trumps “short and effective” every time; if it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. Or, as the old maxim goes, “There is no greater sin than doing well that which should never have been done in the first place.”

Remember, the players usually know how to fix a given problem; they don’t need us to explain everything. They just need us to say why we stopped and then give them another chance to play the passage. It’s amazing how often merely playing it again will fix it.

I really believe that talking too much is the single most prevalent rehearsal mistake we make. We have limited opportunities per rehearsal to make our points, so we need to pick and articulate those points carefully, or we start to “lose” our players.

I’ve read that baseball infielders hate playing behind a slow pitcher, because it’s so much harder to stay in the flow of the game. After every pitch, they go back on their heels both physically and mentally, and they have to “get back in the game” after every pitch. That’s a perfect analogy for ensemble musicians in rehearsal; a slow, tedious rehearsal with a lot of talking makes it a lot harder for them to “stay in the game.”

So stop only when you must, and get moving again immediately. You’ll accomplish much more, and your players will really appreciate it!



And it must come from within, because it will rarely come from any outside source.

Secondary school band directors learn early on that there are a myriad of factors working
against their growth as conductors and few if any factors working for that growth.

Like all teachers, band directors have many school requirements outside their primary teaching area; and even a lot of their band responsibilities have nothing to do with conducting.

Additionally, most band directors don’t have music supervisors to either mentor them as conductors or keep them honest when other things inevitably get in the way of growing/maintaining their conducting skills.

Combine all these factors with family and other responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to “learn the scores on the podium.” And let’s face it — that’s a realistic, if poor, option. We can often stay ahead of the students without studying the scores, especially with young bands; it is an ever-present temptation.

So if you are serious about being a good conductor, you
must :

1) Study (and mark) your scores.

ot only is it “the right thing to do,” but by not doing it, we cheat our students, our audience, and ourselves out of experiencing an informed performance of a piece. We simply can’t make meaningful interpretive decisions “on the fly.”

2) Practice, both for growth/maintenance and performance.

Practicing is just as important for conductors as it is for players. Beat patterns are our daily scales; creating visual musical styles are our version of an instrumentalist’s or vocalist’s aural styles.

The good news is that we conductors can get a lot more out of relatively small amounts of practice time than we can as players. We only have to build our skills, we don’t have to build the kind of strength or endurance it takes to maintain an effective embouchure. Even fifteen minutes a day (though more is better) can have a huge impact on our conducting skills — it’s almost too good to be true!

So do your growth/maintenance practicing: practice all the common mixed meters until your hands automatically go in the right directions; practice patterns in varying styles and tempi; and use a mirror and a video recorder regularly — you can’t “see” what you look like any other way.

And do your performance practicing: in the music you’re working on, make those difficult tempo changes flawless; practice that spot where you have to change dynamics, style, and tempo all at once; convey everything your players need in your initial upbeats.

Being a good conductor matters; it’s one of the most rewarding things we get to do, and it directly affects how we are viewed by our peers. So get excited about it, make it a part of your day, and make it happen!