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.