If you go through enough pictures or videos of me, you can see that I am not a hat person (maybe a wig, sometimes). Not only did I have to wear a proverbial hat today, it was a different one than I am used to wearing – the hat of a conductor. Today I took my conducting final, completing my first year of course work here at USC. I thought this semester would have been more difficult that it turned out to be, but it definitely came with its challenges, in this class particularly.
What I’m about to say may shock you, but I’m going to say it anyway – I’ve never been the most fond of conductors. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for my stick waving brothers and sisters, but I always thought playing a bassoon would be more difficult. I understand the time and effort it takes to study a full work, but at the end of the day the ensemble is making all the noise, right? I came into the graduate conducting class with that attitude, assuming there was little for me to learn. Boy, was I wrong!
Before we did any conducting of any music, we worked on a series of “Elizabeth Green Exercises”. These basic conducting exercises are a compilation of rhythms with dynamic markings under them that the conductor is supposed to portray to an ensemble that doesn’t have any music in front of them, like this:
Sooner or later I got the hang of these, but it was most certainly a challenge to get the music out of a blind orchestra.
The next big project was Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. I am familiar with the bassoon excerpts in this piece fine, but learning the work from top to bottom with each instrument part in mind was eye opening. It’s like the difference between loving cheesecake, and being familiar with each ingredient to a level of being able to make it without a recipe! I used to think Mozart was just like that cheesecake – delicious, yet plain and sometimes boring (who am I kidding, cheesecake is never boring), but allowing myself to become engulfed in the rich gooey texture of a musical recipe so old, yet still relevant and simple heightened my awareness and appreciation of a true classic. We didn’t get to the last movement of the work for time’s sake, but it was plenty to take in none the less – I didn’t need the extra “calories” anyway.
The midterm exam was simply a long list of musical terms and transpositions we had to identify and define. Do YOU know what key the alto flute or oboe d’amore play in?
The final, which was conducted today, was the first movement of Beethoven 2. Learning this work as officially made it my 2nd favorite Beethoven symphony (next to the very famous 5th symphony [YouTube it]). Being in a class with such great musicians (and all around fun people) really helped this symphony come to life. The orchestra that was hired for us sounded great too. We skipped a portion of it in the middle, but anytime I hear this symphony I’ll think back to this great class and my very fun classmates. The video of my final is below, if you’re curious.
So yes, I’m admitting that I took the skill of conductors for granted, but I think I now have license to be far more critical at the same time. See if you can put yourself in a situation where you are forced to wear a different hat, so to speak, of a person you think doesn’t have it all that hard. Like me, you’ll probably learn something!