The Language of Conducting | Darko Butorac | TEDxUMontana


Translator: Claire Edward
Reviewer: Tanya Cushman Thank you. Good evening, ladies
and gentlemen, welcome. My name is Darko Butorac. I’m going to talk to you tonight about
the language of orchestral conducting. Now, for many of us,
our first views on the subject were shaped by a great colleague
of mine, a famous maestro, Mr. Bugs Bunny. (Laughter) If you remember, he donned his white-gloved hand
and held it on high as the tenors sang
the eternal B-flat turning green. And as trying as opera singers
can be sometimes, this is not what conducting is all about. The language of conducting
is certainly a complex one and, to the casual observer,
can appear almost mystical. There is something very magical
about moving your hands, and all of a sudden, sound emerging. Now, if we think of language as using
words to express our ideas and emotions, I think of conducting as a language that
uses gesture to turn ideas into music. This is a three-part process. First, we have objective
study of the score; then, creation of a subjective vision; and finally, the synthesis of the two
into expressive gesture. So let’s start with the objective study. Every time I open a new score, I go through it very slowly
and try to absorb all the little details, the dots and dashes, the black notes
on the eternal white pages. All the while, there is
no personal expression going on; there is no interpretation. Just the facts, Ma’am. (Laughter) It would be very much – Let’s do an example. Let’s take the Romeo and Juliet Overture, by Tchaikovsky. So we open the first page;
we see the list of instruments. Four of them play:
two clarinets, two bassoons. The key is F-sharp minor, very dark. There is a four-bar phrase rising, and there’s a little crescendo at the end. And then there’s an Italian tempo marking which says “Andante non tanto,
quasi moderato,” which means, “A not-a too fast,
a not-a too slow.” (Laughter) And I do this for the whole piece;
I absorb all these little details but, again, without
any personal expression. It would be as if we took
the text of Shakespeare and memorized it like this: (Monotone voice)
“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” (Laughter) Not particularly inspiring. Dead and robotic –
how do you bring it to life? You add subjective vision
and personal expression. So the musical score
is very much similar to a script. It offers a lot of information; it tells us to play things
fast or slow, loud or soft, but not how loud or how soft. Every parameter of music is malleable: the dynamics, the articulations, the colour, the tone. The job of the conductor is to manage
each and [every] one of them so that the piece has an organic quality,
from beginning to the end. I take you on a journey every time, and I manage the intensity
of these different elements so there is a clear climax
and a clear release. And mind you, this is not exactly
decided by personal whim. You can’t just do, you know, “I’ll do two shots of coffee
in the morning, and let’s just go faster tonight. No, it’s a journey of discovery;
you look for clues. You look at the harmony –
the harmony implies certain tensions. You learn about the style of the period,
other works of the composer, and certainly the composer’s biography. So in the case of Tchaikovsky’s
Romeo and Juliet, I mentioned it begins with four
instruments: two clarinets, two bassoons. Very dark color in the low register. Each one has an independent voice,
so it’s like a choral. And we know Tchaikovsky is Russian. He was raised in the Orthodox faith; therefore, he’s familiar
with Orthodox chant. And that’s exactly what this music evokes. So now we think, “In Shakespeare,
who is related to the Church?” Aha, Friar Lawrence. And so the opening of the piece, to me, seems like Friar Lawrence sitting down and telling us this fantastic story
of two forlorn lovers. “Two households, both alike in dignity,
in fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” This is where artistic choices
begin to matter; this is how music comes to life. Now we come to the third part, the synthesis of the subjective
and the objective into gesture. Let’s talk about how we get an orchestra
to actually make a sound together. So, I will – I’m going to turn all of you
into one giant TEDx clapping orchestra. Don’t worry, musical talent not required. All you have to do is clap together. Here we go, ready? Follow my lead. (Audience claps) Yeah, not very together, is it? (Laughter) Alright, to explain how you actually
have to start the orchestra properly, let me use a fantastic
technological gadget. (Laughter) Please clap when the ball hits my hand. (Audience claps) Aha! Very nice, good healthy forte! The reason this works is because we know
exactly when the ball will hit my hand. (Audience claps) Wow, you’re well trained. Here you go. (Laughter) Now I’m going to take my hand
and do the same thing. So, I’ll just relax and let it fall down. Let’s do it again. (Audience claps) Yes, a little early in the first violins! (Laughter) I’m going to remove my left hand,
and we’ll do it again. Just clap when the hand returns. (Audience claps) Yes, when it goes down, yeah. (Laughter) Very good. And notice what happens
is the gesture imitates breathing. Inhalation and exhalation. Yeah, exactly! It’s the same thing chamber musicians do
when they play together; they inhale as they
start to play together. Now let’s talk about
what the hands actually do. In proper school fashion,
our crash course continues. The right hand is used
to keep the orchestra together by showing patterns, and the pattern depends
on the meter of the music. So if we have duple meter,
we go like this. One. Two.
(One person claps) Man, you’re really,
really excited – good, I like it! Alright, so that’s duple meter,
one and two, up and down. If it’s a piece in three, it’s a triangle. So it’s one, two and three. A piece in four looks like this:
one, two, three, four. Or a good mnemonic
is floor, door, window, ceiling. (Laughter) And then if you’re really
talented, you can try this. One, two, three, ah! (Laughter) So that takes care of the right hand. The left hand is used for expression,
in addition to fixing your hair. And it may show things like
let’s play smoothly or let’s play softly. Or, Mr. Tuba Player, I know you
haven’t been playing for 467 measures, but please play the next downbeat. And of course, you have to do this
both at the same time, left hand and right hand. So we need a little bit of coordination
between the left and right brain. So here’s a fantastic exercise
to embarrass you. Please point your left hand at me. Exactly, and we’ll go together, we’ll go down, out, up and in. So in other words,
like one, two, three, four. Perfect! Very talented group. (Laughter) Next, the other hand. And now we’ll make a triangle,
so it’s going to be like this: one, two, three. And by the fear in your eyes, I can tell
that you know what’s coming next. (Laughter) So, here we go, both hands together; if you get lost,
just stay with me, stay good. Here we go. Nice and slow. (Laughter) Need more challenge? We can go faster. Or if you’re really good,
I can count to five, you know – one, two, three, four, five. Okay. (Applause) So now you’re ready. You have your right hand;
you have your left hand; you have the coordination. You’re ready to conduct, right? Not quite. You see, what we talked about so far
has just been the grammar of conducting. The first step to true mastery is realizing that hand motions
are just hand motions. This is my hand going up and down –
this is not a crescendo. Great conducting starts
with a little bit of method acting. You take that which you learned, and you form a clear
sound picture in your head. It’s in your body, and out of there, it comes out. So then a crescendo can be like this. It’s something very honest
that comes from within you. The second step to great conducting is the realization that leadership
requires a really fine balance between empowerment and management. You have 75 musicians in front of you, centuries of collective
musical experience. And the great conductor will know
exactly when they need a clear beat, or when they need to step out of the way
and just shape the music. The conductor Herbert von Karajan
put it beautifully; he said, “The purpose of each conductor
should be to make himself unnecessary.” And what he meant by this was that the musical experience on stage
is not about following a beat but rather about all the musicians
breathing together, playing together, seeing and having one vision
of a work of music. True teamwork. And the orchestra is one
of the best examples in life of the whole being so much larger
than the sum of its parts. You see, every performance
is not just an opportunity to recreate what the composer had in mind; it’s an incredible opportunity
to inspire a community, to bring goosebumps,
to bring tears, joy, excitement, a visceral connection to the music. So that when you leave the theatre,
you can feel inspired, and you take that passion, and you bring it
to your everyday life and work, and you make the whole world
a better place as a result. This is why we need great art. This is why we need great music. Thank you. (Applause)

28 Replies to “The Language of Conducting | Darko Butorac | TEDxUMontana

  1. Where did you learn such excellent English?! Hats off to you, Maestro Butorac! I speak three myself, you speak more, by virtue of your beautiful Italian pronunciation. And sir, you read the Shakespeare prologue with such expression that I could listen for hours! Thank you for this enjoyable presentation. You are a joy to learn from. As a choir director myself, I feel you gave more to us in this one presentation than others do when they talk for hours. Many thanks, and all the best to you, sir😊

  2. Such a fantastic explanation. I have always wondered what’s a role of a conductor in Orchestra. Thank you so much.

  3. If we go back further to baroque era music we find the real reason for the conductor. Since most music written then was expected to be highly interpreted and even improvised with during the performance, it was essential for a conductor to aid an ensemble with that kind of help. As we went into the classical era, musicians started striving to increase tempo and composers started writing more “complete” scores. I think the composer today is totally useless, no one, no one, pays him any attention during the performance except the crowd.

  4. One of the most beautiful and engaging Ted talks I’ve seen. Such a misunderstood art that has been summarised so wonderfully.

  5. i didnt understand one point please help
    when the musicians already have the scores in front on them with the beats and all dynamics than why is there need for conductor ? as he has already composed the piece and musicians can play reading it

    and what if they look at the conductor for beats and dynamics than how will they focus on the score in front of them and play correct notes ?

  6. Still…while the conductor is waving his stick most of the people in the orchestra are focused on their notes, not the conductor. Setting the tone for the piece can be done, and is done, on the rehearsals before the main concert. It should be perfectly feasible to set the tone, tempo and whatnot verbally during rehearsals, with no stick waving required. I also think the orchestra will do perfectly fine without the conductor at the concert itself. Fantastic speaker though!

  7. I can see the orchestra needing someone to arrange, but once the piece is learned, I don't see the need.

  8. Some people are asking constantly why conductors are needed if music is just a set of instructions. Here's why:

    In music, sometimes the tempo marking (how fast to play) can be set in stone. Quarter note = 120. 120 beats per minute.

    Sometimes, however, it will say something more vague, like "Slightly manic". The conductor then either decides what that means or is the only one with the number on his score, so the musicians must watch.

    Additionally, dynamics (volume) are EXTREMEMLY subjective! Watch this:

    PP = pianissimo, very soft
    P = piano, soft
    MP = mezzo piano, medium soft
    MF = mezzo forte, medium loud
    F = forte, loud
    F = fortissimo, very loud

    Now, these markings are not for one musician. They are for the entire ensemble to balance among itself.

    For woodwinds, the dynamic markings must be exaggerated greatly due to the fact they are naturally so quiet.

    For brasswinds, the dynamics must be less dramatic.

    The conductor is the one who will let the sections know which group is too loud or too soft, and will also remind his ensemble that the dynamic marking is there in the first place.

    A third reason a conductor is necessary is because of subjective changes in feel.

    Take the terms "accelerrando" (accelerate, written "accel.") and "ritardando" (slow down, written "rit."), for instance.

    If you see "rit." or "accel." in your music, you absolutely MUST look at your conductor. He is the one deciding how dramatically you're slowing down or speeding up, and how slow or fast you're ending up.

    Another reason is because of something called "free time". This means that beats essentially go out the window, and you must follow the conductor, as 4/4, 6/8, and every other time signature no longer exist. Free time in one suite my concert band in high school was playing simply says "trill, about 4 seconds per note". I had to watch to know when to stop trilling and play my next note.

    Yet another reason is because of what we call rests and holds. A fermata is a symbol above a note or rest that indicates to hold it out until the conductor cuts it off. You must watch for this cutoff. A grand pause is a symbol between measures indicating to stop completely until cued to keep playing.

    Obviously, without a conductor, all of these musical terms will end up causing chaos when they are meant to keep structure instead. Conductors are necessary, and without one, it is very hard to have a good ensemble.

    (Unless it's jazz, in which case there's a whole new rulebook on what each word means.)

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