The Maestro’s Mojo

A composite of images of Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, as recorded by computer in a motion-capture sequence.

ARMS carve the air. A hand closes as if to pull taffy. An index finger shoots out. The torso leans in, leans back. And somehow, music pours forth — precisely coordinated and emotionally expressive — in response to this mysterious podium dance.

Concertgoers, who train their ears on the orchestra, inevitably fix their eyes on the conductor. But even the most experienced listener may not be aware of the subtle and deep connection between a conductor’s symphony of movements and the music emanating from the players.

So in an attempt to understand what is going on, we interviewed seven conductors as they passed through New York in recent seasons with an eye to breaking them down into body parts — like that poster in the butcher shop with dotted lines to show the different cuts of meat — left hand, right hand, face, eyes, lungs and, most elusive, brain.

The conductor’s fundamental goal is to bring a written score to life, through study, personality and musical formation. But he or she makes music’s meaning clear through body motion.

“If you imagine trying to talk to somebody in a totally foreign language, and you wanted to express something to that person without the use of language, how would you do that?” the British conductor Harry Bicket said. “That’s really what you’re doing.”

Every baseball pitcher has a different motion, but all pitchers want to retire the batter. Similarly, every conductor employs a singular style, but all want to elicit as great a performance as possible. So our breakdown has inherent generalizations.

In the end it must be remembered that the art of conducting is more than just semaphore. It is a two-step between body and soul, between physical gesture and musical personality. The greatest technician can produce flabby performances. The most inscrutable stick waver can produce transcendence.

“You can do everything right and be of no interest at all,” said James Conlon, the music director of the Los Angeles Opera. “And you can be baffling and effective.”


Traditionally (for right-handers, at least), the right hand holds the baton and keeps the beat. It controls tempo — faster here, slower there — and indicates how many beats occur in a measure. The baton usually signals the beginning of a measure with a downward motion (the downbeat). An upward movement prepares for the downbeat. Conducting manuals say the upbeat and downbeat should take the same amount of time, and that interval should equal the length of the beat. “The upbeat is the preparation for any event,” said Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Setting the right tempo for a musical passage is critical. No less an authority than the composer Richard Wagner, also one of the first modern conductors, said the “whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo.” Yet a conductor is not a black-coat-and-tails-wearing metronome. “One of the big misconceptions of what conductors do is they stand there and beat time,” Mr. Bicket said. “Most orchestras don’t need anyone to keep time.”

But the baton can also shape the sound. The nature of the downbeat — how abrupt, how delicate — tells the orchestra what kind of sound character to produce. The baton can smooth out choppy phrases by moving through the beat in a more sweeping way. A more horizontal motion can create a more lyrical quality, said James DePreist, the former director of orchestral and conducting studies at the Juilliard School. A downward stroke that imitates a violin bowing movement, Mr. Bicket said, can color the attack. Even when beating time through long-held notes, Mr. Gilbert said, the conductor should be trying to communicate the sound quality through the movement of the baton.

A predecessor of Mr. DePreist’s at Juilliard, the conducting master Jean Morel, taught that the right hand and wrist should be “thoroughly self-sufficient,” said Mr. Conlon, a Morel student; it should “do everything — time, expression, articulation, character — so that you could then apply the left hand and withhold it at will.”

Xian Zhang, a master of sculpturing musical line with her baton, demonstrated this while rehearsing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola with a student orchestra at the Juilliard School. Her stick movement closely matched the music’s character, turning delicate for gentle passages, small for accompanying strings, larger for a horn and oboe melody. Her arm strokes grew broad at vigorous lines. Sometimes the uplift of her baton seemed literally to draw out the sounds.

Some conductors prefer at times, or all the time, not to use a baton. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who becomes the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in September, is one. His training came mostly with choirs, for which batons are rarely used.

“Basically the hands are there to describe a certain space of the sound and to shape that imaginary material,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. That imaginary body of sound sits in front of the conductor, between the chest and the hands, he added. “It’s easier when there is nothing in one hand.” He started using a baton when he began guest-conducting at major orchestras, because they were more used to it.

Valery Gergiev is another conductor who often does not use a baton. His technique was on display at a rehearsal of the London Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in preparation for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Mr. Gergiev sat in a chair, generally immobile. Almost all the action came from his right hand, which was often flat, with thumb parallel, like an alligator’s jaws. His left hand did little but was used occasionally to point and to cut chords off. Mr. Gergiev doesn’t so much beat time with his right hand as waggle his fingers in character with the music. His fingers were usually outstretched, palms down, and his wrist cocked upward at face level. Sometimes he formed an O.K. circle with his thumb and forefinger, and waggled the other three fingers. As the tempo sped up, his wrist tended to become floppier.

In an interview Mr. Gergiev suggested that waggling his hand, which he called a habit, might have derived from playing the piano. “I’m a pianist, and sometimes I ‘play’ texture,” he said.

A baton can work against a singing sound, he added. “Most difficult in conducting is to make the orchestra sing, and this is where both hands have to basically help wind or string players sing.” Hitting the air with a stick, he said, is like fencing: “I don’t think it helps the sound.”


The left hand, having turned over rhythmic duties to the right, serves a far more elastic purpose. Crudely put, if the right hand sketches the outlines of the painting, the left fills in the colors and textures. The right hand creates the chocolate shell of a bonbon, and the left hand fashions the filling. Its main practical use is to give cues to sections or individual players about when to enter and when to cut off, often with a pointed index finger. A pulling in of the left hand and a closing of the thumb and fingers can cause a phrase to taper away. A quick downward cupping clips off the sound.

Mr. DePreist ran through the sometimes inexplicable left-hand practices of others: William Steinberg would rub his fingers together, as in the universal symbol for money. Antal Dorati would make jabbing motions, as if he were “keeping a ball of sound up and floating.” Eugene Ormandy often kept his left hand curled around the lapel of his tailcoat while the Philadelphia Orchestra, Mr. DePreist noted, produced “torrents of sounds.”

Mr. Nézet-Séguin is one of the more physically expressive conductors, perhaps, he said, because of his small stature. His left hand is in constant motion. He tries to keep it sideways to the orchestra, he said, so the heel of his hand will not seem a symbolic barrier to the musicians.

At another Juilliard rehearsal Mr. Nézet-Séguin indicated entrances by making an O.K. circle or flicking open his index finger, for a lighter attack. A rising index finger with each beat indicated more volume. At loud chords, he cupped his hand upward. A downward cupped hand called for a sustained line. Pounding martial chords yielded a fist. A flat hand, palm downward, called for smoothness. Repeated entrances came with pistol shot motions.

Mr. Gilbert notes that professional musicians do not have to be told when in the measure to come in. He often prepares for a cue by looking at a player ahead of time, to establish a connection and to build energy. The purpose of a cue “is to have people join in at the right time in the right way, in the flow,” Mr. Gilbert said.


After the arms the most important part of the conductor’s arsenal is the face. “I feel as if my face is singing with the music,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. Engaging the musicians with a look can relax and encourage them. On the other hand, some conductors, like Fritz Reiner, kept their expressions unchanging, and his recordings are “completely electrifying,” Mr. Bicket said. Remaining without expression can be helpful for musician morale.

“To editorialize facially your displeasure or your frustration is not helpful to anybody,” Mr. Bicket said. Yet raised eyebrows can be subtle conveyors of dissatisfaction. The face becomes all the more important when the hands are otherwise occupied, as when a conductor simultaneously plays a keyboard, a common practice of early-music specialists like Mr. Bicket.

The eyes themselves “are the most important in all of conducting,” Ms. Zhang said. “The eyes should be the most telling in musical intent. The eyes are the window of the heart. They show how you feel about the music.”

A squint, for example, can convey a distant quality to the music, Mr. DePreist said. One trick to creating a good orchestral sound is to look at the players in the back of the string section. “You’re getting them in the game,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said.

Mr. Gergiev uses the same technique with a back bencher, he said: “Looking at him means I am interested in him. If I’m interested in him, that means he is interested in me. Correct? Everything I do, I try to do relying on expression and visual contact.”

Sometimes it is just as important not to look at the musicians, especially during major solos. “That’s a big part of the unspoken conducting secrets,” Ms. Zhang said. It can keep the player from being nervous. And then there is the rare case of the conductor who leads with closed eyes and produces great performances, as Herbert von Karajan often did.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most physically expressive conductors in modern times, which sometimes earned him the scorn of critics. But he was also capable of conducting with the subtlest of facial expressions, as evidenced by a classic YouTube video in which his eyebrows dance, lips purse and eyes widen.


Mr. Nézet-Séguin said he became conscious of back posture by watching videotapes of Karajan. Mr. Nézet-Séguin was working at the time with Carlo Maria Giulini. “The main difference of their sound was due to their human attitudes, which was expressed by the back,” he said. Karajan’s basic posture was “very proud, shoulders back and in command.”

“You’re expecting things to come to you,” he added. The quality could be cold, majestic, aloof, marbled.

But the lanky Giulini would lean forward as soon as the music started, “a gesture of going toward the people, giving them something, serving,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said.

“It’s a body language which is very telling,” he added, and connected to Giulini’s warm interpretations.

Ms. Zhang pushes forward to achieve more intensity from the orchestra. Sometimes she leans back to have the musicians play softer. Or she leans forward to cover the sound, she said, “like putting out a fire.”


Conductors often speak of the importance of breathing: of inhaling in time to an upbeat to prepare for an entrance, much the way a singer draws a breath before starting. “The strings have to be encouraged to breathe” as well as the winds, Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. “It makes the whole thing more natural.”

For Mr. Bicket breathing as conducting is a necessity. If his hands are otherwise occupied playing a harpsichord or an organ, his cue for entrances often comes with an audible breath. The nature of that breath can affect the playing. A sharp intake creates a harder-edged sound.


In the interviews the conductors made it clear that for them body movements take a back seat to mental preparation and musical ideas residing in another body part, the brain. Conductors have to be “somewhat unaware” of what they are doing with their bodies, Mr. Nézet-Séguin said.

Giulini taught that “the clarity of a gesture comes from the clarity of your mind,” he added. Confusion comes from that split second of hesitation, when the mind is deciding what gesture to show.

Ms. Zhang uses a technique adopted from her mentor, Lorin Maazel: “a mental projection.” A clear mental image of the sound you want to hear makes for a clear entrance. Mentally projecting the pulse and the sound, she added, “leads one’s own hands.”

As Mr. Conlon put it: “You can discuss gesture and physical comportment endlessly, but ultimately some intangible, charismatic element trumps it all. Nobody has ever bottled it. To which I say, ‘Thank God.’ ”

Watch the video

Daniel J. Wakin (The New York Times) / April 6, 2012

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