Saturday, April 18, 2009

Floor, Wall, Wall, Ceiling (ad nauseum)

(Fritz Reiner, a mean old S.O.B.)

The conductors I like
... are the ones who haven't robotically waved their arms *floor, wall, wall, ceiling* in such a long time-- that they, and no one else can recall them ever doing it.

The conductors I like... are the ones who understand that a downbeat (floor) can be a really strong, hardwood or cee-ment floor, or a cushy carpeted one, or just a wispy cloud that they are sort of floating on.

The conductors I like... are the ones who realize that each beat might just have a different personality, and that those personalities might change during a piece, maybe even a lot, piling up Sybil like!

(Sally Field, "you like us, you really like us")

The conductors I like... are the ones who know that "Wall #2 " (beat 3 in 4/4 time) is their opportunity to move things forward into the second half of the bar, and is also often an opportunity to use an outward expansion of their arms to expand the sound (here is one of the few decent reasons to mirror conduct), hopefully even LITERALLY expand their singers breath/muscular apparatus. Wow, "wall #2" can do a lot, especially with the breath in choral music (I have seen Joe Flummerfelt teach this in conducting masterclasses, though not using my funky terms here).

The conductors I like... know that they can learn new approaches to rhythm from other styles of music; for instance, jazz ( think Count Basie at his swingiest, or a bazillion other jazz artists). "Ceiling beat" (beat 4 in 4/4 ) isn't the goldarned end of the measure- it's the sweet beat that propels on through to the next beat one. This is one of many reasons why jazz is so swankily rhythmic. For instance, classical musicians are often stuck in this square mindframe: 1234/1234/1234/1234 with the barline being an unfortunate wall.
Jazz is more like this: 1234-->1234-->1. If you are a beat number in a jazz tune, being first doesn't matter-- it's more important to figure out what you do with your beat value in relationship to the beats around you. What a difference... a kind of "it takes a village" thing!

The conductors I like... own metronomes that, luckily for us, broke twenty years ago and haven't been replaced.

The conductors I like... let the rhythms breathe (and breath in rhythm with their singers)-- let them out of the box of the "tyranny of the barline". They are dancers, not dictators; painters, not pothole patchers. They like their choirs, and their choirs like them. They invite you into a beautiful soundworld, not glare you into the naughty corner if you don't revere their power. An S.O.B. like Fritz Reiner could bully orchestras into brilliance, yet you can't successfully bully a choir- the psyche of the individual voice and the collective soul of a good choir is too fragile for that (in my opinion).

The conductors I like... are the ones who are sublime to watch and listen to, or whose choir are sublime to listen to with eyes closed.

The conductors I like... smile (and make me smile). In fact, I can easily sense, even with their back to me, that they are smiling and having fun with their choir.

Therefore Aesop and Confucius say: The next time you catch yourself doing a whole bunch of square, robotic *floor, wall, wall, ceiling* conducting (or a lot of mirror conducting for no valid reason) let go of the tension you were burdened with from your classical music conservatory training. Loosen up, pretend you are Sonny Rollins or Danilo Perez-- and let the music's natural rhythms flow. It's okay, really!


  1. What a great love letter to brilliant conducting. The jazz comments are really spot on -- working with Don Neuen on The Creation right now, and he really gets us into the jazz of Haydn -- so much fun that I might (just might) sing the Missa Solemnis again, just to get his take on it.