Bright lights, centre stage and hundreds of pairs of eyes staring up at you… If you’ve ever suffered from performance anxiety, you’ll recall just how crippling it can be. Even for the bravest and most extroverted musicians amongst us it’s no easy feat. Tentatively signing up for a year-long conducting course, apprehension began to set in deep.
In the 19th century the figure on the podium became regarded not only as a timekeeper and interpreter, but a showman, a maestro and a leader. Leadership, and the self-confidence this requires, are the key to success and respect in the conductor’s profession. Even in moments of profound introspection, the extrovert’s conviction is paramount.
I, on the other hand, am an introvert. I’m uncomfortable speaking up amongst friends, let alone interpreting and leading an orchestra full of prima-donna violinists and a hot-headed horn section. I am, essentially, your typical pianist – a bit of a loner.
I was a little apprehensive, then, as I walked into the first lesson of my year-long conducting course. I couldn’t help but question what I was getting myself in for. How could I overcome the daunting task of performing expressively, head-bobs and all? Was I prepared for the arguments about interpretation? Would I be able to lead a group of unfamiliar instrumentalists? Does sincere personality have to be replaced with faked confidence or excessive egotism to be convincing? And most troublingly, what possessed me to put myself through this in final year, when disaster mattered most?
As the year progressed, a number of valuable realisations came to me, and these questions of self-doubt ebbed away.
A good first step in this journey to self-confidence is to ensure 100% investment in the score…
While the conductor’s theatrical performance is now essential to orchestral practice, when Beethoven’s 5th was first performed the conductor’s role was in fact an unassuming one. It was only with the growing popularity of the symphony in the 19th century – and the accompanying expansion in the size of the orchestra – that conductors came to rule the roost.
Firstly, consider the distinction between self-confidence and self-glorification: it has been claimed that many musicians declare themselves as conductors and ironically, the world largely accepts the proclamation without question, regardless of the individual’s technical, intellectual, and emotional capabilities to interpret a musical score.
As a result many young musicians (mainly students, regrettably) with vast, unrestrainable egos become ‘conductors’ almost overnight, whilst the more modest egos with equally modest ambitions (but with as much, or perhaps more, conducting ability) remain comparatively unexceptional and unrecognised.
Thankfully (and I must admit this is quite enjoyable to witness), an overexertion of egotism in attempt to compensate for a lack of preparation and control ultimately limits the conductor’s communicative efforts and rarely goes unnoticed by the players.
It has been suggested that a modest and selfless ego encourages a high level of music-making. The ‘introvert’ can likely relate these qualities with the appropriate nurturing. However, even a healthy ego (especially an introverted one) must summon and continually develop the courage to stand before an orchestra of 75 musicians and daringly enforce their musical interpretation of the great masterpieces of the Western tradition with a sense of mild authority over those musicians.
A good first step in this journey to self-confidence is to ensure 100% investment in the score, not just analytically but emotionally and contextually. Rather than exude an arrogance of knowledge, a conductor must aim instead for a controlled and relatable level of maturity; after all, accessing the innermost corners of a composer’s score often means little more than delving into the innermost corners of a composer’s personality and life experience. Tap into the work’s moments of fragility and uncertainty through an introspective understanding.
‘The art of conducting’ is a phrase I’ve often heard thrown around, but evidently the art of confidence underpins this practice.
Much to my surprise, I’ve found that physically emitting confidence, even in moments of utmost shyness, can be an effective mechanism for coping with performance anxiety. Obliged to remain in character for the purpose of relaxing the orchestra and audience, you can physically trick the psyche into believing that confidence is setting in.
Try, for example, standing in a solid but relaxed stance, walking with purpose, acknowledging the audience, and bowing in between works. One’s posture alone has the potential to communicate this desired sense of leadership, command and control, so that its believability eventually becomes reality.
And remember, the majority of the audience will be wanting the performer to do well and to enjoy the experience, so they tend to feel relaxed if they can visually observe a physical calmness in the performer.
‘The art of conducting’ is a phrase I’ve often heard thrown around, but evidently the art of confidence underpins this practice. It is through experience that we appreciate that developing the art of conducting takes time, and that its journey is unique for everyone.
The way in which leadership qualities are transmitted to an orchestra differs greatly amongst conductors; some great conductors can show this without saying a single word, others relish the opportunity to talk about it, but the fundamental quality in any level of expression is in its sincerity.
Sincerity and modesty are certainly accessible qualities for the introvert, and confidence and leadership can be developed through a supreme understanding of the score and its intended expressive implications.
For composers, performers and conductors alike, it is therefore the case that everything that one experiences through life – learning about oneself by growing in confidence, security and knowledge – can be brought to bear on one’s experience of leadership, and results in a deeply gratifying experience.