By James Kwak
A friend sent me to an article in The Economist titled “The Science of Conducting” summarizing a study by a number of researchers (including apparently at least one real musician). The Economist’s conclusion:
“The findings are in harmony with what conductors knew all along: that baton-toting despots, like the late Herbert von Karajan, do add value—but only if they rein in the uppity musicians in front of them.”
This is more or less what the paper itself claims:
“We propose that the conductor will significantly change the perceived quality of a piece when s/he both increases his/her influence on musicians and, at the same time, expresses a personality able to overshadow the inter-musician communication. In simpler terms, this might be the essence of leadership.”
The method involved attaching infrared sensors to the players’ bows (there were eight violinists) and the conductors’ batons (two conductors) and then tracking the relationships between the movements of the baton and the violinists’ bows and among the violinists’ bows and each other. (How asking a conductor to lead eight skilled violinists is a test of anything is beyond me, but whatever.) The idea was to measure the degree to which the violinists are influenced by the conductor and the degree to which the violinists are influenced by each other (since eight decent violinists can play just about anything—such as Mozart Symphony #40—without a conductor).
The conclusion, quoted above, is based on the following facts:
- Of the five pieces played, listeners were indifferent between the performances of the two conductors for three pieces.
- For piece #3, conductor 1 was significantly more assertive than conductor 2, and the violinists were significantly less dependent on each under conductor 1 than under conductor 2. Listeners preferred the performance under conductor 1.
- For piece #5, conductor 1 was also significantly more assertive than conductor 2, but this time the violinists were not significantly less dependent on each other under conductor 1 than under conductor 2. This time listeners preferred the performance under conductor 2.
Huh? If you want to see that in pictures, here you go:
If you think there isn’t enough data here to draw any conclusions, you’re not alone. Alternatively, the conclusion might have been that the conductor should be laid-back rather than assertive, as that was clearly the right strategy for piece #5 (where C2 was preferred). At the end of the day, there were two pieces where the listeners were not indifferent. In piece 3, the winning strategy was high assertiveness by the conductor and modest interaction among the violinists. In piece 5, the winning strategy was low assertiveness by the conductor and modest interaction among the violinists.
But research costs money, and you have to publish something to show you didn’t waste the money, so this is what we got, and then The Economist picked it up with the subtitle, “Von Karajan Was Right: Orchestras Really Can Use the Smack of Firm Leadership,” and then Tyler Cowen picked it up, and . . .
Of course, any real musician knows that this kind of study is hopeless and misguided from the start. Any good orchestra can play any piece from the standard classical repertoire without a conductor. In an actual performance, the conductor provides a modest coordinating role (which could really be played by anyone good enough to play in said good orchestra). This role, however, is superfluous when you only have eight musicians—the Schubert and Mendelssohn Octets are regularly played without conductor, for example.
The conductor’s more important work occurs before the performance and has nothing to do with baton-waving. And in my experience,* the most important factor is less what the conductor does in rehearsal than whether the orchestra respects the conductor as a musician and as a person (since there are plenty of charlatans out there, at least at the lower levels). And you don’t need a baton for that. (Kurt Masur, for one, doesn’t use one.)
* In high school, I went to the Juilliard Pre-College Division, and in college and the first half of graduate school I spent most of my time playing music. Many of the people I played chamber music with are now professional musicians, most Alan Gilbert. I also conducted an orchestra for one year in college.