HAT MAKES a great conductor? Is he born with his gift or does he acquire it through assiduous effort? Is there hope for the amateur (in the best sense of the word) or is greatness a heavenly gift sparingly bestowed? In a certain sense anyone willing can become a good conductor, but the great conductor possesses something more, something so intangible I believe it can’t be taught. This gift is somewhat like the Faith, it is a gift that others can prepare one to receive, but in the end can’t actually give it, but it is this gift that makes the great conductor, and here I speak of wonder.
At the heart of the great conductor is one who is born in wonder, one who stands in awe and amazement of heaven’s divine gift of music. It might begin with hearing a Chopin piano concerto, the Veni Creator Spiritus, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or the Durufle Requiem, but a part of the conductor’s soul is touched in such a way that he knows he will never be the same again, and like all great lovers, seeks to share with everyone the object of his passion. This isn’t to say that knowledge of certain conducting patterns in unnecessary, or that one shouldn’t have to practice technique, but it is to say that these things are stiff and lifeless until the conductor has been wounded by the beauty of music.
Working with children helps to bring our view of the matter into better focus because their enthusiasm is spontaneous and their reaction unstudied. If they don’t like something they will say it and even before they say it their faces will betray it. How, then, does the great choir master get so much out of his choristers? No matter how good of musicians these boys and girls are, they are still just that, boys and girls, and they won’t give what they haven’t first been given. They can’t give a sublime performance if they haven’t first fallen in love with music. The great conductor has to be able to prepare them to receive the gift of being born in wonder.
I vividly remember some years ago trying to teach my early choristers to sing in parts and it wasn’t working. I was discouraged at the prospect of unison singing for the rest of my life and filled with dread that we would never get beyond hymns and simple motets. I needed something more so I decided to teach the choristers the soprano line of Palestrina’s Missa Brevis and ask the adult choir to sing alto, tenor and bass. It really wasn’t difficult—mostly simple rhythms and melodic intervals. It was so simple, in fact, that the children were bored with it, but I plowed forward. Finally the day of the full choir rehearsal arrived and we began with the Gloria. I thought it best to have the entire choir sing the big F major chord before moving on and it was then that I saw wonder in the faces of the children. Something so simple as singing a major chord perfectly in tune in a resonant space changed their attitude completely and a number of them told me later that that was the moment their love for choral music truly began. Those students made all the difference to the choir and ironically made me a better conductor.
Unfortunately there is no magic formula for striking that first spark in the life of a child, or any adult musician for that matter, but therein lies the heart of the truly great conductor—the ability to awaken his fellow musicians, that they may be born in wonder and communicate through music to the world.