The Silent Musician ~ Why Conducting Matters
A conductor is one of classical music’s most recognizable figures. Many people who have never actually been to an orchestral concert have an image of what one looks like. But rarely does such a well-known profession attract so many questions: ‘Surely orchestras can play perfectly well without you? Do you really make any difference to the performance?’
This book is not intended to be an instruction manual for conductors, nor is it a history of conducting. It is for all who wonder what conductors actually do. Exploring the relationships with the musicians and music they conduct, and the public and personal responsibilities they face, Mark Wigglesworth writes with engaging honesty about the role for any music lover curious to know whether or not the profession really matters.
A deft, sensible book of meditations on the craft of conducting, written with grace and humour, unfailingly light in spirit but sometimes profound in its utterance . . . The Silent Musician may be read straight through or picked up and put down at leisure, always with profit. It calls to mind a spirited bar conversation with a new friend, somebody you’ve asked to tell you about this most mysterious of musical professions and how it works . . . Wigglesworth has given us a volume that can be read with pleasure by anybody with an interest in concert music.
Tim Page, The Washington Post
The book makes a unique contribution to our understanding of how music’s transformative power works at every level, and it has the potential to change your perception of what is happening when you attend a live performance.
Chris Gunness, Classical Music Magazine
A remarkable book . . . thoughtfully conceived and beautifully written.
Richard Osborne, The Oldie
An illuminating account of what it means to be [a conductor], how it feels, what’s required and why it’s a misunderstood job that has the potential to enrich and terrify in equal measure. The most fascinating sections are those in which Wigglesworth discusses the relationship between conductor and orchestra, one that can be fraught with struggle and blessed with joys.
Michael Beek, BBC Music Magazine
If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on in the mind of that person on a rostrum waving a white stick at up to 100 musicians, Mark Wigglesworth’s The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters is the book for you. But, more than that, it’s also rich in musical insights and phrased with wit and elegance. Need I say more?
Stephen Hough, Tablet BOOKS OF THE YEAR
In this invaluable book, [Mark Wigglesworth] writes, with immense insight, in often rather beautiful prose, for the general and specialist reader, about the nature of conducting. It is not merely a very clever book, revealing a depth of learning lightly displayed, but a very wise one, whose appeal moves beyond the world of music.
Michael Wilkinson, Music-Web International
When I was asked to review a book about conducting my first reaction was to say no thanks. Then I thought that even if I had to endure another book of two-dimensional pictures of beat patterns it would at least give me a platform to parade my wisdom and prejudices, so I said yes.
I then received the book The Silent Musician, Why Conducting Matters by Mark Wigglesworth.
It is with great joy and admiration that I confess that this is the first book on conducting that I have read since the introduction to the Handbook of Conducting by Hermann Scherchen published in 1933 that not only finally bears resemblance to who and what a conductor actually is but puts into very readable and eloquent English prose exactly who and/or what a conductor is and/or isn’t.
YIPPEE – WONDERFUL – ESSENTIAL READING.
If you have any interest or curiosity about what makes a conductor tick, this book by Mark Wigglesworth has the answer.
It is so wonderful to be able to read a beautifully written and constructed book which exactly informs the reader what a conductor is with disarming accuracy and humility and with a touch of humour when needed.
The temptation is to start quoting bits which underline all the facts, fears, responsibilities, fun, successes, failures etc which make up a conductor’s life.
So I will succumb to the temptation and choose some quotes from his book which underline how accurate he is when talking about what a conductor really is. On page 19 he writes:
Every conductor’s body is different, and every conductor’s technique unique. Physical habits and characteristic gestures are related to whether we are tall or short, lean or not, and our natural posture underlies our appearance when we conduct. If our body is indeed our ‘instrument’ is stands to reason that we should learn to use it well, and good technique for a conductor is essential the same as is for any instrumentalist: an awareness and mastery of one’s muscle movements in order to produce a desired result.
It is terrific to read this truth. Often when I ask what someone thinks a conductor’s instrument is, the reply is usually either the orchestra, the baton or some other observation. I often elaborate when talking about this that the concertmaster’s basic view of the conductor is his left kneecap, the trumpet his right eyebrow etc. Consequently, it is essential that the conductor’s body is so trained that whatever bit a player sees gives the same accurate message.
On page 79 he writes:
Put a hundred cosmopolitan players into an orchestra and as a group their national characteristics still reveal themselves with all the stereotypical differences of that particular country’s identity. These are generalisations, but it is hard not to be aware of the work ethic of the Japanese, the suave style of the Italians, the passion of the Hungarians, the efficiency of the Americans, the sophistication of the Swedes, the team work of the Dutch, the freedom of the South Americans, the cultural confidence of the Germans, the ‘no-worries’ attitude of the Australians, and the more-passionate-than-we-like-to-admit British. Music might be an international language but it is one full of many different accents and dialects. What fun it is to read this analysis of what a conductor faces as well as what else he has to say in the 250 pages of his book.
One of my favorite quotes from his book is on page 81 where he writes:
There are challenges to working abroad. Humour can be a most valuable tool in creating and maintaining a positive atmosphere, and it is a very effective way of defusing tension. Disguising criticism with a cloak of self-deprecation can produce the right results while making sure the air stays free of any potential negativity. But you have to be careful. Not everybody’s sense of humour is the same. A joke in Manchester might not go down so well in Munich and what could be considered a light touch in Paris might well be thought of as superficial in St Petersburg.
This is absolutely true, and he has found a lovely way of saying it.
On page 94 he makes the following statement which is really quite arresting:
Risking failure is an important prerequisite for ultimate success and it can be dangerous to play safe. It is easier to swim if you are in the deep end of a pool.
I wish I had said that.
On page 108 you will find the following:
Although the personality of the performer is crucial and ultimately what distinguishes great performances, that personality has to be used as a means to an end, an end envisioned fundamentally by the composer.
There is really no comment to make about this quote other than how terrific it is to see in print one of the real challenges of performing.
Try this quote from page 117:
A healthy mix of authenticity, tradition, and spontaneity is better than being a slave to any one of them. It is just as foolish to think that something is good because it is old as it is to think that because something is new it is better.
This truly underlines the complicated business of performing what a composer wrote honestly and is the constant challenge we as performers face.
One of the most challenging aspects of conducting is to avoid coming under the spell of a particular recording. I could write pages about this situation but will suffice with a quote from page 126.
Being confused by how many possibilities there are is more easily resolved than the difficulty of coming under the spell of just one. This is when the influence of a particular recording robs you of your own artistic identity. If you can wait to listen to recordings until the middle or end of your preparation process, you can first discover your own individual response to the piece, and a bedrock of belief is established that can then factor in more healthily the valuable experience of others.
There are times when I feel a book should be written about the good and bad of listening to recordings of works that you are preparing or studying. I like the above quote as one version of coping with the dilemma of being influenced by what others have done.
You will enjoy the dangerous journey he takes into the business of the composer as the conductor of his own works. Go to page 128 for a tale of Stravinsky’s recording of one of his own works.
I could easily go on and on about what Mr Wigglesworth has to say about such things as surtitles at the opera, observing other conductors in rehearsal, the various challenges of conducting opera versus concerts, coping with singers versus instrumentalists and the zillion other things about what a conductor faces, decides, likes, dislikes, accomplishes, succeeds, fails and on and on.
The impact and the truth of this book is best realised by reading it cover to cover yourself. It is properly organized so that it not only informs the reader of the truth which rarely is known about what a conductor really is, does and feels but also confesses the doubts and conflicts that are part of this profession.
Mark Wigglesworth enjoys an enviable career of orchestral concerts and opera performances. His honest exposure to his thoughts, fears, misgivings and concerns as well as his dedication to and understanding of the business of being a conductor are beautifully expressed.
He knows what a conductor is and does and has eloquently penned with contagious honesty what this wonderful profession is all about.
The choices and situations related in this wonderful book are so very accurate. It is fabulous to know that now there is a way for people to find out the deep truth of this business of conducting.
So, rush now to your computer and ‘do the deed’.
Dobbs Frank, MusicTrust.com
The role of the conductor is not easy to describe. In addition to all of the musical aspects of conducting, there is so much psychology, physicality and crucial attention to detail – among many other things – wrapped up into every second on the podium. British conductor Mark Wigglesworth does an outstanding job examining and articulating all of the aspects of a conductor that need to operate in tandem in order to bring forth success and likeability. He provides his readers impeccably graspable insight into the conducting profession, and sheds light on all that goes into this important leadership role. Wigglesworth sums up the profession with such clarity and perfection: “In a nutshell, conducting is about knowing what is important and what is not… In that sense, though the circumstances might be uncommon, conducting is a rather normal profession.”
Wigglesworth’s writing bridges the gap between the role of the conductor in relation to the musicians and the audience. He achieves an enchanting lyricism in his writing that is so relatable to those who make music. For example, “It is a privilege to be on a journey that never ends, that constantly asks unanswerable questions, and musicians are lucky to always have a reason to make the next performance better.” What makes this book so fascinating is that Wigglesworth’s poetic words not only connect with musicians and conductors… they transcend the boundaries between those on stage and those listening and watching from the audience.
The wide range of accessibility that Wigglesworth creates makes this book truly unique and incomparable to other books of its kind. It provides a clear view into what it takes to be a conductor and all that this very demanding and multi-faceted role encompasses. Wigglesworth’s statements about the art of conducting and the need for self-reflection apply across the board to people of all professions. “… Despite all the good and bad that comes our way, the most significant criticisms are the ones we give ourselves.”
Wigglesworth’s writing is quotable and valuable – beyond that of a “how-to” guide and comparable to a sort of spiritual text, making you not want to put this book down. Many of his quotes resonate beyond just a job description of a conductor. He writes, “It is a knowledge, understanding, and love for music that justifies your right to lead its advocacy.” Wigglesworth digs deeper than just the visible surface of gesture that conducting entails and describes the art in a truly admirable and extremely effective and insightful way.
He profoundly describes conducting as “a communion of private emotion,” and lyrically states, “… It is your relationship with the music that lies at the heart of your artistic identity. You are a musician first, a conductor second.” Wigglesworth constantly emphasizes the privilege and honor that come with the job of conductor, shedding light on his humbleness and gratitude toward his success in the craft. All-in-all refreshing and full of insurmountable perspective, this book is a must-read for conductors of all ages and levels.
Samantha Clarke, CBDNA Report
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