Music April 2002

Conducting: A Backwoods Guide

In the intense quiet of a Maine camp aspiring conductors work on bossiness, passivity, and how to move to the music

In a former life, in the Poland of his ancestors, the conductor Kenneth Kiesler must have been a ruddy, red-bearded rabbi—not a pale Talmudic scholar but a muscular Jew who would cut down the trees to build a wooden synagogue, work miracles with infertile couples, and dance in solitary bliss to the glory of the Creator. In this life Kiesler, who was the musical director of the Illinois Symphony for twenty years, heads the conducting program at the University of Michigan's School of Music. Like most conductors (and like any rabbi), he combines the roles of leader and teacher. Each summer for the past five years Kiesler has run a two-week conductors' retreat at Medomak Camp, on a lake in Washington, Maine. The retreat attracts about forty students, who live either in spartan cabins or in Tibetan yurts and dedicate themselves utterly to music from nine in the morning to ten at night.

Considering how few full-time jobs there are for conductors, it is surprising that conductor training has become a big operation. Conductors' institutes at the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals attract not only the most promising aspiring conductors but large audiences as well, on the lookout for the next Lenny. Most conductors discover their calling only after they have mastered an instrument, which is why almost all university conducting courses are graduate programs; so conducting students have just a few years in which to move from the rudiments of technique to a career. Conducting workshops condense this phase, immediately putting student maestros before the public; at Medomak (the name rhymes with "the comic") participants ranging in age from sixteen to sixty work on their craft far from the public's gaze—in front of their colleagues (there are no private lessons) and under Kiesler's intense scrutiny. "I'm never nervous when I conduct," one relatively experienced conductor told me. "But here I'm scared to death."

Now in his late forties, Kiesler grew up in the suburbs of New York, the third child of a public school gym teacher and a college professor of geology and geography. When he was eight, he spent his first summer at Medomak Camp. The camp, which closed down in 1980, had been founded in 1904 as a place to teach city boys the all-American values of rural existence. Kiesler returned every summer until he was twenty-one. "Because you were not assigned a daily schedule," he told me on my visit to the retreat, last July, "you learned to take responsibility for yourself. That's why there are no requirements here—participants do as much or as little as they choose." The maximum program is rigorous: classes in movement and ear training in the morning and two lengthy conducting sessions in the afternoon and evening. Midday is left for either the pleasures of the lake or preparing for the moment of truth—standing up to conduct.

When I arrived, I was surprised by the quiet. Scattered around the lawn on Adirondack chairs, conductors contemplated music scores either in rapt silence or with headphones plugged into CD players. It seemed like a strange form of practicing. But then again, how do conductors practice? At the piano? In the mirror? In the shower? (All of the above, I learned.) There was no audible music-making. The intense stillness made Medomak feel more like a chess camp than a conservatory.

I met the students at lunch, over fare as spartan as the cabins. A few were uncannily precocious teens, and some were college undergraduates, but many were already in graduate programs, and quite a few were assistant conductors of orchestras or led their own ensembles. There was almost no talk about careers—a second form of surprising silence. But this was a retreat, after all, and everyone seemed relieved to keep the buzz of the music business temporarily out of earshot. Kiesler announced pieces that would be the subject of the day's conducting sessions. He also encouraged students to consider spending a night in the woods alone, in a lean-to near the lake.

The conducting sessions took place in a weathered barn out of Andrew Wyeth. Each student could sign up for ten to twenty minutes of podium time, which included Kiesler's critical interjections. Podium time is recorded with a video camera—a nonrustic touch; students use their tapes diagnostically or edit them down to their finest moments to create auditions for other programs. The retreat had the services of a string quartet (with Kiesler's wife, Emily, on cello), augmented by Bill Grossman—a New York pianist with fifteen years of Cats to his credit, who filled in for any missing instruments on an electronic keyboard—and also by a few of the students who played strings. The lack of a full orchestra meant that students could not deal fully with issues of ensemble and intonation and balance. Yet the first session I saw began with the question of how the conductor relates to orchestral players—a problem that expanded and resounded in every session.

The issue of bossiness ran like a leitmotif throughout the afternoon conducting session. Unconscious body language would prevent a conductor from making music with the orchestra. A jutting chin, a punchy left hand, the seeming condescension of peering over eyeglasses—such gestures of authority made the conductor a martinet. "There's no place today for the tyrant conductor," Kiesler told me later, "and there will be even less in the future." A hundred years ago Gustav Mahler could fire a player just for standing up without his permission; now union rules and a democratic ethos prevail. Every student knew that the instrumentalists' respect had to be earned, not commanded, and it could crumble with the slightest sign of technical weakness—another reason to be scared. Kiesler told me that his early career (and his first marriage) foundered on a fear that he might not recognize a mistake right away, thereby revealing an unforgivable lack of omniscience. Players won't tolerate a tyrant conductor, yet they won't respect anything less than a genius. It's a dangerous game, which Kiesler has redefined as a spiritual quest.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In