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.

Waiting for their turns, the students sat at tables behind the mini-orchestra, watching the conductor as attentively as if they were playing; every conductor was applauded at the end of his or her podium time, no matter how shaky that time had been. Kiesler would start by sitting just to the side of the conductor but would soon be on his feet, either demonstrating how a passage might be conducted or guiding the student's arms from behind like a tennis instructor. "If you are conducting big and nothing happens," he told one student who was waving his arms wildly, "you will start conducting bigger and still nothing will happen—because your beat has nothing to do with the music. When you feel like you are losing control, become smaller, not bigger. If you feel the music, if you become the music, you don't need your arms at all. Watch." He led the orchestra through the passage with only his eyes, head, and shoulders, his face radiating the music's deep soulfulness. His motions were so clear that the players stayed together effortlessly.

It became evident that the ideal role of the conductor lies somewhere between bossiness and passivity. Even enjoying the music has its pitfalls. "You were listening to how beautifully Eva was playing there," Kiesler told one student conducting a section of the monumental Brahms Violin Concerto, with the superb soloist Eva Gruesser. "But you can't do that. If you lose yourself in the music, you can't help the players. They need you." The issue of authority brought out Kiesler's rabbinic side: "Judaism teaches that the highest act you can perform is to set someone up in business—in life—anonymously. That's what you have to do: empower the players to make music without their knowing that you are doing it."

Conductors are dancers whose every little movement has a meaning. The crucial skill they must master is self-choreography based on the score. Many conductors and conducting teachers think of this as a mechanical task. They cling to the prescribed beat pattern (one, down; two, to the left; three, to the right; four, up) without heeding the flow of the music. They scan the score for movement cues: bring in the horns here, cut off the flutes here, raise the volume of the woodwinds while the strings become softer. To help students whose motions have become mechanical, Kiesler has them move their bodies freely in response to different sounds, only gradually introducing actual pieces of music.

At an evening session on La Bohème, Kiesler initiated a different kind of score study. Many of the students have never worked with singers before, and have little familiarity with opera. He began by asking the students to draw a curve like a shallow bowl and showing them how different vowel sounds are placed on it: the sounds ee and oo raise the edges of the curve, whereas ah sits at the bottom. This map is often one of the first things that singers learn, but few nonsingers know of its existence. Instrumentalists, he reminded the students, begin study early in life and become used to handling criticism from teachers. Singers usually don't begin study until they are almost twenty, and they are their own instruments. When you criticize a singer, you are attacking him or her personally: you're not just saying that a note is ugly, you're saying, "You have an ugly voice; you're a failure as an artist." A soprano bravely entered the class at this point, singing "Mi chiamano Mimi." Kiesler gave a demonstration of singer-talk: Could you add more ee to that note? (Translation: You're slightly under pitch.) Could you make this note darker? (Translation: It sounds a bit harsh.) Students could hear the notes find their proper placement. The soprano's voice bloomed.

Opera tests everything a conductor has; it begins on a level of passionate expression at which few instrumental performances ever arrive. In Europe conductors are trained in opera houses, starting as rehearsal pianists. For many Americans the opera house is terra incognita. At a later session devoted to three short, familiar parts of Act I of La Bohème, the first student—a massive young man who looked as if he had just stepped off a Wisconsin farm—merely beat time and barely looked at the singers. "You can't conduct opera that way," Kiesler said. "Listen to the music. Look at the singers. Help them." The time-beating continued. Finally Kiesler asked the tenor and the conductor to trade places. The tenor conducted and the conductor croaked "Che gelida manina" bravely. He was applauded by his colleagues, who were probably thinking with dread of how they would fare in the same situation. But Kiesler never played the same card twice. Later he asked a similarly nonoperatic student to stand with his back to the orchestra and just listen to the music. "Listen to the joy in Rodolfo's music," he said. "It's so childlike—it's his inner child speaking to Mimi." And to an older student: "You have a grown daughter, right? Mimi is your daughter. Look at her. Help her."

The retreat ended with two "performances"—the music was finally played without critical interruptions, before a tiny audience of the camp's kitchen staff and some old Medomak people who had known Kiesler when he was a boy. The day before the performances was devoted to a kind of dress rehearsal. Musicians believe that a bad dress augurs a good performance, and perhaps accordingly much of the rehearsal fell apart. For Kiesler it was still a day for teaching, and his criticism became if anything more pointed. A young man began his rehearsal of the opening of the Firebird Suite by confidently asking the first violin to retune his E-string for a passage of glissandi overtones, and telling the first horn that a note must be played with the hand in the bell. Kiesler interrupted him: "Okay, you're being the boss. Now turn that off completely and put yourself in the music."

As often happens, things came together at the performances. There were no miracles, but each student demonstrated some kind of growth in skill, in knowledge of the music, in sensitivity to the players. For me the performances brought a change of perspective—literally. All week I had watched the conductors from the vantage point of the orchestra, aware of their facial expressions and body language. Now I sat out with the audience, watching them from behind. Most of what they had learned at the retreat about that infinitely mysterious task of being the music for the players was hidden from view, translated almost completely into sound. Kiesler sat in the audience with his young daughter, emblematically passive. Teaching had yielded performances; the arduous, concentrated soul-shaking of the past two weeks was also invisible, yet it was shaping every sound we heard.

The audience applauded the conductors and the conductors applauded the orchestra and one another—and then it was time for beer and a campfire. The Maine skies had been dark and dripping for most of the week, but now they revealed every star in the Northern Hemisphere. Kiesler, Medomakian to the last, started naming constellations. The teaching continued.