What I Learned About Conducting My Own Orchestra

I attended Conduct Your Own Orchestra night at the Luggage Store Gallery last night. Not much of a turnout, either for the audience or for the musicians (eight showed up), so — what the heck. I signed up to conduct.

The premise here is that each guest conductor, most of whom are from the ensemble or are fellow musicians, directs the group through some kind of improvisation for about 10 minutes. Some brought instruction cards or graphical signs; others gave verbal instructions for a particular type of playing.

I kept my turn short — probably 5 minutes (I’d planned for 3).  I had no plan and unlike the others, provided no explanation of my gestures. Many were obvious, some were intentionally left open to interpretation. Here’s what I found out.

1. I have no idea how to conduct drums. Every gesture I made was interpreted not as an abstract mood, but as the exact rhythm to play. Sometimes it worked out, but when it didn’t …

2. Mistakes are hard to take back. A couple of times, I launched someone into some playing that totally didn’t fit. Now what? Telling the player to just stop cold is out of the question. The ideal solution would be to slowly shift their playing to merge with what I was thinking. There’s no universal sign for that.

3. Volume control is harder than it looks.  Making things loud: easy. Making them quiet: no problem. Subtly decreasing volume without going straight to zero … um.  Which brings up a related point…

4. People are anticipating the cue to drop out.  It’s part of the overall exercise, after all, and one of the simplest ways to control the overall sound. And these are serious musicians who want to be diligent about following the conductor and not monopolizing the ensemble’s sound. But all this means that any number of gestures can get interpreted as “stop.”

5. It’s hard to keep up. Even with only eight players, I couldn’t always discern who was making which sound,  and I’d occasionally catch an expectant glance from a player and realize they’d been neglected for a while, or were trapped in some boring rut. I can’t imagine juggling 20 musicians (and keeping the volume under control would be a real bear, too).

6. If you try a cool move where you get everyone to STOP except one guy… don’t make it the guy playing an iPhone app.  Crashes happen.

7. Everyone looks at you as if know what you’re doing.  Even if they know you don’t. They take this seriously even if there’s no chance it’s going to work out, and thankfully, they knew I was taking it seriously too. I was grateful for the generosity of spirit that allowed me to step into the community for a few minutes.