Listening: The Foundation of Effective Musical Leadership

by Monte H Mumford

Often in the pursuit of improving our conducting skills, it is possible to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on addressing the physical skills of controlling time-keeping and physical gestures as if technical mastery of time and gesture actions forms the basis of the definitive act of conducting. (Looking like the music)

However, it has also been countered that the true definition of conducting is in reality a listening activity, from which the physical act of conducting derives its true inspiration. (Looking like the music, through your inner ear) In fact, informed, active, engaged listening should be considered a major factor in achieving successful, effective and musically satisfying proficiency as a conductor. The importance of focused, informed, and attentive listening is essential in at least two different ways:  One, the act of hearing the score and its potential interpretation, while the music still remains on the page; and two, the ability to hear the score while it is literally coming off the page. It is these two considerations, which I would like to examine in this article.

The first listening consideration has been addressed many times, and from many different angles. Most would agree that it is important that one endeavours to aim towards training themselves in effectively hearing the score, as yet unsounded on the page.  But, achieving this skill often leaves one frustrated, especially if the conductor’s piano skills are of a limited nature. A helpful analogy here is to remember that hearing a score in silence is much like using the skill of reading books silently to oneself.  How did we, as children move from reading aloud to the internalising of our reading skills?

The explanation is not difficult.  Obtaining effective reading and comprehension expertise in music reading requires the same mindful, or comparative repetition of basic reading comprehension skills, such as the mastery achieved through the application of vocabulary acquisition, spelling, pronunciation, and grammar usage.  Effective reading also requires consistent exposure to reading, including listening to someone read. It also includes aural modelling of pronunciations and the correction of definitions, and spelling errors.  It is important to understand that none of these learning activities were fast-tracked.  In fact, these activities required a careful, repetitive ‘time-on-task’ framework for achieving the mastery of silent reading over a period of time.

Learning to read/hear music in silence requires a systematic immersion in basic ear training and aural recognition.  These are essential skills that enable one to understand both the vertical and horizontal elements of music notation.  For it is one’s technical proficiency in rhythmic notation reading gained through internal pulse, counting and subdivision, and the capacity to hear basic harmonic progressions, identify and sing intervallic relationships, chord qualities, , and melody lines, combined with the ability to identify phrase structures through note-grouping relationships.  It is, after all these essential tools that enable one to silently read/hear the score as intended.  Another important factor in obtaining effective silent score reading skills is to be found in strengthening one’s visual and aural skills through sight singing, as ell as the exercise of engaging in personal music performance experiences on their principal instrument.

The second listening consideration is a bit more problematic, for it requires the conductor to hear, respond and adjust the music as it is literally coming off the page; all at the same time. This skill is of vital importance for achieving significant musical outcomes through effective rehearsal communication.  The process is dependent on three factors: seeing and hearing the music as it is being performed, intuitively knowing what the composer had in mind through systematic score study, and holding a personal interpretative understanding of what one desires to hear and wishes to change, thus enabling the ensemble to realise the conductor’s interpretation.  This process, of course requires that one already holds a firm belief in their interpretation of the passage, or work under consideration, knowing how they wish it to be performed, and has confidence in their rehearsal strategies, including appropriate gestures, metaphors and/or analogies.  

Inspirational musical leadership requires one to communicate the composer’s innate intension through understanding the emotional narrative and related connections with conviction, passion and confidence.  This includes understanding the historical, cultural, emotional and stylistic context of the music, along with its attendant set of descriptive, expressive instructions. For instance, why is a particular passage marked ‘forte’, or why is another passage marked, ‘allargando’? To fully understand expressive directions one must also appreciate the musical context in which they appear.  The music itself is always pleading with us to listen to how it wishes to be performed and these ‘directions’ are merely reminders of what the composer intended. I believe that it is imperative that physical gestures and body language be derived from deeply held convictions and understanding about the ‘character’ of the music, and how the notes and rhythms should be performed in view of communicating this ‘character’. It is difficult for conductors to expect their ensembles to respond meaningfully to their gestures if the conductor does not hold a personal commitment to an authentic interpretation, character and context.

Therefore, this second kind of listening calls for regular exposure to a wide range of significant music performances that feature virtuosic artistry, mastery and passion. It is vitally important to understand the correlation between regularly listening to a wide range of musical performances and appreciating their role in assisting one in forming opinions of what constitutes significant music-making in general.  This kind of listening can also provide opportunity and inspiration for the expansion of one’s emotive vocabulary of physical gestures and facial expression. Truly effective musical communication requires empathy, understanding, emotional connection and deeply held convictions about music performance, which can only be obtained through one’s personal exposure to great music and music-making. The benefits of listening and viewing significant music performance cannot be underestimated, for it is an essential ingredient in developing one’s inner ear towards the purpose of stimulating personal interpretation, as well as providing models of expressive definitions, which may include:  

  • tempi considerations,
  • dynamic contrasts,
  • articulations & inflections,
  • note grouping considerations,
  • phrase shape,
  • melodic/harmonic contour
  • tone colour /timbre

Conducting is certainly more than just knowing what is happening in the score, such as conveying a set of literal instructions; key signatures, tempi indications, meter, dynamic symbols, articulation markings, volume adjustment, fermata considerations, cues, etc. It is also about acquiring an informed opinion, and a conviction about the repertoire one is to rehearse/perform, while knowing how to effectively communicate their personal interpretation to their ensemble.  A commitment to engage on a regular basis to listening and watching significant musical performances will go a long way in both feeding and inspiring our musical souls.

Monte Mumford holds an international reputation as a conductor, adjudicator and clinician, contributing regularly to the field of music education and performance studies through conference presentations, publications, professional development offerings, and master classes. He is highly regarded for his musical experience, expertise, passion and effective teaching style. He is in demand as a guest conductor, music education consultant, and adjudicator, providing performance strategies and professional development for music educators, administrators and students alike.