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  • Quinn Mason

The Virtual-so Conductor

Note: this article can tie into a previous post I wrote about conducting, found here:

The Composer as Conductor

And as always, the underlined phrases lead to links designed to make the article more interactive. Please click them!

 

It has been said that there are many different paths to becoming a conductor. In my 7 years of studying conducting formally, I don't think I've ever done something as unusual as I did this summer, which was studying conducting online exclusively. Indeed, this is a most unusual path to the podium.


It's because as I write this article (July 2020), the entire world is in the middle of a pandemic (with the exception of Antarctica maybe) - the likes of which haven't been seen since the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. As a result, extra precautions have to be taken in order to control to the already very rapid spread of it. One of these precautions includes the cancelling of live events, such as classes, concerts, conferences, workshops or any gatherings of 10 people or more. Most musical events have moved online, and we have seen increase in streaming and remote concerts, most of them through the telecom app Zoom (which nobody knew about before the pandemic hit).


Musicians adapt to a changed concert environment

The good thing about this is that musicians have had an opportunity to bring their art to a newer and wider audience. Through virtual recitals, we have seen an increase in different varieties of music on these programs, including everything from the classics to new music (and as a composer myself, I was fortunate to have had some of my music on these recital thanks to phenomenal performers like Holly Mulcahy and Michael Hall). Also, the virtual concert era started off with a number of videos which featured pieced together videos of musicians performing their parts remotely, resulting in a sort of 'virtual band or orchestra'. While we're seeing less and less of those and more musicians starting to stream their performances in real time, one can't help but be amazed at how well musicians have adapted to this abrupt and sudden change.


The only thing that is missing from that, I think, is the energy of the live audience. That's what makes live performances really memorable, I think. With the virtual element, there is a noticeable disconnect in that sense and it sometime feels a bit artificial. This is why we can't wait for live performances to begin again, at least in the United States. Orchestral concerts are at a standstill at the moment, with some orchestras actually cancelling entire seasons. For now we are seeing more and more chamber music concerts that will hopefully build back up to the full orchestra sometime soon.


As I've mentioned earlier, another thing that moved online was classes. We've also seen schools cancel the rest of their semesters, and summer festivals opting to move online, including Brevard, which I was supposed to return to this summer. All of a sudden, a majority of us were left wondering, "What now?" Myself included. All performances were cancelled, and the future looked uncertain for a couple of weeks. That's when I noticed that a number of things started to move online and for affordable and reduced rates as well. That's when I decided to do what I did last year and work on conducting activities. Compositionally, I was set, having received a number of important commissions that would keep me busy in that department. Some mentors of mine suggested to me Miguel Harth-Bedoya's institute, which he was moving online. Having worked with Miguel before in real life, I decided it would be worth a try and that it would be cool to work with him again in a different setting. It was to be a two week course that included discussions of repertoire, ear training sessions and presentations by special guests. All of that looked promising and hugely informational, so I sent in my application, was accepted and started my journey down the rabbit hole that was online conducting programs.


Miguel Harth-Bedoya's Summer Orchestral Conducting Institute (SOCI)

A little bit of background on this before I get into this: I've attended the previous two (2018 and 2019) conducting workshops that were hosted by Miguel prior to the one this year.


The inaugural one was in June 2018 and was held at Texas Christian University. Because I was a student at TCU at the time and this program was brand new, scholarships to attend the workshop for free were given out to TCU students at the time. I applied and was accepted into his class as an auditor. The official name for his program is actually "The Fundamentals of Conducting", which fits because he's always welcomed different levels of musicians into his tutelage, from the seasoned professional to those who were just starting out. Because that was the first year, I believe he had at least 20 or so active participants out of 40 total, mostly college aged people, one or two professional conductors and one very sneaky 13 year old who lied about his age on the application in order to get in (which I also would've done at that age). This year was unique, because the entire Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (of which Miguel has just finished a 20 year music directorship) served as the lab orchestra. The conducting portion was in two parts: a smaller chamber music session, complete with calisthenic activities for all the participants, and a full orchestra session.

 
Miguel's inaugural conducting class, 2018
 

Before the conducting portion, however, there were a series of lectures Miguel gave on the theory behind the scores that we were studying, including basic music theory and in depth score study. Having worked with Miguel for three years and seen his program grow from the very beginning, I can say that the 2018 classes served as the foundation for subsequent years, because there were things he actually repeated in 2019 that he tried out in 2018 and there were things he left out as well, in addition to new things he added as well.

 
Calisthenic activities at the 2018 class
 

I applied again in 2019 and was accepted as an active participant, which meant I got to conduct in the orchestra sessions. This year, he had less people as both active participants and auditors, which meant more time to conduct and try things out. Also, it is worth noting that the workshop was extended to an entire week, whereas in the first year, it was only about 3 or 4 days long. And the entire Fort Worth Symphony was not hired out as the lab orchestra that year, but a smaller ensemble that consisted of members of the FWSO and talented freelancers and TCU students (including the violinist I wrote my 'concerto for violin and small ensemble' for). Like the year before, there were a series of lectures that Miguel gave on the theory that tied into the conducting portion. That year, however, there seemed to be a firm emphasis on the theory groundwork of conducting, because we were given some tests on basic transpositions, instrument name and musical expression translations and aural skills. This was one of the things missing from the first year and incorporated into the summer 2019 and 2020 classes.

 
Multiple participants lay down a desktop at the 2019 institute.
 

As an active participant that year, I got a first hand look into Miguel's very intense and rigorous but fair and extremely sympathetic teaching style. It's worth noting that Miguel is a product of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music, so there was no doubt that the way he was teaching us was the way he was taught. In addition to the theory, there was an emphasis on movement and giving the orchestra exactly what they needed at that moment, which forced one to really think and make quick decisions on the podium. I found that I responded well to that teach style and grew a ton in just a week. I even noticed a difference in how more comfortable when I felt when I started concertizing as a conductor beginning in 2020.

 
Studying with Miguel Harth-Bedoya, 2019
 

Therefore, when the summer of 2020 hit and everything started to move online, I took a chance and applied for Miguel's online class at literally the very last minute, and surprisingly was accepted. Before I was officially in however, I did a small interview with the Maestro which I assume he uses to assess skill and levels. Because I worked with him for two years prior, and he was already familiar with me and my skills, it was more of a catching up session.


Sometime before that, in March 2020, Miguel had jumped ahead of the game and gave a series of online lectures, the first of which was called 'Beethoven the Symphonist', held on March 26, 2020. That was an interesting session in which Miguel gave an introduction to the Beethoven symphonies and the times in which they were created. It saw a good turn out and I even got to see a few people (in the chat, that is) I've encountered in real life before. As far as the lecture, however, it was very informative but I didn't take much new information away from it. It was nice, however, to get the perspective of a conductor who has had the experience of conducting these pieces in a variety of situations.


And with that, Miguel's online conducting institute began online in early June, via Zoom. This year, it was extended to two weeks, whereas in 2018 it had been for a few days and in 2019 it was a week. This seems to tie in to a conversation I had with Miguel about the direction of his program, and he told me he wanted to eventually turn it a conducting 'school' that had a month's length. I thought it was interesting idea at the time, and I still think it's interesting to see the steps Miguel is taking to realize his dream.

 
a conducting 'lesson' with Miguel in 2020.
 

However, I don't think he could've imagined the circumstances that would befall all of us.

The point of Miguel's lectures is to tie in to the conducting portion so we could put theory into practice. The conducting portion was now gone, which meant we would only do lectures and music theory. It was basically the first few days of his 2018 class extended into two weeks. Nothing was repeated however, and it was kept interesting by engaging sessions like 'Coffee with Miguel', which happened in the morning, and in which you could talk with Miguel about a variety of subjects including but not limited to:

  • sports

  • coffee makers

  • music (of course)

  • life

  • questions about various topics that arose in the seminars

  • food

  • seeing what Miguel thought about certain passages in a piece of music

  • movies

Something like that was very interesting, because how often does one get to ask a top flight conductor what series he was binging on Netflix or what sports team he was rooting for?

Over all of this, there was an emphasis on the fundamentals or the building blocks of understanding a full orchestral score. Most of his lectures were 'crash courses' in this sort of thing, dealing with some basics like instrument transpositions, translations of instrument names and basic beating patterns.

 
Miguel demonstrates a 3 pattern.
 

In addition to that, there were also side presentations and seminars. The most notable of these were small informational sessions on different instruments given by members of the Fort Worth Symphony, in which they demonstrated various playing techniques on their respective instruments.

 
a presentation by Michael Shih, concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony

He also brought in guest composers to do presentations on their music, including wonderful people like Jennifer Higdon and Jimmy López Bellido. I did admire that Miguel brought a 'living' element to his seminars by bring in living composers who were creating music today and going through the same situation as us, and to hear their perspective on the art they were creating and why they write. As a composer, I found these talks really interesting and helpful, especially since I've met Jennifer Higdon in real life at least twice, and I count Jimmy Lopez as a sort of musical mentor.

 
A full house for a presentation by composer Jennifer Higdon.
 

However, did I mention this online class was two weeks long? All on zoom? ....everyday?....all day?


Admittedly, the so-called 'Zoom fatigue' is very real, and there were days where I just wasn't feeling up to logging into my computer. It wasn't just me; several of my colleagues felt this way and on some days simply didn't show up. I did show up as often as I could and always got a lot out of whatever I was able to attend.

Another thing: when one does these conducting workshops, it always helps to have someone to stick with and someone to confide in when it starts to get rough (which it always does). Shoutout to Tamara Dworetz, who was kind of my 'buddy' through the whole thing. I actually met Tamara briefly in Dallas a few months prior to that when she was a participant in the Dallas Opera's 'Women's Conducting Institute'. She's really funny and hugely talented so be on the look out for her soon!


Remember how I said that in pervious years, Miguel's lectures tied into the conducting portion of the workshop? That aspect is missing this year, so it was literally two weeks of lectures and classes. I'm pleased to know that Miguel will be doing a separate lab orchestra portion in the future, so that gives us a few months to reflect on what we've learned from him before we put it into practice.


If there's anything that the two week online course taught me that I'll remember for life is that conducting is more than just waving your arms around. There's no doubt that each time I go to study a work to conduct, I'll be keeping in mind everything I got from Miguel's two week seminar.