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Neal Gittleman

As a “literary genre”, conductors’ biographies are pretty awful. A long, dry recitation of where the maestro went to school, their teachers, the ensembles they’ve conducted, yadda yadda yadda. Then there’s the awkward dance of how the bio refers to the subject. “Maestro Robert Smith” at the beginning. Then “Smith”. Then by the Maestro’s preferred pronoun. Then “Maestro Smith”. Then maybe “Robert” or “Bob” to seem folksy and approachable. Rinse and repeat.

Ugh! But hey, it’s an established literary genre, so what are you gonna do?

After 20 years of reading bios beginning, “Maestro Neal Gittleman…” then cascading quickly downwards into mind-numbing tedium, my wife gave me an ultimatum: “Rewrite your bio so it’s not boring!” Was there an “or else”? I decided not to find out!

So here’s the seventh (or eighth) edition of my hopefully non-boring bio. This season’s theme: teaching.

This past summer I spent two weeks as a guest teacher at the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestral Musicians—the school where I began my conducting training 44 years ago. It was a fabulous experience.

Each of the many visits I’ve made to the Monteux School since I went out into professional world has been inspiring and re-invigorating. The energy and enthusiasm of the young players and conductors is infectious. Watching them learn their craft helps me refocus my attention on my own craft—a good thing for a busy conductor on summer hiatus.

But this visit wasn’t just to hang out and observe. I was here to teach. To sit in the chair where my teacher used to sit, perched at the back of the School’s small stage between the Timpani/Percussion and the Trumpets (yes, it was VERY loud sometimes), listening and watching, trying to help the musicians of the orchestra play to the best of their abilities and trying to help the young conductors enable that with a clear baton technique, a helpful countenance, and open ears.

Teaching conducting is HARD. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Much harder than conducting. A good conducting teacher has to help the student figure out on their own what the teacher has long since figured out. If a student is struggling, sure, I could go up to the podium and say, “Watch. Here’s what to do.” But that wouldn’t really help. The student has to understand the principles of good conducting and then find a way to embody those principles using their own physical, mental, and musical apparatus. The teacher has to do what every great teacher does—gently lead the student toward the moment when they start figuring out what on their own works and what doesn’t.

Here’s one example—about a student conductor who will go nameless. This person had a sloppy, unclear, hard-to-follow beat, plus a look on their face that made the orchestra want look anywhere but at them. When they stood on the podium, every ounce of their attention was on their beat—sloppy, unclear, and hard-to-follow as it was. If the players did look up, they saw no music, no beauty, no joy, no inspiration…just the blank look of someone concentrating 100% on something else.

How could I try to get the student—a good musician when they played their instrument (all Monteux School conductors must also play in the orchestra)—to BE the music for the orchestra? I tried something crazy…

I stood behind the conductor (who was, conveniently, tall, so I was completely hidden). I took their baton and poked my right arm out from behind so they didn’t have to worry about beating. For this brief experiment their job would be listen to the orchestra, feel the music, and show the music in their face, their body, every element of their being. We did that for less than a minute, but the orchestra could see a little bit of the music’s character the student and they played better as a result. Then the student repeated the same passage, this time conducting on their own. And they did little better. It was a small change, but it was a big success.

Conducting might look easy from where you sit. But it’s really hard. You have to be technically proficient but also completely open, vulnerable, and emotionally honest in front of the musicians. Over the years I’ve come to realize that the most important thing is the non-verbal two-way communication between the conductor and the musicians. That can’t really be taught. It’s something you learn through years of keen observation and self-awareness. But if I, as a teacher, can give a young conductor even a glimpse of the magic of that unspoken communication, then they’re on their way.

Teaching these two weeks at the Monteux School has been a rewarding challenge. And I learned a lot about my own conducting, too. But I’m so happy to be back at the front of the stage, conducting with the marvelous musicians of our Dayton Philharmonic and for you, our wonderful audience in our exciting 2022-2023 season of performances.

 

P.S. I do have a “boring bio”, too. You can find it online at parkerartists.com/Neal-Gittleman.html