My first attempt at conducting was a train wreck. As a pubescent freshman in a suburban public high school in New York, I barely had control of my overgrown limbs, much less the movements they made. But that did not stop my courageous mindset, breaking barriers for disproportionately sized teens all over the world. So when my chorus teacher asked someone in the class to volunteer as tribute, I responded.
It was a day like any other, as my classmates and I made our way up to the fourth and top floor of our glorious high school, we were preparing for the usual chorus class; our teacher would start with a vocal warm up consisting of lip trills, scales, and sighs, before diving headfirst into whichever musical medley we were working on that semester and eventually make our way into the depths of a latin piece. Yet this was no usual class.
We had a guest. A scrawny man with an unkempt beard shared the room with us for the first time, introducing himself in a quiet way, observing from the corner of the room. I forget his name but for the purpose of the story I will call him “Frank”. Frank was a student at Queens College, studying to be a conductor, where our teacher was in charge of their chamber choir. Our teacher asked Frank to come to the middle of the classroom and conduct the beginning of a piece we were learning. His effortless arm waving fed into my misconception that this was an easy task, but I would soon find out that this was not the case.
After Frank had finished, our teacher asked for a volunteer to try the same entrance and rhythm. I volunteered without hesitation, wanting to impress my teacher, but suddenly became nervous while walking up to the podium. After the first try I knew I had made a mistake. I butchered the entrance to the piece several times before my teacher had to take my hand and wave it for me.
My experience was the opposite of Leonard Bernstein’s first time conducting the New York Philharmonic, yet even he, a trained conductor at the young age of twenty-five, was nervous. In an interview conducted with his brother, Burton, in 1989, Bernstein confessed he had little preparation in advance of substituting for Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall in 1943. The beginning of the Schumann Overture was what was giving him particular trouble, as he had seen others fail at the difficult entrance. He arrived at the concert early and went down to the drugstore. The pharmacist gave him two pills, one to calm his nerves and the other to give him energy on stage. While he was backstage before the start of the show, he threw away the pills and only remembers the applause that came at intermission. The next day the New York Times published a front page article about his first time conducting the New York Philharmonic.
Conducting is not easy, but just like Frank from Queens College, Leonard Bernstein made it look that way. Despite the nervous energy, he was able to do so well that he caught the attention of the New York Times, while I struggled to make the entrance into one piece of music. How do you think you might fair in a trial at conducting?