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The Zig-Zag Way: Leading the Orchestra

0 Gustav Meier
gustav_meier Editor's Abstract

Gustav Meier, eminent conducting teacher and Music Director of the Bridgeport CT and Lansing MI orchestras, has been working on a book for conducting students and established conductors, putting on paper many of the techniques and musical approaches he has taught for many years. The Score, the Orchestra and the Conductor will be published in August, 2009, by Oxford University Press.

According to his publisher, “Meier demystifies the conductor’s craft with explanations and illustrations of what the conductor must know to attain podium success. He provides useful information from the rudimentary to the sophisticated, and offers specific and readily applicable advice for technical and musical matters essential to the conductor’s first rehearsal with the orchestra.” In addition to sharing his conducting expertise, Maestro Meier also presents a multiple, cross-indexed glossary of orchestral instruments in four languages, an illustrated description of string harmonics, and a comprehensive listing of voice categories, their overlaps, dynamic ranges and repertory.

When I approached Maestro Meier at a Bridgeport Symphony rehearsal about letting Polyphonic.org excerpt part of his book on Polyphonic, he graciously agreed. Even more graciously, his publishers are offering registered Polyphonic readers a 20% discount on pre-orders for his book. (Note: The book will not be published until August 2009, but you can pre-order now.) Please register with Polyphonic in order to use this promotion code.

Ann Drinan


Singers and instrumentalists are able to look at a musical work and transform it immediately into musical sound. Aural and physical feedback allows them to discover technical and musical problems early on and begin at once to work on solutions. In contrast, conductors spend the majority of their preparation time for a performance without access to their “instrument,” the orchestra. Their musical and technical experimentation occurs in a vacuum.

Conductors lack an opportunity to predict ensemble problems, experiment with tools of communication, or test their effectiveness in forming musical ideas prior to the first orchestra rehearsal. The score provides all the information needed to form a musical interpretation of a composition; however, a conductor must be able to read and understand the score; know the various clefs; be familiar with transposing instruments; imagine sound, colors and textures; develop a deep and true musical concept; and decide how to communicate and lead most effectively through physical gestures.

Generally the orchestra plays the score together only a few days before an audience hears the performance. In addition, rehearsal time is limited, and frequently musicians have at best only a few opportunities to rehearse their parts together. Conductors must be aware that, from the first rehearsal, orchestra members expect a musical framework within which the composition will be performed, and a consistent set of physical signals.

All of this requires intense preparation. Depending on the particular demands of each score and the conductor’s training, different methods or even fundamentally different techniques may be used. This text is a practical approach to the conductor’s preparation of a score for performance; it categorizes and illuminates the essential tools of the conductor’s craft. I hope it will help conductors gain the knowledge and confidence needed to step on the podium.

The Zig-Zag Way

Eleazar de Carvalho, a wonderful Brazilian conductor and teacher at Tanglewood and Yale from the 1960s to the 1980s, approached the score with a method of study he called the “zigzag way”: when preparing a score for the first rehearsal, the conductor identifies—bar by bar—the instruments or sections needing the most guidance and attention. The zigzag way is a tool for choosing priorities; it does not exclude awareness of what is happening in the orchestra around the chosen points of attention. At rehearsal the plan is put into effect, but the well-prepared conductor abandons it as necessary to solve problems as they emerge and then returns to it when possible.

What exactly is the zigzag way? As a conductor studies a work, decisions are made about the predominant need for direction at every point, from the beginning to the end, and a mental or written map is created. The name “zigzag” is appropriate because the conductor singles out a specific group of musicians for any one of the many reasons discussed later. He or she may leave them to focus on another section of musicians in need of direction, return to the first group, turn to a third section, go back to one of the previous groups, or move on to a different section. As if following a road map, the conductor goes back and forth—zigzags—from point to point.

The zigzag way is very helpful during the middle stages of score preparation and early rehearsals. With practice, it can be integrated as one of many facets of preparation and becomes the tool it was intended to be. The conductor continues to use it but no longer consciously thinks about it. Instead, knowing where problems may arise and how to fix them, he or she is free to concentrate fully on the composer’s emotional and spiritual intent and the best means of communicating it to the orchestra and the audience.

How does the conductor choose the points of attention that make up the zigzag way? First, the score is broken down into important areas for study. Then the most important priority at any given time is selected. When several seemingly equal priorities, such as rhythm, orchestration, and cuing, compete for attention, the conductor establishes a hierarchy among them.

Understanding rhythm is a priority in score study. Control of the orchestra depends on the conductor’s ability to lead the rhythmic activity of any number of musicians through the use of signals. The conductor must be aware not only of when and where rhythmic changes occur, but also of how much monitoring of such changes is required. Anticipating these shifts allows for timely messages to the orchestra through inhalation, facial expressions, or preparatory beats. When multiple layers of differing rhythms occur simultaneously, the conductor decides which of them requires attention and which might actually function better if left alone.

The fastest-moving rhythmic material has a crucial effect on an ensemble even when only a few instruments are involved. These players need guidance; without it, they may adversely affect the rest of the orchestra. When the conductor is in sync with the fastest moving rhythmic sections, a stable foundation is established for all the interlocking sections.

The compositional material that involves a majority of the orchestra is another priority for study. These segments have a great impact upon the cohesiveness of the ensemble. The “majority” is the actual number of individual players who participate in a particular place, not the number of sections involved.

The study and sorting of the orchestration are also essential in the preparation of the zigzag way. The conductor identifies and singles out the players and sections of the orchestra that may need special attention if the ensemble is to play together successfully. Remembering that the lower instruments and those playing in extreme ranges respond more slowly to signals, the conductor makes a note of these, as well as of others passages that present special technical demands for individual players or sections. In consideration of the physical distance between the players and the conductor, he or she thinks of ways to convey signals that offer clear communication to the musicians on the periphery of the stage.

Special attention is given to the bass line because it anchors most of the compositional material and is harmonically and rhythmically of crucial importance to the entire orchestra. The cellos and basses, along with selected winds, carry the bass line; their powerful presence can hold the ensemble together, but only if the conductor is in sync with them.

Everything implicit and explicit in the score is worthy of study. Deciding on cuing, cutoffs, and beat patterns is part of the preparation for the zigzag way. The responsiveness of individual musicians must also be taken into account. In fact, if the conductor hopes to control the ensemble, consideration must be given to how individual players or sections will relate to and interact musically with the rest of the ensemble.

The successful flow of the ensemble can be interrupted easily by a range of issues, including complex rhythmic demands, sudden or unusual changes in dynamics or tempos, rhythmically active material that unexpectedly follows a long period of sustained pitches, unexpected or wide melodic skips, passages in extreme ranges, extremely rapid successions of pitches, uncommon transpositions, special effects such as rapid pizzicato and col legno pizzicato alternating with arco, unusual bowings, use of different mutes, and difficult harmonics.

As the conductor studies the score, he or she will begin to formulate a musical concept for the work. Knowledge and understanding will have grown, and, as a result, some earlier decisions may need to be changed. Eventually, however, the conductor must finalize a vision of the work, trust the choices made, and decide how to communicate the interpretive concept.

Now that the conductor has studied all the basic components necessary for constructing the zigzag way, it is clear—for a time, at least—which individuals or sections of the orchestra are to be singled out for primary attention at each point in the score. The conductor now has a road map leading from one function to another, one assignment to the other.

The study leading to the zigzag way, the use of the method, and the music making are in constant flux. Obviously, in spite of previous planning, a conductor cannot give exactly the same attention to each orchestral musician in each rehearsal or performance; however, by first identifying the compositional material that provides security and cohesion, the conductor can often let go and give the musicians great latitude to express themselves. In fact, control of the orchestra can often be relinquished. At this point the conductor has achieved a collaboration with the orchestra based on listening and gentle guidance.

Reprinted from The Score, the Orchestra, and the Conductor by Gustav Meier with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.

© 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

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