Gustav Meier  

The Zig-Zag Way: Leading the Orchestra

Gustav Meier
April 8, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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 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 (Note: The book will not be published until August 2009, but you can pre-order now.)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

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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.

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