She’s standing on a podium, with an enameled wand cocked between her fingers and sweat dampening the small of her back. Ranks of young musicians eye her skeptically. She’s raises her arm in the oppressive silence and lets it drop. Miraculously, Sullivan’s overture to The Mikado explodes in front of her, recognizable and violently thrilling, and the one that made this music possible is Homestead’s Choir Teacher and Musical Director/Conductor Rebecca Renee Winnie.
A famous conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, who led the New York Philharmonic in the fifties one said, “The others make all the music, and I get the salary and the credit.” Call it the Maestro Paradox: The person responsible for the totality of sound produces none. Yet that is the beauty of the Performing arts. The person responsible for a theatrical performance never acts on stage themselves and a choreographer only watches their dancers. And while a conductor does not make any music, they are the only leader who is directly involved in the performance process. At Homestead, while every other adult gets to sit back and only trouble-shoot during the performance, Ms. Winnie is actively involved in the performance process. Without her, there would be mass chaos and the musical would fall apart. She is the glue to every Musical at Homestead High School.
So, what is it like to be that glue? To command a performance? To create music from nothing?
It’s hard. The conductor has to know all the music, be able to lead at least 13 different musical parts at a time and do it with confidence. “Knowing the score”—the expression implies mastery, but it doesn’t suggest the sustained and solitary study that’s required to achieve it. Countless hours at home conducting an imaginary orchestra from her living room or office, leads to even more hours with the Orchestra.
Ms. Winnie’s first task is choosing a tempo. This is not as easy as it seems. A beat is a negotiable unit, now infinitesimally shorter, now noticeably stretched. A tempo has to be strong and elastic, steady but not mechanical. Ms. Winnie must appease not only the orchestra, but the singers and dancers. Songs that seem to be a great tempo for the singers, might be painfully slow for the dancers, or singer might want to go faster, but the orchestra wants to play slower. Ms. Winnie is the wand that makes singers, dancers and musicians all come together. Tempo is key.
“The sound is all around and behind you. You have to gather it from there.” James Ross, who runs the Juilliard School’s conducting program, once said.
As Ms. Winnie get deeper into the score, she focuses on one crucial but difficult aspect of the job: preparing a moment before it arrives. A conductor has to be simultaneously ahead of the music and with it, experiencing and expecting at the same time—manufacturing an extended déjà vu. When Ms. Winnie works, you can see the pulse thrumming through her body, diggadiggadiggadigga, yet she also projects a commanding serenity. She crooks a finger at the timpanist to alert him of an impending event, flicks it a beat before the entrance, and then drops it in exactly the slot where it belongs. The musicians find the ease and clarity of these minimal motions reassuring. A good conductor is a parent who’s always ready and always right.
Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic tells us about a crisis he went through as a student when a teacher focused so relentlessly on the precision of his gestures that he froze. “I doubted every single move, and I felt maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a conductor. It’s helpful to have a great technique, but there are conductors who have a vision of the music so powerful that you can feel it right through their technique. The limiting factor shouldn’t be your physical capacity but your imagination. In the concert hall, I have seen conductors who look like they’re hugging pillows or digging up sod, making moves that appear barely related to the score, getting magnificent results. (I have also seen leaders of crystalline precision make dull and brittle music.)”
After much practicing, long nights and conducting to the furniture in her living room, Ms. Winnie has arrived at Opening Night.
When the day arrives, a conductor wakes up thinking of the potential for a disaster. A mushy downbeat will provoke a clamor of staggered bleats. Counting a four-beat measure in three will make a performance implode. Balking at a tempo change will sow mass confusion. At least we can keep one of Gilbert’s mantras in mind: “Assume good will. The orchestra wants to play wonderfully for you. If you hear the perfect performance in your head, then you can just conduct along, and you’re creating the conditions for that to happen.”
In Italian, the word maestro also means teacher. As the orchestra powers toward the final cadence and the conductor exchanges glance after glance with the young musicians, they are bombarding Ms. Winnie with unspoken questions and it’s her job to convey answers. That’s what a conductor does: mold an interpretation by filtering the thousands of decisions packed into every minute of symphonic music. The clarinetist inclined to add a little gleam to a brief solo by slowing down slightly, the tuba player preparing for a fortissimo blast after twenty minutes of nothing—each will look to the podium for a split-second shot of guidance, and the conductor who meets those fleeting inquiries with clarity and assurance will get a more nuanced performance.
The next time you are sitting in a theatre watching a musical, think of the one person who is working the hardest in the production… the conductor. Standing most of the show, getting a workout and carrying the weight of everyone on their shoulders.
A conductor uses a wand, and while it is not magical, they make magic happen right before your eyes.