People and Community Research

Conducting ourselves on the podium

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

There is an unfortunate stereotype among the public of the arrogant, diva-like ensemble conductor who stands in the front of the musicians and flaps about dramatically. Red-faced and unyielding, this person is the embodiment of the music and commands the instrumentalists to the last thrilling second.

The conductor is heralded as the leader of the ensemble—entirely responsible for each performance—and receives thunderous applause simply for entering the stage at the start of the concert. However, there is much more to ensemble conducting than wearing tuxedos in concerts and dramatically imposing one’s will on a stage full of musicians. 

Large ensemble conductors within universities serve a unique social function in which they must simultaneously occupy the spaces of educator, professional performer, and social role model. 

The conductor is the leader of the musical ensemble(s) but also typically functions as a social representative for the school of music and at times for the university as a whole. In addition, university ensembles are unique to all other levels of music-making since the student body is comprised entirely of adults who are participating in a credit-bearing course as a portion of their professional degree. 

Ensemble conductors at the university level must therefore serve as more than just a source of musical inspiration, but also make efforts to provide an educational experience as well. The conductor in this setting is upheld as the ideal musician in which his or her daily behaviors, artistic decisions, and public appearances are highly scrutinized. An ensemble conductor’s social presence, as either a source of humility or arrogance, could directly affect student musicians’ perception of the conductor as effective or knowledgeable. It is therefore necessary to examine the social preferences of student musicians at the university level for conductors who exhibit either humble or arrogant traits in their speaking habits. 

The topic of humility is under-studied in general, but particularly in music education. Musical humility is characterized by an individual’s willingness to collaborate with others, to exhibit “healthy pride” rather than an air of superiority, and to acknowledge their personal shortcomings. 

In contrast, arrogance is defined as an undesirable collection of traits that most relate to self-orientedness, closed-mindedness, and having an inflated self-view. The term is not necessarily synonymous with rudeness; it is possible for an individual to exhibit polite manners and to still be perceived as arrogant. 

Both the characteristics of humility and arrogance should be considered as occurring on a spectrum where an individual is measured by their degree of difference from the average expectation of the social group. 

The role of conductor is definitely complex. One must be the leader of the ensemble but also is perhaps the least important participant of performances since the swishing of the baton makes zero sound. Unlike the fixed arts—for example, a painting which never changes—music is a fluid art and requires the attention and collaboration of several talented musicians. As someone with ensemble-conducting experience, I am curious about the role of humility in music-making. What does healthy pride look like in an instrumental setting? How can I best reach my students in rehearsals? 

I believe it is necessary to continue to study the social aspects involved in formal music-making in general. For example, are the perspectives of university-level musicians consistent with that of professional musicians? What about children who are just beginning to learn their instruments? Is there a significant difference in the social expectations of large ensemble conductors based on individual characteristics—age, race, gender, attractiveness? Are musicians’ social preferences impacted by the context of the music-making—rehearsal space versus performance space? 

To be as effective a leader as possible, large ensemble conductors should be aware of the social expectations associated with musical leadership and make regular efforts to evolve professionally. I believe strongly in adopting a growth mindset—like a live musical performance, one can never be completely perfect. 

Marina McLerran is a graduate student in the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”