by Todd Stoll
As the new school year begins and aspiring musicians head back to the classroom, the air is full of the anticipation and enthusiasm one would expect. Directors have programmed their year full of great music to be heard at concert performances, festivals and competitions.
My mind goes to the part of the year when I attend many of these festivals and hear bands — both high school and college — where I also observe these dedicated educators conducting their ensembles. I see the entire gamut. Detached hipsters who coolly count off and get out of the way. Novice teachers, many in front of a jazz band (who may never have played in one) for the first time, waving their arms like its Sousa’s own. Professional “dancers,” whose moves are generally a bigger show than anything else on stage. In my younger days, I was a cross between the hipster and the dancer, emotionally involved in the music and believing my physical excitement transferred to my students, creating a better performance. But now, with the clarity of many years of experience and observation, I wonder — is all of this “conducting” actually helping? Does it really transfer our concepts to the students, resulting in a clearer and more inspired performance? Or is it an exercise of a self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing ego?
Now, I have had this debate many times, and we seem to be divided into two camps. There are conductors and hard-core non-conductors. On one side are the twin towers of Rodney Whitaker and John Clayton, both of whom are serious conductors. On the other, my boss, Wynton Marsalis, who dislikes conducting and rarely uses one. In between? Nearly everyone else. No one can say that John Clayton isn’t a great conductor and definitely NO ONE is saying that about Wynton (the JLCO has been “conductor-less” for 20 years). The question remains, what is the objective of conducting your jazz band? What is your role in the bands performance? Why are you waving your arms? Who does it serve? Is it part of the “show” for audience?
My personal feelings have changed over the years, and I imagine they will change again. I conduct far less now than I used to, primarily because I believe my rehearsal technique is better, and maybe that is part of the conducting equation. I do believe this — a jazz band is not a concert band and we should definitely not treat it as such. We do need to find ways to “conduct” (whatever that means to us) in a manner consistent with and in service to the music. Either way, here are some thoughts.
Top ten eleven ways to improve your jazz conducting
- Have a good strong snap on 2 and 4.
- Be definitive with your count off.
- Only beat time when absolutely needed.
- Don’t beat a fast 4 when a 2 will work.
- Cue entrances, soloists, anything that is a change or needs attention.
- Get out of the way for saxophone solis, features, and individual solos; move to the side.
- If you must dance, find a groove and get a vibe going (within your comfort zone), but don’t distract from your kids.
- Go stand by rhythm section to see how they are doing. They’re the most important section and will appreciate the attention.
- Be RELAXED. Always. No one is dying here and the band will play better if you are cool. Better yet, be funny! Your back is to the audience, so smile and make a joke. Your students will relax with some humor.
- Introduce tunes and soloists (please say first and last names) as crisply as possible. Write down notes to remind yourself, and then memorize as much as you can.
- Connect a tune to something — an era, a year, a person, a story – to give the audience some context.