The Best Book On Conducting I've Ever Read?

Daniel W. Boothe reviews the book, "The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters" by Mark Wigglesworth

The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters, by Mark Wigglesworth, Chicago, IL., The University of Chicago Press, 2018, 250 pages, $25.00 (hardback), ISBN-13: 978-0-226-62255-2

The “art” of musical conducting is among the most mythical of all performing activities. It is a paradox. It presupposes that silence can activate sound in specific and remarkable ways. Many books illustrate the “how-to” in summoning such technique, as with Elizabeth Green’s industry-approved pedagogy, The Modern Conductor. Others take a distinctly skeptical approach, such as critic Norman Lebrecht’s brash manifesto, The Maestro Myth. The gulf between these two extremes is vast, but British conductor Mark Wigglesworth impressively navigates this chasm in The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters. 

A prelude, “Shaping the Invisible,” begins with common conductor caricatures and cynical clichés which recognize the usual suspicions of the profession. His rebuttal often relies on metaphoric anecdotes and encouraged self-revelation. In describing the influences on a musical performance, he writes, “The life of a piece of music is like a river. On the surface it always looks the same but underneath there are a myriad elusive configurations that over time subtly alter its overall shape” (Wigglesworth 9). This is just one of his many illustrations with vivid and compelling insight that reveal the potential influence a conductor can harness.

Schopenhaur’s belief “about music being simple to understand yet impossible to explain” (6) is contrasted with malapropisms from a three-year old who insisted on always calling Wigglesworth “The Connector” instead of “The Conductor” (3). These examples bring a human touch to otherwise heady abstract principles. He articulates a trifecta of “musical, physical, and psychological” strategies combined with an exploration of the “more public and personal issues conductors face” to further appreciate the conducting art from both the perspective of musician and consumer (11). Through this framework each of the six chapters divides its focus.

Wigglesworth first explores the actual movement of conducting without specifically talking about conducting. Here there are no pedantic diagrams of gestural “patterns.” Instead, only examples as to “the why” such as The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, questioning “how muscular” should the bird sound (17) or citing Nietzsche’s notion that music is listened to with our muscles, so then, “it would seem logical therefore to believe that in reverse” (21).

He also encourages maximum imagination to develop multi-sensory communication, whether to appear grounded but flexible like a tree, to show poetry or prose, to suggest day or night or to convey a mood of private or public. With these examples and many more, he seeks to expand a conductor’s toolbox for transmitting imagination to the orchestra (26). Occasionally, he caveats with jarring but thought-provoking paradoxical thinking such as “the more you conduct, the less you hear” (35). These explanatory methods certainly have a way of sticking.

The second chapter outlines the risk of associating innate power to the role of a conductor. Wigglesworth confesses that there have been many times he has felt “distinctly un-powerful” and that “an orchestra is quite capable of ignoring a conductor” in the self-interest of both musical and professional accountability (51). This is not unlike the challenges faced by any leader or manager within an organization. Citing sage advice from the Greek philosopher Xenophon, to examples of leadership attributes of the United States Marines, he presents an exemplary discussion on the principles of people management and how to inspire optimal follower-ship. I would highly recommend the advice in this chapter to any leader within any industry.

Little is said by Wigglesworth on physical music itself until the third chapter. Like other topics, he encourages greater self-awareness through paradoxical thinking. Noting the importance of understanding the biographical profile of composers, he also points out that performers are not historians and that “the best music speaks for itself without any need for contextual reference” (103). He brilliantly underscores the virtues of knowledge through “score forensics” as well as instinct and wisdom being equal in worth but inseparable in value.

On the use of recordings for study (an often debated subject among conductors), he quotes Dostoevsky “that it was better to tell your own lies than someone else’s truth” (127). This is a memorable warning for any artist of any idiom. And similarly, with what seems like paradoxical exhaustion, Wigglesworth describes the elusive goal of good taste as “unattainable, vanishing as instantly as water through a fork” but that “expressing yourself with it is imperative” though seeking to do so “is dangerous” (149). It is from these contradictions that one might hope to find Zen-like awareness of the truth…if you find that process tolerable. I was willing to keep trying!

The second half of the book ventures into more peripheral areas of a conductor’s purview. Wigglesworth opines about opera performers and set design along with the healthy but challenging friction between conductor and stage director (159). While these pages veer into the proverbial weeds more than one might expect given the aforementioned material, it does provide practical considerations for interpersonal success in complex situations.

With a quote on failure from T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, he caveats in the fifth chapter, “We had the experience but missed the meaning” and then shows how to achieve better results in programing, performing, and purpose (181-212). In what feels like a liberating admission, the final chapter contrasts the anxiety-inducing expectations of the profession with a reference to the Zen masters by saying, “the only way to hit the target is not to aim” (227). He concludes with gratitude for just how privileged conducting is and why “shaping the invisible feels magical…but at the same time very, very real” (245).

Wigglesworth has offered here the most enlightening text I have ever read on the art of conducting. Unlike most of the books on my conductor’s shelf, it does not attempt to provide the supposed “right” answers but casts a web of paradoxical ideas to ignite one’s inner discovery. If relied upon repeatedly, and never in haste, any chapter or the entire text will provide a lifetime of rejuvenated learning and self-revelation.

Daniel W. Boothe

Music Director & Conductor, Symphonicity, Virginia Beach, VA, USA