When the time comes for me to meet my maker (I don’t mean to be morbid or anything, but, you know, one’s mind turns to such things when Antiques Roadshow is on) He, She or It will no doubt fix me with a beady eye and ask the crucial question.
“How did you spend your time on Earth?”
At this point I’ll have to try and forget that I’m English. The Englishman’s natural reaction to such a question is to shuffle from one foot to the other in embarrassment and offer a halting “Well, you know, it wasn’t much, I just tried to do the best I gosh isn’t it hot in here?”
No, I shall stand up straight and declare, without shame “I was a conductor.”
Then, hedging my bets, I shall add “I also wrote some things. Watched a lot of cricket.”
Finally, panicking: “I was a Dad! Made an excellent boeuf bourguignon once in 1993! Very good with cats!”
“Oh right. Jolly good.”
Notes will be made. Then a pause, just long enough for me to experience the first pangs of fear.
“Just run that first one by me again?”
“I was a conductor.”
“And that entailed what, exactly?”
And there, I fear, the pleasantries will come to a stuttering halt. Because, let’s be honest, it’s awfully hard to explain exactly what a conductor does, and even harder to explain it in a manner that makes it seem a worthwhile way to spend your life. It is, when examined by the cool analytical eye of the disinterested outsider, an intrinsically ridiculous activity.
“Well, you know, I waved my arms around in front of a group of musicians…and…errm…they played the music…”
“So they weren’t capable of playing the music without your arm-waving?”
“No. Well yes, I mean, they could…but…the waving…well, it sort of…they needed…I was…is it just me or is it really dreadfully hot in here?”
The arm-waving part is, I shall try to explain, just one part of the process. Much of the conductor’s work is done in rehearsal, I shall say. Warming to my subject, I shall enumerate the many complexities of the job.
I shall, let’s be honest, protest just a tidge too much.
I hardly dare anticipate the reaction. A curl of the lip, a barely-concealed sneer, perhaps a raised eyebrow. And then a peremptory tick against a box, its contents unseen but easily imaginable.
The problem is that The Truth About Conducting is a slippery cove, as elusive as the love child of the Loch Ness Monster and the Scarlet Pimpernel.
I mean, obviously I know what I’m doing. Or what I think I’m doing. Or at least I think I know.
“It’s, umm, it’s to do with communication and psychology and clarity and intellect and personality and musical insight and natural coordination and anecdotes and ooh loads of other stuff.”
Scrabbling around for ways to clarify, I’ll attempt metaphor.
“Imagine a large multinational company, with a CEO at its no dammit that’s not very good…”
“Imagine a team of horses and a carriage. The conductor is the driver, the musicians are the horses, well not horses exactly, but you know what I…no, that doesn’t quite work, does it?”
“One more go.”
“Put it this way: the conductor is a Rehearsal Process Solutions Consultant and Real-Time Music Performance Facilitation Executive.”
On balance, I think I’ll just have to hope that He, She or It looks favourably on the cricket-watching and likes a nice boeuf bourgignon.
By Lev Parikian, conductor and author
Lev’s book on the dangers of conducting ‘Waving not drowning’ is available here
21 June 2017