How to conduct Sullivan

I have learned a few things in over three decades of conducting amateur, full-orchestra productions of Savoy operas. If these comments are helpful to you, great! I welcome your ideas for expanding and improving this section. The number of people in the world who have served in this role is small, and we can all do a better job if we stick together.

This page is no substitute for a good basic text on conducting.


Project scope

The Conductor's job is a large and complex one, requiring project management skills as well as musical ones. Duties include specifying and obtaining the printed materials to be used by cast and orchestra; selecting the cast (along with the Stage Director); rehearsing the music with the cast; selecting and rehearsing the orchestra; conducting performances; and coordinating the Music Department's interdependencies with all other departments of the production. Often some of these tasks are delegated to assistants, with the Conductor (sometimes called the Music Director) in charge, in which case we add staffing and managing the department to the above list of duties.

Some Conductors have the advantage of working with an established, functioning production organization, with people who understand what needs to be done because they've done it before. Starting a production organization from scratch is much more difficult: a full-scale Savoy opera might be an overly ambitious project for such a startup group!

Style and interpretation

The Savoy operas were precursors of American musical comedies, but there are several important differences between these genres. The language, the musical style, the choice of instruments, and the vocal technique are the key issues which will affect the Music Department.

In conjunction with the Stage Director, you may choose to mount a highly traditional production, or one which departs from tradition in small or significant ways. The material is strong, and will withstand substantial tinkering; but I recommend that you base your thousands of detailed decisions, not on whim, but on guiding principles: clearly-articulated “production concepts” which have been discussed and accepted by your top production staff members, well before auditions and rehearsals.

Conductor's attitude

My approach throughout rehearsals and performances is to support my performers in any way that I can. Great conducting careers have been built on uncompromising standards, frequent correction, and rare compliments; but in my work with adult amateur volunteers, the supportive approach has worked well for me. Specifically:

The mechanics of conducting

Instruments need a beat

This section is meant for those of you who are primarily choral conductors. Unlike your piano accompanist, an orchestra needs a clear beat, for several reasons:

  1. Starting pieces and sections, together and at the right tempo. A good choral pianist usually handles these duties, but with an orchestra, it's your job.

  2. Subdividing. Orchestral musicians are quite capable of dividing your beat into even eighths and sixteenths, but to do so they need to know where your quarters are.

  3. Keeping place. Orchestra parts only show each instrument's own line, not everyone's notes and lyrics as in choral parts, so the players depend on you to keep everything synchronized. Pit musicians who are counting rests need to understand which of your gestures are downbeats and which are not – especially through passages with tempo adjustments such as ritard and rubato. Extra downbeats which can result from confusion onstage can be particularly damaging.

Of course you can (and should) cue entrances and cutoffs, adjust dynamics, indicate phrasing, and otherwise communicate stylistic, interpretive, and supportive instructions through your conducting gestures. Many choral conductors, freed from the need to beat time, restrict their gestures to stylistic and interpretive matters exclusively. But instruments need a beat.

Recitative

This vestige of grand opera appears often in the Savoy operas, and it can be quite challenging to conduct if it's new to you. I have found the following technique to be very successful in leading orchestras through Sullivan's recit. passages, accurately, securely, and using minimal rehearsal time:

Sullivan's recit. accompaniments are almost always in “familiar style”, i.e. all instruments play the same rhythms. Exceptions complicate things:

Sometimes vocal cues, or even full vocal lines, appear in the orchestra parts (including Note8 edition parts) for recit. passages. Giving this information to your players may be a mixed blessing. It helps them to keep their place, and to be ready to enter confidently. But you should insist that they take the precise timing of their entrances from you, not from the singer. Besides the obvious advantage in coordination, depending on the conductor is a much better starting point for recovery when the singer drops or scrambles lines.

Orchestra parts in which recit. passages (as well as other tempo variations such as ritards and fermatas) are inconsistently or ambiguously marked can lead to great confusion in the pit, wasting rehearsal time and potentially marring performances. Note8 editions are carefully edited and tested to ensure that this important information is conveyed clearly in each part, and consistently from part to part (and to score).

Beating in 1

Occasionally the tempo is so fast that you can only conduct one beat per measure. Beating “in 1” may be uncomfortable if you're not used to it; and conducting fewer beats per measure in general may seem like you're giving up control of the tempo. But note that good orchestral musicians are better at subdividing the beat than you are. Conducting fewer beats may paradoxically give you more control, and will certainly free up gesture-energy for cueing, dynamics, and phrasing.

You will definitely need to “downshift” into giving more beats per measure when the tempo slows down, such as for a ritard. If your downbeat is distinguishable from your other beats, as it should be, you probably won't need to explain what you're doing – just do it and the orchestra should be able to follow you, especially if the ritard is marked in their parts (as they are, consistently, in Note8 editions).

Practice, baby, practice

But how? Beating time to a recording may be helpful in committing the beat-patterns to muscle-memory, but otherwise it's pretty useless for learning to lead an ensemble. And orchestra rehearsal time is always so precious that you feel guilty about any time lost to flaws in your conducting technique. Stop feeling that way: there's just no other way for you to learn your craft.

Go ahead and feel guilty if the delays are due to lack of preparation on your part. Before you meet with your orchestra, you should know the score cold; know all of your tempi, fermatas, ritards, etc., not just on paper but in your arms; and have a detailed-but-flexible plan for each rehearsal.

Some rehearsal pianists are able to follow a conductor, overcoming their accompanist's instinct to conform to the singers. So conducting cast-with-piano rehearsals, especially runthroughs, can give you valuable practice time. (It also gets the cast accustomed to looking toward you at key moments.)

Trouble

A lot can go wrong in live performance. If you seriously expect every performer (singer, player, stage technician) to perform flawlessly throughout the run; if you're in denial about the possibility of a power failure, an audience delay due to weather, or a medical emergency during a performance; and in particular, if anything short of perfection will throw you into such a tizzy that you can't continue – then you're in for quite a shock.

One function of rehearsals is to learn what sorts of things can do wrong – not just to fix them, but to practice recovering from them gracefully.

Audiences are predisposed to empathize with onstage performers – your singer/actors, and the characters they portray. Except for the oboist's mother, audience members don't care any more about the orchestra or conductor than they do about the light board operator. (Don't take it personally; it's just psychology.) A performance which exploits this predisposition will be more successful than one which fights it. So if a singer makes a glaring mistake, it's better for everyone if that mistake seems like the orchestra's fault, not the singer's – and you, as Conductor, can make that subterfuge happen. Even better is to mask the mistake so the audience doesn't notice it at all.

My first conducting gig after college was an adult amateur production of Pirates of Penzance. My Samuel (minor lead who mostly sings with the men's chorus, plus occasional solo lines, including the first solo in the opening chorus) was steady and reliable throughout the rehearsals, but on Opening Night he entered a measure late for that first solo. The string accompaniment here is repetitive, so no immediate damage, but the upcoming chord change would be a measure early if I couldn't delay it. The look of panic on my face got my string section's attention, and somehow I managed to indicate adding a bar. I reinforced the roadmap change with a strong cue at the chord change, accompanied by a broad smile of encouragement. Problem #1 solved.

But I still had the problem of the winds counting rests, all of them ticking time-bombs, ready to detonate at their next entrances. I relaxed when I saw that before any of those entrances was a rehearsal letter.

I had formed the habit of indicating rehearsal letters with a distinctive gesture, supporting and reinforcing my players' efforts to keep their places in their parts. (I emphasized that they still needed to count their own rests, since I couldn't promise to give every rehearsal letter reliably, due to other conducting gestures needing priority, or to simple forgetfulness.) By Opening Night many of these distinctive gestures were superfluous, since my players were quite confident in their roadmaps, and many had played previous Pirates productions. But I continued to give rehearsal letters anyway, sometimes including stylistic information in the gestures, mostly out of habit. A few of them were still useful confirmations for brass and percussion players counting long rests.

So I gave my distinctive gesture, again along with a broad, confident smile, and my first crisis was fully resolved.

When I spoke with Samuel afterwards, he had no idea he had made a mistake. He sang his whole role perfectly for the rest of the run.


Yikes!

Why would anyone take on such a demanding job as that described above? Because, when it goes well, there's nothing in this world quite so rewarding. So break a leg, Maestro!

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