Saturday, April 24, 2010

jerks who flail

I started out by saying that the thing about conducting is that people don't know what it actually is.  Still, the image of a conductor is kind of captivating: the maestro, the one who's in charge and makes it all happen! Perhaps the mystery is part of the appeal.  Conductors are popular as characters and metaphors, saturating pop culture with abundant examples of misconceptions.  Perhaps I'll spoil the mystery for people, and then they will no longer feel compelled to depict conductors in the ways shown below.  I've never seen a fictitious conductor who was a great conductor.  Instead, I have observed, fictitious conductors tend to be jerks who flail.

Below are some samples of t.v. commercials featuring conductors--I might add, I have never met a real-life conductor who was as bad as any of these.  Even my undergraduate students, first time on the podium, do better than this.

Is this really how the world thinks we look?  Or are non-conductors also aware that this is horrible, bad, completely unrealistic conducting?

In an Olay ad, this woman might win an award for most attractive conductor if she didn't flail quite so wildly.

There are some good things here--women being depicted as the conductors of orchestras, for example.  Hurray for that!  Also, women seem to be depicted less like jerks than men, although these particular woman are no prize (can't set up a music stand?!).  But look at what actors do when they are supposed to be playing conductors.  Ugh!  The flailing of arms, the flapping of wrists, the reachy straightness of elbows, the clutching of batons, the frequency with which gestures linger above their heads...

And, seriously, "magic wand?!"  Bleagh.

There's another that's on locally that features a very young woman in a suit, she is a sales rep at a home store, and the simile is that she's like a conductor because she puts together all your appliances and flooring choices into a harmonious renovation project.  Her technique is wretched.

Of course, these are little commercials with tiny budgets, but actors playing conductors appear in movies (The Money Pit, Prince of Tides...) and big t.v. shows (Law and Order) and these are not only jerks who flail, but often flamboyant European jerks who flail.  Here's one of those in a commercial (content warning--there's some salty language, but how he says it actually made me laugh out loud, so I thought it was worthy):

I wonder if they hire a consultant to coach the actor in conducting.  And if they do, how do I get that gig?!

A third-screen jerk who flails:

And finally, one that's so incredibly well crafted and purposefully bad that I love it to pieces--particularly the little dance at 1:55.

I think that I, as an actual conductor and someone who has dabbled in acting, have a unique appreciation for just how much preparation went into this.  For Rowan Atkinson to conduct this poorly, he had to know the music stone cold, practice the gestures like a dancer to ensure that they reflect the character of the music, move with emotional intention, unify gesture with feeling and sound...  wow!  Also, he's kind of saying, "what if a conductor really were just a jerk who flails?" then answering the question in the most absurd possible way.  And his asking that question implies that he knows that that's not all there is to it.

Thank you, Rowan Atkinson!

So, this is what popular culture thinks conductors are.  It is inaccurate, of course, or I would be done now.  I'll be spending the rest of the blog explaining what conducting actually is, and perhaps why this stereotype exists. My personal view is that conducting is work that opens a window to the best parts of our humanity, so I'll try to demonstrate that, too.

In the meantime, here's Victor Borge's explanation.  He talks about what a conductor does, assuming that you already know that a conductor is a flamboyant European jerk who flails.


  1. You've seen the invisible drum kit, yeah?

  2. Just to keep it in perspective, check out Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain. The scene where they are dubbing over Lina's voice. He conducts in 3 right with the music and has a very lyrical quality to the gesture.

    Otherwise I agree, it's mostly jerks who flail.

  3. Ah, but Donald O'Connor isn't just an actor--he's a musician and a dancer. He's not an outsider trying to imitate something he doesn't understand; he actually has a clue. It makes all the difference, doesn't it?

  4. ChoralNet led me to your blog. Thank you for this very true and delightful observation (I'll have to look at it again when I get home -- no streaming video here at my office ._.)! My room mate and I are both lifelong musicians, and once in a while will find ourselves asking each-other, "Is he even conducting the same piece they're playing...?"

  5. Right! It looks to me like the actors aren't conducting anything at all; they just wave their arms around and the editors add the music afterwards.

    p.s. Definitely don't watch the Letom commercial at work unless you have a VERY laid-back office!

  6. Thank you for this! As a female conductor, I have found that first add simultaneously encouraging (for the depiction of a female conductor) and horrifying because of the flailing. Great blog! I'll be back.

  7. The other horrifying thing about the commercial is that it reinforces the image of classical musicians as old folks. I imagine the makers of the ad sitting in a room thinking, "We're advertising to old people... what do old people like? Classical music!"

  8. Here's an interesting question (which I won't attempt to answer): In the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon "Long-Haired Hare", where he impersonates Leopold Stokowski, do the animators do a good job of capturing the conductor's gestures? Or is Bugs flailing?

  9. Oh, flailing for sure. Lots of classic misconceptions in that one--chief among them that conductors conduct every note.

  10. As an actor and a musician, I will never understand why "people" think that music is so easy, a child of five can do it...

    If Matt Damon needs to learn how to play rugby and speak as an Afrikaner (is that the term?) then the directors and producers will give him, what, a YEAR or more to learn it seamlessly?

    That's th homework of learning the role, learning the character, if you will, so that the preformance is believeable and organic. It takes time for any of this kind of learning to become second nature.

    The one flailer I disliked the most was the one of the be-wigged guy who probably laughed himself silly when making and watching the final product, but had nothing but stereotypes as the core of a kernal of an idea. I'm sure he had fun. It wasn't the least bit funny. Hadn't done his homework.

    The movie "August Rush" was marketed as a movie about music-I think it was about the relationship between an mother and child. The hideous dubbing and faking ruined the movie for me. Did that direcotr think we were fooled by the lack of preparation? I think he thought it was "good enough"-or she would have had LOTS more time at ther cello, and on and on and on. To prepare a concert is more homework and rehearsal than most can imagine. Why is the actor-musician not graded on a tougher scale? Ok-I've ranted enough...

  11. Oh, there's another one. I can't think of what product they are advertising - something to do with kitchen design. "We will help you orchestrate your dreams." This woman "conductor" does the usual flailing and then looks back over her shoulder at her "audience" as if to say, "Look! Am I not the greatest?" I despise that commercial.

  12. Lynn--that kitchen one was the one I meant--it's a really young, slender woman with long brown hair, right? She's wretched.

    Mezzo--Yes, those movies about music and music teachers are a peeve of mine, too. After Mr. Holland, I swore them off; so, I never saw August Rush. Those things just irritate me to distraction, making it impossible to enjoy any redeeming factors a movie might have.