Home / Blog / Joshua Weilerstein: On a Conductor’s Journey, and Why It Might Be Awesome if Every Musician Spent a Day in a Conductor’s Shoes, by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Joshua Weilerstein: On a Conductor’s Journey, and Why It Might Be Awesome if Every Musician Spent a Day in a Conductor’s Shoes, by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

I’ve always enjoyed a good all-you-can-eat buffet. Not so much for the all-you-can-eat part, but for the opportunity to sample lots of different things.

In a similar way, one of the things I enjoyed most about the summer festival I attended for many of my formative years, was the wide range of repertoire that the orchestras would play over the course of a summer. In nine weeks, we’d have nine concerts, with nine different programs, nine different soloists, and nearly always a different conductor.

At the time, I was mostly focused on getting the notes into my fingers, and wondering if that week’s conductor would be nice or scary.

But in hindsight, it was a really cool experience to be able to experience not just a rich diversity of repertoire, but of conductors as well.

Different conductors, different experience

Because even though the members of the orchestra were the same from one week to the next, I remember rehearsals and performances feeling different each week. Some weeks just flew by, while others seemed to drag on and on, and some performances felt like walking a tightrope, while others felt free and joyous. Even decades later, I still remember how some of those weeks felt surprisingly vividly.

Perhaps it’s a little like that quote often attributed to Maya Angelou – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What’s it like for the conductor?

At the time, of course, I was only ever really thinking about myself. Like, do I have my part learned well enough to avoid any embarrassing slip-ups? Do I have all the right bowings in the part? Why are we spending so much time on this section and can we take a break already?

I never took time to imagine what the conductor’s experience of us might be. Like, do we make them nervous? What’s going through their mind during rehearsals and performances? Do they get stressed out if they sense the orchestra is fatigued, can’t seem to produce the kind of sound they’re asking for, or if the soloist starts to get frustrated with them? How aware of human psychology or group dynamics or communication are they?

I have some sense of what happens in the minds of the musicians in the orchestra. But I was curious to learn more about what’s happening in the mind of a conductor. So I thought I’d reach out to a conductor and see if this was something we could explore.

Want to see what it’s like to think like a conductor?

Meet Joshua Weilerstein

Joshua Weilerstein comes from a musical family, and started out life as a violinist, pursuing graduate studies in violin at the New England Conservatory before he began to feel drawn to conducting, and won First Prize at the Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen. He was subsequently appointed as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and then served as the Artistic Director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne for seven years.

Joshua is currently Music Director of the Boston-based Phoenix ensemble, maintains an active guest conducting schedule, and also hosts the popular “Sticky Notes” podcast, which has over 2 million downloads in 165 countries.

Check out Noa’s podcast episode when he explores…

  • 1:53 – The problem that Joshua initially had with the whole idea of conducting…and the specific moment when all of this began to change.
  • 5:46 – Joshua describes some of the under-appreciated challenges of being a conductor. For instance, the challenge of keeping every member of the orchestra engaged.
  • 14:43 – How does a conductor balance being in control without being overly controlling?
  • 17:21 – In the same way that a musician has to get better at switching from practice mode (analysis/critique/evaluation) to performance mode (creating freely without judgment), does a conductor’s mindset also change in some way from rehearsal to performance?
  • 22:16 – Breathing is essential to peak performance for athletes and musicians. What role does breathing play in conducting effectively?
  • 25:36 – What does practicing look like for a conductor?
  • 28:49 – We talk a little about conductor mistakes, and as an example, Joshua identifies a certain movement in a certain symphony, where apparently, if you don’t start off at the right tempo, there’s just not much you can do but resign yourself to finishing the movement at that tempo.
  • 30:41 – How do you deal with the perception that an orchestra just doesn’t like you?
  • 38:18 – Joshua describes what changed in his violin playing when he began studying conducting.
  • 39:34 – I float the hypothetical of what things might be like if conducting were mandated in music schools, and Josh cuts in to say…
  • 40:44 – Joshua describes some of the things he learned from Hugh Wolff, which provides some insight into what conductors have to worry about and plan for during rehearsals…
  • 43:47 – I share a story of the time his father (a violinist) asked me to conduct during a lesson, and Joshua describes some of the things he learned from his parents (his mother is a pianist) over the years, and how this has become integrated into his approach to conducting.
  • 47:28 – I’ve always wondered about that mysterious lag between the conductor’s movements, and when the orchestra actually responds. So I took this opportunity to ask him what’s up with that.
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