Maestro in the Making (Part One)

Note: Jaelem Bhate is a student in the School of Music’s graduate conducting program. This is the first in a series of posts about his experiences as a ‘maestro in the making’ under the tutelage of UBC’s Director of Orchestras, Dr. Jonathan Girard.

 By Jaelem Bhate

And just like that, I’m 25% done a masters degree. So at the quarter mark, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on a great three months. As stressful and anxious as they were, they were also supremely rewarding, full of new insights, and packed with more growth than I thought possible. Gladly, none of that growth was directed to my waistband.  The craziest part of this first term though was not what I learned, but how I learned. Sometimes, you have to quit the stress, take stock, and believe in the process of your hard work. For me, it was only when I became so tired of conducting in a constant state of stress that I loosened up, that real progress happened, culminating in my UBCSO debut last Saturday with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies I &III, orch. Claude Debussy.

WATCH: Graduate assistant conductor Jaelem Bhate conducts Erik Satie's Gymnopédie I & III.

The whole idea with the Satie was to forget about technique, and focus on the intangibles of conducting. How to elicit sound with your facial expressions, how to make every movement mean something beyond beat placement and patterns. That is to say, whether you move left or right on beat two is not the point, it’s how you arrive to the beat, and the way in which you move to the next beat placement. Needless to say, with a degree in percussion and my strengths lying in technical, complex music, this was not my strong suit. When I’m learning something new, I dive straight into the details. I spend hours working on fundamental skills, gathering as much info as I can from as many sources as I can find, and progress as quickly as I can through constant self-reflection and criticism.

The challenge with conducting, though, is that there really is no codified technique to show the above musical elements. The finer points of conducting—the concepts that I was weakest with coming into this degree—cannot be studied or distilled or written down in a textbook, and cannot be learned in the same manner that I have worked my whole life. They cannot be rushed, and not even practiced without an orchestra. Sure, you can stand in front of a mirror for hours on end as I was a few weeks ago, and critique your every movement, right down to how your blinking might affect the sound. But there is no substitute for standing in front of an orchestra made up of dynamic and versatile musicians who have their own feelings, thoughts, and ideas, and finding a way to bring everyone on board with your own artistic vision. This is what makes training as a conductor so difficult — you have to figure out how to improve, how to demonstrate your vision, without wasting precious podium time.

On this same program was another favourite work of mine, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. From the start of this cycle, I felt more comfortable with Firebird, despite its being a much more complicated and complex piece of music. I felt that I could rely on my beats and all of the technique I had accumulated, and that I could translate what I wanted much more efficiently by simply being accurate in my patterns. Two weeks ago, Dr. Girard was guest conducting in Hawaii (as one does), and I was left alone with the orchestra. “SWEET!” I thought to myself. “I get a whole 90 minutes on Firebird. I’m going to be so intense and I’m going to use so much space in the finale I’ll look like a soaring eagle and it’ll be great!” 

The rehearsal came and went, and it was a deeply depressing to realize, upon reviewing the video afterwards, that it was probably my worst conducting of the term. I was out of position, my baton unfocused and my lower body all over the podium. I looked like a flailing seal. All of the expression and technical prowess I had wanted to show had been diluted by my lack of trust in myself and my musicianship, hindered by my inability and fear to go beyond technique alone.

Through the entire term, I’d been fighting with myself to get my baton under control and to push as hard as I could to get better as quickly as I could. But through all of that work, I had never stopped to consider the bigger questions. How does this make me feel? What am I trying to say through my movements here? Most importantly, am I actually showing music, or am I just showing patterns?

In the week after that rehearsal, I learned more about myself as a conductor, as a musician, and honestly as a person, than I did in the first three months of my degree. I learned how to learn. I learned that I need to relax, look at the big picture, not get too caught up with the details, and not freak out when things don’t go exactly as planned. To still do all the hard work, but to also go with the flow in the moment. The Satie performance ended up going quite well, and the requisite accoutrements that accompanied the whole experience did make the evening special, I have to admit. The long black tails, my black bow tie replaced with a white one, and the orchestra that I’ve spent four years playing with standing upon my entrance did leave a lasting impression that is hard to forget, as with any debut with a high-level orchestra.

However, the concert isn’t the main thing that will stick with me from this semester. It’s how this piece taught me to trust myself, and trust in the music. What a crazy idea then, to consider applying this to my life and career. Work hard, but do not lose sight of the bigger picture. Worry about the details, but don’t forget what the details make when put together. Relax, have fun, and let your preparation and passion carry you through to success.