I was recently asked to jot down a few thoughts about developing my musicianship. The question went something like this (I’m paraphrasing):
How do you continue to develop your musicianship? If I said to you, 'You can only conduct to your own level of musicianship,' what does that mean to you? Sometimes, there is repertoire that seems out of reach from the musical perspective of the conductor who is still developing. How do you continue to grow into the musician that can tackle the most musically demanding repertoire?
I have a view that says that we generally rise to some level just below what we would ideally prefer to reach in our first attempt to unlock the secrets of difficult repertoire. As an example. I had the fortune to conduct chamber orchestra versions both of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Das Lied von der Erde. I did not believe I was "ready" by any stretch. But, the act of throwing myself in and going as far as possible with it led me to go much further than I ever would have gone if I had set the repertoire aside.
In 20 years, if I am fortunate enough to conduct these works a few more times, and the original full orchestra versions, I am sure I will look back quite bashfully on what I did in the performances mentioned. In fact, I already do look askance at some of that work! But, I know I am a stronger musician now than any other repertoire in that moment would have allowed me to become. And, I did have some truly life-changing moments in those performances that changed me for the better as a musician.
Karajan often said that a conductor will not have a good performance of a Brahms symphony until they have conducted it 40 times. Most of us will go to our graves with only a fraction of that number of performances of a single Brahms symphony! However, the point he makes well is that you just have to get out there and do it, fall down, dust yourself off, and do it again.
Or, to borrow a phrase: JUST DO IT.
Of course, a teenager or college student would be advised to work towards a certain level of proficiency (on their instrument, then as a conductor) first with shorter works of high musical quality. However, after a certain level, the only thing left to do make the leap, grapple with the details and the big picture, and develop as much musical strength as possible. At some point, the training wheels have to come off.
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