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Sharing Intense Emotions Motivates Maestros

The stereotype of the self-absorbed orchestra conductor appears to be off-key.
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In movies, orchestra conductors tend to be portrayed as egomaniacs. But a new study of why certain musicians gravitate to the podium suggests a very different set of motivations are at play.

In an article just published in the journal Psychology of Music, Ioannis Makris of the School of Higher Pedagogical and Technological Education in Greece reports on a survey of 101 orchestral conductors. They were presented with 92 possible motives for entering their profession and asked which of them reflected their own views.

"The motives most strongly evoked were the ones linked with emotions and emotional needs," Makris reports. Of 24 potential motives published in the paper (a representative sample), the one most enthusiastically endorsed was: "One of the reasons for which I am an orchestra conductor is that it allows me to feel as one with my orchestra."

Also rating very high were "it allows me to make the audience feel strong emotions"; "it allows me to feel the composer's feelings"; "it is a permanent challenge"; and "it gives me intense joy."

On the other hand, statements such as "it gives me an important social position" and "it allows me to meet important people" were at the bottom of the list.

That sounds about right to Nicholas McGegan, the world-renowned British conductor who leads the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. This summer, he is conducting advanced student ensembles at at the Aspen Music Festival and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"Compared with, say, a virtuoso violinist, conductors are less concerned with the how of music and more concerned with the why— why the composer wrote it that way, and how best to share what you believe about that piece with the audience, through the orchestra," McGegan said.

Working all that out is "great fun," he said. "I was just doing a bunch of the Brandenburgs (a set of concertos by J.S. Bach) last night, and it was certainly intense joy.

"On the other hand, sometimes it's intense panic!" he added with a laugh. "Just because you don't make a noise doesn't mean you can't screw up!"

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