Not a Human Metronome · 22 April 2017

Taiwanese-American conductor Apo Hsu in rehearsal
(original size 500 × 418 pixels)

by Alton Thompson licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

I was at our youngest son’s school concert when I realized something that I should have known all along. The band director is not just a human metronome.

If you have ever been to the symphony or the opera or even to a school concert, you see the maestro up there waving a baton. I think of the director tap tap tapping the baton on her music stand to get everybody’s attention. Then raising that baton higher as a signal for the band to raise their instruments to their mouths getting ready to blow or to raise their mallets readying themselves to strike. Then finally, moving said baton frantically and the band finally playing.

I have sometimes mistaken the band director as merely a human metronome when I have been in the audience listening. I have seen the director wave her arms as the band played and saw how it looked like she was just keeping time for her young charges. But at the most recent concert, I saw how mistaken I was thinking that the tick tock tick tock of a metronome could replace a maestro in action.

I usually take video of our sons when they play at band concerts. I have done so for years. I like to pan around the band and zoom in on my kid or sometimes other people’s kids who I happen to see. But I also like to just listen as I let the camera record. I have the camera on a tripod so I can ignore the picture on the little LCD panel and just watch and listen. And enjoy.

I was really entertained by my son’s band director at the last concert.

I need to make a little confession here. Having been a teacher and coach for a lot of years, I sometimes tend to analyze things from that perspective. I have been known to spout off technical knowledge to my sons to help them improve when all they really wanted was to know that I was proud of them for whatever their accomplishment was. My wife sometimes needs to remind me that I ought to just be the proud papa instead of the analyzing teacher or coach. I am almost there now that the last one is getting ready to leave the nest in a few years.

At any rate, for some reason I found myself watching the band director during a couple of the songs. There was a combined band which was getting ready to play at Disneyland. The director said that the combined bands had not even played at least one of the songs together yet. As I was watching and listening and enjoying the music, I noticed something. The director was waving her arms to the beat, but she looked like she was laboring to do so. Her arms looked like they were pushing against some unknown force and that every downstroke and sidestroke of her baton was taking all of her energy to beat it. Then I noticed what that force was. She was ahead of the band. Their playing was just behind her beat and she was trying to get them to catch up. It was as if beating the baton against the air was going to help the band get back to the tempo she wanted. And it did. By waving the baton. And by sheer force of will.

It took me back to my few years in band and a year or so in choir. I remember the directors I had working with the bands and choir during rehearsals. These three men would work with us and stop us when they needed. Sometimes they would beat the air with their batons to try to get us to speed up or relax a bit to help us slow down. They would wave that baton like a magic wand doing magic for the maestro. But during rehearsals, the directors would often stop us. They would let us know what we needed to do to get the music right. We would work to get things right. And I never once saw them as human metronomes, but always as directors. As maestros.

I am sure my directors imposed their wills upon us with their wands, rather batons, but I do not remember it being such a force as it was with my son’s band director. That was an amazing sight to behold.

That demonstration of force of will of my son’s band director on the band made me realize that band directors and symphony directors and choir directors really are maestros. They are artists with a baton. They are magicians. And they are certainly much more than human metronomes.

© 2017 Michael T. Miyoshi

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  1. I really liked this post. Like you, I’d always assumed that choir directors were helping the musicians keep time. It’s interesting to think about everything they’re actually doing up there.

    Lydia · 24 April 2017, 06:04 ·

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