The Other Side of the Podium

Conducting classes in the UNC Department of Music offer students the opportunity to learn what it’s like behind the podium — gaining valuable insight into conducting methods while improving their skills as musicians.

April 20th, 2021

“Be weird about it!” exclaims Evan Feldman, a UNC professor of music. “I want it to be swoopy, like you have no skeleton.”

Josh Sheppard, a junior studying music education, mirrors Feldman’s conducting movements as his peers perform a classical piece. Feldman further exaggerates his sweeping gestures, incorporating loose steps and head bobs, making him look like the waving, inflatable tube man often seen outside car dealerships.

Besides entertaining his students, Feldman’s goofy approach serves a purpose.

“Conducting is a communicative art,” he says. “And there’s a vulnerability aspect that students have to get comfortable with. That’s tough for a lot of people. I know it was tough for me when I was starting out.”

Learning how to embrace this vulnerability is one focus of intermediate conducting, the second of a three-course sequence in the UNC Department of Music. While an obvious choice for those studying music education, the class is also applicable to a wide array of careers.

“Even if you have no intention of ever conducting, if you take the class you at least have some understanding of how the other side of the podium works,” Feldman says. “I see them develop an appreciation for that skillset.”

A fundamental aspect of that skillset is what Feldman calls “the grammar of conducting” — the gestures or cues a conductor uses to communicate with an ensemble. There’s a lot of interpretive liberty within that grammar, and the course employs musical analysis to shape that interpretation.

One approach is score study, where students analyze new music by playing it note-by-note on the piano, dissecting the score into its individual parts. They also dive into the history behind each piece to understand aspects like why it was written and who it was written for — important clues into how the music should sound.

“There’s a lot of ancillary skills that supports and leverages things they’ve already learned in their previous classes about interpretation, theory, and performance practice,” Feldman says.

Another large component of the class is learning how to run a rehearsal and coach musicians — a task that is far more complicated than some might think.

“You have to be two, three, four, 17 steps ahead of the ensemble to be effective,” Feldman says. “So, part of the conductor’s job is to lead the players through that and create a sense of cohesion. They need to know how to get everyone on the same page collaborating and not have a free-for-all.”

This semester, the conducting students —­ three instrumental and one choral — have a chance to put all these skills into practice by working with the UNC Symphony Band and the UNC Glee Club, led by Jeffrey Fuchs and Daniel Huff.

The combined approach of theory and analysis in class and real-world experience leading rehearsal has not only helped Sheppard in his endeavor to become a music teacher, but has also bolstered his skills as a musician.

“Now when I sit back in the ensemble I’m trying to analyze any errors that I’m making or the group is making and how Dr. Feldman is going to correct us through that,” Sheppard says. “It’s helped me improve a lot as a musician because I’m getting that experience from both sides.”

Evan Feldman is the associate chair of Performance, Composition, and Music Education (PCME), director of wind studies, conductor of the UNC Wind Ensemble, and professor in the Department of Music within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

Josh Sheppard is a junior studying music education in the Department of Music within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.