From the audience, the conductor is a mysterious and unknowable figure. They stand with their backs to us, dancing and waving their arms in a series of incomprehensible gestures that the musicians on stage somehow interpret to produce beautifully synchronized sounds. When the conductor turns at the end of the piece to smile and bow, it’s almost a shock: he’s a real person up there, not a mechanical arrangement of limbs and cane.
It is with the intention of demystifying this secret profession that Alice Farnham, herself a highly experienced and renowned British director, has written this book. Although she states at the outset that it’s “not a conductor’s manual,” it’s structured a bit like one, with chapters devoted to topics like “The Basics: Hands and Stick” and “Preparing for Performance.” At times, Farnham breaks away from her narrative to include practical directing exercises that the curious reader can try for themselves. Try tapping time while a group of friends sing “We all live in a yellow submarine,” she says, and you’ll soon understand how many aspects of the music—speed, volume, character—the conductor must control.
The book also includes some memoirs, with Farnham describing her childhood experiences with music and the music education that set her on the path to becoming a conductor. She lost her father, a vicar, in a boating accident just before her 10th birthday. Her account of her time as an “orphan of the clergy” in a boarding school founded in 1749 for “orphan daughters of the clergy” is one of the most moving sections of it.
An important aspect of Farnham’s professional life, reflected in the book, is his work to improve the accessibility of leadership to people other than the white males who for centuries have been the default role. She cites a 2015 report by Dr. Christina Scharff, which found that only 1.4% of drivers in the professional British orchestras there were women.
In good hands is full of anecdotes that illustrate this inequality. Reviews of female directors’ performances are much more likely to focus on their looks than their musicianship. In 2001, Farnham was informed by a senior conductor (unnamed, sadly) that “women can’t conduct because their breasts get in the way” and that “high levels of testosterone” are required. Even today, he is met with suggestions that his efforts to increase the number of professional female conductors “have gone too far” now that the numbers are approaching double figures.
This book is at its best when it takes readers behind the scenes of the wacky world of classical music. For example: the best place in Britain to buy a conductor’s baton is JP Guivier and Co just off Regent Street, where the aspiring “arm flapper” can try different sizes and shapes until he finds the right one. . The vast majority of a conductor’s work goes unseen: they spend dozens of hours preparing their score even before they start rehearsing with the musicians. And conducting an orchestra well is like being an orator, a diplomat, and a general all rolled into one, while having dozens of lines of complex music in mind.
Perhaps it’s because the role itself is so multifaceted that this book tries to be many different things: an educational aid for aspiring conductors, a memoir, an eye-opening look into the famously opaque world of classical music, a manifesto for change. In that still very unbalanced realm, a group biography of 16 famous directors and more. Unfortunately, the alchemy that brings together so many disparate elements on the podium is not replicated on the page. While there are many nice aspects to this book, it never forms a harmonious whole.