Understanding an orchestra conductor’s gestures, with Ming Luke

A talk with orchestra conductor Ming Luke ( Topics discussed include: what a conductor’s body language and gestures can communicate to the orchestra; how small differences in gestures can sometimes result in significant musical differences; the difference in conducting styles that can exist between conductors; the role conductors play and the benefits they bring; the leadership and managerial skills required to be a strong conductor. 

Transcript below.

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Zach Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it If you appreciate this podcast, you can show your support by signing up on my site for a paid premium subscription.

On this episode, I talk to orchestra conductor Ming Luke. Most of our talk is about how he uses body language and hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate to the orchestra. I also ask him about how he views the role and responsibility of a conductor. I ask him about the anxiety he had early on in his career, when he still was unsure what kinds of mistakes he might make in conducting. I ask him about the leadership and managerial skills that good conducting requires. I ask him if he’d ever done something accidental with his gestures when conducting that changed the course of a performance.

You can learn more about Ming’s experience on his website, which is at, that’s MING As I do this episode, in early October, he’s getting ready to conduct the Las Cruces Symphony in New Mexico in late October, and then after that he’s on to California for a music festival there.

I’ll read a little bit from his website: “Ming Luke is a versatile conductor that has excited audiences around the world in performances of both symphonic and theatrical works. Highlights include conducting the Bolshoi Orchestra in Moscow, performances of Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella at the Kennedy Center, his English debut at Sadler’s Wells with Birmingham Royal, conducting Dvorak’s Requiem in Dvorak Hall in Prague, recording scores for a Coppola film, multiple Asian cultural programs with the San Francisco Symphony, and over a hundred and fifty performances at the San Francisco War Memorial with San Francisco Ballet. Long time critic Allan Ulrich of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Ming Luke delivered the best live theater performance I’ve ever heard of [Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet]” and in 2016 Luke’s War Requiem was named best choral performance of 2016 in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

I want to thank Molly Chakery, who’s been helping me with the podcast and who helped brainstorm some questions for this episode. I also want to thank behavior specialist Alan Crawley, who recommended I interview an orchestra conductor.

Okay, here’s the talk with Ming Luke.

Hi, Ming. Thanks for coming on the show.

Ming Luke: Happy to be here.

Zach: Yeah. Maybe we can start with one common question I’ve seen asked about conducting is people who are curious just what exactly a conductor does. For example, one form of this question can be, what happens if there isn’t a conductor? What happens with the band? Are they able to play? How do they perform? And maybe you could talk a little bit about how you view the role of a conductor and the value and benefit that they bring to the table.

Ming: Sure. Yeah, a few 100 years ago, there actually weren’t conductors for ensembles. Oftentimes, the concertmaster that is the lead violinist would actually be gesturing with his or her body to keep the ensemble together. But as ensembles got larger and larger, the necessity to have somebody coalesce and unify the artistic vision of the ensemble was needed. There are certainly many groups now that a conductor lists, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a very famous one, but the amount of time that it takes to rehearse and really get everybody on the same page artistically can make it prohibitive, especially since time can be very expensive. So conductors, you know, it’s true, the musicians have the music in front of them. They don’t necessarily need the conductor to know when to play, it’s really how to play. And so let’s say the music is getting louder, we have a crescendo, it is difficult for everybody to really lock in to know how to do that at the same time because you can increase your volume in a lot of different ways, quickly at the beginning or very slow and steady or very quickly at the end. And the conductor’s job is really to unify that artistic vision. For me, conductor’s goal is to allow the musicians to play at their best no matter what the circumstances are. And so sometimes that’s very practical. If it’s a very large orchestra, you might need to keep everybody together so that 50 feet apart on stage, how can they play together if it’s very hard to hear from one side of the stage to the next? Sometimes it’s very musical like we were just mentioning, if it’s the idea of how a musical phrase is shaped, what a slow down or ritardando might look like so that everybody stays together. So my role as a conductor is really to try to unify the artistic vision, no matter the size of the ensemble and of course help the musicians play their best depending on the circumstances.

Zach: As I understand it, at least some conductors, their role is also to interpret the music. Is that correct, and is that always the case? Maybe you can talk a little bit about how the pre-performance and rehearsal part of it works.

Ming: Sure. Yeah, there are many musicians and conductors that are actually very famous for the amount of knowledge that they bring. Their physical gestures might not actually be as precise or as clear as some others, but their musical vision is really important. And so that’s part of the idea of trying to get everybody on one unified artistic vision. Because if you have an ensemble like the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, everybody in that group– let’s say it’s 40 people– might have an opinion on how the music is approached. And so for conductors, it’s very easy to say, “Hey, let’s do this version of this.” For instance, this week I’m working on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which is a very famous piece, but the [unintelligible 00:06:16] can wildly vary from conductor to conductor. And it’s just much more efficient to have one musical vision to approach the work rather than having an entire discussion throughout the work. And as mentioned before, there are certainly ensembles that actually spend the time to do that and it can be very gratifying as a musician or as an instrumentalist to play in a group where everybody’s artistic ideas are sort of incorporated. But it is very impractical, especially because most professional orchestras will put together the music only in one week. And so they really have just four or five rehearsals, two and a half hour rehearsals, to try to get a piece presentable for the public.

Zach: It kind of reminds me of some jobs I’ve worked that were less hierarchical than others, where it wasn’t clear who called the shots or who made the calls. And there’s something that can be nice about that but it also means there can be a lot of confusion about how do things exactly get decided. Is that an accurate analogy for what the conductor does?

Ming: Yes, decision by committee is always very, very messy. Now in the past, the generations beforehand, the conductor was a bit of a tyrant. And that has changed quite a bit in the last few decades, where the conductor and the musicians are more collaborative. And it’s a better circumstance now because again, we do want to unify the artistic idea of an approach to the work, but we’re not doing it in a way that that nullifies the musician’s input and participation.

Zach: How would you describe, when it comes to the movements that you make during conducting, how would you describe the various pieces of information that are being communicated when you conduct?

Ming: Sure, there is the practical and there’s artistic. And so traditionally, and many people deviate from this, but traditionally, the right hand with a baton is more of a timekeeper. And music is, as many people know, organized into various measures and have time signatures. So the right hand will mimic those time signatures, and if a measure has 3/4 notes in a bar, then the conductor will oftentimes have three gestures that represent each of those beats. The left hand oftentimes is considered to be the artistic side and it shows dynamic, shows entrances, and is much more fluid and is not tied down to the rhythmic integrity of the work. Again, this is very flexible. There are many conductors, for instance, that conduct actually with the baton on the left hand and the left hand is the timekeeper, and there are many conductors where the ensemble might not need the time dictation as much and actually just need more of the phrasing and you might actually stop beating the actual beats in the bar. But traditionally, that is the case where the right hand generally keeps time along with the structure of the music, and left hand can be a little bit more free.

Zach: When you say he’s doing with the right hand the three beats, let’s say it’s three four. So, he’s making three strokes in the air next to each other to give a sense of the spatial thing? Is that accurate?

Ming: Yes. Yes, and so it would very much traditionally look like a triangle. You would go as your downbeat, your first beat would go down, then you go to the right and then you go up. And so you create a little bit of a triangle. Again, the shape of a triangle can vastly differ. So if it’s something music that’s very loud and you want to show a very large gesture to encourage the orchestra to play loud, you can make the triangle quite large. Or very much the opposite. If you want to make it very soft, that triangle could be very soft. If it could be more lyrical, then maybe it’s a triangle that’s very flat and side to side versus music that is a little bit much like or a little bit more accented, then your gestures and triangles might be a little bit more vertical. There’s a lot of variation to the shape and to the gestures but the right hand, or at least the hand that is keeping time, will try to maintain that structure of a triangle of some sort in something that’s three. Again, that changes quite a bit because you can emphasize certain beats more or less, but in the very beginning of conducting, we’re always taught about the conducting patterns for the various time signatures so that the orchestra knows exactly where they’re supposed to be.

Zach: When you talk about the right hand keeping time and the left hand doing more artistic or dynamic or ups and downs and entrances, is it difficult to keep those together? I mean, I play some piano and I’ve always struggled with doing rhythm with the left hand and doing melody with the right and trying to keep a steady rhythm while you do more melody-type things. Is there a similar difficulty there of having to get good at basically keeping time and doing the more artistic stuff? Does that make sense?

Ming: Yes. Yeah, it very much requires a lot of coordination. It’s like tapping your head and rubbing your belly at the same time trying to divorce mirroring. We actually, with conducting students, they may start off with mirroring just to get an idea of patterns but then we have to break. It’s very much a goal to be able to be very independent between the two hands so that the amount of information can be… more information can be portrayed.

Zach: It seems like the piano is a really good practice for that instrument-wise. Is that accurate to say or are there other instruments that are good for that?

Ming: Oh, yeah, definitely. Piano, definitely. I would say organ too because you have to use your feet, but conductors are not supposed to move their feet as much. But anything that requires really divorcing the gestures from hemisphere to hemisphere is helpful.

Zach: Yeah, that’s really what I struggled with a lot and it’s a difficult task. And you play piano, right?

Ming: I play piano, I play violin very poorly. A stereotype with conductors is that you need to play all instruments, but that’s actually not true. It’s more important to know how the instruments work and obviously have an idea of what is important information. So, there are certain gestures that you give to string players that you should not give to brass players, and there are certain gestures that you give to wind players that you don’t give to, for instance, singers. And so again, it’s about knowing the instruments as much as possible and how they work, but having to directly play them is just a stereotype. We don’t necessarily need to know how to play all the instruments.

Zach: You talked a little bit about the right hand and the left hand. Do you use much in the way of facial expressions when you conduct?

Ming: Yeah, that’s definitely an aspect. There’s actually a very famous video on YouTube people can find where Leonard Bernstein is conducting the Vienna Philharmonic only using his face. It’s a work of Haydn, and Haydn doesn’t necessarily… That was back in the era where ensembles were smaller that you really didn’t necessarily need a conductor, but he is really portraying the character of the music. And so that’s part of our job is really to sort of portray how the music is going to be performed. Part of that characterization is also using your face and your arms, your hands, and your entire upper body as well to try to portray the characteristics of the music. For instance, if the music is loud, is it warm and burnished or is it angry? Is it sort of brilliant or is it sort of understated but just full? Those are all very, very different characteristics, and your arms, your face, everything goes together to try to portray how that music is different from one another.

Zach: And how would you describe how you do that with your face? Is it just your interpretation of the mood of the music and kind of matching your facial expression to it a bit?

Ming: Yeah, to some extent. It can be a little bit distracting if it’s a death portrayed in the music and you’re crying. I mean, that would be a little bit distracting to the musicians. But there’s certainly a way of encouraging players. Because they are people that are playing those instruments, and so giving them a very strong entrance and encouragement with your face as well is going to help them play louder. There’s this one section in Prokofiev Romeo Juliet, which is what I’m doing with an orchestra this week, where the music is chopping, it’s almost like the string sound from Psycho. You know? And they’re playing very pleasantly and sort of light, and I made a gesture where I actually turned the baton almost like I was holding a knife in my hand and I was showing them quite aggressive motions. And without saying a word, they instantly changed the way they were playing. But I wouldn’t do that during concert, but during a rehearsal, it’s a very easy way to instantly change the approach to the music.

Zach: And I imagine too you’re probably also using your body, like how far up and down you move your body, your back and your neck and stuff to communicate an extra dramatic part and things like that.

Ming: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there is a [unintelligible 00:15:47] I think, maybe that was conducting in France. I think it’s her. I forget actually who was conducting but there’s this famous part where the music got really soft and she almost ducked behind the podium. And it was famous. Beethoven was one of the first conductors, too. Technically, the first conductor was Lully– Jean Baptiste Lully, the French composer– but Beethoven when he was conducting, would jump up and down on the podium if he wanted the music to be loud, and again, would hide behind the podium if he wanted it to be soft. Now, we don’t take things to that extreme nowadays because it’s a little bit, again, visually distracting and you don’t want to distract from the music. There are plenty of ways to get the orchestra to play loud. But it really depends on the person because there are plenty of conductors that can get the orchestra to play incredibly loud and they don’t need to gesticulate in a way that looks ridiculous. I think it just depends on their connection to the orchestra and the orchestra themselves.

Zach: You said that there were some different signals you’d give to brass that you wouldn’t give to wind, and signals to singers and such. Can you talk a little bit about, say we’re talking between brass and wind, what are some different signals in that area?

Ming: Sure. Strings have this ability to really sneak in. And because there are so many– let’s say there can be 30 violins in an orchestra– they can really sneak in so their entrance isn’t as rhythmically precise, and it can create some really beautiful sounds. Winds and brass, however, it’s very hard to sneak in. So you can play with very little what we call attack, like the initial start of the note, but they’re either playing or they’re not. And so wind and brass players often really value conductors that can be very clear so that when they enter, they know that– let’s say the 10 of them if it’s all winds and brass, like 10 to 15 people– they’re all coming in exactly at the same time and they don’t have to worry about trying to really lock into each other. String players oftentimes really want to know how to play in terms of how loud to get, how soft to get, and they want to see much more of the artistic side. Because again, they can kind of sneak in, they can stay together as an ensemble very easily because they’re all playing the same music. You know, the first violins are all playing– let’s say there are 16 first violins– they’re all literally playing the same music most of the time. And so their goal is they can stay together, they just really need to know how to play and how to make 16 people that are playing the same thing shape the music in the same way. So, some of the gestures can be very different because you serve practical or artistic value.

One typical thing for brass players is you can show a closed fist or a claw or hand that shows a lot of intensity. But for singers, if you did that with a tension, it would actually… They would mimic that in their throat and make their throat all tense. And so it’s very different sound that you can do with brass players but you shouldn’t do with singers, and that’s a very clear example that we tell conductors at the beginning.

Zach: When it comes to eye contact, like who you look at in the orchestra, is that largely about cueing who’s going to play or are there other uses of it? For example, maybe looking at someone when they did something wrong, can you talk a little bit about how eye contact and eye direction play into it?

Ming: Sure. Yeah, eye contact and position of your body. So if you glance over to somebody, obviously that is an opportunity to show and communicate with them. And then if you turn your entire body and look at them, obviously it’s a much stronger direct sense of communication. And so it’s actually very sensitive too when musicians make mistakes because it happens all the time, sometimes you flub an entrance, sometimes conductors make mistakes. But regardless, you have a split-second decision whether that’s something that needs to be addressed or not. If it’s something that seems like it is a wrong note, then looking over would be a way of connecting and saying, “Hey, you know what? I don’t know if this is… That’s not correct, let’s let’s try to fix that.” Or if it’s that they just missed a note and they’ll fix it the next time, then bringing a lot of attention to that might actually be counterproductive and make it more difficult for them in the future. They might nervously think, “Oh, my goodness, I hope I don’t make this mistake again or else the orchestra and the conductor will be mad at me.” But in general, looking and the way you use your body to show and communicate is pretty important. So, oftentimes for cues, or if more importantly, let’s say that the entire orchestra is playing but the oboes have the melody, giving all your attention in your body and in your eyes to the oboes allows the rest of the orchestra to say, “Hey, okay, the oboes must be the most important.” And immediately, it helps balance to say, “Okay, I’m going to pull back a little bit, listen to the oboe, and accompany the oboe as a player.” Likewise, there’s this… When I was young, I saw Wolfgang Sawallisch who was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I was in the chorus where he was conducting Elijah, which is a fantastic oratorio by Mendelssohn. And there’s this one little gesture that the trumpets go to [ta-ta-tah-tah]. And the very first time they played it– they repeated several times– he gave them a very clear clue, showed them exactly how to play with a little bit of separation and rhythmic integrity, and then the next time it came through, he just glanced over very quickly and gave them a smaller cue. And the third time, he didn’t even cue them. He just kind of looked at them for a second then turned away and they just knew immediately, “Oh, okay, this is going to be very similar.” It was something that stuck with me a lot because it was rehearsing without having to stop or say a single word. And that sort of pragmatic efficiency is something that orchestras really appreciate.

Zach: Is it the case that I understand that some works are much more dictated the composer and other works are more open to interpretation? And is it fair to say that for the works that are more open to interpretation, the conductors have more room to do different things with the work and maybe bring out a sound over here that a different conductor would do something different on? Is that all accurate to say?

Ming: Yeah, there’s a lot of play between what is considered appropriate for the conductors’ artistic interpretation to really dictate. For instance, Bernstein was really famous for his Stravinsky and Mahler. Mahler really expected that the conductor would have a viewpoint, and it’s very famous that worldwide when you hear Mahler’s symphonies, the most important next question is, “Who is conducting?” And so Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler, who’s also famous for Mahler, is going to be very different than Bernstein. And people will have large debates on which they think really brings out the best in Mahler or is a great interpretation. Stravinsky can be very… He had a very clear neoclassical phase, which is very highly structured and very austere. And some people tend to approach Stravinsky’s works and say, “Hey, I really want to maintain the integrity of what Stravinsky wrote.” But one of my favorite things about Bernstein is that he did the exact opposite. He said, “I’m going to insert my artistic voice on top of this. And yes, it is a very clean structure that is very much built on ratios and classical ideas, but I’m still going to have my viewpoint.” As a result, a lot of his interpretations of Stravinsky are really thrilling and engaging in a way that others sort of shy away from.

Zach: For those composers that, like Mahler where there’s more left to interpretation, is it that those composers just philosophically believe that conductors or orchestra should interpret it in different ways? Or sometimes, is it just a lack of them being explicit for whatever reason?

Ming: Yeah, I think it depends on the era. I mean, when you get to what we call the Romantic era, which is about expression and individual ideas– a lot of that repertoire where Mahler comes from is late Romantic– it was expected that the conductor would have an equal voice part as well. And so oftentimes, for instance, the music of Liszt– the great pianist Liszt– when you have pianists play it and they play every single note perfectly and everything is clean and very technical, it can actually be very unengaging. I mean, it’s brilliant and exciting to have such technical prowess, but if you don’t have an artistic viewpoint then the music falls a little flat. So for the music of Liszt, you really need to bring an idea of what the music is supposed to be about. And then there are certain composers in the classical era, we’re talking about early Beethoven or Haydn and Mozart, where there is sort of a narrower window of interpretations. It can still be quite large but the differences can be a little bit more reduced compared to the Romantic era where you will have wide swings of interpretations. And then before that in the Baroque era with Bach, there was actually very little written into the music, and so the interpretation can actually be quite severe again There’s this very famous chaconne that is done in ballet but it was done in the ’70s. It was set in the ’70s by Balanchine in New York City Ballet using this Baroque music, the chaconne. And the interpretations that people took towards Baroque music in the ’70s is nothing like we do nowadays. And so when that ballet is performed, the music sounds a little bit archaic because it is a very clearly ’70s approach to Baroque music; very heavy and slow and ponderous. And nowadays, Baroque music, there’s a movement to try to match the performing styles of the Baroque era. And that can be oftentimes much quicker and lighter. So, yeah, interpretation is dependent on many different factors but conductors oftentimes have very different viewpoints and advocate for different things, even in their own lifetime. You know, Glenn Gould playing Bach, there’s famous recordings of those– I forget what work it is. Is it the… Goldberg Variations– from the 50s in the 80s. And he has two completely different versions of it, and so they couldn’t be more different. And it’s just because his viewpoints changed or maybe he was just feeling different on the day that he recorded it.

Zach: So with the amount that different conductors can vary in how they conduct their different body languages and approaches, does that mean there’s an adjustment period required when conductors start working with an orchestra? Is that right?

Ming: Yeah, it can be. Nowadays, conductors that can connect with the players instantly is very much prized because professional orchestras really need to put together music very quickly. And there are oftentimes performances and shows that you put together with little or no rehearsal. There are several different Nutcracker performances where there is no rehearsal, the orchestra just shows up and actually plays and it’s like almost a performance on the first time. And so if you don’t have the technical skill to be as clear as possible for the orchestra, then you probably won’t get hired back. Right now, a big trend is accompanying film with a live orchestra, and the musicians are all given headsets that have a click track that tells them exactly when to play but you still need to connect to sort of unify everything. That can be a very difficult experience because you need a conductor that is very, very clear and precise. Likewise, it doesn’t allow time for the players to really have to learn how to interpret a conductor. But there are many conductors. Kurt Masur, former music director of the New York Philharmonic and he was also conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, he was partially crippled and yet he was one of the most brilliant conductors of all time of history. Despite his physical limitations, he was still able to portray the music and lead the orchestra in really engaging and insightful ways.

Zach: How have your body language and movements when conducting changed over the years? If they have.

Ming: Yeah. I think one of the hardest things for conductors when they’re starting out to know is how much is needed from the conductor and how much the orchestra will do by themselves. A typical trick that we’ll do in conducting workshops with young conductors is to have the orchestra play completely by themselves and say, “You know, they’re playing all of this, what are you going to add to it?” And knowing that an orchestra can actually be worse off with a bad conductor in front of them. Let’s say they can play 85% as well of a piece, a conductor can add to that or can take away from that. And so if you have a bad conductor that’s actually hindering the musicality of the orchestra, then obviously that’s not a very good conductor. But if you have a conductor that can take what the orchestra is naturally going to do and bring it to a higher level, then that’s obviously ideal.

Zach: Maybe that’s a good segue into the question of, does it happen that a conductor and the players can have a bad relationship? And if that happens, what are some of the ways that that can play out in a musical sense?

Ming: Yeah, it’s all about trust, and you can lose the trust of an orchestra instantly. It’s a big responsibility to be on the podium and have the audacity to tell musicians like, “This is my viewpoint and I believe in this viewpoint.” Let’s say if I was going to conduct New York Philharmonic and I am going to be doing a Brahms symphony. Well, they’ve done Brahms with Kurt Masur, they’ve done Brahms with Alan Gilbert, they’ve done Brahms with Bernstein and many, many great conductors. Who am I to insert my particular viewpoint? And so building that trust and trying to maintain that trust is actually very important. There’s actually this one great article that I was reading in the New York Times and there’s this young conductor, 27-year-old really great phenom, and this flutist or flute player asked them, “Hey, do you want me to play like this? Or like this?” And the conductor said, “Oh, you know what? That’s a good question. Do it the second way you said.” And the flutist shot back and said, “Well, I didn’t play it that way the first time. Were you not listening to me?” [Zach chuckles] Right? In a very, very provocative way. But the thing that in that situation, some conductors might get offended or they might shrink away, he just kind of laughed it away and said, “Yeah, I wasn’t listening to that point. But you know, playing it the second way is great.” It immediately diffused all tension in the room and they just got back to work, which is what everybody wants to do. I think there’s plenty of times, actually. If you go online, you can actually see Bernstein speaking with orchestra members and they talk back to him. They have these discussions and it can get a little tense. But I think that the motivation for everybody is that they want to play their best and they want to be proud of the work that they’re doing all together. And so the conductor has a pretty big responsibility there and the trust needed is pretty important.

There are many situations where there are colleagues that don’t like working together and they need to. There’s a very famous one, I probably shouldn’t name the orchestra but it is pretty famous if you look it up, where the wind players were very very upset with one of their colleagues, and yet they had to play together for years. And there were lawsuits about it. There are conductors that are very much not respected in the industry but still conduct quite a bit. Again, it’s part of a point of pride of musicians. They still want to sound good, so they’re going to try to do as much as they can to put on a good show and might have to work in other ways to make sure that the performances don’t get derailed. There’s actually a really wonderful example recently of a colleague of mine, Noah Lindquist, who is a phenomenal musician and pianist. He was an assistant conductor for an opera and had to be thrown into the conductor seat very last minute. He is a fantastic musician but didn’t have as much experience with an orchestra, but the orchestra really loved his musicianship and they said, “Look, we’re going to stay together, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to do this all together. And you show us what the music is supposed to be and the timing to connect with the singers. We’ll keep ourselves together, we’ll get through this together.” And it was a fantastic experience where everybody was really excited and happy. It was a brilliant performance, the orchestra musicians played well, Noah conducted and portrayed the music beautifully, and it was a circumstance where they really actually all trusted each other to try to get together this performance. And it was a wonderful situation.

Zach: I think it was in your Reddit thread. I can’t remember exactly but somebody described a conductor who didn’t get along with the orchestra and some players, basically, they were queued mistakenly by the conductor. They basically could have corrected themselves and not made a mistake, but they basically allowed the conductor to cue them to make a mistake as kind of a passive-aggressive thing.

Ming: Yeah. [laughs]

Zach: That’s probably an extreme example but it just made me think there’s probably some kind of things that can happen like that that just are related to a bad relationship.

Ming: Yeah. Yeah, very definitively. And there’s obviously respect, too. I mean, there’s a certain amount of… There are orchestra conductors that are greatly respected by the musicians but they might not be as technically gifted and might make mistakes or do things that are, quote, technically not very good for conducting technique. But the musicians really love them and so they will do their best to play as much as they can. For instance, Blomstedt, who used to be the music director for San Francisco Symphony, I believe he’s in his 90s now. He doesn’t have the technical facility that he did when he was in his 30s or 40s, you know? And yet the amount of respect the musicians have for the Blomstedt is just absolutely amazing. So when they do do performances, it’s a very moving experience because they are really connecting and trying to work hard to make the performance as engaging as possible.

Zach: It seems like with the amount of managerial and leadership skills that’s required to do the job well, is that something that you go out of your way to train on? Or is that usually something that conductors naturally have and develop on their own? If that makes sense.

Ming: I think it’s both. I think there are people that are naturally gifted at leadership, and there are ones that need to learn the techniques. There’s a reason why sometimes… I think there is one orchestra conductor that actually leads business classes because the idea of leadership from the podium is directly related to management, and he’ll actually lead sessions where he’ll get in the orchestra members’ faces like a manager that’s very micromanaging. Or a conductor who basically doesn’t show any leadership whatsoever and is sort of like a lackadaisical manager that doesn’t really actually check in with the players or their workers, and as a result, it’s a direct symbol of what good leadership is. For me, personally, I think it was very difficult at the beginning to really understand what the orchestra does by themselves and what I need to bring to it. And I think it’s very common for young conductors. But later on, I think the next big hurdle for me was situational; what do the orchestra members need at this point, what is going to be helpful, and really understanding the nuances of those situations. I remember my first time conducting one of the big, big orchestras. I was so excited. I was going to make my imprint and really excite people and get them enthusiastic! And a friend of mine was in the orchestra and beforehand, he’s just like, “Hey, you’re coming to this concert, we just had a huge concert, everybody’s super tired, and we have another big recording project that’s in a couple of weeks. So just know, going into it, that people are going to be pretty tired and—

Zach: Lower your expectations.

Ming: Yeah. It’s more that if I came in super gung ho and I was getting to work them to the bone, that that was going to be the worst possible thing that I could possibly do. You know? And so, understanding those circumstances. There are times where the orchestra, especially if you’re doing theatre like opera or ballet and you’re in a pit, the acoustics are very difficult and it’s not a very easy experience for the musicians. So sometimes clarity and precision is really price to make sure that they feel comfortable. And sometimes in the orchestra, they just want to just feel like we have a good cohesive idea. So I mean, that idea that every situation is different and you need to approach it in a different manner is something that I’m always continuing to refine.

Zach: So when you first started out, was it pretty nerve-racking to conduct? Did you have some maybe exaggerated or overstated ideas of the kinds of harms that you could do if you mess something up? Can you talk a little bit about how that played out?

Ming: Yeah. I remember the first time conducting Nutcracker and it was with San Francisco Ballet. San Francisco Ballet is the orchestra that did the American premiere of The Nutcracker and actually created the holiday tradition of the Nutcracker in the US. It’s actually a very historic ensemble. But I had never conducted the Nutcracker before and I was a nervous wreck before that. Before the performance, I had– and I actually still have this routine if I get very nervous– I try to calm my mental activity as well as I calm my physical activity too. So, that’s calming my heartbeat, slowing down my breath, taking very deep breaths. And at the time, I wasn’t meditating as much. But nowadays, we know that slowing your breath will help slow down your heart rate and try to slow down my racing mind. But it was a nerve-wracking experience because I remember all the practice that I did and getting into the pit, and the orchestra actually responded differently than I had anticipated. And so in those moments, you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, how do I adjust to this? How do I make it comfortable for them?” Looking back, it’s thrilling, but during the moment, it was terrifying.

Zach: Well, I was reading some– I don’t think it was in your thread, I think it was another Reddit thread from a different conductor. And maybe you’ve seen this post, but it described the terror and the anxiety that a new conductor had. He described a joke that the band played on him where they basically set him up to think that they were playing something different or doing something wrong based on something he did. And he said it filled him with, even though they were joking and he quickly realized it, he had this tremendous anxiety thinking that he had screwed something up. It was in rehearsal, it wasn’t an actual performance. But it kind of got at that amount of responsibility you feel for the music, which I can imagine especially when you start out must be pretty nerve-racking.

Ming: Yeah, it is a lot of responsibility and it’s like I actually say about the presidency. They say the person that you want to run for president is not the person that would run for president, right? I mean, it takes a lot of strength to have the audacity to stand in front of the orchestra and to lead 70-plus musicians, some of whom have more experience than you’ve been living, and tell them your interpretation of the music.

Zach: Have you ever noticed something accidental that you did body language-wise that actually changed a performance?

Ming: Oh, yeah, of course. And you’re like, “Oh!” You get surprised and say, “Oh, wow, that actually worked. This was great.” Or you do something… I remember, actually, it was another big orchestra. This was a Houston Symphony and I was conducting something. I changed the shape of my hand very, very slightly and they instantly changed the color of how they played. That’s when I realized how subtle and how musical these performances can be and do. It’s really a thrilling experience. I remember so many little instances like that. I was conducting the San Francisco Symphony for an online performance during pandemic and it was the first time this small group of only eight musicians had gotten together since they had stopped playing because of the pandemic. And just feeling them lock into each other and then adjust to each other and all of us sort of collaborating, I’ll never forget… I mean, this is one of those influential musical moments that just stays with you. It’s very, very meaningful.

Zach: Could you give a little bit more detail about how you changed the shape of your hand? What was the detail there?

Ming: Oh, yeah. It was with my left hand. If you hold your left hand in a fist or if you hold your left hand flat, even if you hold your left hand flat and its palm down versus palm facing up, all those actually will have very subtle or in some cases very large differences to the orchestra. And so whether you are showing something that has intensity or something that is relaxed and much more flowing, those will change how the orchestra musicians will play. And with the orchestra members that have incredible technical facility, which oftentimes leads to the ability to be much more expressive because you have the technical ability to have a really wide range of colors, little things like that can really change your performance.

Zach: It’s like hand up is like swelling upwards and hand down has the sense of suppressing and things like that.

Ming: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Zach: For people that don’t know much or are not into classical music at all, is there a specific recommendation you would give for a classical piece that you think is a good mainstream crossover recommendation?

Ming: Yeah. I think the funny thing about music is that when we’re born, there is no preference. Kids will listen to Mozart and they’ll listen to Metallica, they’ll listen to Billy Joel, they’ll listen to Taylor Swift. There really is very little preference. And the thing is that with classical music, I think sometimes there’s a perceived idea that you need to appreciate it to understand it. Stravinsky had this great quote, actually. He said music appreciation is too much about appreciation and it should be more about music. And so the pieces that I tend to gravitate towards are ones that have definitive programs or an idea behind it. And there are two types of music, absolute music and programmatic music. Absolute music is music for its own sake, it exists just for the sheer beauty or structure. But programmatic music has some idea behind it. It accompanies a story, it’s telling a story, or it portrays an emotion. For instance, the piece that I’m working on this week, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, that’s a fantastic work for people to listen to. Because when you hear young Juliet, the music for Juliet when she is youthful and right on the cusp of between being an adult and a kid, and hear that music and how lively it is and energetic, and yet it changes moods instantly like a teenager would even though I think she’s actually only supposed to be 12, that really can speak to people directly. Or when you hear the music when Romeo, after Juliet has taken the potion to make her look like she has died but Romeo doesn’t know that, and you hear the dirge and this tragic music that represents Romeo, I think we can all connect to that, especially knowing the story and the story is as familiar as Romeo Juliet. That’s the sort of music that I listen to.

One thing that I absolutely love is the quick movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. When I was a teenager, this was like the heavy metal of classical music. In fact, people that play rock guitar or metal guitar will actually play this piece on guitar because it has so much grunge in it. But it is an amazing idea to sort of blow away the notion that classical music is calming or peaceful. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s actually really driven and angry and intense and quick. So, those are pieces that I would suggest. But I think the clear thing is that classical music has lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years because it actually encompasses all human emotion and experience. And so if there’s music that you don’t connect to, there are plenty of other composers that you might connect to. That’s just like saying somebody’s like, “Well, I don’t like lima beans, so I don’t like food.” Because you maybe don’t like Mozart’s or Kleinknecht’s music, it doesn’t mean you don’t like classical music. It just means that there are many, many other composers that you might connect to a little bit more. Or they say, “It takes 4 years before you understand Brahms!” That’s what they used to tell us conductors. But that’s just not true. I mean, you can appreciate Brahms on so many different levels. And the reason why it’s been around for so long is that it really is something that you can dig deep into and find more, or you can just listen to without having any background to and really connect to him.

Zach: That was a talk with orchestra conductor, Ming Luke. You can learn more about Ming at his website This has been the People Who Read People Podcast with me, Zach Elwood. If you enjoyed this talk, I have many more talks about how people use psychology and behavior in their careers and pastimes. My website for the podcast is at Okay, thanks for listening.