For Cliff Colnot, “conducting is teaching on a larger scale.” 

irector of orchestral activities in the School of Music and conductor of the DePaul wind ensemble, Colnot is also the principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW ensemble, whose concerts feature music that’s contemporary and experimental.  John von Rhein (Chicago Tribune) writes “[Colnot brings] a dedication, virtuosity, and intensity of feeling [that] new music needs but doesn’t often receive." He also regularly conducts the International Contemporary Ensemble, described as “one of the most accomplished and adventurous groups in new music” (New York Times), and collaborates with the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, called “one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet” (Chicago Tribune).

What’s the connection, for you, between conducting and teaching?

Riccardo Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, defines himself as a conductor, and rightly so, because he’s not focused on teaching: By the time players get to him, they’re at the top of their game. For me, it’s all about the teaching: I like to work with young people who are talented, but still learning. Even when I was still a teenager, I was committed to the idea of becoming a teacher. 

So, I was trained in teaching.  I’ve never had a conducting class or lesson, so I don’t consider myself a “conductor” in that I haven’t been taught what to do with my face, my hands, my arms, my body: I reflect the music in front of the group, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as beautiful when I’m doing it. I think of conducting as a mean to an end—it’s teaching on a larger scale, the scale being the group, that is the orchestra or the ensemble, instead of one-on-one.

What do you mean by “beautiful” when talking about conducting?

Conducting is choreography. It’s using your whole body to reflect the character of the music at a given time. When a conductor is well trained, his or her movements will be refined and graceful. Mine aren’t.

But the bottom line is getting the job done: I can communicate with the musicians. I can show an orchestra—with my expressions and movements—exactly how I want the music to sound. In fact, any conductor could get in front of any orchestra and fairly instantly make the music sound the way he or she wants. Conducting is not a secret language between the conductor and the orchestra. Not at all. Anyone can look at the movements of a conductor and see how the piece should go.

So, would you say that conducting is a matter of personal opinion?

Yes, absolutely.  When I conduct, it’s my interpretation of the music—not right or wrong, just my own.

It’s dangerous to get into polemics about art. I could say the tempo range for a piece should be X— theoretically I could say that—but I wouldn’t because that’s highly subjective. How does someone come to his or her interpretation? It’s not inborn; it’s a combination of listening to recordings and live concerts, studying and taking classes under master conductors, and just looking at the music itself.

But could an orchestra play without a conductor?  In most cases, no—precisely because it’s personal: Each player would have his or her own interpretation. The conductor has to say, “This is how I want it, period.” Of course if the composer is living, it’s all about what he or she wants—slower, faster, louder, softer—the conductor is in the service of the composer.
What do you like the most about “conducting as teaching”?

As a result of my intervention, players get better. I like teaching large groups because it’s more people—more people I can potentially affect.  From me students learn the democracy of playing together, subsuming their own egos and their own particularities to the larger group. There’s progress, not just in musical unity but also in social values. You can hear it and see it: It’s clear.

I’ve worked at DePaul for more than 30 years, and the administration and faculty of the School of Music have always been fantastic: We’re all on the same page, philosophically and pedagogically. The thing that’s so strong about DePaul is our humanism: Our culture is to be sympathetic and empathetic, but also disciplined. That’s also what making great music is all about.