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Where Conductors Get A Little Funky

Certain qualities are indispensable in making up a good maestro: extensive knowledge of the repertoire, sound artistic taste, and strong verbal and nonverbal communication skills, to name a few. But there is another trait that great conductors share, almost without exception: great hair.

The Trend

The rise of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel over the past few years has helped bring wild conductor hair to the attention of an increasing number of orchestral concertgoers. (Indeed, hardly any discussion of the man - including pieces in The New York Times, Newsweek, and 60 Minutes - goes without mentioning his hair.) I started to wonder about the phenomenon myself only after noting Dudamel's sweet 'do, and then the more conductors I saw, the more hair seemed to be a trade-wide interest.

So I set out to do some deeper investigation into the topic.

I looked at some of the world's top conductors. Keeping it somewhat objective, I referenced a BBC poll of over 1000 respondents who ranked Simon Rattle, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, and Arturo Toscanini as the five best conductors of all time. Besides, perhaps, for Solti, none of these guys are clean cut.

Other legendary conductors with exceptional hair who didn't make the BBC's top five include James Levine, Leopold Stokowski, Riccardo Muti, André Previn, and turn-of-the-20th-century conductor Arthur Nikisch.

The idea of hair as a means of stylistic expression of artistry is a solidified tradition for classical musicians, so much so, in fact, that the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "longhair" as, "a devotee of classical… music."

Some Rationale

After noting the trend, the issue of why such a disproportionately high number of conductors have exceptional hair (compared to the general population, or even the musician population) remained a burning question. I decided to talk to a friend and former teacher of mine, Mark Doerries, who is a DM student in conducting at the Jacobs School of Music. He, too, has some pretty sweet hair.

Doerries said he sees his long, straight, jet-black hair as evoking a youthfulness that conveys "a perception of vitality or energy or excitement." For him, a conductor's style functions as just another way to guide the ensemble's sound. "Conductors use their hands to conjure sound," Doerries said. "They themselves don't make sound, but they conjure sound out of other people. Their appearances are also important in that ability to elicit sound from other people. If you've got a really messy-looking conductor, it's going to create more chaos than if you have a well-kept conductor. If you have a conductor whose hair is slicked back, it's going to seem more strict."

He brought up Dudamel (who came in 7th on the BBC list, by the way), commenting, "I think [his] appearance reflects the fact that he's an out-of-the-box conductor. He does typical repertoire, but he doesn't want to be seen as the typical conductor."

In the same vein, Doerries mentioned a favorite conductor of his, Leon Botstein, who conducts the New-York-based American Symphony Orchestra and also has a distinctive hairstyle: none at all. "He looks very professorial." Botstein's academicism, said Doerries, "is his modus operandi," and "his appearance reflects that."

But experimental hairstyle, in some sense, seems to go beyond purely communicating an artistic vision to the ensemble. "I think a lot of conductors do it because it seems like they are avant-garde," said Doerries. This idea is in line with a longstanding tradition of hair being used as an expression of courageous artistry.

Bold hair as an artistic symbol of nonconformity, at least for me, has always conjured up images of famous rockers like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Steven Tyler. But it turns out the tradition goes back way beyond the 1960's.

A review of Niccolò Paganini from an 1831 edition of London's The Tatler said that the legendary violin virtuoso "wears his black hair flowing on his neck like an enthusiast." And in 1838 the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described Franz Liszt's looks: "the pale, slender youth in his clothes that signal the nonconformist; the long, sleek, drooping hair… those features so strongly stamped and full of meaning."

Weighing the Cons

Doerries said his hair is "a detriment and an attribute" when it comes to actually conducting.

Naturally, it can get in the way at times. That problem, said Doerries, is the one aspect of their hair conductors really do discuss with each other. "A lot of people grease their hair back who have long hair," he said, simply because "you don't want to be moving your hair out of your face in the middle of a performance."

Long hair can cause problems with audience perceptions as well, commented Doerries. Sometimes audience members, he said, perceive the hair as blocking the performers' views of the conductor's face, which provides critical communicative gestures, though he said he's never found his hair to actually have that effect.

All things considered, Doerries and most other conductors seem to agree that the pros of funky hair outweigh the cons. About his own hair, Doerries said, "I figure I'll use it while I have it."

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