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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 6 March 2008

The Saito Conducting Method

by Wayne Toews / March 2, 2008

When 85-year-old Prof. Morihiro Okabe mounts the podium to conduct, his small stature belies his ability to elicit powerful and majestic sounds with effortless gestures. Okabe was in Hideo Saito’s first conducting class, and was a major contributor to Saito’s textbook (he also succeeded Saito as the principal conducting teacher at Tokyo’s Toho Gakuen School of Music). Seiji Ozawa graduated from Toho, as did his colleague Kazuyoshi Akiyama, before they came to Canada to become music directors for the major orchestras in Toronto and Vancouver, respectively, and in so doing, introduced Saito’s method to Canadian audiences and musicians. Prof. Okabe, replacing the ill Prof. Saito, introduced several dozen Canadian musicians to the Saito method at a 1974 workshop in Courtenay, BC, including Jon Washburn, Bruce and Connie More, Bruce Dunn, Gerald King, Derrick Inouye, and myself. Since then, Prof. Okabe has returned to Canada four times at my invitation to teach at workshops in Saskatoon and London, Ontario.

Hideo Saito, creator of the conducting method, was principal cellist in the NHK Symphony Orchestra when, in August 1936, Joseph Rosenstock arrived in Tokyo and began elevating the group to world-class status. He wondered why it was so much easier to perform well with conductors such as Rosenstock than with other, more famous conductors. Saito analysed conducting gestures and discovered that clarity and artistry in gestures is dependent upon the timing and placement of the slowest part of the motion, which he called the “secondary point”. Other conducting methods focus mainly on the beat point where the motion is the fastest (usually at the bottom of the gesture). By understanding how to control the secondary point, conductors allow the performers to anticipate when the beat will occur and to envision the ideal sound. Having the ability to predict gives performers the confidence to control timbre, tuning, articulation and ensemble blend. Of the dozens of methods used to teach conducting worldwide, these concepts remain unique to Saito’s method.

The basis of technique in the Saito method is control of acceleration and deceleration in the conducting motion. The basic skill in the Saito conducting method is the arm drop. By allowing the arm to fall by the force of gravity alone, physical effort is reduced and even the loudest sounds can be shown with ease. The timing of the drop and control over the rate of acceleration make gestures precise and musically meaningful. Articulation, dynamics, and even timbre are influenced by the size of the arm drop in combination with the rates of acceleration and deceleration. Saito categorized gestures by the relation of the secondary point to the beat point. Those, such as a swinging motion, in which there is an acceleration leading to the beat point, are called into-point motions while those bursting gestures, which decelerate to the following beat point, are called from-point motions. By combining the two motion types conductors can clearly show phrasing without interfering with the rhythmic flow of the music. n

The Third International Saito Conducting Workshop for advanced musicians runs from July 20-27, 2008 at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. http://conductorschool.com.

(c) La Scena Musicale