Thursday, July 22, 2010

moving day

Hiya.  I've been working on this for a while, having gotten some feedback on problems posting comments.  After looking around for a better blogging service, I've moved to

See you there.


the beast below

Cocteau's Belle et la Bete was on Turner Classic Movies recently.  I hadn't seen it in well over ten years, so I watched it again.  So amazing, for its time and now.  I also noticed how similar it is to the Disney version--set and costumes, character designs, even lighting.  Some shots were lifted verbatim from Cocteau.  Because if you're Disney, you use the best there is; you get Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury and you copy Cocteau.

After watching it and thinking these things, I then had to watch the Disney version.  Yes, I own it.  My husband's kids used to be small, so we own many, many Disney cartoons on DVD.  Fewer musicals than you would think, though.

Here's a thing I noticed: in the Disney version, the transformation of the Beast into the Prince has gold light shooting out from his hands, then feet, then face as he looks up in to the camera.  This is also how the regeneration of the Doctor has been depicted in Doctor Who the past two times.  And there's an episode of Doctor Who this season called "The Beast Below."  That title, which made me think of beasts and baritones, and thence to Gaston's juicy voice and wondering why he was the bad guy...

So here's what this post is about: Why is Gaston, the bad guy, the only legit singer in the whole movie?  The divide is so clear: there's the classical style of Gaston, the old school Broadway singers like Jerry Orbach (yum! that man could S. I. N. G.  Day-yum.), and the newer Broadway style of Belle herself as well as the Beast, whose suddenly tinny tenor I always found jarring and unlikely. I won't even go into the ensemble singing.  So.  Why is classical singing villified?  It reminds me of Moulin Rouge, where the only real singer is the master of ceremonies guy.

Is it because they think operatic tone sounds pompous?  Mouthy, bright resonance sounds friendly?  Chest voice--singing more like a man--makes a woman sound... what?  Stronger?

When I was in high school--when Beauty and the Beast came out; and, yes, I saw it in the theater--I didn't like women's choirs, but I loved men's choirs.  I didn't even really like Belle's voice.  I associated the male voice with warmth and richness and I couldn't hear that in a woman's voice.  If a woman's voice was rich in overtones, all I heard was the woof and I couldn't hear the ease and the core.  Of course, now my ear has developed and I love women's choirs and the sound of trained women's voices.  In the fifteen-plus years since I was a high school student, my taste as skewed towards the classical while the rest of the world has gone even further in the direction of Belle and the Beast/Prince.  Broadway singing is no longer closely related to classical singing.  Bleagh.

It's not that it's bad singing, objectively speaking.  Disney movie Belle's voice is nice.  Often balanced between head and chest, carefully blended, it's nice.  She's very good at that style and that style isn't awful.  I just don't prefer it.

I suppose I'm just complaining, because I have no insight into why this has happened, why Americans have developed a taste for this style.  There is so much beauty in a more complex sound, and so much versatility.

And I like my singers to have complexity and versatility.  It takes training, but it's totally worth it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What We Wear Wednesday 6: addendum

Allegra wanted a feminine tuxedo and I found one.

I would totally wear a tuxedo if I could look like that in one.  Ooof, that's feminine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Multiple Intelligence Monday 7: Interpersonal

Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to sense the feelings of others and respond appropriately.  Of course conductors need this.  We work with people!  We are the leaders of a little community, making music together as a team.  The better we are at sensing people's feelings and responding in healthy and healthful ways, the better job we do.  

Is high interpersonal intelligence required?  Oddly, no.  There are a lot of stories of jerks who flail: mean, selfish, ego-centric conductors who treat musicians poorly. In fact, that's part of the stereotype of a conductor.  I have a theory that sometimes people revere a jerk because they assume that someone who treats others with disdain must actually be better than those other people.  Obviously that's just a theory, based on some early experiences of my own. 

These days, EQ, or emotional intelligence, is growing in importance.  People are realizing that treating people well is good for business, being a thoughtful and insightful leader is profitable.  It also makes better music.  And interpersonal intelligence is half of that.  So, more and more as time goes forward, high interpersonal intelligence is not required but highly desirable.

The other half of emotional intelligence is intrapersonal intelligence, to be tackled next Monday.

For now, I'll just mention the example of Gareth Malone, from The Choir.  I've been writing about that show, and I believe I've already mentioned Gareth's charm and enthusiasm.  He's also nice and pretty sensitive and that carries him a long way.  I mean, he's an okay musician and a pretty bad conductor, but those are musical and kinesthetic skills, which are only part of the picture.  The man's rocking the interpersonal intelligence and working it out.  

Check it: 

Sweet, right?  That kind of charisma can't be dismissed.  That's what makes it work for him.  And, the point of this whole multiple-intelligence series is to show how all these strengths can benefit a conductor, but that no conductor needs all of them as long as he knows what his strengths are and uses them to make it work.

And I'll get to that bit next week.

jaw on floor

I sang in a choir once with the NY Phil under Lorin Maazel.  Daphnis and Chloe.  He was good.  It was fun.  He made $3.3 million his last season???

I.  Had.  No.  Idea.

A conductor can make that much money doing something so... fun?!  Wow.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

the choir, continued

So, this week was the second episode of The Choir on BBCAmerica.  There was some funny reality--the bass section all singing different pitches, a kid quitting and trying to act like he's cool, the astonished expression of a girl standing next to a professional soprano.  Cute.  Real.  I liked those moments.

I'd like to mention a couple of English Oddities.

First, Gareth clearly has almost no conducting training.  His gesture is atrocious.  Honestly, any one of my undergrads from last semester could stand up in front of a choir and look better than he does.  But he does have musical ideas, and I do heartily agree with his general philosophy; so I almost sort of forgive his incompetence as a conductor.  And he is described as a choirmaster, not a conductor; but, it's odd that a choirmaster isn't a good conductor, because good conducting can make quite a difference.  I mention this in the category of English Oddities because my experience with English conductors (I've never met a Scottish or Welsh conductor, and the only Irish conductor I've met was a quite good opera/orchestral conductor.  So maybe it is an English thing.  Or a choral English thing...) is that their musical ideas are generally in line with American colleagues but I've never met an English choral conductor whose actual conducting was anywhere close to as clean, free, easy, expressive, and generally legible as most American equivalents.  I'm sure they're out there (aren't they?!), but I've never met one.  What is up with that???

Another oddity of British choral stuff is their insistence on describing what happens to the voice at puberty as "breaking."  I don't know when or how this changed in America, but we now say "his voice changed" instead of saying, "it broke."   Maybe this seems picky or shallow, but honestly, if you tell a kid his voice is broken, even if he understands what it technically means, it can't be encouraging him to use his voice any more.  I've written before about the importance of language, and being careful about words.  The voice is directly attached to the imagination, which is not entirely under our conscious control.  The brain knows the word break means multiple things, so shouldn't we be careful not to pollute neutral and positive things like a voice changing with puberty with the negative connotations of the more common meanings of the word break?  If his voice is broken, why would he want to use it?  Changing the word won't change the world, but I think change is a more neutral term less likely to carry any inference of derision and therefore is a superior word for the purpose.

I haven't given up on The Choir yet, but I think my opinion may be settled on "enh."  Gareth's niceness and generosity of spirit almost make up for his mediocrity as a musician, but that doesn't make for enticing television entertainment.  I mean, I'd buy him a beer any day of the week, but I'm not particularly interested in watching him do what I do but not as well as I do it.

Ah, well.  Maybe next week will yield something more compelling.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

convenient controversy continued, and other alliteration

A few weeks ago, I began a conversation about the role of a conductor in expressive leadership, and it has continued.  I've been trying to sort out exactly what the difference in perspective is, and I think I've got it.

I still don't think there's any controversy.  My perspective on the blog, and in the "Thoughtful Gestures" article, is of a conductor who can count on the performers to know how to be expressive of their own accord.  When I taught high school, yes, I spent lots of time having my students journal and tell stories and use emotion memory to discover how to be expressive, but on the blog I take it for granted that the ensemble already knows how to do that--like the NY Phil--and talk about how a conductor facilitates it.

I think the issue is not a wrong paradigm, but two paradigms: 
  • One that should change, which exists at the level of students and amateurs, in which beginning singers are barely taught to sing with healthy technique, much less with authentic expression, so their desperate and often under-trained conductors try to impose expression on them.  I hate to characterize anyone in my profession this way, but the truth is that there are lots of people conducting choirs who have very little training, or poor training, who still have to resort to this.  
  • And the ideal, which already exists at the highest level of professionals, in which a conductor models expressivity and can count on the members of the ensemble to share in the expression, giving of themselves in performance as the conductor does.
Could and should amateurs and students do it, too?  Absolutely!  I try my damnedest to get mine to.  But that's a teaching skill, important but mostly separate from the "thoughtful gesture" conducting skills.

I have seen bland, boring choirs lead by bland, boring conductors.  That's the conductor's fault--he didn't ask for humanity, so he's not gonna get it. 

I have seen exciting, expressive performances by choirs with no conductor at all.  That's because they learned somewhere else that it's their job to be expressive of their own accord.

I have seen exciting conductors trying desperately to conduct amateur and student choirs as immobile and leaden as oceanic mud.  I see it that a lot.   That's a shame.  That's the conductor's fault because he needs to teach them how.  But that's not an issue that I've addressed.  Yet.  

I have seen choirs of experienced professionals and/or well trained students lead by emotionally invested conductors.  Most of what I talk about on the blog is why this works.  

So, basically, I think there's no controversy.  We all agree.  The last paragraph of my "Thoughtful Gestures" article says, "we don't just need to train more highly skilled musicians to get better performances."  That means we do need to train more highly skilled musicians, get them really comfortable with performing as independent artists, but that's not where it stops.  Teaching performance skills, a separate thing that I haven't written about, is a step in the process which precedes the rest of what I talk about.  

What I have written about thus far is, after we've accomplished the task of training more highly skilled musicians, we can get to the next level of unifying expression by connecting with each other beyond conscious choice.  Connect to deeper human instincts so we're not just making music in a group, but as a group.  

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I sing the body electric

I love Walt Whitman.  Maybe it's the clarity and eloquence that convince me, but the content of his writing rings absolutely true to me.  So I'm going to fall back on him today.

O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you;

I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul, (and that they are the Soul;)

I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems—and that they are poems
Who can argue with Uncle Walt?

My sister recently got into trouble for chastising a blogger for writing about sex research with squeamishness.  The root of the trouble seems to be that many people think bodily fluids are gross.  In fact, it seems many people think bodies are sort of yucky.  Since writing about kinesthetic intelligence and dancing, then Tai Chi and the trapeze, and finally about performance attire, there has been a lot of discussion about bodies on my blog, too. And I've realized that I'm more okay with the complications of corporeality than some.

Women, particularly, and their bodies are an issue in twenty-first century Western culture.  Moving them, dressing them, feeding them, removing hair from them, everything.  It's complicated to have a body, keep it healthy, and stand in front of an ensemble and eventually an audience where they can all see you, and then use that body without inhibition to facilitate art.

So I'm a big fan of my body.  I need to be, in order to to my job well.  If I'm distracted by worry that I look fat or smell weird or have splotchy skin, I won't be able to embody the expressive intent of the composer.  So I've learned to embrace my strength and my flexibility, my belly and my curves, my height, my complexion, my hair, as well as the rude and inconvenient fluidity of circulatory, digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems.  I am careful to dress this body to its best advantage whenever I can, so I can relax and have maximum confidence in it.  It can do anything I want it to: yoga and Tai Chi, singing and dancing, swinging on a trapeze, anything!  Exponentially more than the sum of its parts, in the end, my body is me--the chemicals that determine my mood, the electrical signals that keep my heart beating, the capacity to knit a broken bone back together: they are me.  I am amazing, powerful, and capable of anything I need.

So are you.

In 2001, in my first week at a new school, I asked my students if they agreed with the statement "Singing is a bodily function."  I sure as heck believe it is, but I also believe that a body isn't just meat and bones--it's also intention and expression and art.

As I said, I love my body because it's a necessity of my job--yet another thing about being a conductor that extends into the rest of my life, part of the meaning and humanity that it is to be a conductor.  I've tried and failed to express how amazing it is, so here's where I lean on Uncle Walt.

I know the poem is long, but do read it when you get a few minutes.  It's good for you.  You'll be so glad you did.  Then celebrate your messy, complicated, gorgeous self.

I SING the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;         5
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?


The love of the Body of man or woman balks account—the body itself balks account;
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.  10
The expression of the face balks account;
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face;
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists;
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees—dress does not hide him;
The strong, sweet, supple quality he has, strikes through the cotton and flannel;  15
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more;
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street, the contour of their shape downwards,
The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up, and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water,
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats—the horseman in his saddle,  20
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child—the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn—the sleigh-driver guiding his six horses through the crowd,
The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sundown, after work,  25
The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance,
The upper-hold and the under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes;
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps,
The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert,
The natural, perfect, varied attitudes—the bent head, the curv’d neck, and the counting;  30
Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,
Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, and count.


I know a man, a common farmer—the father of five sons;
And in them were the fathers of sons—and in them were the fathers of sons.
This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person;  35
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes—the richness and breadth of his manners,
These I used to go and visit him to see—he was wise also;
He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old—his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome;
They and his daughters loved him—all who saw him loved him;
They did not love him by allowance—they loved him with personal love;  40
He drank water only—the blood show’d like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher—he sail’d his boat himself—he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner—he had fowling-pieces, presented to him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang.
You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other.


I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;  50
All things please the soul—but these please the soul well.


This is the female form;
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot;
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction!
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor—all falls aside but myself and it;  55
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, the atmosphere and the clouds, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed;
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it—the response likewise ungovernable;
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands, all diffused—mine too diffused;
Ebb stung by the flow, and flow stung by the ebb—love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching;
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice;  60
Bridegroom night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn;
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
This is the nucleus—after the child is born of woman, the man is born of woman;
This is the bath of birth—this is the merge of small and large, and the outlet again.  65
Be not ashamed, women—your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest;
You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul.
The female contains all qualities, and tempers them—she is in her place, and moves with perfect balance;
She is all things duly veil’d—she is both passive and active;
She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters.  70
As I see my soul reflected in nature;
As I see through a mist, one with inexpressible completeness and beauty,
See the bent head, and arms folded over the breast—the female I see.


The male is not less the soul, nor more—he too is in his place;
He too is all qualities—he is action and power;  75
The flush of the known universe is in him;
Scorn becomes him well, and appetite and defiance become him well;
The wildest largest passions, bliss that is utmost, sorrow that is utmost, become him well—pride is for him;
The full-spread pride of man is calming and excellent to the soul;
Knowledge becomes him—he likes it always—he brings everything to the test of himself;  80
Whatever the survey, whatever the sea and the sail, he strikes soundings at last only here;
(Where else does he strike soundings, except here?)
The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred;
No matter who it is, it is sacred;
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?  85
Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you;
Each has his or her place in the procession.
(All is a procession;
The universe is a procession, with measured and beautiful motion.)
Do you know so much yourself, that you call the slave or the dull-face ignorant?  90
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float—and the soil is on the surface, and water runs, and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?


A man’s Body at auction;
I help the auctioneer—the sloven does not half know his business.  95
Gentlemen, look on this wonder!
Whatever the bids of the bidders, they cannot be high enough for it;
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years, without one animal or plant;
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In this head the all-baffling brain; 100
In it and below it, the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white—they are so cunning in tendon and nerve;
They shall be stript, that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant back-bone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs, 105
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood!
The same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart—there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations; 110
Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?
This is not only one man—this is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns;
In him the start of populous states and rich republics;
Of him countless immortal lives, with countless embodiments and enjoyments.
How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries? 115
Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?


A woman’s Body at auction!
She too is not only herself—she is the teeming mother of mothers;
She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.
Have you ever loved the Body of a woman? 120
Have you ever loved the Body of a man?
Your father—where is your father?
Your mother—is she living? have you been much with her? and has she been much with you?
—Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all, in all nations and times, all over the earth?
If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred, 125
And the glory and sweet of a man, is the token of manhood untainted;
And in man or woman, a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is beautiful as the most beautiful face.
Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? or the fool that corrupted her own live body?
For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.


O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you;
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul, (and that they are the Soul;)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems—and that they are poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems;
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids, 135
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest.
Upper-arm, arm-pit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones, 140
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, fore-finger, finger-balls, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, back-bone, joints of the back-bone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above, 145
Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body, or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame, 150
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman—and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming, 155
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sun-burnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out, 160
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you, or within me—the bones, and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul,
O I say now these are the Soul! 165

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What We Wear Wednesdays: What Women Want

In this, "What Women Want," the fifth and final installment of What We Wear Wednesdays, I'll finally be discussing the thing that I was trying to say when I started writing about the question of performance attire.  How women dress in general is a major question and a huge industry.  How women dress for formal occasions is even bigger.

I have already bemoaned the wedding gown as an aberration from the old, standard, traditional rules of dress.  The wedding gown is most women's only chance, besides a prom dress, to dress truly formally.  And prom dresses are wasted on eighteen-year-olds who are more interested in a dress that reinforces their identity than actually wearing a gown that is a well-made piece of formalwear.  Prom dresses are made to be disposable, and they make me kind of sad.  It also makes me sad to see wedding gowns going the same way.  Young women, especially, in the final throes of adolescence, tend to put a lot of stock in their wedding gowns as expressions of their identity rather than something pretty that flatters their figures and is a nice article of clothing to wear on a special occasion.  This isn't taking over weddings yet, but all those bride shows on t.v. seem to be exploiting this trend.  It worries me.


For those of us who perform, formal attire is part of our wardrobe, not a once-in-a-lifetime concern. Being such, it has sparked some conversation.  My friend Allegra and I have been discussing this for years, and here, at last, is the conversation we've always threatened to have.  What should a woman conductor wear?

I'll just say here that I object to women in tuxedos.  I think it's a sop to old school feminism where women have to be masculine to appear professional and powerful.  Since it's not 1983 any more, I won't wear trousers as formal wear.  I prefer the traditional nature of skirts; and, I like to think my femininity is, itself, professional and authoritative.

All these strong opinions mean I need to put my money where my blog is.


History of my wardrobe choices for occasions black tie and up.

1995: my prom dress--the black empire style with silver beads.  It was from Goodwill and cost, I believe, $7.  (My sister is in green.  The pose is a very long story, kind of a family joke.)

Another real-life formal dress.  When I was a bridesmaid, I bought a cocktail dress from Ann Taylor I actually could wear again.  On sale, of course.  Magically, it matched the bride's chosen David's Bridal "Apple Red" exactly and has the benefit of being made of silk instead of the stiff polyester of all the David's Bridal options.  I wore again it at Christmas for church, and I've conducted a performance in it with a fitted black cashmere cardigan over top.

On to some performance attire.  2005, in grad school, when performance attire for the choir was "jewel tone gown," I got a prom dress--cheap to suit a grad school budget.  The poverty of a professional artist is another barrier to quality performance attire.  Ironic.  And, last year, when the requirement was "all black," and it was a summer matinee, I wore a black cotton maxi dress.  I'm so glad they're trendy now.


Neither of these is conducting attire, though.  What do all of the above have in common?  No sleeves!  Have you ever tried to find a formal dress with sleeves that actually looks like someone under sixty would wear it?  Usually, all you get are grandmother-of-the-bride-looking boxy beaded jackets over frumpy polyester.  Yuck.

My first solution was, like the cardigan over the bridesmaid dress, a beaded chiffon bolero over a sleeveless black taffeta gown that was already in my closet.  I think it worked pretty well.  Pretty high-end black tie, leaning towards white tie because my compatriot conductor was in tails.

Last year, I bought a white-tie gown.  A real one.  Silk lined in silk.  The picture below doesn't look as good as it does in real life--the seamstress took it in her shop while I was trying it on to make sure the hem was the right length, very amused and telling me to pose when she discovered I was a conductor.  Also, she had tucked up the portrait collar type wrap-across thingy to experiment with being able to move my arms best.  I decided later that it was better with the collar all the way out, which is more flattering and didn't reduce the movement at all. 


Sorry the picture stinks, but it lets you know the basics: it's a real gown, made well enough to be seen by grown-ups at close range and not look like a costume, it has sleeves and a floor-length skirt (shoe-length, according to the seamstress, but we'll call it floor-length) that's not poofy, and both the skirt and bodice have tailored construction.  Nothing flowy or billowy.  These were the main requirements.

Last Christmas, I wore a black velvet top with long sleeves and a floor-length chiffon skirt.  This is not a white-tie outfit, but as you can see, the men in the choir are wearing sport coats and grey dress slacks, so according to the rules, I only need to be in black tie.  Plus, it was a 3 p.m. performance, so I barely needed that.  Another crappy picture, sorry.  But you get the idea.

And that's all I've got.  


So, I do not want a flowy, shapeless dress.  Nor do I want a suit.  I want a feminine, structured, flattering dress with sleeves.  And so, here's what it's like to shop for one:

After eliminating everything without sleeves and anything that has major structural elements that are simply not flattering on my particular body (high necklines, trumpet skirts, etc.), I get a list of dresses that are uglymatronly, dated, frumpy, boringcheap-lookingimpractical, very impractical, or too expensive

And then, eventually, there's one.  

It's feminine, structured, flattering.  It has sleeves.  It's not made of a natural fiber, but it's on sale!!!  And they only have it in sizes 2 and 4.  If you sew a 2 and a 4 together, I might be able to get one leg into it...


What women want: apparently, the impossible.

Monday, July 12, 2010

bland ambition

I'm postponing Multiple-Intelligence Monday so I can write about this article from yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

I have mentioned before that I was born and raised in Delaware, which made Philadelphia my home city.  Doing my master's at Westminster just reinforced that.  So I keep up with Philly things.  I like David Patrick Stearns' writing and classical music criticism in the Inquirer, but this is one article that makes the conductor in me cringe.

Buried in the middle of the article is this telling paragraph:
Few professions are as glamorous and artistically fulfilling as conducting - but only for a select few. Many others labor quietly in semipro orchestras or educational institutions. And far more sink into complete obscurity; a young conductor can land a prestigious master class with a titan of the podium, yet never be heard from again.

Glamorous?  For almost none of us.

But artistically fulfilling?  For almost all of us.  "Laboring quietly" isn't quite how I'd put it.  I doubt any ensemble member would describe his conductor as laboring quietly.   

Before I expound on this idea, I'll mention how interesting it is to read an outsider's perspective on the career path of a conductor.  Conducting is an esoteric profession, but very public, so people don't know how little they know about it, you know?  Anyway, it's interesting to hear this take on conductors and ambition, seeking chances "for advancement," and on how success can be determined by "alchemy:"
Philadelphia legend Eugene Ormandy's inability to manage complex time signatures might have barred him from a major career today. Yet in his time, he achieved results by projecting complete authority, without which even well-equipped conductors might fail to impress musicians, leading to telepathic wars of the wills.
So why would any sensible person want to conduct? 
I've dedicated many posts to all the many skills and personal attributes that benefit a conductor, and the question of musicianship vs. leadership is well settled, I think.  So, we can see that conductors conduct because it's not just their work: it's who they are.  Everything in your life is about your work, and you are your work. And the more you are your work, the better your work will be, and the better your life will be.  But this only works for people who are made for it.   I think.

That paragraph is kind of a mess, but I think you get the picture.

A few other indications that  David Patrick Stearns, the author of the article, isn't a conductor, include sentences like:
his conducting manner can turn on a dime. For choral groups, his batonless hands are fluid, almost balletic; for Beethoven, the baton is wielded. When the music-making goes awry, he'll flash a smile at the offending section, which somehow corrects the problem immediately. He doesn't confront difficulties as much as circumvent them with strategy. "You won't go flat if you're thinking through the entire phrase," he told the New Amsterdam Singers at one recent rehearsal.
Oh, the misunderstandings, the things conductors take for granted that all conductors know, yet journalists glom onto as explication of the mystery.  I've already discussed how batons are an option most conductors can take or leave, depending on the circumstances.  But there's also the fundamental necessity of a conductor to be able to express an unlimited variety of musical content.  It's his job, so he'd better darn well be versatile.  And, yes, with pros, all you have to do is acknowledge a mistake and they fix it on their own.  If not, then the problem is probably a larger-stroke, bigger-picture musical one such as phrasing.  These are not mysteries or special gifts; these are the mandatory minimum skills of all conductors, trained into them and/or learned through experience.


Let me get back to the ambition thing, because that's not just a matter of not knowing what conductors know, it's a matter of perspective on what and who a conductor is.  It seems that the standard set for a successful conductor in the article is like saying the standard for success as an actor is being a movie star.  But there are thousands of actors putting food on the table and raising families whose names have never been heard by most people.  You don't have to lead the L.A. Phil to call yourself a successful conductor.  Lots of amazing conductors are college professors, lead community bands, teach school, and minister to congregations.  

The article opens with this:
The romanticized image of the symphony orchestra conductor - arriving by limo at a grand music hall to inspire effortless beauty before thousands - is a world away from young Geoff McDonald's catch-as-catch-can career.
Right.  The romanticized image of an actor arriving by limo at the Academy Awards is a world away from the vast majority of professional actors' catch-as-catch-can careers.  From my career.  And, actually, I've never had the image of a conductor arriving to a performance in a limo.  Am I too close to it to be so deluded?  

Do people really think conducting is glamorous like that?  Like in the Depend commercial where they are impressed the conductor does her own make-up?  Of course she does her own make-up!  She doesn't have a dresser, either.  Even in opera, where you really do need stage make-up, only the stars in pretty expensive productions have their make-up done for them.  

Mmmhhh.... sooooooo glamorous...


Maybe half a dozen conductors in the world have a hired car deliver them to their performances.  The idea of glamor may come from the prevalence of white tie (discussed here in so much detail!), but really, it's just work.  It's also art.  Do you need the glamor to have the artistic fulfillment?  Hell, no.  Those professors, leaders, teachers, and ministers I mentioned above experience a lot of artistic fulfillment.  *I* do.  That's why I do it.

I doubt there is a conductor in the world who does it for glamor or prestige or even power.  If they do, then I bet they're not as good conductors as the rest of us who do it because it's who we are.  We conduct because making music is addictive, participating in performance and facilitating art are too wonderful to quit.  Too fun.  We do it because we can't imagine ourselves being happy doing anything else.    

Ambition is an option.  We can try to become conductors of major orchestras--someone's got to hold those jobs, right?  But that's not all that conducting is.  The artistic fulfillment is what it's about.  We can find that with amateurs, semi-pro ensembles, students, and congregations.  It doesn't require fame and fortune.  Most of us aren't seeking fame or fortune.  We are seeking artistic fulfillment; and we find it in the repertoire and in the people with whom we perform it.

Ahhhhh.  This is why I blog.  Because I "labor quietly" with choirs in a community, a church, a school.  I keep reading articles like this one that miss the point of what I do, and I'm thrilled to have this resource to say what conductors all know but no one but a conductor has a reason to know.  Not many will read it, but at least the other side of the story is out there, available.

Yes, a conductor is a leader, so it's easy to think conductors must be ambitious.  But conducting is not about power, ambition, or glamor.  Artistic fulfillment, though.  Bingo.  Yep.  Absolutely. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

the choir, begun

So, The Choir finally broadcast its first episode on BBCAmerica.  I am sort of disappointed in it, and I'm gonna blog about it, as promised.

First the things I really do like:  Gareth is young and enthusiastic and he genuinely and passionately believes, as I do, that community singing is good for people and should be available to everyone.  His beliefs are powerful and positive and I totally and wholeheartedly agree.  The things he says are true and wonderful and lovely.  And his enthusiasm makes it real for the singers he recruits.  That's great.

In fact, Gareth does a lot of things right.  He wants to bring classical music to the masses, but he uses pop music as a gateway (one of my complaints about Glee is that real art is nowhere to be seen, but Gareth, while he acknowledges the challenge of getting newcomers inside classical music, is interested in art).  He teaches competently, and is a sweet guy who clearly wants what is best for the kids he's working with.


He's trained in musical theater, basically.  He does not have, so far as I can tell, training as a music educator much less as a conductor.  And that shows.  I'll wait until I see more episodes before I get specific in that regard, so I'm not judging based on just five minutes of edited rehearsal footage.  But, I have written over and over again on this blog that many things are required for success in conducting.  Gareth has most of them.  The thing he lacks is the most undervalued of all: training.  It is the thing most conductors lack, frankly.  I mean, speaking of community choir conductors and church organists and the well-intentioned people who get into leading choirs because the choir needs a leader and they have some musical training, so they get sucked into conducting.  That's Gareth's story, too. And it's a shame.  Because some training could really benefit him and his singers.

There's more.  Besides, Gareth's lack of conducting training, there are some reality problems with the show.  The words that follow are the responses of my husband, with whom I agree, but who is probably more entitled to these opinions than I am:

My administration's never given me support like that.  They don't think I'm a boon to the school--just a distraction from the real curriculum. [The principal and other administrators do not even attend his performances, in which three hundred students participate and a thousand family members make up the audience.]
I'd like to see him do that without a camera crew and the carrot of a free trip to China at the end.  
Of course all those parents are thrilled to see their kids in choir: they don't have to spend eight months fundraising to send the kid on a trip to go sing.
Okay, now I'd like to see him do that every day for twenty years. 

And so on.  My husband has done it every day for twenty years.   He takes his auditioned Chamber group on  tour every year, to Europe every other year.  They fundraise.  They get grants from the town and from local businesses.  They have a booth at the Harvest Moon Festival on the town green every fall.  They purchase music and perform two concerts every year, plus singing at the elementary schools, Memorial Day ceremonies, etc.  They sustain a program, playing the long game.  They sing quality repertoire--Faure and Mozart!--in addition to some gateway pop.

I already wrote my ode to music teachers.  I have to say, my strongest feeling after watching the first episode of The Choir was that it cheapens what those professionals do.  I mean, I know, it also celebrates the value they bring because is showcases how powerfully music affects the singers, how the experience touches them.  But to celebrate the fast-and-furious, short-term success of a one-off season just doesn't take into account the marathon longevity of a career music educator.

Maybe he'll talk about that later--about establishing a program and maintaining it.

But, in the absence of that acknowledgement, I found it hard to watch.  But I found reflecting on it interesting.  So I'll keep it on the DVR and write about next week, too.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

expletive deleted


I don't swear much on the blog, mostly on the off chance that someone who wants to employ me reads it--I don't want people thinking I use language carelessly on the podium.  On the contrary, my use of language on the podium is very, very careful.

It began in my childhood, when our family sat around the dinner table having a grammar lesson.  Yes, really.  Grammar was the most common single topic of dinner table conversation during my childhood.  I can't remember any other single topic that came up with any regularity, actually.  But we talked about grammar on many occasions.  Anyway, I remember asking at one point "who decided which words were bad?"  And it was simply put to me that there are some words that just aren't said "in mixed company."  I then had to ask what "mixed company" meant and the conversation meandered from there.

Since then I have learned a little more about the history of words and language, and I now subscribe wholly to the idea I had all those years ago that there are no "good" words or "bad" words.  They're all just words.  Of course, in professional situations, there are expectations that one will use a certain level of decorum, and vocabulary comes along with that--rather, a lack of certain vocabulary.  It's not so much that you're expected to use certain words as it is that you're expected not to use certain words.  Right?  So I don't swear much on the blog, being as it is about my work and therefore sort of professional.  Ish.  But I don't have an editor and I don't conform to a formal style (only in my absolutely stodgiest papers do I adhere to anything like an academic tone).

On the podium, the use of language is a major concern, particularly for choral conductors.  Working with singers is a bit different from working with instrumentalists, in that singers' instruments are biologically hard wired to their imaginations, so any ideas I implant in their minds will come out in their voices.  Peace and joy are important for healthy singing, so choral conductors can't be assholes or their choirs will suffer.  That is to say, the singers will either internalize the bad stuff and their singing will get worse, or they will disconnect from the conductor and lose the maximum of their capacity to perform as a unified group.  So, besides simply using professional, non-offensive language, there is a whole universe of vocabulary selection that goes on in a conductor's mind.

It's complicated, you see.  Yet another level of requirements of a conductor that doesn't get included in the public imagination when they think of the baton, the wild hair, and white tie and tails.  Like the guy in the video below.  I included him way back in one of the first posts, "Jerks who flail."  He conforms to the stereotype nicely, with just the little surprise of the language.  And that's why it's funny.

I'm sure you figured it out already, but when you watch this, turn the volume down if you're someplace where the salty language might worry someone.

Friday, July 9, 2010

tai chi 2

When I wrote the interest session proposal, this is the first paragraph of the session description:
Conducting and Tai Chi both use energy and intention to produce gesture that is complex, beautiful, and meaningful.  In master practitioners, the purposefulness of each is a result of conscious and unconscious awareness and will.  Both are inexorably connected to breath. This foundation of similarities means the study of Tai Chi can reinforce the best kinesthetic habits in conducting.
All that is true, of course, but vague enough that I wonder if it actually means anything.  Now the session as sort of been accepted--it's not going to be included in the regular rotation of sessions, it'll just be a one-off Friday morning session at 7:00, before the official concert and interest sessions start at 8 a.m..  They're sort of squeezing me in because they like it.  Which is great: first thing in the morning is a perfect time to do Tai Chi.  And this all means that I have an opportunity to write a new description for participants, if I want to.  To that end, I came up with this:

Tai Chi for Conductors
In this session, participants will follow a Tai Chi practice session, including a set of movements derived from Tai Chi forms designed to maximize the benefit for conductors.  Each slow movement will provide an opportunity to move energy and examine its effect on the body.  This examination has the potential to create an immediate sense of buoyancy and balance, leaving participants calm and vibrant at the end of the session.  Beyond the convention, regular practice naturally guides towards centering, grounding, and freeing.   The slow, easy movements can be performed in any attire, and participants will be invited to remove their shoes.

And the general response to that is that, yeah, conducting and tai chi seem to be related.  But I'll tell you what I told Roger Jahnke when he asked me if I had figured out the connection.

Both practices derive their movement from intention, which is communicated through the center out to the extremities.  When I taught the undergrad conducting class last semester, and when I wrote about Singing Redefined, I was thinking of the imagination being communicated through gesture as it is through the voice.  But, since I've worked intensively in Tai Chi some more, I see that it's wrong.  The voice is not like gesture.  The voice really is linked directly to the imagination.  Whole-body movement is not.  There's a lot that can interfere between the brain and the body.  When your whole body moves, that movement must come from the center--ask any dancer or martial arts teacher.  

So the discussion I must have with myself, and consequently the interweb, is this: intention communicates with the center and is expressed through the whole body.    More on that to follow when I start getting my head around it in a communicable way.