Monday, May 31, 2010

Multiple Intelligence Monday 1: Introduction

I enjoy structure, so I'm creating a new format for summer: Multiple Intelligence Mondays!  I tried writing a single post about multiple intelligences, and it got crazy long.  So I need to break it up into weekly installments.

For now: an introduction as to why I would bother with such a thing.

Wikipedia can tell you the basics of multiple intelligence theory, in case you don't already know.  It doesn't matter whether there are seven intelligences or a hundred, or if there's really just one, the point is we're all good at certain things, and most of us are lousy at other things.

I, for example, can't add, but I can pronounce the hell out of anything.  It takes me multiple seconds to analyse a triad to figure out its quality--very slow!--but I can pick up a Tai Chi form after just a couple of times through.  Are these the results of what I learned or failed to learn as a child, or was what I learned determined by my capacity to learn, my aptitude?  I have no idea.  It's complicated!  I can't get into it, and I don't think I need to.  The point is that certain skills, certain capacities are important for a conductor.  I'll go through the seven intelligences I originally learned and use that as a starting place to explain.  But why does it matter?

I learned about multiple intelligence theory when I was an undergrad getting a degree in music education.  Knowing about multiple intelligences was supposed to make us better teachers: we could design lessons that address different intelligences, which correspond, so they say, to learning styles--which is really what this is about--the way you learn, the means through which things enter your brain most efficiently.  For a conductor, there is such a wide array of skills and aptitudes that will help that, as I have said before, there are no stupid conductors.  You just have to be pretty good at a lot of things in order to succeed on the podium.  But knowing one's strengths and weaknesses allows each conductor to use what we do best and compensate for what eludes us.

Details to follow.  Every Monday.

Friday, May 28, 2010

convenient controversy

Dr. Jordan called me yesterday, wanting to prevent my overreacting.  

"Have you seen your new Choral Journal?" he asked.

"Uh, not yet..." I admitted.

"Well, don't freak out.  There's a letter to the editor about your article..."

As if I've ever freaked out about anything.  Lately.  Since the last time.

There is a letter to the editors of Choral Journal in the June/July issue (p. 6) regarding my April article "Thoughtful Gestures," and a response from the editors to the letter.  I don't think I would have freaked out about it even without Dr. Jordan's warning, but it does invite clarification.  Luckily, I happen to have this convenient venue for responding to the response and to the response to the response.  So there's no reason to wait for all that pesky publishing of journals.

The letter says my model of conducting "holds the director responsible for the unified emotional expression of the singers--with the director being the leading spark in the circuit...  Unfortunately, this model disempowers the singers."  The writer then goes on to offer an alternative, with some methods of empowering singers to "sing with a unified expression of their own."

That's not what I meant to say.  What I meant to say was this:
All the stuff conductors learn to do isn't just artsy fartsy music baloney; it's a process supported by some very cool science.  
I know the paradigm of conductor-as-monarch exists, both in terms of emotional leadership and musical guidance; so, that makes it my fault for not directly clarifying how my model is different from that.  I took it for granted that conductors all know that the individual members of the ensemble have to be individually empowered to perform the music with their own expressive intent

Here is my clarification.  (Well, if you read the whole blog it'll become clear, but for those who don't have time for that, here's a condensed version.)  Ahem:

A conductor is not responsible for the unified emotional expression of the singers.  The singers are and must be responsible for their own emotional expression.  A conductor is responsible for embodying the expressive intent of the composer though gesture (just as the ensemble members are responsible for expressing the composer's intention through singing or playing) and, in fact, the point of my model is that the conductor is responsible for consistent embodiment of the expressive intent of the composer so that he may remind the singers to do so, too.  So that he may influence the sound though living intention, fostering the living intention of the ensemble members.

I do not state explicitly in the article, but I think the article supports the idea that it's counterintuitive for us to ask our singers to have a "compelling purpose for singing" (in the well-chosen words of the letter-writer) unless we display compelling purpose in our gesture.  If we have compelling purpose, it will only benefit the singers, help them to commit more fully to their expression.  

The letter-writer says, "even when the director's affect is deadpan, such a choir will bring down the house."  To which I reply, "oh, but what if the conductor lived the music with them?  Wouldn't that make it easier for them?  Might that not inspire them?"  

Yes.  Yes, it would.  

Because, as I explain so eloquently in the article as well as here and here and here, we are built to communicate.  We are made to feel the feelings of those around us.

If the conductor stands deadpan, which no one is actually advocating, then the singers must first shut the conductor out--make the choice to ignore the feelings that are seeping out of him (because the fact is, we influence them whether we intend to or not; there are feelings seeping out in spontaneous expression of our inner state, even from what may appear to be a "deadpan" expression).  Then they are on their own to express of their own initiative.  

That could work, but the way we actually do it is so much easier!  It eliminates the step of turning off their natural inclination to empathize and instead takes advantage of it.  If the conductor is showing them living humanity, that feeds them and makes it easier for them to do their job.

So you see, there isn't actually any controversy.  We all know conductors must be expressive--the question of "how" is open to interpretation, and I discuss that elsewhere.  The question of "why" is the one I was addressing in the article.

To the conductors who are reading this, I'll just also let you know that I've got a whole other sciencey controversy saying mirror neurons have never been seen in humans and biomotion is where it's at.  I'm still wading through all that--it's much slower, obviously, because it's a foreign language to me, but I'll let you know when (?) I have any kind of insight.

And now, my response to the response to the response.

The Editorial Associate who responds to the letter, David Stocker (hello!), says the letter "errs about the same distance as the original author [me!], only on the other side of the continuum."  

Well, I mean.  I ask you.  Really?!  

Granted, the article is written to conductors about conducting and is, yes, explaining why it's important for a conductor to embody the emotional intent of the composer.  So, no, I don't talk much about the singers' own intentions.  So I can see where he might get the whole "erring the same distance on the other side of the continuum" thing.  But I'm here to tell you that I do, in fact, believe that every singer's intention is every bit as important as the conductor's and that the conductor's expressive displays are only useful insomuch as they inspire and influence the initiative of the performers' intention.

(Look, the limit for articles at Choral Journal was eighteen pages and I wrote twenty after substantial editing and making the font smaller.  I can't write about everything all at once!  That's why I have a blog now.  I can write about everything in little snippets.  James Jordan keeps writing books.  I'm a generation younger, so I have a blog.  We, Dr. Jordan's students, sometimes tease him about the library of books he keeps writing, but I can relate to the impulse that drives him to it.)

Anyway, Dr. Stocker then goes on, "The issue here is 'What is an ensemble?'"  

That is a fascinating issue, though it was not the issue I was writing about (because I can't write about everything all at once): again, I was just trying to demonstrate that all the stuff conductors learn to do isn't just artsy fartsy music baloney; it's a process supported by some very cool science.  It works not just because of cultural conventions constructed around it, but because it comes from the deepest nature of our humanity.  

But since he asked...

What is an ensemble? 

That's going to have to wait for another post, I'm afraid.  This one is already too long.


I have a metronome that cost $100.  I bought it in 2005, in the last semester of my master's degree.  It's a Seiko SQ 100-88 digital quartz metronome.  I bought it because it's loud.

I'm sure you all know what metronomes are, but I won't let it be said I talked over anyone's head, so in case you don't: a metronome is a device that clicks at a stead speed which you set.  We measure speed in beats per minute.  60 means one beat each second.  120 means two beats each second.  40 means really slow.

(Imagine the father from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding now.)  It come... from the Greek!  Metro, it mean "measure."  Nome, it mean "little guy who sits in your yard clicking loudly."

Metronomes are a basic musician tool, but perhaps more important for conductors than other musicians.  Others set tempos for practicing, to hear the tick to help force them to stay in time.  Conductors also use it to experiment with tempi, so that we can choose one and hopefully be consistent with performing at the right one.  (I have problems with that--I tend to go faster in performance than I do in rehearsal.  Nerves and things make the heart beat faster, endocrine system go nuts, tends to make people move faster.  Gotta get over that.)

So, my metronome is damn fancy.  You can set the beat speed, then select if you want it to click subdivisions: none, dupets, only the second duplet (the "ands" of beats), triplets, triplets with the middle one missing ("1 rest uh" instead of "one and uh", quadruplets, or quadruplets with the middle two missing ("one rest rest uh" instead of  "one i and uh").  Then you can set how many beats in the meter, and it will click a higher pitch for beat 1 of every measure.

In addition to all those options, it has a whole second metronome built in! There is a button you can push to get to a second group of settings.  So if a piece changes tempo or meter, you can store both and get from one to the other with just a single button.   Or, in rehearsal, I am using the metronome for two different pieces,  I can set it beforehand and not waste time fiddling with it on the podium.  FANCY!

It also has a built-in tuner set automatically to A 440, but you can play any pitch from C2 to B6, tuned to A 415 (a common early music tuning) or 438-446 (in case you're tuning to an instrument like a piano or organ that is tuned slightly sharp or flat).  I never use this feature--if I need a pitch, I use a tuning fork because acoustical pitch is easier to hear than an electronic one--but it does lead me to the volume.

It's loud.

My metronome has a port for a 1/4 inch phone jack.  I could use headphones or even plug in speakers.  But the speaker on my metronome is pretty dang loud.  Which is, as I said, why I bought it.

Robert Shaw used to hang a pendulum in rehearsal in order to maximize entrainment among the singers.  I wrote about entrainment in the "Thoughtful Gestures" article upon which most of this blog is based, and I will write about it here separately soon (which is one of the reasons I'm writing this metronome post now).  Suffice it to say, I sometimes play my metronome at my choir.  They don't like it because it's a loud electronic beep and/or click, but it works.

Other conductors have metronome apps on their iPhones.  You can also find metronomes online for free, in case you have your laptop in the practice room.  I have a loud, Greek, clicking gnome.  A little clunky, but I'm fond of it.

Did I mention it had a kick stand in the back so you can stand it up?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

art and fun

What are they up to over at the NY Phil tonight?  I don't really know.  Ligeti and singers and staging, oh my.  It's so fun that Alan Gilbert is this excited about his programming.

cartoon conducting, the first of what I suspect will be a series

Just as conductors appear in commercials and movies, they make appearances in cartoons.  A lot of appearances in cartoons.

For an easy synopsis of how a conductor should appear in a cartoon, Bruce Blitz says he should be a determined mad professor with a baton:

Sesame Street knows they have to make each character very clear, so they adhere strictly to those guidelines.

Tex Avery agrees that the hair, the tuxedo, and the baton are the most important attributes to identify a conductor, as you can see at 1:58 below.  Then at 5:53 the singer sees that the hair has gone missing and therefore recognizes the conductor to be a fraud.  In between is three minutes of alternately very funny spoofs and indefensible racial stereotyping.  Enjoy.

Elmer Fudd has a slightly less kempt approach.

I was raised on Bugs Bunny, so I'm not saying he's not funny, but this is not his best moment.  Poor guy thinks he's supposed to conduct every note.

"In the name of dignity and art, put yourselves in a receptive frame of mind."

And, finally, apropos of nothing except that the animal orchestra reminded me of it, a hippo singing:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Gustavo Dudamel has been on t.v. and in the news lately, having just begun at the L.A. Philharmonic, which is a pretty good gig.  People are amazed--this man doesn't look like a conductor!  He's not white or old and his hair is curly!  The PR machine likes him because of that--oooh, diversity!  He's controversial because people are excited about him, and then critics ask if it's hype.  "Are we just excited because he's not a stereotype?"  (Those reviews were from Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively.  The hometown L.A. paper's response to them and their like is basically "thppbt.")

It is a problem of ignorance.  The general public don't know much about conducting, and they have some assumptions about what it is, what it means, what conductors do.  Hopefully they'll start reading my blog and begin to understand, and then critics won't be in charge of telling us who is an artist and who is a product of PR hype.  Until then, I can only persistently repeat myself.

Have you seen Ratatouille?  It's the cg animated movie about a rat in France who loves to cook.  I really like it.  The moral of the story is told to us by Peter O'Toole, who plays a food critic (Ahem.  A critic.), named Anton Ego.  The moral is that "not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."  It sounds best when Peter O'Toole says it at 1:26.

Immediately following this moment in the movie, Anton Ego is punished for his "defense of the new:" he loses "his job and his credibility" when the health inspector condemns the restaurant for having rats.  It's okay, though: he invests in the rat cook's new restaurant and the great work goes on in a less high-profile venue.

I also love the moment in the beginning of this clip when Anton Ego, the critic, takes his first bite.  They show what it feels like in the moment that you are moved, touched by art.  Their depiction of that experience rings deeply true to me.  It leads me to believe there were people working on that movie who had a real sense of the importance and power of art both high-profile and small-scale.  And it's amazing that they work on a big, huge movie like Ratatouille so that masses of people can see and hear about that power.

Dudamel knows that power, too.  He is passionate and his passion is contagious.  This is a YouTube clip that made the rounds a while back:

I wrote about emotional contagion last week in order to set up this post.  Dudamel has infectious energy.  He's charismatic, which is a notion I started writing about yesterday.

His interpretations are neither nuanced nor subtle, but they're dramatic.  He takes risks, such as artists take, by putting his work out into the world for us to judge.  That's impressive.  If he's not a consummate artist yet, well, he's twenty-nine for heaven's sake!  I wouldn't want a newspaper reviewing my current work--I feel pretty good about my work, but I'm aware that I'm still what they call a "young conductor" and I see how much I have to learn before I become a conductor like the really great ones.  Dudamel's got fire and passion and gets people excited about going to hear art music!  I'm all for that.  The sophistication will come with age and maturity.  And maybe he'll take his audience with him.  If that doesn't happen, oh well.  It's just music, no one dies if the woodwinds are a little sloppy or the string tone lacks richness.  I say, let's celebrate the attention and use it to have conversations about art and expressiveness.  Instead of saying, "it's not good enough," let's say, "it's interesting," "my experience of it was..." and "here's what we might do with it!"

Because it's just art.

It's the most important thing human beings do on this earth, but it only benefits us.  Bad art never hurt anyone, mediocre art can be accessible and useful, and great art has lifted souls like nothing else can.  Let's have it all!

Monday, May 24, 2010


There is a culture of devotion to ensemble music-making.  Band geeks, choir kids, community choir singers who devote hours to fundraising.  I write about it in the "Thoughtful Gestures" article, how entrainment unites ensembles into passionate, powerful bodies.  But there's an added dimension to that, and that is devotion not just to the ensemble, but to the conductor.

I don't think this is true with professional ensembles.  Professionals do not necessarily connect with their fellows over the experience of music-making because they do it a lot, and the level they have to reach in order for that to occur increases with their experience.  I'm talking about amateur ensembles and school groups.  

When I was in the seventh grade, my junior high school choir director left and we had a new one for eighth grade.  In the tenth grade, the high school choir director (who had been teaching for so long, he had been my mother's high school choir director!) retired and we got a new one for eleventh grade.  Right before I started college at the University of Delaware, the choral director left and I was at UD while they searched for his replacement.  I taught at two schools, and at both I replaced a choral director who was beloved.  My first year at Westminster Choir College was the year after Joe Flummerfelt retired, so I was there while they searched for his replacement.  At the University of Connecticut, I am currently assistant to two interim conductors, waiting for them to search for and hire a permanent Director of Choral Activities.  (If you  know anyone who's looking for that kind of position, pass the word along that they'll have they best doctoral assistant ever!)

The point of that history is that I've seen transitions at every level from many perspectives.  I've seen kids nearly worship a choir director, love him, weep over his leaving.  Singers, especially adolescents, can easily feel bonded to a conductor--more easily than with a math teacher, I would venture to guess.  And today I'm asking, "why?"

I subscribe to Whole Living Body + Soul magazine, though I object to the duality suggested by the name.  I think Self gets it right with the title, but actually tends to be about bodies, not whole selves.  There is an article in this month's issue about the book Click: the Magic of Instant Connections, which I think makes a step towards explaining why singers, especially amateurs, feel connected to their conductors.

According to the book, reported by the article, the "recipe for clicking contains five ingredients: proximity, vulnerability, resonance, similarity, and a safe place."

All this happens in an ensemble.

Proximity, because, yes, we rehearse together.  Duh.

Vulnerability--this is where I think the gap lies for professionals, because they are well trained and therefore feel less vulnerable as they perform.  Most amateurs, especially singers, are relying on the conductor to help them learn both what to perform and how to perform, and that reliance can make them feel vulnerable.  A conductor's job is to make them comfortable and confident enough to perform, which means the conductor steps into their vulnerability, embraces it, and then provides them support and strength.  It's a powerful act that creates a bond between conductor and singer as well as among the ensemble.

Resonance is described in the article as "tuning in to others' emotions."  I'd have to read the book to get a clearer picture (or maybe Emily will pipe in with some details) but if it has anything to do with sharing a common emotional experience, then singing in an ensemble will provide it.

Similarity is kind of a given: everyone there loves to sing.  Or play, if it's a band, but my inclination and the majority of my experience is with singing.  Additional similarity beyond that is gravy.

A safe place.  This is so important to conducting.  Creating a safe place to be expressive and emotional, and to sing (which scares the willies out of a lot of people!) is a huge part of my job.  The love and support and guidance and encouragement I give isn't just me being nice, it's making the choir sing better.  They feel better so they sing better, and that serves the composer and the performers and the audience.  The article described a safe place as anywhere "that separates you... from the rest of the world."  Choir is exactly that.  When high school kids come to choir, their other world is left out in the other parts of the building.  I've seen so many instances where students behave entirely differently in choir than they do in any other class--usually much better for me than for other teachers.  

No wonder people feel connected to their conductors.  No wonder it's emotional and challenging to lose a conductor, and difficult to replace one.

The the heading of the last paragraph in the article is DARE TO DISCLOSE.  It continues, "when you chance a little intimacy, perhaps by sharing something that you're currently struggling with or a personal anecdote, you make yourself vulnerable and give the other person something to respond to."  I have a whole set of other reasons for conductors telling true stories about their own lives, which I write about in the "Thoughtful Gestures" article, and I'll have to talk about later here, but this is a another one, related to the social, communal responsibilities of a conductor.  Good conductors are comfortable with themselves, with their flaws, and are content to be themselves, in all their imperfection, in front of the ensemble. 

One of the reasons I say that conductors have to live a life that is conducive to their profession--that you can't be a composer and then expect to get up and conduct as well as an actual conductor--is that you can't get up in front of an ensemble and lead them anywhere for anything unless you feel pretty good about yourself.  If you feel self-conscious or insecure, you won't be very effective.  Self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-love are fundamental necessities for conductors.  They're important for everyone as human beings, but a conductor can't do his job without them.

I think this might add to the mystique of conductors.  As singers are considered "divas" for taking care of themselves the way they need to in order to maintain the health of their whole selves that is required for them to sing as well as they can [must write post on opera singers!], a conductor could be an interesting creature off the podium.  There are no stupid conductors.  I've never met a shy conductor.  Most conductors are highly verbal and are easy in conversation.  The quality of their listening varies--not surprising since in our work we're nearly always the one talking/leading/in charge.  

The magazine article says the ability to "click," to provide all the social ingredients for connection, is a set of skills to which some people ("high self-monitors," which is yet another thing I'll have to go into separately at another time) have greater natural inclination than others, but that can also be taught.  

I wonder if clickers tend to become conductors, or if the process of learning to be a conductor happens to teach those skills.  Probably a combination of the two, don't you think?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Glee. *sigh*

I don't like Glee.  It doesn't have much to do with conducting--at least they don't try to make the guy a conductor!--but it's related to the Mr. Holland post, so I'm just gonna get it off my chest.

Some caveats:
Jane Lynch, who plays the cheerleading coach, is hilarious in everything she does.  A Mighty Wind.  Forty Year Old Virgin.  Two and a Half Men.  She even played Julia Child's sister in Julie and Julia and was subtle and funny as could be.  I mean, she sat next to Meryl Streep and was subtle and funny!  I love her to pieces.

Also, the guy who plays the teacher is, apparently, an actual singer who can sort of dance.  He performed on the Tony awards... I can't remember his name or what year it was and I refuse to look it up, but honestly I was so surprised and impressed I posted about it on Facebook.  Something to the effect of "Amelia Nagoski Peterson is surprised and impressed that the guy from Glee can actually sing!"  To which all my Glee-loving friends replied, "see, I told you they were talented people!"

Which I never denied... it's just that--

Wait.  One more caveat before I explain.

I've only seen, like, four episodes.  When they first advertised it, I thought, "hm, that looks like it could be good" so I set my DVR to record it.  I watched the first episode and was unimpressed, then watched parts of episodes after that and decided I didn't like it.  I deleted the DVR timer.  But then I found that many, many of my musical friends had been seduced by the show, drawn into its cleverness, wit, and musical numbers.  So I tried to watch, both so that I could try to see what they saw, and also to discover an explanation for why it irritated me so much.

So, with that said, here's my issue:

It's like with Mr. Holland's Opus, in that the teacher (whose name I don't know--I don't know any of the characters' names.  If you watch the show, you know who I mean; if you don't watch it, it doesn't matter anyway) actually teaches math or something.  He does Glee Club after school because he loved singing in high school and, although he, himself, has had NO TRAINING SINCE HIGH SCHOOL!!! wants to give the opportunity to the students.  Nice sentiment, generous desire, deeply misguided.

First of all, is there no music teacher in the school?  I've never seen one.  What the hell is up with that?

Second of all, since when does singing in a high school choir make you qualified, ten years later, to lead a high school choir?  I took math for years in high school, but not since.  Even if I had loved it, I would never, never, never say "these kids here at the school where I teach music should have the opportunity to experience math.  I should volunteer to lead an after-school math club!"  That would be ridiculous.  Everyone would say, "but, Amelia, you're not qualified to do that.  Let's hire a math teacher."  But in the show, a math teacher volunteers to lead music, and no one blinks. Because music's easy.  Nothing to it.  Anyone can do it.  And to prove it, we have a group of misfit kids whom he leads to glory.

Speaking of "glory."  Their performances aren't bad for what they are.  As a Broadway/pop style show choir, they do well.  But, really, is that the only music in the school?  I have no objection to show choirs or to singing pop music in school if it's balanced with a curriculum of high quality art repertoire that teaches something more than notes and rhythms.  History, culture, our connection to all of humanity.  Maybe the kids in Glee learn to connect with each other through the fun experience of singing together, but there's the potential to connect with so much more and they're missing out on that.  Why?  Because their teacher is underqualified.

Also, let's talk about one particular performance on the show in the middle of last season.  It was by a group from a girls' juvie, I think.  They sang some R&B song, I think, and the choreography basically replicated sex acts.  It was supposed to be sexy and amazing, like a rap video or something.  And all the characters we're supposed to like were worried that this group was going to get the big award because the judges were so impressed.

It doesn't work like that.

The girls in that choir should not be learning to display themselves as sexual objects.  And the show should not be promoting that kind of behavior.  Real judges would never, ever consider giving them any kind of big award.  We'd shift uncomfortably in our seats for a while, searching for words to explain the problem, and deduct points for appropriateness or something, and try to encourage their director to find repertoire that teaches a more universal kind of love.  Or something.  These are teenage girls for heaven's sake.  It's not impressive, but rather completely repellent that they would be grinding on the stage singing about how they are desired by everyone in the audience.


So, to sum up: the show bothers me because it settles for the lowest possible level of education, repertoire, and artistic experience.  It's supposed to be about how this teacher guy loves music, but all he loves is the superficial fun.  He doesn't know enough to understand that there's much, much more to it.  It's nice that he loved singing as a kid, and if he wants to sing in a group to stay connected to that in his adulthood, GREAT!!!  But if he's going to pretend to teach kids, he's cheating them.  He doesn't know enough to provide a real opportunity to the students.  But the problem isn't just with that character: that underlying assumption of music-as-fun cheapens the whole show.  It cheapens music.  It cheapens teachers.  The show would redeem itself to me completely if, in the end, the students and the teacher discovered together that, for example, Bach expressed great truth about humanity and the performance of art music provided them with a powerful experience learning and making music together.

Because music--especially music in a school--while it should and can be fun in exactly the addictive way they portray on the show, is supposed to be about art.  It's supposed to be about the big picture.  And no amount of witty dialog or Beyonce parodies can add up to that.

In my opinion.

Which is not, as you can tell, even slightly humble.

Next week, I'm going to post about things I like because all this ranting and complaining isn't as much fun as raving about Bernstein or science.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mr. Holland

I do not like Mr. Holland's Opus.  Mr. Holland would and should get fired for letting a kid get on a bus to New York.  Mr. Holland is a crappy conductor.  These fundamental problems ruin, for me, any redeeming value the movie might have, but they are not the end of the problems.

Ha!  I'm watching the YouTube video below and my husband just asked from the next room, "What are you watching?"

"Mr. Holland's Opus," I confessed.

"Why?!" he replied, baffled.

"Because I'm writing about it for my blog."

"About how stupid it is?  Because the governor of the state couldn't keep his job?" he groaned.


Look, Richard Dreyfuss is a great actor--amazing and moving and real.  I like him a lot.  But his conducting is crap.

I adjudicate festivals and competitions, and I have seen some bad conducting of school ensembles.  Mostly it's by art/English/drama teachers who got drafted into teaching music, then into directing the choir because the administration says, "hey, anyone can teach singing!" and the poor teacher doesn't know enough about it to argue, and they don't have any training or preparation, so they're coming at it, like Richard Dreyfuss, with the best of intentions, but a total lack of actual understanding of their job.  Yes, I've seen crappy conducting, but I've never seen a real band director conduct as badly as poor Mr. Dreyfuss.

There's the leaning, the knee bouncing, the fact that his hands cross in the middle of his body, the lift of his elbows on every beat four.  A two-minute conversation with anyone who has taken an undergraduate conducting class or even just a week-long summer seminar in conducting would have supplied him with training enough not to make those fundamental mistakes.

If I look a little deeper, I see that this may be an accurate choice by Mr. Dreyfuss.

More than anything else, Mr. Holland irritates me because he is a composer who needed a job and got sucked into teaching band.  He got hired, though he was not actually qualified to do it.  He does the job, even though he has no actual training.  So of course his conducting is crap: he never studied conducting!  Everyone around him just took for granted that because he was a musician, he could conduct.  As if clear communication is taught alongside Roman numeral analysis.  As if expressive gesture is taught alongside the ear training.

So the problems with movies like this aren't just the surface inaccuracies, but the deep underlying assumptions about the nature of the work of teaching and conducting.  Namely, that conducting is something every musician can do, and that leading music requires no skills different from participating in music.

Where do these assumptions come from?  I believe that people simply don't know any better.  They observe conductors, so they think they have seen something, but all they have done is make assumptions.  How could they possibly know differently (unless they, like you brilliant people, read my blog)?  And, in ignorance, they make movies where the main character conducts a full instrumental ensemble in front of a cheering crowd, even though you have spent the whole movie telling us he's not a conductor and was never interested in being a conductor.

I recently told a roomful of people that conducting isn't just what I do, it's who I am.  I think that makes me typical for a conductor, and I think it's why we're good at it.  Because the work we do isn't just our job, it's about using ourselves as expressive vehicles.  That requires your whole self to be engaged in the act; it requires your whole self to be healthy and capable of giving--James Jordan calls it "perpetual emptying of self."  And that means you can't just get on the podium and do it, you have to live a life that allows you to do it.   A composer who conducts will conduct poorly.  A violinist or a section leader who gets suckered into leading a rehearsal isn't going to be as good as someone who is a conductor.

Mr. Holland tries to convince us that conducting is an independent skill that can be whipped out when it's needed, and tucked away when you're doing your real job.  Well, I suppose it can be.  But you'll end up conducting like Mr. Holland.  And... eeeww.


To the filmmakers of the world:
Please keep making touching, moving movies about music teachers.  We love our music teachers, and we want to show the world what they do to benefit our lives.  Please honor them by valuing the training that is required for them to be successful! Thank you very much.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

conductor down

I just read about this, though it happened last week.

Gustavo Dudamel "pulled a muscle in his neck... heard a loud pop and lost sensation on one side."  Dude.  The man is younger than I am, and already pulling muscles!  I told you a conductor is an athlete!

Alas, the price of passionate artistry is high.

emotional contagion

A conductor relies on emotional contagion.

Since the discovery of and research on mirror neurons, we've come to believe that they are partially responsible for emotional contagion.

Wait, I feel like I've written this before.  I have.  So I'll just paste an excerpt from my article, "Thoughtful Gestures," found in your April 2010 Choral Journal:
Contagion is a notion derived from medicine. Most people have experienced the sensation finding someone’s energy contagious, or read headlines around Inauguration Day about “catching Obama fever.”  Emotional contagion is “a multiply determined family of psychophysiological, behavioral, and social phenomena," meaning it, rather like a cold, can be caught from a wide variety of sources and manifest with many possible symptoms.  This relates to the mirror neuron system because “the basic emotional contagion system is thought to support our ability to empathize emotionally (‘I feel how you feel’) and has been linked to the human MNS,” meaning it is inherent in each of us. 
Entrainment is one symptom of contagion.  Research for this article came up with no studies linking entrainment and the mirror neuron system, but has already been applied to musical rehearsals: James Jordan discusses Robert Shaw’s use of entrainment with a pendulum.  Synchrony is another symptom of the contagion, as is mimicry.  This is the process through which Fuelberth’s singers would develop vocal tension in response to tension in their conductor’s hand [referring to s study which examined the perception of vocal tension in relationship to tension in a conductor's left hand].  People naturally tend to imitate others, and the performance of an expressive act can trigger the emotion associated with that act.  That is why “evolutionary theorists have argued that sad, frightened, and angry faces may trigger powerful emotional reactions, and that it may be difficult to extinguish such innate reactions.” This is, after all, what communication is for: the ability to give warning and to take heed without having to think about it probably lengthened the lives of our ancestors.  The range of individuals’ susceptibility to emotional contagion and their ability to infect others is wide, but can be increased with training

So, a conductor depends on emotional contagion.  When I wrote about Leonard Bernstein, I emphasized his ability to get performers to take on the responsibility of being artists, of engaging with the music in the moment they make it.  You can ask them to do it, if they're great musicians like the members of the NY Phil, and then trust that they will  But one of the jobs of a conductor is to live the emotional intention of the music in order to influence the performers, and that's where emotional contagion comes in.  

As empathy starts to take place, the conductor, then the performers, then the audience start to connect with the feeling in the air.  Sounds fruity, but it actually happens.  Well, it can happen.  Especially if:
  • You allow it.  It's a choice--you won't necessarily get carried away by a dramatic moment.  But if you would like to, you can allow yourself to be affected.  You already know this, you've already made this choice sometime in your life.  You can develop your skill at it, and increase your empathy.  (More on this when I talk in greater detail about neuroplasticity.)
  • There are multiple means of communication.  In a movie you get sound and light and story.  In a live theater performance, you also get the actual feelings of the actual people on stage--pheromones might be involved, so that even our sense of smell is helping us to empathize.  In a musical performance, it's more difficult.   Classical music takes some training to get into.  I mean, it's wonderful and anyone can love it, but the more you know about it, the easier it is to listen to.  The better you understand it, the quicker you can perceive the expressive intent of the composer.  You also, in a live performance, get the benefit of the emotions of individual performers if they are, as they should be, really living that expression and not just reproducing notes on a page.
Emotional contagion.  More science that shows why art is art.

Monday, May 17, 2010

music teachers, you're amazing

I'm going to be writing about music teachers in movies this week.  There will be many disparaging remarks made.  Before I do that, I want to make it clear how highly I respect real-life music teachers who spend every day in classrooms all over the country.  They work with kids, they wrestle with administrators, they seek repertoire, and try to make art in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare.

I taught for five years, from 1999 to 2004.  I liked the kids, I liked making them sing, showing them how music was art.  I hated that administrative efficiousness, the heirarchy, the bureaucracy were valued over beauty, joy, and the experience of art.  I mean, I get that schools deal with huge numbers of kids with a wide variety of requirements, but can't they trust a teacher at least to be an expert in his field and even a thoughtful, insightful human being?  Bah!  I won't write about that because I don't want to.  I don't have the answers; I don't even have the patience to seek answers.  Suffice it to say I found it stifling to the point of torture.  I couldn't take it.  I couldn't do it.

I was unlucky, I think, in my situation.  There must be schools out there who value art and music, who understand that an individual teacher can be a great teacher without conforming to a specific paradigm, or who have a paradigm that more closely resembles me with all my highly skilled intensity and passion and commitment.  But all teachers must conform to some degree, and their tolerance for that is greater than mine.  So I admire their resilience.  I know a job I can't handle when I see it, and teaching music in a school is one.  To the people who can, I take my hat off.

In the, as they say, interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that my husband is a high school choir director and has been for over twenty years.  He's also a church musician and kick-ass pianist and all-around generally fabulous person with more patience and tolerance than I can ever imagine possessing.  His ability to put up with other people's bullshit (including mine, if I'm being honest) and still maintain his sense of humor and artistic integrity is awe-inspiring.  How he does it, I have no idea.

I adjudicate competitions and festivals, so I hear a lot of choirs and get to see what a lot of teachers do.  Most of the bad choirs are being conducted by people who were not trained to conduct choirs.  They were hired by people who didn't realize that there is actually training required to teach people to sing, and they themselves didn't know enough to argue.  So I try to help when I give them comments.  "Head voice," I tell them, "and quality repertoire."

Many of the people who were trained to conduct choirs are doing beautiful, amazing things.  I've heard school choirs that literally made me weep both from the power of their performance and for the joy that this kind of thing is happening in schools.  Middle school boys singing Faure, freshman girls singing Mendelssohn.  Bliss!

Yes, music teachers are amazing.  I thank them for putting up with our kids and our stupid, flawed educational system.  Thanks for sticking in there and making a difference!

Soon, I will be railing against depictions of music teachers in movies, mostly because the conducting is such crap.  I don't mean to say that music teachers aren't heroes.  I don't mean to say they don't deserve to have movies made about them.  On the contrary, they deserve to be depicted well--as good as they are--as opposed to the crap that gets slopped up onto screens every few years.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I got a t-shirt for my birthday a couple of years ago that says MAESTRO on it in a sort of Broadway playbill style font.  I think it's funny, so I wear it to the gym and, as below, when I romp my dogs.

Maestro is an Italian word that translates literally to "master."

A Google search tells me that it's derived from the Latin magister, which means teacher, tutor, or master.

And magister is derived from magnus, which means great or mighty.

All of these, sayeth the Great and Powerful Goog, are derived from the Proto-Indo-European root meg, which means great.

The leader of music in church used to be called the maestro di capella (the more familiar German term is Kappelmeister).  And maestro is short for that.

But why do we call a conductor "maestro," even when he no longer has anything to do with the chapel, much less master of it?  My opera singer friend 
John tells me that it's an American thing.  Europeans don't address a conductor as "Maestro"--though certainly in our consciousness, we imagine obsequious violinists shaking hands with a man in white tie and tails, lowering his head and saying "Maestro..."

Opera singers, by the way, have a harder job than conductors do.  Opera singers are amazing people, and they will definitely get their own post some day.

In the meantime, why do we call a conductor "Maestro?"

I don't know.

It used to be common for composers to be conductors.  It was also common for composers to be teachers, so it would make sense to address a teacher as "Maestro," just as you might address your yogi as "Guru."  And why would we, in 2010, do 

I don't know.

Perhaps because conducting is such a mysterious art form, practiced by so few, deeply studied by even fewer, that we maintain a specialized title for members of a specialized field.  Further, perhaps we enjoy thinking of the conductor as someone apart from everyday life.  The Maestro.  Or, in my case, Maestra.

This is not the most informative post I've written, but I have looked for answers and no one seems to have examined the issue because the practice is taken so for granted.  If anybody else has an explanation, I'd love to know.

Friday, May 14, 2010

with my freeze ray

I need to be an evil scientist in my next life.  There must be a way for me to harness my useless excitement over other people's research.  Honestly, this kind of stuff thrills and tickles me: Biomotion Lab.  They study motion and what it communicates.  And my question is, "when will they start to study conductors?"  Because all we do is move and count on our ensembles to perceive stuff.  And it's sooooo interesting what they might be getting from our movement that we don't even intend.

I keep giggling and clapping like a pre-schooler watching Teletubbies.  Isn't it COOL?!

Check out the fun Biomotion toys--er, demos.  My favorite is the BMLrating, where you can choose any attribute you want to measure (I chose "engagement"), then watch hundreds of examples and rank them (I ranked them from "disinterested" to "interested.").  The computer then puts together the information and gives you a result where you can slide a scale to increase or decrease the attribute.  So it showed me a person walking, then I slid the bar over the scale to "interested" and the walker got faster, leaned more forward (and a bunch of other smaller, subtler changes that are hard to describe).  I slid the bar over to "disinterested" and the walker slowed and seemed to shift his weight back.  Awesome!

My ability to recognize sex was 62%, slightly below the world average of 65%.

I need a moment to giggle and clap some more.

The website says they're goals are to study

  • detection of animate agents

  • conspecific recognition

  • gender recognition

  • individual recognition

  • recognition of an agent's actions

  • recognition of emotions, personality traits and intentionality

  • face recognition

  • My interest is particularly in that penultimate one, of course.  Recognition of emotions, personality traits, and intentionality--WOW!  This is just walking, of course, but it's got to have ramifications into more elaborate gesture, too.  Doesn't it?  Also, is there correlation between weight and mood or sex and energy level?  Does a feminine motion look more relaxed?  I don't know!  But I'm glad someone is trying to measure this stuff.

    Science and art!!!  We will stop... The world.

    Thursday, May 13, 2010


    I haven't seen Avatar.  

    I know, you can mock me later.  

    My understanding is that the Na'vi have this thing where they say to each other "I see you," and being seen is a big deal.  Recognizing a person's value, their self, is powerful and important.  I just wrote about the responsibility of a conductor to humanity, and there's this huge movie that talks about valuing each individual's humanity... or Na'vi-ity.  Which is awesome.  And apparently everyone's seen it, except me and this guy:

    The conductor of the Richardson Symphony Orchestra (have you ever heard of them?  Me neither.) of Richardson, TX, Anshel Brusilow, apparently had a kind of hissy fit, berating the orchestra for complaining about not getting paid.  

    At the Minnesota Orchestra Blog, I find someone who agrees with me that conductors have a responsibility to honor the humanity of the musicians in the ensemble.  Sarah Hicks says that, though there was a time when conductors could hire and fire on whim, "this behavior is no longer considered normal or even appropriate."  Lord, was there a time when this behavior was considered normal or appropriate?!

    According to his bio,  Brusilow's only actual training as a conductor was when he was a teenager, fully sixty years ago, which means his training is pretty spare compared to folks now who get DMAs in conducting before they get appointed to a position like that.  I do believe that people who actually specialize in conducting don't generally act this way.  "This" way being that which is more appropriate for someone who is blind because their head is buried in their own nether regions.  

    There's Manuchehr Sabhaii in Tehran (Tehran!), who quit in part because the management was treating the musicians poorly.  His response was not "I'm so good that I'll put up with BS" but rather "I'm too good to tolerate an organization who doesn't have the same values that I do."

    I do believe I've already written about this.  Training and artistry, vision that complements that of the organization.  Responsibility to humanity that we may be, you know, people.

    I think a conductor should side with performers over management if a contract is not honored by management.  But even if the conductor thinks that management isn't too badly at fault and wants the musicians to be patient with them, he shouldn't speak to the orchestra with that kind of snide disrespect.

    Unlike Brusilow, most us can't live for a year without getting paid.  If he doesn't need to complain about it, that should make him an advocate for the rest of us!  That's what we owe each other in this life--to care for others when we are healthy, to fight for others when we are strong.  When he tells them to "wake up" and "get a life," he clearly doesn't see them as human beings.  Because they do have lives.  Which is why they need to get paid!    

    James Cameron and I need to sit down with this guy and give him a good talking-to.  

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    responsibility to humanity

    I recently told someone that I believe pharmaceutical companies deserve to profit from new drugs they develop.  I think research is undervalued, and people who discover and/or create something new should be rewarded for their contribution to humanity.  I have personally benefited from pharmaceutical interventions, and I'm grateful to the companies to did all of that expensive research to come up with the drugs that helped me.

    I'm grateful.  I appreciate (by both the American and British definitions of that word) the original work that went into the development of those drugs.  The final product was of value to me, so I'm willing to exchange money in return for what they provide.


    I want to believe that the individuals who do that research, who run those companies, feel about their work the way I feel about my work: that the only reason to do any work in the world is for the benefit of humanity.  I want to believe that someone who runs a company that makes billions of dollars every year will not just feel obliged, but will want to give back to the world, so that people who are unable to give much money can benefit from their work as much as those of us who have the capacity to pay what it is worth.

    I'm a conductor.  I don't make anything useful.  I don't save lives or feed the hungry.  I'm an artist.  I provide a service, sort of, but it's not one that puts roofs over peoples' heads or ensures clean water in the developing world.  The risks I take are personal, philosophical ones--which aren't risks at all, compared to the risks taken by guys who fill potholes on highways.  We need those guys.  I'm grateful to those guys.  I'm content to pay taxes so that the government can pay them to do it.  They do it to profit from it, to take care of their families; but, I hope they also feel good that they make our lives better.

    A conductor has a responsibility to humanity, as do all members of the human race, to use their work to benefit others.  Maslow's heirarchy tells us that, once food and shelter are provided, human beings have a need to express, create, and connect with others.  Conductor's don't address the essential necessities at the bottom of the pyramid, and frankly sometimes I have some guilt about that.  People are starving, but I make music!  Still, we do provide access to the top of the pyramid.  And even people who are just barely making ends meet will benefit from an opportunity to sing with others, or to hear great music being made.  Struggling to survive can sap your spirit, but art is nourishment that can refresh your humanity.  I hope that my work does that for someone someday.

    I think people need to take care of one another.  I think that's the only reason any human beings are here on this planet, and that no matter what occupies our time, we all have the same purpose.  Conductors need to provide an environment of physical and emotional safety and support for their ensemble members, so that they feel free to make expressive music that touches audiences, so that the members of both the ensemble and the audience benefit from the uplifting, enlightening experience of great art.

    My immersion in art makes me want to share my gifts with others; it has made me a more complete human being and inspired me to seek my fullest humane potential.  I hope that others feel the same way.  I suspect that if everyone got to experience art the way I do, they would have the same reaction I have had.  So I aim to bring my art to as many people as will let me.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010

    it's no secret

    I like John Terauds' blog because he writes about musicianship like it's a way of life.  Which it is.  I appreciate any blogging about conducting, and I enjoy the headline:

    He has, in fact, hit the nail on the head (one of the nails, anyway) when he identifies empowerment, but allow me to quibble--er, I mean, clarify:

    It's not a secret.  And it's not just a new generation of conductors who do this.

    Jeffrey Renshaw, the wind conductor at UConn, played a DVD for his undergraduate instrumental conducting class.  It showed clips of different orchestras with different conductors playing some of the "Overture" from Candide.  A wide variety of interpretations were represented, and the penultimate example was Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, in which he did his funky, odd-looking conducting, and the orchestra played the pants off the piece.  It was clearly the most lively, interesting, richly-textured, dynamically varied performance of them all.  The final example was of the NY Phil playing after Bernstein's death.  It was the same piece, but the conductor's podium was left deliberately empty in tribute to him.  It was even better than the performance with Bernstein on the podium.  Bernstein's gift--one of his gifts--was getting each player to give as he gave, to engage in every moment of the performance with artistic integrity.  It's what they do as solo artists.  Without a conductor, that's what these amazing professionals did as an ensemble.

    Another mentor of mine, James Jordan, widely published author on choral conducting, has written even in his earliest books about the individual responsibility of each member of the ensemble to make music independently.  Specifically, he has described how being in a large group tends to make a person feel like he or she doesn't have to be responsible, since there are all those other folks to share the load.  That natural inclination to abdicate to the whole group is a problem all conductors combat, and always have.

    "I can't crawl inside your head and make the music for you," I tell my college singers.  "You have to be musicians!"

    John Terauds mentions a "long list of very successful and respected tyrant-micromanager conductors."  I have a theory about this.  One might get the impression that those conductors are "successful and well-respected" because most arts administrators and audience members don't know enough about conducting to recognize that tyrant-micromanager conductors aren't actually all that good.  If you ask a professional, specialist conductor (Dr. Renshaw or Dr. Jordan, for example) his opinion about a conductor on that "very long list," I bet he won't gush about success and respect.  He wouldn't bad-mouth a colleague, but buy that conductor a drink and promise him confidentiality, and he may shrug his shoulders and say, unimpressed, "enh.  He's okay."

    Further, I suspect that these tyrant-micromanagers find success by playing on people's ignorance.  It's easy for people assume that if you are condescending and snobby about how much you know, then you must know more than they do.  If you treat other musicians with disdain, then it must be because you are better than they are, right?  And because conducting is such an esoteric field, few people know enough to explain or contradict.  Beware the unpleasant conductor!  He (there are so few prominent women conductors that it's just statistically more likely to be a man, though a woman has all the potential to be unpleasant that a man does) may be hiding his own insecurity, if not incompetence.  Also, so many undertrained conductors are on podiums that audiences keep getting exposed to mediocre conducting, with no one openly telling them "no, that's not what conducting is supposed to be!"  The guy on the podium must be what a conductor is.  Right?

    Not necessarily.

    There's a difference, and I'm glad to have this blog to explain it to anyone who wants to know.  Of course, my perspective isn't the only legitimate one; it's just the only one I've had time to write about so far.

    So, to John Terauds I say: "you're right!" (well, more specifically, "I agree," which, of course, is the same thing as far as I'm concerned): humble, collegial, inspirational conductors are superior conductors to tyrant-micromanagers (in my opinion.  Because the resulting performances will be more colorful, vibrant, and alive with the artistry of each performer's deepest humanity!).  However, they aren't a new thing.  We've been around as long as there have been conductors.  I'm working to debunk the myth of the jerk who flails, and I thank you for giving me the chance to explain it better.

    tax deductible massages

    It's Mother's Day, and one of the many things my mother taught me was to do my own taxes, and--if I itemize--to deduct professional expenses.  Thanks, Mom!

    Making music as a conductor, singer, or instrumentalist, is inescapably physical.  After I started having neck/shoulder pain that interfered with my work, a massage therapist who happens to sing in my community choir suggested that a massage might help me.  Boy, was she right.  I'm working on Alexander Technique and yoga and Tai Chi in hopes that I can learn to use my body as efficiently as possible so that I don't build up to the the kind of tension and pain that is possible; but, my lifestyle of doctoral-student-with-multiple-jobs isn't conducive to the kind of holistic realignment I really need.  So I get a massage every four to six months, just to straighten me out.  It makes all the difference in the world.  

    I find that massage provides physical improvements as well as psychological ones.  The muscles get untightened to free up my gesture, and my mind gets a chance to detox as well.  I just had a massage on Thursday, and my church choir can attest to the difference it makes.  Last week, I was a grump (which I almost never am!) and this week I was just about back to normal.  They put up with me last week, thankfully, but they really do sing better when I can be in a worshipful place with them.  The end of the semester at school helps with that, too, but I can tell you that the massage, and the fact that I took time for it, put my brain back into more regular rhythm.

    I haven't had the gumption to claim massages as a professional expenses on my taxes, but honestly, I couldn't do my work nearly so well without them.