Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What We Wear Wednesday, 3: bridezilla

Because the nature of my work demands that I stand up in front of people, and because I ask them to open their empathic channels to my influence, I think carefully about what I wear.  The result is a great deal of opinions about what conductors and people in general should wear.  My wedding anniversary recently passed, and I just sang at a friend's wedding next week, so I've been thinking about wedding attire and how it differs from performance attire.

I've been to lots of weddings as a guest and as a mercenary performer, and almost all of them have had a bride in a white ball gown and a groom in a tuxedo, regardless of the time of day.  As I have posted before,  the origin of the tuxedo is as dinner attire, for after 6 p.m.,  Full-skirted, constructed-bodiced ball gowns and really white-tie area, though they might also pass for black tie.

Before anyone gets mad that I'm telling them they wore the wrong thing to their wedding, I need to add that, of course, I think brides should wear whatever makes them happy!  I have a guess that most affianced couples wish to make their wedding special, outstanding from everyday life, so they put on formal attire for that reason--old rules be damned since the rules of formal dress are no longer important nor even known to most of us.  All brides I know have done it, and they always look beautiful and special on their big days, and I celebrate that with great joy. 

But I enjoy rules, and I wear formal attire all the time for my job, so I felt no compulsion to put on my work uniform for my wedding, you know?  Nor did I wish to force my husband to wear his tuxedo on a Saturday morning when he wears it twenty times a year to perform in.  Thus, since it is not, strictly speaking, appropriate to wear a formal gown in the morning, I wore this:

I did wear shoes at the ceremony, but not long thereafter.  The reception was at my house (mostly on my front porch), so I figured shoes were optional.  It was a Saturday morning, when morning attire is appropriate--which is why there is such a thing as a morning coat, which British men still wear for morning weddings if movies and t.v. are to be believed.  Americans weren't unfamiliar with morning coats, as attested-to by Mr. Class himself, Fred Astair, who couldn't be using it as a costume if he didn't expect people to know what it is.

But because my husband and I are both conductors who wear formal attire all the time, "special" for us meant sans black tie.

On a side note, I also wore this dress on Easter Sunday that same year, two months before the wedding.  I say this in evidence that "cocktail" is a flexible level of formality with many applications beyond actual cocktail parties, and also to soapbox for a moment about my constitutional objection to buying anything that I intend only to wear once.  The environmental and economic wastefulness of such a notion baffles me.  Again, all brides I know have done it, and they always look beautiful and special on their big days, and I celebrate that with great joy. Still--and I hate to be saying this in June, when so many wedding occur--I have to admit that I don't get it.  


 I would never wear this dress to perform in (at church I wore a choir robe over it during the services).  Why not?  It's certainly formal enough for a matinee, which most of my concerts these days are.  But it's sleeveless, which I've heard some conductors say is distracting to the performers, and it also feels not professional.  There might be circumstances when I'd conduct in something sleeveless, but that would be the exception rather than the rule.  Also, the floral pattern is awfully big and poofy.  Again, not professional, and also visually distracting.  

So what would I wear?  I'll have to cover that separately.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Multiple Intelligence Monday 5: Bodily-Kinesthetic


This is good timing.  It's just a coincidence, but this week I am at Omega in Rhinebeck, NY, taking a week-long Tai Chi workshop.  Because it's important for conductors to be good at understanding and moving their bodies.

As I have said before, these intelligences do not represent fixed abilities or smartness, but rather strengths particularly relating to learning styles.  I'm sure it's obvious to you why kinesthetic intelligence would be important for a conductor, but I'll go ahead and spell it out.

A conductor's job is to embody the expressive intent of the composer.  Embody, as in put it into their body.  The easier it is to coordinate movement and attend to physical sensation, the easier the job will be.  Conducting is more like dance than anything else--you make gestures that express what the music expresses.  The difference is that conducting is usually leading the music and dance is more commonly following it.

Here I'd like to talk about training and aptitude.  On So You Think You Can Dance, dancers who are really good at one style are asked to do many other styles.  As far as my understanding goes, it is kinesthetic intelligence which will allow them not only to dance well, but to learn new styles quickly and be able to alter the character of their movements as needed.  Training can make a good dancer, and has certainly proven to be an asset on the show, but adaptability takes intelligence.  Trained dancers generally do better on the show, and there is the possibility that training can actually increase intelligence, but over and over, the untrained dancers amaze us with their ability to do new things.  

Speaking of amazing ability, here's Wade Robson when he was eight years old. 

I've never met an eight-year-old with that kind of coordination, balance, subtlety of movement.  It's just extraordinary.  Magical.  And when you're that kind of a dancer as a kid, you can grow up into this kind of choreographer:

I chose this of all the amazing videos of his choreography because he's also performing.  Wade is the dancer with the red gloves, the man in the front as they walk down the stairs.  Can you take your eyes off him?  I have trouble.  He's intense and sooooo specific and committed to every movement.  Seriously, I'm in awe.  Just go to YouTube and search for Wade Robson and start watching videos.  He's dreamy.  Of course, I'm particularly impressed because he's got musicality and creativity and expressivity to match the incredible physical skills.  

I have to talk about me, I suppose, because it's my blog and because this is an important thing to me, though any kinesthetic intelligence I have is trite in comparison to the above.  Still, I guess I can take comfort in the idea that I'm probably a better conductor then Wade Robson would be... though he's a better dancer than I am a conductor--oh, he's so good!

Anyway.  Me.  I have some training.  I took ballet as a kid, which many people can say.  But I did it for ten years, along with a few years of tap and jazz.  When I got to college, I started swing dancing.  I've danced socially, mostly, but I've attended classes and workshops aplenty.  I also have taken regular yoga classes, studied Tai Chi and Alexander Technique, and--oh, yeah--I'm a conductor.  I'm not gifted.  But I like it a lot, and I have some training.

I tell people all the time that if they want to sing, they can.  My sister says that any woman who wants to have an orgasm can.  It may take some practice, but interest and application unfailingly yield results.  I think the same must be true with dance.  I have no gift, but I have always liked it, and so I've invested time to learn.  I think that has built up my ability, and that translates to the physical aspects of conducting.  As a result (or possibly it's the cause?), I learn quicker when I experience things bodily.  If there is movement involved, my brain grabs onto it more quickly.  The act of conducting while I practice actually helps me learn the music more efficiently.

And now, because I'm too lazy to make an actual video montage but I feel compelled to entertain you, a photo collage of me dancing and doing goofy things demonstrating the influence of much dance training in civilian life (with apologies to the siblings who must inevitably be exposed with me):

Variously, pictures of ballet, musical theater, lindy hop, and two demonstrating my inability to stand still and just have my picture taken like a regular person.  I tend to pose.  It's a habit.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Philly complaints choir

Just for fun on a Saturday...

There are a lot of these complaints choirs on YouTube.  This is one of the better ones because the text actually scans almost naturally, and the tune is catchy but still interesting.  Also, I was born and raised in Delaware then worked and went to school in New Jersey (though I've never had Jersey license plates!), so Philadelphia is like my home city.

Friday, June 25, 2010

touchy feely

I posted last week about Singing Redefined, which asserts that intention and imagination, as the sources of expression, can and should be used as a vehicle for teaching singing.  I assert that maybe imagination can be the first step in teaching conducting, because intention is what guides motion.

And yesterday I posted about Resonant Leadership, which explains that being a leader requires renewal though mindfulness, hope, and compassion in order to make up for their deficits of neurological wear and tear that are inherent in good leadership.  Mindfulness, hope, and compassion are sort of fruity ideas compared with the sciencey goodness of neurological evidence.  Nonetheless, they are connected.  And that brings me to the reason that I feel okay with being a little touchy feely.

One of my student evaluations from my conducting class said I was "sort of touchy feely."  Which I am.  And I feel like I failed with that student, not because I didn't address his or her technical needs, but I didn't manage to make him or her understand that the touchy-feely stuff is the source, the foundation of good technique.

It's a thing I have struggled with.  Not that I've always been touchy feely and have struggled with that, but that I used to be dry as a bone and completely oblivious to the benefits of touchy feeliness, and have worked very hard to become touchy feelier.

I'll go ahead and give a shout out to Paul Head here, who started at the University of Delaware while I was there, thirteen years ago.  In 1998, I asked him about getting my little church choir to look at me and follow my tempo.  He baffled and confused me when he asked, "are you giving them something to look at?  Are you showing them anything?"

And I thought, What do you mean, "showing them anything?"  Of course I'm showing them all kinds of stuff.  Louder/softer, faster/slower, longer/shorter...

Then he asked me if the Telemann piece we were looking at were a football game, who would win?  

"What???  Football didn't exist when Telemann was composing."  

I know, this was a thickity thick thick-head answer, but I totally didn't get it.  How could I?  No one had ever mentioned to me that conductors do more than direct traffic.   And, though I had certainly seen conductors do more, I had never... noticed?  Understood?  Internalized it?

Anyway, I was lucky to be told, as a twenty year old conductor-to-be, that there is more to it.  Since then, I have worked to become touchy-feelier because I have seen that it has technical merit.  Expressive conductors are better conductors.  Clear conductors are good, but saying something clearly only matters when you have something to say.  And "breathe, crescendo, cut off" is not so compelling a story as "get ready, moreMoreMORE, done!"  And I believe that students need to learn to tell compelling stories

And if we look at the big picture, we see leaders in fields other than the arts who are moving toward a touchy-feely-seeming sort of approach, like Christiane Northrup.  She advocates thinking about health from the inside out the way I think about conducting from intention to gesture, from feeling to display.  Fruity?  Sort of.  A better way of doing it?  I think so.

So, anyone who has read a few of these blog posts can see that I am a big fan of science, of technique, of technical excellence.  This is the place I started my journey.  But I have also come to think that none of that matters unless it serves art, unless it opens us to truth and humanity.  I'm proud to say that that's sort of touchy feely, and it's totally my bag.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

resonant leadership

My sister gave me an audiobook of Resonant Leadership.  It's funny that I was glad to have it as an audiobook so I didn't have to spend time sitting and reading it, feeling guilty that I wasn't doing real work, which is just the sort of thing the book says I needn't feel.  Anyway, I got to listen while I did laundry and the dishes, so it felt doubly productive.

I wanted to write about the book before I write about emotional intelligence on Multiple Intelligence Monday, so that I can refer back to this information.

For those of you without time even to listen to the audiobook version, here's a bit of summary:

Leading is inherently stressful.  Good leadership requires the kind of giving of self that may not seem physically demanding the way manual labor does, but actually costs us physiological harm through wear and tear on the endocrine and nervous systems.  
I'll say that again.
Good leadership is hard on your body.  It physically, literally, bodily wears you out.  And that leaves you incapable of giving of yourself--leaves you incapable of being a good leader.  Yes, good leadership can cause bad leadership.  
They call it "power stress" in the book, and it leads to what they call the "sacrifice syndrome," which is the set of symptoms that result from the on-going, long term stress of giving of yourself which builds on itself; and, not only will in make you incapable of leading well, it will kill you.  Not just feel bad, but kill you.  
Arright, I'm being more dramatic than the book is, but the fact is high blood pressure, as one example, isn't likely to kill you right away, but it will shorten your life.
Therefore, to be a good leader you must give of yourself, but in order to sustain good leadership you must allow yourself to be renewed through mindfulness, hope, and compassion.

I'll let you go read the book for it's real-life examples, exercises, and explanations of the physiology.  I'll also confess now that mindfulness and hope are part of why I write this blog.  I remind myself with every post what my responsibilities are--the big picture responsibilities, as well as the straight-up fun ones.  And I remind myself of the fun there is to be had.  Writing about conducting makes me look forward to my next rehearsal.  And anytime you guys e-mail me or post comments here or on Facebook, I get a little charge out of the connection with musicians and amateurs.  So, thanks!  My choirs thank you, too.

So, Resonant Leadership is a book I think every conductor should read.

And now for some of my conductor-flavored insight.

They call good leadership "resonant."  I particularly like this term for its musical quality.  In singing, resonance takes place when the vibration produced by the vocal folds moves up the vocal tract, pharynx, mouth, and sinuses, causing sympathetic vibrations that shape the tone into the sound everyone hears.  Resonance is the creation of efficient, effective sympathetic vibrations.  A singer controls resonance through minute adjustments to the anatomy--lift the soft palate, round the lips--and also the imagination.  The control of acoustical sensations, like sending tone forward focusing it, is purely a result of imagination.  Resonant leadership is the creation of sympathetic actions that lead to a common goal, both by arranging the physical necessities and by imaging the possibilities.

As a matter of fact, in the production of tone there are four parts: initiator (breath), vibrator (vocal folds), resonator (vocal tract), articulator (lips, teeth, tongue, palate, etc.).  I posit that if a good leader is like a good singer, he can create resonance with action and imagination, but it all begins with breath.  The quality of the breath--warm and open, deep and intense--colors the tone that results.  It's called "inspiration" for a reason, folks.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What We Wear Wednesday, 2: what not to wear

Today, what conductors do not wear.

Casual attire is more formal than the Twenty-first Century might lead you to believe.  People regularly go out in public in workout clothes and pajamas, much to the chagrin of fashion police everywhere; but, real casual attire is what you might wear to work at an office or fancy shop if you don't wear a suit.  Polo shirts and khakis are at the low end, dress slacks and sport coats are at the top end.  Denim, tweed, and corduroy are all casual.  Also, details of utilitarian construction like rivets and external pockets with flaps make clothes look casual.

Business attire is basically a suit: matching pieces with tailored construction.  And here's where there's some real overlap, because you might wear dress slacks and a sport coat at a "smart casual" event like a party or to work.  But on days when you give a presentation to the board, you'll probably wear a suit, right?

Under what circumstances should either of these be worn by a conductor?  An outreach concert at a school, perhaps.  Or an outdoor matinee.  But these options are rarely appropriate.

Cocktail is the one level of formality most easily measured by women's attire rather than men's, because there is such a thing as a cocktail dress.  It is short--knee length or so--and made of a fabric that has texture, sheen, or some other sort of interest to make it formal.  This is as opposed to, for example, a sundress, which is likely to be made of more casual cotton.  At the lowest end of cocktail-level formality is a day-to-evening type dress, such as a sheath worn under a suit, something which might be worn to church or a work event.  Slightly higher of the scale is the realm of the tea-length garden party type dress, which might also be worn to church on Christmas or Easter.  The dressiest cocktail dresses, the typical cocktail dresses, could go black tie.  A man would likely likely wear a suit to a cocktail party, but a dressy one might call for a tuxedo (as would a Christmas Eve service, but definitely not Easter morning).

Which brings me to the dinner jacket.  Black tie is now considered super formal.  Proms, weddings, and possibly New Year's Eve parties are the main places for the wearing of a tuxedo, which was originally just typical evening wear--to dress for dinner, you wear a dinner jacket.  Black tie, white pleated-front shirt, black jacket, black pants with the satin stripe down the side, black dress shoes.  A vest or a cummerbund.  Alternate colors are okay nowadays--it started with white, then grey, and now high school boys rent ill-fitting polyester crap to match their dates' dresses--but it's still referred to as "black tie" because that's the level of formality, not necessarily the color of the tie, ya know?  Black tie should not be worn before 6 p.m. (for that, you can be guided by the women's label of "tea length," meaning not a full-length gown appropriate for the evening, but a shorter dress for the afternoon).  It's a dinner jacket, you see.  You wear it for dinner.  For women, black tie is very flexible.  At the Oscars, a few women wear cocktail dresses, but most wear floor-length gowns.  A gown can be black tie, particularly if it is unconstructed, like a slip dress, but a full-skirted, constructed-bodice ball gown really should be reserved for white tie.

And this information is basically just to set up next week, when we'll be puttin' on my white tie, brushing off my tails.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

ac-CEN-tu-ate the positive

The sounds of words matter.  Diction matters.  When we sing, lots of emphasis is put on purity of vowels for good vocal production and accuracy of consonants for clarity of pronunciation.  I'd like to take a moment to reflect on how we perceive diction.

My voice teacher in undergrad was a petite blonde soprano from Texas.  Can you imagine the assumptions people made about her?  A southern accent alone is enough to make people assume your brain works slowly, so being female, blonde, and small were just confirmation of what her accent had already told them, right?


It's hard to say exactly what "correct" American English sounds like, because even news broadcasters vary.  And American English has gone through major changes in the past hundred years, as you can tell from any old movie.  It was more rigid in England, where elocution was taught to kids.

After thirty years of Doctor Who (I told you I'd talk about him somehow!), Christopher Eccleston was the first Doctor to have a northern accent.  Sort of like a southern accent in America, it is sometimes equated with ignorance or stupidity--like having a thick regional accent means you haven't learned how to speak "properly."  Anyway, he thought the Doctor having a northern accent would demonstrate that the accent doesn't matter, only the content of the speech.  Of course the Doctor could be northern ("lots of planets have a North."), it doesn't make him any less brilliant.

I love that he values the specificity of the sound of language and honors the regional distinctions which make words personal and colorful in their expression.  Not just in terms of sociological expectations, but in terms of how we hear expression in words.  The best composers honor that by setting texts in ways that sing like they speak.  Bach and Brahms in German, Barber in American English, and Britten in British English all have names starting with B.  I wonder if having a name that starts with B gives you some kind of leg-up in terms of perceiving words... I mean you grow up with B in your last name, making you say it far more frequently than anyone without a B in their name would.  Hm.  Anyway, they are all spectacular at setting texts that sing like they speak, of using the sounds of words and music, and the sounds of music as poetry.

And if there's one singer who uses language and its sounds with expressive specificity, it's Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  Mmmhh...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Multiple Intelligence Monday 4: Logical-Mathematical


Musical ability and mathematical ability have been linked in studies for decades.  I wish I could say I rock at numbers and logic, but I just don't.  I sort of feel like I let my sex down in this way--it's just too typical for "girls" to be "bad at math," but it's just a fact for me.

An example of deficiency in action: I considered doing a PhD instead of a DMA, which would have required me to take the GRE.  In preparation, I took a practice GRE.  I didn't prepare for it at all, just did it to see where I stood.  I don't remember the exact score on the math portion, but I think we calculated that whatever it was meant I got one question right.  I remember I was in the 1th percentile.  99% of people who took that test on that day did better than I did.  Now, that's measuring me against engineers as well as English majors, so I'm not gonna cry about being in the bottom 1% of graduate students.  But I did honestly try.  I mean, I might have just guessed the answers--chance would probably have been more likely to give me correct answers than my actually trying.  I'm not sure though, because figuring that out would require calculating probability, which baffles me a bit.

I got a friend, a physics teacher, to tutor me.  He taught me how to take the test.  I learned very little math, but I learned test-taking strategies and some short-cuts.  I don't remember any of it anymore, of course, but it did result in my ending up in the forty-fifth percentile when I took the real  GRE.  

Forty-fifth percentile, even among graduate students, is nothing to brag about.  Especially since I worked for months to prepare--and I made huge improvements--but still really just did average.  That shows you how little potential I have.  I joke, "I'm a conductor: I can only count to four!"

I don't know how my conductor friends and colleagues fare on math tests, or how their math skills are.  Since so many studies have linked math and music, I can't help but imagine that it makes musician's lives easier if they're also naturally inclined towards math and logic.  Frankly, my perspective is deeply skewed by my total... I was going to say ignorance, but it goes deeper than ignorance.  Not only do I not know, I'm not even really capable of knowing.  So I don't know what I'm missing.  I know it takes me forever to analyse chords and to figure out rhythms, both of which involve mathy, logicy sorts of skills.  I know for a fact that every other conductor friend is better than I am at these things.  Better, faster, more accurate.  The only thing I can do is practice, take my time, and be aware that I stink so I can make up for this deficiency.  

Luckily, I hope, those skills are the ones that a conductor uses in preparation.  So I can make up for it on my own, before rehearsals even start.  Once I know my score, I can get on  podium and be okay.  Unless there's some other math-music connection that I'm missing.  Which there very well might be.  In that case, I'm still in school so hopefully my teachers will let me know.

Friday, June 18, 2010

singing redefined

 Anyone can sing.  I've made this statement any number of times and amateurs roll their eyes at it, thinking of bad karaoke.  I don't say anyone can do it without any training at all--in most cultures, people take for granted that singing is a part of every day life, so "training" is constant from the time you're born.  But, for us in the Western world, where singing has become a competition, only trained singers are regarded as singers.  It's bullshit and it's unfortunate, so I literally would like to teach the world to sing, but I can't do everything.  

Anyone can sing.  Anyone.  I guarantee.  It's not only possible, but really good for you.  I highly recommend it.  Join a choir if you haven't already.  I bet you'll love it.

But I am going to talk for a moment about trained singing.  Opera-ish, art songy, bel canto, classical style singing.  That list is contradictory, according to some, but you can go find those singers to tell you why.  

There is a book, published a dozen years ago, called Singing Redefined, by Walter C. Foster.  It was one of my undergraduate vocal pedagogy text books, so it has clearly influenced the way I work.  It is not uncontroversial, but I just don't have time to present the controversy here.  I'm just going to tell you Walter's side of the story and if you'd like to point out the flaws in the approach, feel free.  

Arright, so Walter C. Foster wrote that singing is controlled by the imagination.  Of course, this makes sense. I mean, when you're talking to someone, telling a story of an interesting thing that happened to you, the expression in your voice comes from your own unconscious intentions.  Intensity, focus, warmth, resonance, etc. are controlled by your expressive intent.  The same thing happens to singers, but generally this is only addressed with expert singers.  After a singer studies for years and years to develop healthy technique, then she learns to be expressive.

Walter C. Foster says that, when we teach singers, we should have them engage their imaginations from the very beginning.  Yes, before we teach them about breath support and adduction of the muscles of the vocalis, we teach them to imagine.  When they sing [u] on a five note scale whilst imagining it's their response to a fireworks display, they sing with greater clarity and focus than if they're just focusing on the technical aspects of singing with clarity and focus.  

Cool, right?  I've done it with ensembles and it has worked.  I work on technical stuff, too.  Conductors of amateur and student groups, like me, use warm-ups to teach vocal technique.  I have often used warm-ups with stories and words that engage the imagination at the same time as they develop good habits and establish healthy tone.  It not only makes the tone better in the moment that they are singing it, but it promotes the practice of singing with expressive intention.  So when we do repertoire, it's not just a new thing I throw at them: "Okay, that sounds good.  Now do it with feeling."  Whatever that means.

I also suspect that teaching conducting could work the same way.  The physical skills must come, but if those skills come without intention, then we're just teaching them to be traffic cops.  We want students to have the physical skills, but we want them to use them for a purpose.  I posit that the physical skills can come as a result of the purpose.  I mean, we already move with purpose--throwing a ball, ironing a shirt, shaking out a picnic blanket--without thinking of what the movement is, just thinking of the purpose.  Can't that work for conducting?  

I think so.

And on the other side of that coin is the motion perception I've posted about before.  Clearly, the mind perceives intention from motion in a holistic way.  Can it not be taught that way?  Might it not be taught better that way?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

conducting journal: Franck at a glance

I've started in on the Franck Solemn Mass in A, op. 12.  It's really quiet lovely.  I chose it for several reasons.

First, it's a single, unified work, which is not a thing I have done much with this particular group.  We do a lot of concerts with themes connecting many little songs.

Second, it's in three parts, which is better for this group than four.  As with many community choirs, we have a lot of women and few men.  The men we have are good, but when you divide them up, the balance just doesn't work.  The three parts are actually STB, not SAB, but I think I can make it work by switching some voices around.  You gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Third, as I said when I posted about conducting journaling the first time, it's the source of the famous, lovely "Panis Angelicus."  It's always nice to have a familiar anchor for the audience someplace in the concert.

I've done the first stages of preparation so far: numbering the measures (sound stupid, but it's important) and listening.  Also I've begun with considerations of where I might re-assign voices to make the STB voicing work for SAB.

So, broad strokes.  There are six movements--the regular five movements of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, with the Panis Angelicus stuck in between the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, right in time for communion.  Very practical.  The Gloria and Credo are, as expected, the longest movements, because they have the most texts.  The other movements are proportionate in length to the relative length of their texts.  There isn't a whole lot of text repetition, and there are no fugues or other musical devices where a single phrase of text is repeated eight thousand times.  The text is definitely the leader.  Actually, each phrase is set quite specifically to reflect its meaning, which is a thing I'm going to have to look into further.

The overall sound is tonal as can be.  Several moments are downright pretty.  A little polyphony, limited imitation, some homophony, and many moments of single voices.

Those are the very broadest of strokes, in the first step I take.  Next, zoom in and get to know the lines.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What We Wear Wednesday, 1: white tie and tails

In a further attempt to pretend I have control over the world, I'm initiating another weekly segment: What We Wear Wednesdays.  Conductor attire is an issue, and though it's not the most meaningful thing I'll write about, it does have roots in history and impact on what the ensemble sees (and therefore how they respond to us).


As I've posted again and again, the image of a conductor in the public consciousness is of an old, white man with crazy grey hair holding a baton, wearing white tie and tails.  So let's talk about white tie and tails.

I'll break this up into a couple of sub-topics to be discussed in a series so no one has to read one long, rambling, ranting post.  Today, just the broad strokes, but this and all following attire posts come under the following disclaimer:
These are all social customs, which means they mean different things to different people in different places.  So,what follows is my own adamant argument in favor of a traditional approach to dressing, an argument against using the tuxedo as a uniform or costume.  I argue it with passion and conviction, but full awareness that other people's points of view are valid.
My view comes from the geeky pleasure I take in these kinds of rules.  It's a James Bondian thrill of adhering to tradition to my own best advantage.  The snob appeal of doing it "just so."  And not just that.  On my Facebook page, under "Favorite Movies," it says "Fred and Ginger movies."  I grew up watching them, and my mind grew around it, like vines around a lattice.  In adolescence, I rebelled and tried grunge, but even in my flannel shirts, I couldn't let go of my lipstick.  So the desire for--if not expectation of--that kind of elegance is ingrained more deeply than my times tables.

Arright.  On to the question at hand: Why do conductors wear white tie and tails?  

The rule of thumb I've always heard is that the performers dress one level of formality above their audience, and the conductor dresses one step up from the performers.  This is a little rough to handle, historically, and I don't have any resources to cite that this is accurate, it's just what "they" say.  And it does explain why conductors dress in the most formal attire available, white tie.  Plus, I've heard many male conductors laud the virtues of the tails jacket for its ease of movement.  

Formality can be determined by--among other things--fabric, construction, tailoring, and (for women) hem length.  Of course, these are all shades and grey, and there is overlap.  There is a problem for women that formalwear is often sleeveless if not strapless, and sexy goes along with dressy.  That is, the more formal an outfit is, the more feminine it is likely to be, speaking in terms of what is available in stores.  Balancing formality and attractiveness with professionalism and authority is a trick.

"White tie" is most formal category of formal attire.  It is the most formal level of dress, with clearly spelled-out traditional pieces to the outfit: a tails jacket, white tie and vest, pique front shirt, and tux pants with a satin stripe over the side seam.  Below it are:
  • Black tie: a tuxedo with a dinner jacket, to be worn after 6 p.m. (for dinner!)
  • Cocktail: tux or suit for men, cocktail dress for women
  • Business: a suit
  • Causal: anything else you wear in public

I have conducted on programs with men conductors who insist on wearing white tie and tails at a 3 p.m. concert, which is technically inappropriate and irritates me a bit.  They are using the outfit as a uniform, as a costume rather than actual evening wear.  That's valid.  I just don't like it. 

It is their work uniform if they wear it every time they perform.  I know a conductor who buys a new (to him) rental tux every year.  That's treating it like a work uniform or costume, where quality doesn't matter; it just has to look right from stage every night.  And heaven knows I own polyester gowns purchased as choir uniforms that I would never wear socially.  But when I had to stand next to a man wearing white tie and tails, damned if I was going to do it in a uniform or a costume.  I bought a gown, floor-length silk lined in silk.  Looked good, too.

We are in a profession that celebrates tradition, perpetually resurrecting music written hundreds of years ago, so it is too much to ask that we keep in touch with the traditions of what we wear to perform?  However, like a bride, a conductor should be able to wear whatever makes him happy.  (More on my choices as a bride and as a conductor in later posts.)  

I've had conversations with conductors about attire that have ranged from "I just don't worry about it" to "I think pearls are inappropriate on women under forty."  And I've landed in this place: dress for performance like it's real life.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

gladiator, prisoner, democracy, truth

Last week on NPR I hear a story about English archaeologists discovering decapitated skeletons that they think might be gladiators.

Or possibly prisoners.

There is, chief executive of the York Archaeological Trust, John Walker, says, really no way to tell either way.  So, how to answer the question?  Put it up for a vote!

That was the plan.  The website is, and if you can figure out if they've got the voting stuff up someplace, let me know.

Is democracy really the way to get to the truth?  No.  But I love that they can use it as a vehicle to teach people about archaeology--about the art of science.  Because these kinds of answerless questions require the kinds of thinking that our new information age requires.  Facts can be gleaned instantly  now--encyclopedic knowledge is no longer the possession of value that it once was.  What is of value now is the ability to analyse facts, to make connections, to decide what is relevant, to understand relationships.  And when you go learn about the facts of these decapitated skeletons, you'll see the process conductors use every time they study a score.

The facts are the same for every conductor.  Lines and dots on the page represent pitches and rhythms.  But the composer's intention?  That's not on the page.  That's in our understanding, in our perception.  A great conductor doesn't just reproduce notes and rhythms, but find meaning in them, and brings that meaning to life so that it touches us when we hear it.

Is that truth?  Sort of.  If the conductor can convince us, can make it real for us, then yes, I think that counts as truth.  Is it objective factual truth?  If we summon Beethoven from beyond the grave, will he say "yes, that's exactly what I meant!"  Or if we take a poll of the audience--or of critics!--will everyone agree that this was the way that piece should be performed?

Does it matter?

Monday, June 14, 2010

blue collar meets ivory tower

I have mentioned that I DVR Doctor Who.  I'm sure I will find a way to write about the Doctor someday, but I have not yet been inspired with some brilliant connection between science fiction and conducting.  The other shows I DVR include So You Think You Can Dance, which will be making an appearance on Multiple Intelligence Monday; and, today, Dirty Jobs.

In case you live under a rock, I'll explain that Dirty Jobs is an unscripted show in which the host, Mike Rowe, visits people at work and does their jobs with them.  "Dirty," according to Mike's definition, often involves actual dirt, but can also include difficult working conditions such as heights and/or small spaces, bad smells, hot or cold temperatures, dangerous equipment, uncomfortable protective gear, and plain old difficulty.  It's very entertaining, 95% because of Mike.

I like Mike for several reasons, not the least of which is that he's a classically trained singer.  He got into hosting Dirty Jobs after doing the voice-over narration of Deadliest Catch, the Alaskan crabbing show.  He's also a person who can get along with anyone because he sees and values people's humanity.  That makes him charming, funny, and engaging.

Tonight was the season premier.  It could have been just a clip show re-visiting previous jobs, but instead it was a clip show that interpreted previous jobs, including some new footage.  Mike used the work he has done to mock the poster platitudes about teamwork, efficiency, innovation, etc.  As each segment listed one of his snarky interpretations, I kept thinking, "that's true for conducting, too!"  And he kept saying, "I know someone is at home at this very moment writing a letter to the network to complain..." and he's probably right.  So I'm going to write a letter to not complain.

Dear Discovery,
I'm a lucky woman.  I love what I do--no, even better than that, my work is not what I do, it's who I am.  I am a conductor.  My work is neither dangerous nor even uncomfortable.  It's bliss to be able to do something I love and Dirty Jobs is a show that reminds me to be grateful for that even when it's not ideal.  It also reinforces what I have posted before about my sense of responsibility to humanity, to use my work to make people's lives better.  I want my work not just to be an indulgence for me to enjoy, but to produce something of value to others.  My rehearsals should be fulfilling to my performers, and the performance should lift the spirits of the audience members.  In the meantime, though, I do also enjoy it.

I don't think Mike is dissing white collar America.  As someone with far more education than the Average American, I can represent white collar America--heck, white tie America--and say, "I get it and I agree!"

Even more, Mike's re-invented poster platitudes and relate directly to conducting.

Don't follow your passion.  Take it with you.
I have followed my passion.  But I don't get to stand in front of a choir every day, and I don't get to conduct the way I want every day.  I have to apply my love for conducting to all the work of being a conductor, which includes some tedious, boring, annoying crap.

Also, being a professional artist has meant being unemployed.  After I got a master's degree in conducting, I couldn't find work for nine months, and even then all I had was about about fifteen hours a week of work in music.  Not being independently wealthy and wanting to eat more than rice and beans, I got a job at a jewelry store.  Zales.  I ended up quitting eighteen months later because I learned that Zale Corp., based in Texas, refused to provide health benefits to legally married same-sex spouses; but, when I started, I was lucky to find a store where the manager was smart, reasonable, and competent to a level that was far above the average I had experienced.  I've worked with people in the top of their field who were jerks and thoughtless boneheads--the movie Office Space is funny for a reason, you know?  The other sales people, also, were fabulous, and we're still friends to this day.

I learned that being my intense, verbal, brainy self was an effective sales technique.  And other sales people being themselves--funny, personable, warm, professional, whatever--was just as effective.  Customers responded to authenticity, to honesty, the passion of an individual to be her best self.  I discovered that I could bring my passion even to this job that had nothing to do with my field of expertise.

Beware of experts.
Conductors are expert musicians.  But they are musical generalists.  Conducting, I will dare to say, demands a wider knowledge base and more varied skill set than any other musical job.  Theory and analysis, history, pedagogy, leadership and all that goes into that, the physical skills of making intelligible gesture, etc.  Within the realm of music, we have to know a little bit about a whole lot. 

Work smart AND hard.
There are no shortcuts.  The better prepared you are for a rehearsal, the smarter you can run it.  But that preparation is just plain old work.  Read, analyse, interpret.  You have to have, as Dr. Renshaw described it, "the integrity to sit down and do it."

Teamwork is overrated.
A conductor spends a lot of time alone.  Most of our work is done at a desk, table, or piano with a score and a pencil.  For every hour of rehearsal, conductors spend even more time preparing.  But, of course, our preparation allows us to rehearse efficiently.

Efficiency is for robots.
And for all my planning, no rehearsal ever goes like I plan.  Because I work with people.  I work with art.  It has to be flexible, it has to respond to the moment, and it has to have time and space to allow for spontaneity and breath.  To do it right, I can't always do it quickly.

Imitation is hot.
I should hope so.  My work depends on people seeing what I do and doing it themselves.

Stay in school, but not too long.
Oh, Mike, I wish!  I spent four years in undergrad, one and a half in my master's program, and the doctorate will add another four or possibly five.  Luckily, I love learning and I'm good at school--my affinity for rules serves me well in that regard.  But I am looking forward to being done!

So, thanks for Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs.  

With a special shout-out to the Zales ladies, 

Multiple Intelligence Monday 3: Verbal-Linguistic


There is where I  kick booty.  I remember vocabulary, I can spell, I'm really good at grammar, and I can pronounce the hell out of anything.  I've gotten compliments on my diction in four languages, though I really don't speak any foreign languages beyond "I'd like a beer" (which I can say in seven languages!  It used to be eight, but I can't remember Turkish anymore.  Too foreign.).  It's why I blog: writing comes easily to me and I enjoy it.  

This is important to me as a conductor for two reasons.  First, I have to talk to the ensemble, and the ability to use words to be understood is highly valuable, though not imperative (since obviously gesture is supposed to be doing most of this work).  Mostly it's good for me because, as I'm preparing, I choose words to describe sounds.  Once I have a word to describe a sound, I understand the sound better.  Because words have a lot of meaning to me.  Because I have high verbal intelligence.  It's a self-fulfilling sort of situation.

The other reason verbal intelligence is important is particularly because I'm a choral musician.  Words are important, and I love them!  Certain composers--Bach, Brahms, and Barber are my favorites in this regard--are even better than poets at using the sound of a word to illuminate its meaning.  I appreciate that about them, and I'm good at using it, and I'm even good at teaching that kind of thing to choirs, making them use it.  So, the point is it's important and I'm glad to have that one.

But that brings me to this point: intelligence is not fixed, and even if it were, that would be okay. 

My husband (sorry, dear) can't tell an IPA symbol from a hole in the ground, and cannot spell worth a damn.  Is he then fated never to succeed as a conductor? Of course not.  He can, if he chooses, invest time in preparation of text so that he might bring it out more, use it with greater efficiency.  As long as he knows it's an option, he can use it.  He may have to spend more time than I would in order to accomplish it, but it will eventually happen.

And at the same time, if he just never was interested in the text like I am, that would be okay, too.  He will always hear music differently than I do, because the sounds of the words will have greater significance to me than they ever will to him.  That doesn't mean he's bad at it, it just means his performances will be different from mine.  And that individuality is good.  Specific, personal perspective is exactly what a performance should have (in my opinion).  His choices are the ones I want to hear.  I'd love to argue with him over how the whole piece would be much better if only the choir uses a long aspiration on the final "th" of the word death, and he won't give a rat's patoot, but that's why art is so fabulous!  We don't have to agree!  

And I'll get into that a bit more tomorrow.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

found it

I'm very sorry about the sound.  I recommend turning down the volume.

I mentioned this video among the other conductor commercials, but I couldn't find it on YouTube.  Then, tonight, in the middle of a House re-run, there it was.  So I rewound the DVR, pointed my camera at the t.v., and shot.  Cheesey, but fast.  So, the sound is horrible.  Sorry.

Anyway, it's just one more in a long line of commercials depicting conductors with no understanding of what a conductor actually does, which reflect society's general view of conductors and conducting and therefore partly explains my need to have this blog to put the correct information out into the world.  My version of correct information, anyway.

Enjoy.  With the sound off.

p.s. they say it's like composing a symphony, but they show a conductor, not a composer.  ?!

Friday, June 11, 2010


When a singer or instrumentalist practices, she goes into a room and plays scales and arpeggios and other exercises to warm up physically and work on technique.  Then she plays repertoire, applying the technique to the music and also examining musical, expressive content and using the technique to realize it.

What do conductors do when they practice?

Dr. Renshaw lays out a three step process of "read, analyze, interpret."  That works for any score, but the details of what each of those steps precisely means is flexible.

To read, I was taught "sing and play."  Sing one line (yes, even instrumental lines and, yes, out loud) and play any other.  Be able to do this in every possible combination.  This mandates repetition, which means you can't help  but learn it.  It also explicates relationships and lays bare the relationships, which means it gives you questions to ask.  "Why did he do that?  Why is that so hard to hear?"

And then you answer the questions, which is where analysis comes in.  "Ohhhh, it's hard to hear that interval because this line introduces the new key." And eventually interpretation follows.  "Ohhhh, that crazy chord is there because it's the word pain" and "ohhhh, the tenors and basses are in unison there because it's the theme and the women are in a really high tessitura..."

"Practice," for me, also involves research.  I look into the text, the poet, the language, its IPA, often I have to learn more about instruments since my instrumental background isn't strong, and finding out where in the conductor's life the composition was written.  For whom on what occasion?  What else did he write around the same time? And then I can judge whether this piece is representative of that work or exceptional.

And then there is practicing the actual physical act of conducting.  Once I'm pretty well familiar with the music, I can start actually waving my arms around, seeing what works, what the music would look like in my body.  But unrelated to any specific piece of music, I admit that I don't do exercises that keep my conducting "in shape."  I do Tai Chi, and I like to think that it's physically related enough that it applies itself to my conducting gesture when the time comes.  I don't have any evidence, except that I know learning in one field can be transferred automatically to others.

It's all about, as I have said before, spending time.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

zen in the art of archery

I already wrote that I taught the undergraduate choral conducting class at UConn last spring by using the tools and resources which I had found most useful for myself as a student.  So, I required the undergrads to read Zen in the Art of Archery.

People often ask if it's like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It's not, really, except that both are philosophical and recount a learning journey in the first person.

Zen in the Art of Archery is a true story of a German man, Eugen Herrigel, who was working in Japan and decided, while he was there, to study archery.  So the value of the book is its insight by a Westerner into a very foreign Eastern philosophy.  Eugen does and thinks what we would think, and he described how his teacher taught him to see his (the teacher's) approach instead.  

The process, so far as I've picked it up, has taught me certain values.  Trust in my teachers is one.  When I am studying with a teacher, I tend to hand myself over to him or her and do what I am told.  I can't help but try to figure out why I've been told to do it, but I let myself just do it before I understand why, trusting that understanding will follow.  This is not what some of my teachers have expected of me, so it has not been universally successful, but I prefer it to constantly challenging them while we wait for our approaches to become clear to each other.  Rarely, there will be a teacher who just doesn't know what to do with me because I'm not making any demands or asking any questions.  Even then, it works out.  I just accept that I don't understand their approach yet, and allow them to explain it to me in whatever way seems best to them.  If my own approach is standing in the way of my understanding, it's my responsibility to be aware of that and fix it.  I'll probably let the teacher know that that's happening, but not to argue that mine is better or right, just to say "I'm having trouble with X because I've always thought Y, and I'm working through letting that go so I can get inside of X."

But then again, it makes me think every time I pick it up, makes me examine the work I do.  I think everyone should read it.  It's only eighty-one pages long.  But if you don't mind a spoiler, here's the main thing I get from it every time I read it:


Yes, I suggested Monday that preparation is a way to compensate for the skills towards which one lacks a natural inclination.  Preparation is a way to get good at anything, really.

Talent with practice is the best combination.  But if you've got to pick one or the other, practice without talent trumps talent without practice every day of the week.  Ten thousand hours, they say, equals expertise.  Spend ten thousand hours working on anything, and you will be an expert at it.  And maybe that only can be called expert because so few people will dedicate that much time to any single endeavor that those few will be the high water mark for expertise.  Because the more you work on something, the more you realize just how much there is to it, and how little you really know about it, right?

Anyway, the Zen in the Art of Archery perspective seems to me to suggest that preparation results in learning not to do.  You learn to get out of the way and let "it" do through you.  You don't practice aiming so you get good at aiming, you practice shooting so that "it" shoots through you.

Dr. Buck told me that studies have shown that experts use different parts of their brains when they work than novices.  Maybe this is a scientific insight into the sensation of "it" doing through us.  We aren't doing anymore, because we're nothing thinking "now I have to cut off the T on the and of four, and then I have to breathe on beat two..."  Instead, we just live the music and the cutoffs and breaths just happen.

That is my experience of preparation.  And I remember it when I read Zen in the Art of Archery.  I remember to trust my teachers, the composers, the time I spend with the score.  Everything new I learn about how to prepare represents, to me, just one more way to spend time, to get to know it.  Just like getting to know a person, the way you get to know it depends on what's in it, what its characteristics are, what its requirements are.  The important thing is to spend the time.  And to trust that understanding will come.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

the choir

I've mentioned before that I'm a Doctor Who fan.  I also have a DVR, which means I never watch commercials.  However, I usually skip through the commercials in 30-second chunks, allowing me to see moments of commercials here and there.

Well, while watching Doctor Who on DVR a short while back ("Fear Her"--a great episode!), I skipped through commercials only to land on a moment that said THE CHOIR.  "What's that?" I asked the t.v., and then did something I never do.  I rewound the DVR to see the commercial.  It was just a ten-second teaser with some line like "What's your dream?"  And I rolled my eyes and thought, "oh, great: another show about people getting told they can't sing."

Later in the episode, there was a "sneak preview" of The Choir, and it proved me absolutely wrong.  It seems that the real premise is a choral musician, Gareth Malone, who goes around to "unlikely" communities and starts choirs!  It shows him trying to recruit people, then being clever on the podium, then conducting performances.  Apparently the goal is to get to the World Choir Games in China, which he refers to as the choral Olympics.  I'm ambivalent about competing as performance, but I thought the rest of the premise seemed interesting enough to see how it works out.

So I intend to DVR it and check it out.  If there's anything there, I hope to write about it.

It starts in one month, July 7, on BBC America, which usually means that it has already started airing on BBC proper, and so this isn't exactly breaking news.  I'm behind my international colleagues and surely won't be the first the comment on it.  So be it.  In the meantime, here are some of the thoughts I'm having before we go into it.

Things I liked: On a personal note, I'm relieved to see Gareth is actually two years older than I am.  It's just a little disheartening to see guys like Dudamel who are even younger yet more successful.  Not that I'm ambitious, I just... you know... am susceptible to envy.  I also liked that he was encouraging everyone to sing, accepting anyone who wanted to be a part of it.  Also, he seems fearless in terms of engaging fully with his singers and the music, not self-conscious or overly concerned with appearing to be a good conductor over actually conducting well.

Things I'm worried about: I mentioned the competition thing.  There's also the question I have about the British training of conductors.  I've never been inside their system, so I can't comment on it with authority; but, I've had a little experience with a few conductors trained in England, particularly, which has been not good.  I'm a little worried about the Bristish perspective of what a conductor's job is, and afraid that it will frustrate me that he doesn't do what I think he should do.  But the clips they showed of him conducting looked okay, so we'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Multiple Intelligence Monday 2: Visual-Spatial


Visual-spatial skills have been linked to sight-reading ability in orchestra musicians.  Before I read this particular research, I already knew that my husband is an amazing sight-reader and he can pack more in the back of the Forrester than I could ever imagine possible.  And after I read the research, I wondered if my really quite mediocre visual-spatial aptitude and really quite mediocre sight-reading skills are related.

We're thinking of buying an elliptical machine.  Would it fit in the back of the car?  I have no idea!

Clearly, the awareness of the page, and the ability to sort out what's on it, is an important ability for a conductor.  I'm not so good at these as my husband, and my training is primarily choral, so I have a dickens of a time working with instrumental scores.  Visually, the page is so big, there's so much on it, and it's spread out so far, that I just have to spend a lot of time before I'm able to wrap my ears around it.  

And this brings me to the point I will make with all the multiple intelligence posts, and which I will also be making tomorrow: knowing one's weaknesses allows a conductor to compensate for them.  And how do I compensate for my total lack of a knack for seeing the page?  


I spend so much time with my score that I don't really even have to look at it to know what's on it.  I know the music so well that the notes on the page are just reminders of the sound in my head rather than instanty instructions of what the sound should be--which is, I understand, how really good readers see music.  

Preparation.  More on it Thursday.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

conducting journal

I taught the undergraduate choral conducting class at UConn last spring and it was a hoot.  I assisted the basic and instrumental conducting classes under Dr. Renshaw, and I've taught conducting to high school students in a smaller way, so at least I wasn't going in absolutely cold.  Still, I took two semesters of vocal pedagogy before I taught anyone singing; I got a degree in music education before they let me into a classroom to teach music.  But conducting pedagogy is not a topic that is directly addressed very often.  So I fell back on the thing that most teachers eventually do: how I was taught.

I have the benefit of not being a very good musician (musical intelligence will be addressed a couple of Mondays from now, followed shortly by Gordon and aptitude testing).  When you're mediocre at something but love it, you work very hard to learn and get better, you try everything you can to improve.  And that made me learn how to learn.  In planning my syllabus for the undergrad course, I picked the things that helped me the most, and assigned those tasks to my students

In my master's program, we were loosely required to write a conducting journal.  It was a suggestion, really, more than a requirement, but I'm a woman who follows instructions so I diligently kept a conducting journal.  I also happen to be a woman who loves to write about things I love, so it was easy and pleasant for me.

When I was writing a conducting journal, I wrote about scores I was preparing, other conducting students, conducting class, lessons, conductors I performed under, teachers, performances, recordings, and even non-musical life experiences that related to conducting.  Sort of like this blog now, though I also try to write about research and more big-picture sorts of things.

I assigned a conducting journal to my undergrads.  It was worth five percent of their grade, graded on "thoroughness." Basically, the more they wrote about, and the more accurate information it contained, the higher the grade.  Not a big deal, but it could make the difference between and B+ and an A-, you know?   Those who wrote really thorough journals made the most improvements in the actual conducting.  My whole point with the class was that conducting was about preparation, so the more preparation you did, the better you would conduct.  A journal was really just a place to track and organize your preparation.

I find that I conduct better when I keep a journal, just like my students.  I don't know how many other conductors use journaling as a tool for preparation.  I love it, but of course, it does speak to some of my strongest learning styles: verbal and intrapersonal (as my sister puts it, "strong opinions and a big vocabulary").  One of the many projects for this summer is the preparation of scores for the fall.  Among them is the Caesar Franck Mass in A, the source of the famous "Panis Anglicus."

Mmmhhh... Renee Fleming...

Anyway, I'm going to try posting at least some of the things that I'd ordinarily journal about in preparing a piece like that.  There are a few reasons.

First, it will give me a chance to demonstrate specific examples and further explicate ideas that are relatively esoteric.

Second, this is the first multi-movement work I've prepared for a real performance, in its entirety, from scratch.  Other pieces I've done as exercises in conducting lessons with no actual performing, performed only excerpts, or had already sung the piece and was therefore familiar with it to some degree.  So I'm rather excited to be applying all that theoretical training to practical use and quite keen to do it right.  I feel some responsibility to post true and accurate things on the blog, so perhaps having it out here will be even more incentive to do it well.

Third, posting online has the possibility of reaching other conductors who have performed the work and can let me know if they found the same things I did.  That would be nice.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

goodbye again

I just saw the movie Goodbye Again.  In it, Ingrid Bergman says "the problem with being an interior designer is everyone thinks they know your business."

I can relate.

I dated a man a long, long time ago who suggested I avoid talking about music in social situations because I tended to preach, not quite perceiving that the others involved in the conversation were just making small talk.  Because music is a popular topic for small talk.

People just talk about music casually, discussing their own opinions and perceptions.  They judge the contestants on American Idol based on their ideals and experiences.  When I was teaching high school, I watched American Idol so I could help my students discuss it intelligently, to to help them identify the real sources of their judgments (more often they simply preferred what was familiar to what was high quality--which is perfectly natural, but one should acknowledge it) and also because if Randy could require good intonation, so could I.

My strategy for talking about music socially these days is less instructive.  I've learned that no one actually cares about why head voice is important for even pop singers, or how excellent diction can create expressive texture.  When a teenage relative asked if I had thoughts about his community theater production of Pajama Game, I said "of course I do; I'm a professional," then changed the subject.  When the periodontist's assistant asked what I do and learned that I was a conductor, she asked me about Dudamel.  I did not talk about how he belies the conductor archetype, but agreed wholeheartedly when she said he's cute.

It's weird to be a professional in something that most people do recreationally.  That's why I blog about it, of course--because I love what I do and want to make my experience available to anyone who wants to know about it.  And it's not so easy to drop these kinds of ideas on people at dinner parties.

I can't really complain.  My sister has a PhD in health sciences, specializing in sexuality.  She can NOT talk about her work at dinner parties, except among her colleagues.

Colleagues are what this post is really about.  Recently, I had lunch with two band friends.  One said, "we're getting a weird degree--I mean, it's basically a Doctorate in Arm Waving."  The other agreed, "yeah, I can't believe they pay me to do this!"  Yet, for all their recognition of our work as esoteric and surprising, their understanding of it makes for comfortable small talk.  I love hearing from a wide variety of readers who post comments and e-mail me and write on my Facebook wall, but it really especially thrills me to hear from other conductors.  Because I acknowledge that my perspective is not the only one, and I love learning more.  Because this is what the internet is for: sharing information, especially where there are no right or wrong answers, just discussions to be had.

Ingrid Bergman didn't discuss interior decorating with anyone in Goodbye Again except to say, "I'm glad you like it" when receiving a compliment at a dinner party.  Smart woman.  I would totally have read her blog if she'd had one.