Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Probably the most wonderful thing to happen for a musician on a professional level is to win a job. It removes the fear so many of us have, questioning if we are going to be able to make a living. When it finally pays off there is a mix of relief and joy, especially if it is a job that one wants!

Musicians tend to put a staggering amount of work into preparing for an audition. But just straight practicing alone does not cover all the bases necessary to be successful, and in my opinion, there are other things one can do to increase the odds of winning. Here are a few recommendations I would make to anyone, whether musician or otherwise, when applying for a job:

1) Always make sure you know everything you can about those who are either listening to you or interviewing you. Never take an interview while blind, since there are always points of connection that you can make with members of a committee – ones that are sincere. Knowledge is power, whether it affects playing style or synergy of interests.
2) Always practice whatever you are going to do for a committee in a mock environment by enlisting the help of friends and by making a video tape of your audition/interview. The video camera is the best tool to help identify how you are communicating, whether musically, physically, or verbally. It’s impossible to be completely aware when engaged in doing a task and many times you will have ticks that can be hurtful when trying to present yourself as authentically as possible under pressure.
3) Make a list of potential questions or requests that might come up at your audition/interview. Surprise is the enemy! If you are playing, then make sure you can play softer, louder, shorter, longer, lighter, heavier, etc… If you are interviewing, make sure that you have responses to tough questions regarding conflict resolution, leading vs. listening, etc…
4) Make sure your style fits the needs of the job you want. You can’t be something that you’re not, and if you win a job in a place that doesn’t let you apply your sensibilities fully, you’ll just be unhappy and frustrated. Research the orchestra, opera company, program carefully and read the job description with ferocious energy – does it truly describe you?
5) Be a good listener in the moment. Many auditions are lost by not following directions carefully or answering questions fully.
6) Be absolutely confident that your references will be completely supportive. As a search committee member I’ve called people in the past who have not been kind to those applying. I’m always stunned when this happens, and it has taught me to be extremely careful. Also, ask people to call on your behalf ahead of an audition. Networking is always helpful, again provided that the person calling is persona grata with a committee and also is honestly supportive of you.
7) Be relentlessly organized in your time management leading to an audition. It’s not the quantity of hours spent preparing in my experience as much as the quality. The other thing organization does is train your mind to be structured in approach, which in an audition is a tremendous asset. If you have practiced enough to have the technique to play what is required consistently in a pristine manner, or you have a vocabulary that allows you to express ideas with specificity and passion, then execution is a matter of mental will.
8) Take time to enjoy the process. Once, one of my teachers made me repeat an exercise over and again until I could do it perfectly. After a series of failures, I asked if we could just move on because I was getting bored. His reply was “don’t be bored.” At first I was a little aggravated to be honest! After calming down, I realized that he was telling me my response to doing this work over and again needed to be a conscious choice. So when doing something that I have to do to achieve a goal, I take time to enjoy it - I choose to do this, even if it is grinding in nature. By allowing myself this luxury, I have found my retention, energy, daily routine, and final results are all much better. A little joy in process goes a long way toward winning.

It is true that you can do everything to the absolute highest level and still lose. But I think that if you take every step to be fully prepared your chances for success are always increased. My hope is that these eight suggestions might be helpful in your journey no matter where you are along the path.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Musical Maestrology

I've been fortunate enough to have a number of people, whether musicians, professors, or audience members refer to me as Maestro over the last couple of years. I must say that this is both flattering and at the same time uncomfortable, despite the intention with which the word is used. I can't help but have an episode of Seinfeld in the back of my mind - the one where a friend of Elaine's wants to be referred to as "Maestro," equating himself to Leonard Bernstein. It's a funny episode, but also one that demonstrates the craziness of the term - ouch!!

Part of the unease the word maestro brings is the implication that somehow you are a master of what you do, when the fact is, most of us who are musicians are striving to get better with some elusive goal of perfection that is unattainable. Mozart was definitely a composer who could combine something resembling perfection with complete humanity, but how many composers or musicians can compare themselves to this maestro? Maybe Bernstein - the 20th century's great composer, player, and conductor?

Simon Rattle had a quote that I love from a documentary chronicling the last days of his role as music director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: he said that "most conductors are afraid of being found out..." - that we shouldn't be standing in front of such an accomplished group of musicians trying to galvanize a musical idea among tremendous talent. He felt that at some point there is a level of insecurity inherent in what we do that is always lurking, no matter how accomplished we may be. The truth is sometimes a hard thing to admit! Is this great conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who has released a large number of important recordings, participated in significant premieres, and guest conducted the world's great orchestras a Maestro? By his own words, I don't think he considers himself as such. This is because he is searching to get better as most conductors need to be doing constantly.

When people started calling me Maestro, I would correct them and say this doesn't really apply to me - that maybe when I'm 80 and have learned a lot more than I know now and done considerably more high profile work the term might apply - maybe! After a while I stopped because I realized that this was a kindness from others I should just accept, much like a compliment we perhaps don't believe, but are gracious in receiving out of respect for those who are giving it.

I have also had a number of musicians say they enjoyed playing under me. Even though the thought is so very appreciated, I can't let this go - I tell them that they played with me. Given that I don't make any sound combined with the fact that, as I've said before in earlier blogs, conductors' ideas are so deeply informed by what their colleagues play when putting a piece together, to say that the interpretation of a work is mine is simply a lie. It's collaborative in nature - just listen to the same conductor lead a piece with two different orchestras!

Perhaps I'll change my mind about the use of this term when given in my direction - maybe when I'm 80, but more likely I'll be, with luck, still trying to learn from both the wonderful music I'm privileged to conduct as well as the amazing musicians with whom I get to work.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Simple gifts

When thinking about the gifts one receives on Christmas or Hanukkah, certainly appreciating the gift of family is at the top of my list. There is nothing more precious than someone you love returning that feeling enthusiastically, whether a grandparent, parent, sibling, partner, friend, or probably the most satisfying, a child. No matter what is happening in the crazy economic tsunami that we are all having to endure, there are constants in life that help stabilize our sense of self. I would say that faith certainly factors prominently into this mix as well.

For me, another constant is the gift of music as both listener and practitioner. There is something about organized sound that excites me now more than ever, even after years of working at it ferociously. Part of what musicians do is very grinding in nature, trying to perfect little complications that drift unwelcomed into our musical midst! Some of this deals with awareness, some is just due to the rigors of life. Unfortunately small details can have major consequences when performing under pressure!

But despite the blue collar aesthetic that musicians must use daily to stay in shape much as an athlete, there is something miraculous in the making of and the experience of listening to music in life's diet. It's a journey that is truly full of discovery about yourself and the world around you. Each composer tries to capture a slice of beauty out of a universe of possibility, and even when you play or hear a piece repeatedly, there are both deep and simple pleasures that continue to surround and enter us over and again.

Music remains a constant: life affirming, soul nourishing, humor provoking, emotion tugging, and just fun. It's why I decided early on that music was what I HAD to do. I didn't have a choice even though I had other interests. Along the way we take detours with motives, and in the process of failure in our journey, which happens to most everyone unless you have the lotto gene, it's easy to leave your senses and forget what it's all about.

But somehow this time of the year offers a wonderful opportunity to remember the gifts that keep giving in our lives. Beyond the greatest gift of family and faith, music is at the core of God's gifts in my mind. It's this taste of the divine that keeps me coming back for more, and each year, I seem to more fully appreciate this pleasure.

I wish you a many blessings this year on this Christmas day and hope that your life is full of wonderful, beautiful music.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Music

I recently conducted a holiday program with the Colonial Symphony and the enthusiastically ecstatic response reminded me of the sort of warmth one receives after performing a work like Mahler's 2nd Symphony or Beethoven's 9th Symphony! It's certainly not the depth of the music that provokes people to respond the way they do, but perhaps the emotional experience of simply enjoying something that is readily understandable. This ease of intelligibility can be a facilitator for many in creating room for connection.

I don't know about you, but at the end of the day after running like a madman trying to meet deadlines that seem to be coming from every corner, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking! Most of the time just having a simple conversation with my wife, or if I'm early enough, hopping on the ground and playing with my daughter, or if I'm late, watching a little ESPN with commentators trying to out-hip each other with silly remarks works just fine! It's not that I don't love looking at scores, or doing musicological research, or frankly that I don't at some level enjoy doing administrative work when things are getting done, or thinking about musical aesthetics, or the psychology of music and musicians, or politics, etc..., but the fact is that at some point a lighter touch adds diversity and relief to my life - just listening to Nat King Cole sing holiday music with a glass of wine feels good.

I find that as I get older I have a greater appreciation for music that is considered to be part of the pops canon. When it's done well, the craft level can be quite high, even if the material isn't complicated. This seems like an oxymoron, but in fact it's a fit that has pleased both musicians and audiences for years. Part of it is that we grow up with music in movies, stores, on our cd players, now on our ipods, that is commercial in nature. We're surrounded by stuff we like and don't like, but at least some of this background music has most likely filtered into our listening diet. And this is fine without depreciating art music in any way, which in my mind, is also a complete essential in life.

Many groups have tried to capitalize on this phenomena - the Absolute Ensemble, Ethel, Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, etc... all seriously gifted groups who have found that by integrating pop genres into their playing they are able to develop both new audiences and at the same time have fun (and this is a good combo platter)! And many have incorporated a wide variety of world music into their performing diets such as Yo-Yo Ma with his Silk Road Ensemble, Bobby McFerrin in both his singing and conducting, Tan-dun in his composing, etc... or pop composers have turned to classical composition such as Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, or Paul McCartney.

Is all of this music at the highest level on every plane of experience? Some of it perhaps is, some definitely not, and this will always be water cooler debate material. However, whether amazing, a little less than amazing, or just bad (or bad for us!), there is music, food, movement, writing, and movies that fit our needs at different moments of a day, week, month, even year. It can be worthy and wonderful in it's own light, whether it is deep or light.

I think what makes all music work are three things: a commitment on the part of performers to play with passion no matter what is on the page; a desire by the composer to consider the audience when writing something true to his or her voice - a bit of a controversial statement (many very modernist composers will admit to this in private, although not all); and an audience that is eager to listen. When this trifecta comes together, the experience can be absolutely life changing, whether the music is of the highest order or just plain good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Virtuosic Listening

I recently conducted a particularly thorny piece by Elliott Carter in celebration of his 100th birthday at the Library of Congress - the Double Concerto, for piano and harpsichord soloists with two orchestras. It is a work that Stravinsky referred to as the first American Masterpiece - a pretty strong statement considering it was finished in 1961 with tremendous American music preceding it!

When I first saw this proclamation I was a bit stunned, especially as a student when I looked at this work, mostly because it made no musical sense to me. I could understand its construction, which was based on musical set theory, because I had a background in advanced mathematics. But on an aural level, there was so much going on that it seemed awfully random as a listener - I couldn't digest the music and beyond, it was so spiky that I didn't find it pleasing in any way. How could Stravinsky say something like this with Copland's Third Symphony or Barber Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, et al...?

I have come over time to appreciate this music, but it has taken time. The reason is that it not only takes virtuosic players to perform it, but also virtuosic listeners of the same order to appreciate it, and for me at least, this has only come in the last few years after over 20 years of performing and teaching. Because there is so much information exploding at times in a performance of a work such as the Double Concerto, I had to study it carefully so I could hear all the lines and how they fit together at times, and competed at others. It's like reading Proust - there is amazing beauty in the detail, and pulling it all together takes tremendous effort. I came to realize that the notes themselves in Carter's complex voice, whether frenetic or calm, required great intellectual effort and ultimately emotional investment in order to enjoy the music purely as a listening experience. But this has been a journey.

Is it worth it?

For me the answer is a resounding yes. I say this because of two reasons: the first is that there is a sports-style satisfaction in being able to appreciate music of this complexity. To understand what is going on as a listener feels like an accomplishment. The second reason is purely an appreciation for both the genius of this man's voice and also the inherent beauty of sound he is able to create - something that relates to the life I've lived, the experiences I have had both positive and negative, the joys and sorrows. I hear this in his music and I find it invigorating, cathartic, ecstatic, angry, sad, hopeful, and ultimately alive. It feels like jazz - improvisatory in nature yet wonderfully organized, with a pulse that can move mountains. In other words, it has much of what I find in Beethoven for instance, or in the music of John Coltrane. I can't imagine my life without the music of both of these composers, and I now feel the same way about Elliott Carter.
I remember as a child not liking spinach for the longest time. I simply could not understand how anyone could possibly like something that slippery and yucky! Now that I'm older I love eating fresh spinach whether cooked or in a salad -my tastes changed and I looked at this food with different eyes and taste buds. In a similar way it has taken me a while to get to the point where I both understand and appreciate Carter's amazing musical voice, and I'm grateful for the gift of years that has allowed me this revelation. My hope is that you as a listener might give thorny sounding music several listenings, especially if people you trust rave about the music itself. It may never turn out to be your taste in the end, but I have a feeling that the way it expands how you listen to music in general might deepen your appreciation for sounds of all sorts and how they can move in many ways.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ecumenical Musical Thought

I'm amazed by some of the viciousness of musical opinions I've either read or heard recently. 'This recording is abysmally boring - this artist made all the wrong choices - this musician was completely unconnected - this composition just sounds like noise - this conductor has no idea what he/she is doing!' The art of criticism has long been a sore subject among both practitioners in the media and by artists themselves, so much so that even Jean Sibelius at one point quipped how you will never find a statue erected in honor of a critic!

It is obvious that critical thought and writing is absolutely central to music's success and I do see many articles these days written with tremendous clarity, precision, and yes, passion. For instance, Alex Ross's work in the New Yorker is to me, wonderful, and certainly his book on contemporary music (The Rest is Noise) is a terrific read whether you agree with him or not. He is but an example of how criticism can elevate one's understanding and appreciation of art and performance.

That said, I am seeing invective lining the pages of many publications and even in discourse between musicians. It's very easy to be drawn into a drawing and quartering of almost any artist's work at one point or another - let's face it - everyone has a bad day now and then! But I've always had deep respect for compositions, performances, and recordings including those that don't suit my taste, mostly because I have such deep respect for the composers who craft sound with magic in their pens, the musicians who perform in orchestras with amazing skill, and also the conductors who have helped to shape both recordings and performances.

My experience with critics in truth has been mixed. While some actually read and perform music and have a substantive appreciation for the complexity of a score, most rely on an intuitive sense of what makes music beautiful (in truth, this is incredibly important and valid since it is representative of audiences, whose opinions I believe are tremendously important). However, so many composers we know from history have suffered from the opinions of critics - from Beethoven to Strauss to Bartok to virtually any composer and performer at one time or another!

These composers have not just been bitten by prognosticating critics who write, but critics who play as well! A simple case comes from the Vienna Philharmonic's profoundly negative reaction to playing Mahler under Bernstein in the 1960's - and these are some of the world's greatest players! We're they right when they called Mahler's symphonies an expletive? This continues in so many conversations to which I've been a party!

Where I object to what is said and written both by critics and musicians is when folks pretend personal aesthetics make for objective judgements, which, when commenting on compositional value, performance effect, or programmatic sensibilities, can be dangerous. We must realize that our opinions are shaped by prejudices of all stripes. We must know that individual aesthetics may not jive with those around us - and this is OK as long as it is recognized as personal. From my own experience, I know that the thousands of rehearsals and performances that I've participated in as instrumentalist or conductor at this point, no matter how vast in shape, size, and quality, still render my opinions limited in scope (I discover this each time I come back to a score I've conducted and realize how much I have to rethink my previous ideas!). Therefore, I want to offer opinions that are qualified.

There are of course times when I hear that a performance is out of tune, not together, etc.... I've seen musicians yawn on a stage and that has an impact on me as a listener, or I can hear that a composer lacks craft because of very specific organizational problems in orchestration, form, or other pieces of a basic rubric that are intelligible. In these cases there is absolutely objective criteria with which to dissect things with precision if warranted.

However, even if a work is not to my taste, but has has craft, I must respect it. If a performance does not feel organic to me, but is performed with technical competence and emotional commitment, I must respect it, even if I don't feel moved. If I don't like the aural connections within a program no matter its thematic qualities, I must respect it. It doesn't mean I can't have a conversation about these things and offer an opinion, but I always want to frame my own polemics or comments in a framework of respect, because I know first hand the numerous decisions that have to be made in presenting a work of art. They are more deep than words can describe.

In my own case I'm going to conduct Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for the 2nd time in the Library of Congress in another week. When I first heard this work as a student it sounded like nonsense to me - albeit animated nonsense, and in talking to friends, I would castigate its artistic value as a listener. But when I studied the work and began to understand the language, my respect for it became enormous, not just on an intellectual level, but also on one that is purely musical - I enjoy listening to recordings of it now. This is so far from my experience as a student when I had the courage (or stupidity) to dismiss its musical meaning outright!

Even today I find my tastes shifting constantly. One day I don't like spinach, the next day it is the greatest food! One day I don't like John Zorn, the next I find his music and energy fascinating! We are all changing, and so when talking about the work of others, we should remember to treat it with the respect we wish to receive ourselves. Whether in the circles of musicians or of critics, discourse in response to what is happening around us in the classical world needs to be used meted out with care, and above all, it should remain appreciative of the depth of artistry involved, whether it fits our shifting sensibilities or not, while not losing it's critical balance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The importance of energy

I have been thinking lately of the presence of energy in music - it heals, it moves, it is alive in a very real manner. It is the open sharing between musicians internally and with an audience that creates a memorable performance, and for a conductor, it is of primary importance. What is the music trying to say and how can one capture this physically and psychologically?

I've watched many conductors at this point, and there are some truly great ones that I would have a hard time following as a player. Furtwangler as an older example, and Gergiev as a modern one. But when I've seen them perform, something is happening: the music seems to be so deeply internalized, and their response so present tense, almost as if the music is completely alive in each breath and gesture; something happens in the sound of the orchestra, even if the musicians have a hard time intellectually understanding what that is, many times because they are simply working hard to keep things together! However, these conductors are seemingly inside the music and the sound is vibrating freely in them. Despite a lack of physical clarity, music emerges that is specific and unique, organic and fluid, connected and real, dynamic and soulful, as if something is being created for the first time ever. I admire this greatly and have been working to combine this effect with clarity, although I have to say that sometimes being technically proficient can actually get in the way believe it or not! Being attuned to business always needs to be subserviant to truthful connection.

Creating space to receive energy on the podium allows one to give it in return. It's like the magnetism that exists between two people who are in love, who are open and vulnerable, and who feed off the other's individual expression of deeply felt emotion. I find that even those musicians who are jaded can be reminded of why they started into this crazy profession if a conductor's love for music is sincere and open, and if one is really responding to what is being said. Who doesn't like to be listened to? The resultant energy can be amazing!

I think if one really lives each moment in music, then there is a musical nuclear fission that occurs. In those precious places and times, the music, the performers, the audience, all become one thing, as if the finger of God comes down and touches everyone on the most elemental level. If you have had this experience you know it is simply life altering.

I know Albert Einstein, despite being a patent reader for a number of years, and having received the most devastating rejection in the early part of his career, kept daydreaming in order to find some of the most elemental physical truths in our universe. He was considered a slacker, yet in truth, by wandering in thought and by being open despite the complete lack of recognition of his gifts by others, he uncovered much of what has shaped modern space/time thought. I'm not sure if another Einstein will come along and uncover how musical energy translates into the soulful moments that have moved people for centuries, but I can say energy that is dedicated, specific, open, sensitive, strong, and shared is at the heart of what makes the greatest sounds ever imagined so persuasive and restoring, even in times that are difficult.

We all need to be working every day to find ways to become more physically and mentally open - a tough task in today's blackberry, constant news, pressure to succeed world. However, I think the more we are able to work on simple breathing, the more energy we'll have, if through nothing else, a bit more oxygen! Through this we should have more inspiration, more laughter, and more opportunities to be moved by the music making of others and the generous response of audiences, even if we don't fully understand the Einstein like truths of healing energy in sound quite yet!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Language Training

I was in a meeting yesterday and realized yet again that the language artists use when trying to make a point sometimes just does not work when dealing with people from the business/money world. We want people to judge what we do based on artistic results and feel that if there is a given record of qualitative improvement, that we should be able to justify what we do even if there is no empirical evidence behind our rationales for how we implement artistic objectives. And this goes well beyond ticket sales!

We want people to say 'you are doing a great job and if it's not broke, we're not going to fix it,' when in reality many times strong quantifiable evidence is required to secure all types of funding when dealing with people who are used to looking at market based research, which can not measure the qualitative side of performance. It's hard for musicians to get their heads around this fact. When in conversation and in meetings, I have seen even extremely bright people become circuitous in trying to make a point when the desired response is not forthcoming (and this unfortunately means me sometimes)!

What's the answer? I think we need to begin to train collegiate students in the arts how non-profit and for-profit boards function. We need to require that accounting and marketing be classes that fulfill the liberal arts requirements, since both of these are things one needs in an artistic career. I think we need to have a portion of a class dedicated to conflict resolution, since most students are terrible at this! I think we need to require that students take a course that offers web design, database management, and basics of recording as part of their technology training. I think that we need to start to teach students the language they'll need use to effectively when dealing with business folks who they will see in their careers and who make decisions using different criteria than how well someone plays or sings.

I feel like I am slowly developing a business acumen now, which I wish I would have had long ago and which could have come from stronger training when I was a student. While I know curricula is already heavy in most institutions like at Montclair State University where I teach, I believe that my advocacy for this approach is going to become more focused and stronger in the coming weeks given the fact that I continue to find folks in my position making well intentioned mistakes that hopefully future students can avoid.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Musical Theater and Opera

I've been conducting the musical Crazy for You over the past couple weeks and have been reflecting on the differences in conducting musical theater vs. opera, since at this point I've been fortunate enough to do many of each at both the collegiate and professional levels.

Certainly I think the hardest thing in musical theater is making the underscoring work properly - in other words the music that is performed while dialogue is in play. The timing can be particularly tricky depending on how consistent the actors are in delivering text, never mind the sets that are sometimes moving as well. Ending the music at exactly the right moment can present problems especially if safety bars are not utilized. In addition, it is difficult to keep the character of the music vibrant when the dynamic is very soft - the palatte becomes more narrow, you don't want to upstage the dialogue, and yet you want it to contribute to the mood of the moment with musical touches.

Opera has recitatives in virtually all periods that can be challenging, but the reality is if you can sing the music fluently and you have artists that aren't interested in throwing curve balls, provided you have technique, it's not that difficult to manage if you know what you want.

Another feature of musicals that I think can be tough, especially in dance shows, is to make fresh music that is subject to gravity, similar to ballet. You have to find an exact tempo that allows dancers to hit their marks, and this sort of precision can be difficult night in and out, since even a click of difference can make things fall apart. If it's quarter = 72, it can't go at 73! While opera requires a certain exactness, it tends to breathe a little more in the bulk of the repertoire.

Where musicals tend to have more flexibility is in their recitatives and in ballads. In those moments, it becomes more operatic in a sense, and the music making can be more present tense as it feels to me in much of opera.

One thing that makes opera easier for a conductor is the training of singers/actors. Generally, the folks in musical theater are not always as exact in their ability to interact with the gesture from the pit, whereas opera singers are drilled from day one. I honestly think the answer has something to do with power structure: in opera, artistic administrators in collaboration with conductors choose the singers, so even if you are a diva, you have to make these folks happy. In musical theater, casting agents and producers make these decisions, and sometimes of course, the creators of the show participate as well - but not the conductor in my experience both on and off Broadway. There's something to say for the power of hiring in the relationship of stage to pit!

One thing that tends to be more difficult generally in opera is the work a chorus must do. They usually have intricate things to sing, and keeping a good sound, good balance, precise diction, and proper character is really a challenge, even if they have been well prepared by a competent chorus master. In a musical, usually the flexibility that the choral numbers demand is not nearly as complex as what one finds in opera, and so to me, it seems a little easier.

The other thing in opera is language. I've conducted in Italian, Spanish, German, and French. I've conducted songs by Shostakovitch and Kurtag in Russian, but not an entire opera, and I haven't done anything in Czech yet - a lot of repertoire I would love to get to at some point if I can find time to work on the languages. The diction, the fundamental understanding of a language's idiomatic nature in music, and the sense of how the sound of the language fits with the sound of the music are all challenges that opera presents in a different manner than a musical, since all musicals I've done so far have been in English.

I find conducting staged productions to be the most three dimensional musical experiences a conductor can have. When you distill the difficulties each genre presents, everything truly boils down to a few truisms if a show will be successful musically from the conducting vantage point:

1) You have to know the score inside and out - especially the words and it has to sing you.
2) You have to have a fluent stick technique in the modern world if you want to it to be truly great.
3) You have to love what you're doing when you're doing it
4) You have to multitask between stage and pit
5) You have to understand the nature of the characters and be compassionate with them.
6) You have to be patient with the singers, but not too patient
7) You have to understand who has the power when decisions are made
8) You have to create as much face time as possible with everyone if a production is to gel.
9) You have to be efficient in rehearsal
10) You have to be flexible

Put all these into play and the feeling of pulling the reigns on an opera or musical production can be absolutely thrilling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Students and Pros

The techniques one uses conducting students vs. professionals are surprisingly similar. Both require metaphorical and technical language in rehearsal when trying to create space for a unanimity of approach. Both are looking for the conductor to project both character and an intrinsic inspiration for and from the music. Both hate when their time is being wasted by too much talk. Both like when a conductor has a sense of humor in the middle of an intense work time. In performance and rehearsal, both like it when they sense that the conductor has a fundamental respect for their abilities and that they are being supported. They also like when they are allowed to have some artistic input, even at the earliest stages when they don't know exactly what they're doing!

Where things are different is the degree to which one has to teach. Students from early levels need more hands-on technical support. The older they get, of course the less you have to teach fundamentals. As you go along to the professional ranks, the musical thought requires a more precise understanding of macro and micro information to rehearse effectively, although in truth, you must think deeply about a score if you are going to project any sort of authority when putting a piece together at every level. Everyone always knows whether or not you are totally prepared or not, and I've found that if my preparation has been lax, then there will always be a question posed that can present problems from beginning musicians to those who are world class.

Simon Rattle once said that his greatest fear was being "found out." In other words, that he wasn't really competent to stand in front of a group of musicians. I think that at some level, all conductors, whether working with students or pros, if caring, truly honest, and respectful of music's depth, do have thoughts such as this. The ones who don't I usually find a bit insular and their music making cold.

The aspect of working with both groups that translates most thoughtfully is the idea of collaborative process. I have had many musicians, both pro and student come up and say, "I really enjoyed working under you." I bristle when I hear this, not because I'm not grateful for the sentiment, but because I truly consider this a process where we are working together! And this goes again for every level of musician.

Both students and pros require strong personal skills, and warmth combined with competence can make every experience incredibly rich. In the end, while the needs of both groups can be varied on a technical plane, the musical side is strikingly similar and the result can be equally moving even if the musical is executed on different levels, because if the feeling is there behind the notes, it's always transformative.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Interpretive Decisions

I've been reading posts lately by conductors on a list-serve sponsored by the League of American Orchestras regarding a whole host of issues - from programming ideas about cars to the meaning of reuhrtrommel to dynamic markings in the Brahms Violin Concerto. It has been interesting not only because fascinating threads of thought emerge from a variety of people, but also because some of the sources of these ideas come from numerous well-respected teachers/conductors who have differing ideas and solutions to particular problems!

Just as history seems to take turns with increased scholarship, the interpretation of musical markings and meanings sometimes is evolving as well, especially when it affects interpretive decisions. I have always thought that having as much musicological material at your disposal is of the utmost importance, and being sensitive to the wishes of the composer with this information is very helpful making determinations that on the surface can seem subjective. But I've also discovered, having worked with multiple Pulitzer Prize winning composers, as well as other composers who are quite accomplished, that these great aural painters change their minds about notation and passages pretty uniformly over time when revisiting works. In other words, if I've conducted a piece multiple times, these composers many times attack questions with different answers after a couple years pass.

Why? Because it's human nature to evolve. Do you listen to any piece of music you love with the same ears as when you first heard it? Neither do great composers. They are growing, learning, and changing both professionally and personally (for artists, the professional and personal are absolutely intertwined!). While I think making reference to performance practice is necessary, and also thinking about why a composer makes the choice they do is an excellent way to get into the sound on the page, ultimately it will always come back to how the music expands in live space - not between one's ears - but in an acoustic with a particular group of gifted musicians. Change one musician, and the whole paradigm shifts, and the rehearsal process and performance will be different beyond the notes that have been created by these amazing artists.

I think intellectualism in music is important, but to me, it will always take a back seat to a humanistic approach. How does a phrase become beautiful as one breathes? How does the dynamic relationship between musicians and audience affect a composer's intent? These are living, breathing questions that are answered daily on a human level - of course with deep thought, but ultimately, with a nod to the inherent personalities of those making the sound.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tchaikovsky's magic

I started rehearsing Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony this past Monday with the Montclair State University Symphony and am struck by how different an experience it is to hear this music live vs. on a recording.

By just looking at the score, one can easily see that Tchaikovsky can't compose music that is developmental in any way shape or form! What can he do? He writes timeless melodies and spins them out one after the other in orchestral clothing that is slightly altered with each utterance, and his orchestrational vocabulary, while handy, certainly is not overly colorful.

When I hear his music on a recording, somehow the sound is just not as powerful because of the limited compositional technique involved. I tend to daydream when I listen to his music as it repeats material again and again! That's not such a bad thing on many levels as some look for escapism, but music at its essence I would hope engages you in the present rather than lulling you to other environs. Listening to it through a stereo, even on a high end sound system, still seems to me to make the sound more compact, less expansive, and ultimately, less singing in nature. And in the real world of live music, instruments are always yearning to find the expressive potential of the voice.

However, when I hear the music in live space, the sound is much more open, vibrant, alive, singing, and expressive than what you hear on a recording. All of sudden the sumptuous melodies of this symphony come back again and again like a hug from your child - it's something that remains fresh each and every time, and the experience of hearing the work in this atmosphere changes the entire perceptive journey. It's not just that I'm engaged as a musician trying to encourage musicians to play their best and with compassion for one another, I'm listening as it happens with the mind of an audience member too, and even in a first reading with the pitfalls associated, I found myself marveling at what Tchaikovsky was able to create in sound. The effect is moving.

I highly recommend going to hear Tchaikovsky performed live this year. While I think recordings can give you a sense of what it is to hear his voice, it's much like watching cooking on TV - while you can see that the food must taste amazingly good, there's nothing like being in a room where you can sense the aroma wafting around you and then finally have the pleasure of taking a bite, enjoying the taste, and then talking about it with your friends and family.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Daniel Barenboim is one of the great conductors in the musical world today. In 1999 I participated in a masterclass with him and wrote down a quote he gave that I thought had resonance:

"If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would
do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and
when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no
inhibitions about claiming a place for yourself

Democracy is indeed a core part of the orchestra experience - no matter where you sit or what you play, your voice is critical to the success of a performance. It takes only one discordant sound or jaded attitude to tarnish something that otherwise would be beautiful. Everyone is valued, everyone is important, everyone counts, both on the stage and in the audience.

I'm thinking today of this ideal since the time to vote in this year's election has arrived, and I know that music will be part of what is for one candidate, consolation, and the other, victory. No matter which person wins, music will be part of how we respond to the outcome. This is fitting, since music really is an art form that is representative of our democracy at its best.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Performance Practicing

Today I have the pleasure of conducting Holst's The Planets and Bottesini's Bass Concerto No. 2 - a bit of an odd pairing, but fun none-the-less!

A while ago I used to have a pre-performance routine as a conductor: get up, take time to stretch, look over the scores for one final time to digest what I hope to do, do some exercise of some sort, and then eat a reasonable meal. After a quick clean up, then I would go to the hall and double check on logistics, mic volumes, and step in the hall itself for a moment just to feel the space before I would walk out for the performance. I did this in order to feel comfortable, because if one thing was out of place, superstition might set in!

But as life evolves, and fatherhood has become a regular part of my diet, of course I'm up early in the moring now to eat, play, and literally run with a 2 1/2 year old while my wife sleeps in after a late night performance. I'm not sure if I'll even have time to look at scores before I shower and head over for an early soundcheck at noon and 2pm concert. But truth be told, even if the performance were later, my routine would be completely irregular at this point!

As I get older I watch younger students and have to smile sometimes to myself as they do all sorts of last minute practicing before performances. By now, with a performance less than 8 hours away, I feel I have done everything already to be prepared - from rehearsing to studying. Of course I am hopeful regarding certain sections of a work where I know musicians have small problems, but I've done what I can do to help them as a conductor and colleague. What does worry do at this point? What does extra study do at this point except focus me on details, when honestly, I want to be big picture oriented - this is how I stay emotionally connected. If a problem arises, I'll solve it in the moment, but I don't want that fear to get in the way of personal investment, and sometimes being overly detail oriented in the last hours can lead to musical constipation, when the time for details has come and gone!

Some folks say that you are only as good as your last performance, and in some ways I think this is true, and we do tend to remember when things go wrong more than anyone else in our self involved worlds. For us, it takes work (and probably some therapy!) to be self forgiving and I think the best musicians have a great capacity for letting go when a performance takes a left. Right after a mistake, they are able to dive fully into the present without the immediate past casting a shadow. This type of forgiveness, when applied to all of life, has tremendous implications. It allows you freedom from perfection, which is the enemy of human expression. Who do you like that is perfect, or that tries constantly to be perfect in music or otherwise?

One of my teachers used to tell me that perfect practice makes perfect, but I have come to disagree over time. I think intense practice that is precise and ferocious mixed with humanity will always win the musical race, and while one strives to be consistent, being obsessed with perfection can result in jaded behavior over a career. I've applied this aesthetic to my conducting and have been happy with the results, and wish in retrospect, I could have put this in play with my playing as an instrumentalist. I listen these days to some truly exceptional technicians on their instruments, but wonder what they would sound like if they didn't have to be so excellent all the time? What would happen if instead they were able to truly savor the sounds they are so blessed to make? I'm looking for simply joys in what I do and what I see and hear others doing. This is what got me into music in the first place- hearing something that makes me feel...!

Perhaps as we reflect on performaning, we will continue find ways to embrace both our strengths and weaknesses with a bit of compassion. In doing so, perhaps we can then be as expressive and full as possible, sharing our gifts with a radiance that is free.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Spontaneous Combustion!

Today I started my day laughing - I woke up early with my daughter, came into her room, and she just looked at me in her bed and started jumping with a huge grin. "I'm jumping Daddy!" I said - yes you are dear! It's wonderful to see an idea spark a spontaneous reaction that's simply full of joy, and it made me laugh warmly first thing today.

Classical music has a bit of a paradox: we have music that is written by someone else that we have to perform, where we work to find the essence of a great voice that composed the sounds we find so amazing emotionally and intellectually. At the same time we are supposed to give those pre-conceived sounds a fresh take that is considered. In other words, an extremely well thought out work must become spontaneous in performance.

How do we keep naturalness alive in our work when it is pre-determined on many levels? What is the role of the performer vs. the composer?

This is difficult to resolve, and I believe in part a solution lies in doing everything a little differently each time and being sensitive to how you feel today! It is easy to become wed to certain ideas that push music making into a rote experience, and this is the enemy of art. Of course when working in an ensemble there will be certain conventions within an arc that you must observe, since if you take a complete left, execution becomes unsettled. But within that space, there is a universe of possibility if everyone is truly listening. When that type of musical conversation is in play, then the music can sound as if it is being composed in the moment. The trick is to not to idealize any one idea, but to remain open to your voice and the voice of those around you, as well as to how the voice of the composer is speaking to you in present tense.

The second part is to realize that the composer and musician really become one if a performance is transcendent. In classical music, they are completely intertwined, and this makes for one work sounding completely different in the hands of multiple performers. If I listen to Mahler conducted by Bernstein, Levine, Solti, Haitink, Rattle, Barbarolli, as well as others, it is amazing how differently an individual symphony can sound. And this includes conductors who not only conduct the same work in their lifetimes, but also conduct different groups of musicians. James Levine (who I admire greatly) conducting the Vienna Philharmonic sounds so different than when he conducts the Chicago Symphony, or the Metropolitan Opera, or the Berlin Philharmonic. It's not only that he changes with time, but the relationship he has with each ensemble makes for substantive differences as well. This way a piece that is black and white and seemingly static in print, becomes alive when performed over and again.

If a performer gives themselves to the music and has enough trust in those who whom he or she is making music, then moments can occur where the music, musicians, and audience become one thing. This is a unique experience that is life affirming at the deepest levels, and I believe as artists, is what we want to work towards every day of our lives.

My hope is that you get to experience this as a listener, because no matter whether you are playing or watching a performance, we all are listeners and participants when a moment of magic occurs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Work Ethic

I constantly am preaching to my students the importance of a strong work-ethic. I can not tell you the number of incredibly gifted musicians I have seen leave the music profession, not for lack of talent, but lack of competitive drive. It is certainly not always the most talented musicians who find their artistic path in music, although talent does help greatly! Those who find success have a common theme for the most part - and that is a dedicated and sustained intensity of effort.

I have been thinking lately of how a proper work ethic needs to be applied in process, and am beginning to see how clearly that qualitative efforts are where it's at. I hear of people who practice so many hours each day, and I think 'when do you have the time if you have a life?!'

Why? I believe that to truly enjoy music and be human in your approach that there are so many things outside of music that make one a great artist (whether as performer or listener) - it's not just about technique, even if a virtuosic ability gives you a vocabulary to say what you want in sound. But more to the point, artistic growth happens as much away from the instrument as it does on it.

This means that for someone striving as a musician, or quite frankly in any endeavor, one must find a balance in an approach that allows for holistic growth, and this takes as much, if not more, mental energy as it does physical energy.

One of my teachers, Joseph Gifford, who is not a conductor, but a movement specialist (truly a guru in every sense of the word!) said a couple things that guide my approach to preparation and practice at this point:

"Every emotional expression should be done on a release, not a contraction. Do
not substitute tension for intensity. Do not confuse the two. When tension
begins to disappear, then intensity, a fullness of expression, can take place.
Tension always squeezes away fullness and the ease that comes with it."

"Do less to accomplish more. Leave behind the I, the me, the ego. Be open,
vulnerable, transparent. Come to zero -- so that the music will have it's own
voice, not yours, and will move through you with fullness and expressive

I believe what Joe is saying is that by focusing on what is important - the task in front of you and not you doing the task - you can become fully present. This means letting go of expectations and rather being passionately into the present moment, in which you can accomplish more when detached from fear. It is qualitative and intense rather than tense, quantitative, or rushed.

As I go along my own journey I am presently trying to keep my work ethic in a place that allows even grinding work to be enjoyable, not just for the result, but for the gift of being able to pursue something I love - this is especially tough in the face of conflict. However, if one can accomplish more with less, then the simple blessings that life has to offer become something we both can savor more fully, while still getting a lot done, because our focus can be truly on the things that give us joy.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Principled Principles

I have been struck lately by how many people have sacrificed their principles either to get elected, to make more money, or to cater to perceived needs of those around them in order to be accepted and more popular. How many times have you seen someone you know take a complete u-turn on a core part of their projected persona in order to achieve some sort of success. Were they then revealing who they really were, or just what needed to be done in their minds? I am careful to judge others, because usually the more harshly I respond, the more there is to reflect upon internally!

In truth I have to ask myself almost daily whether or not I am slipping into the same temptations with the decisions I must make, and I'm not always sure that I have the perspective that time and retrospect offers to make an honest analysis, because decisions regarding a whole host of subjects are not cut and dry - they live in grey areas. How many decisions have you and I both made that we feel were mistakes at this point? Too many for me to count on my behalf!

So what are core principles that should affect both life and music? Here are a few I try to reflect on when making decisions of all stripes at this time, musical or not:

1) What is the role of my faith in what I am doing? Does it have a place in a secular environment, and do I have the humility to know that I could be dead wrong?
2) Am I making a fair decision about someone that I would be comfortable with if someone were making it for me with the same criteria?
3) How am I assembling information about what I'm doing - is it limited in perspective or not?
4) Should I talk to someone else with greater expertise than me in a particular area and again, do I have the humility to listen?
5) How much is emotion playing into my decisions vs. purely rational thinking? What should the balance be?
6) Am I being narcissistic in my decision - is it all about me, or is it about others? What should this balance be?
7) Have I been relaxed enough to digest information, or am I running to such a degree that I can make a decision?
8) Do I need to make a decision at all about a particular subject - is it the right time to weigh in, and is my decision to insert myself about my need to say something or about the need for something to be said? When do I let something go that cannot be resolved?
9) Do I have the right to be angry and how do I apply my anger in a productive manner?
10) Do I believe there is a right answer or is being right not really that important?

These days I'm constantly looking in the mirror wondering how the balance of principle makes for the decisions I make daily - whether they affect me, my family, or others, especially when reflecting on conflict of all kinds. I want to remain careful, since I want to project a persona that truly is consonant with who I am - this is not an easy task, and I realize this more and more as I get older.

When you conduct or perform as an instrumentalist or singer, I believe you truly become vulnerable in a way that reflects who you really are at the core. The desire to project starts to wash away, unless that's all that is there! It's a time where people can see things more clearly about who you are, and usually you see more of yourself as well. It's why it can be both exhilarating and debilitating at times!

In what forms do you find yourself most fully realised and how does principle play a role in this process?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The conducting vs. playing perspective

I've discovered over the last 12 years that there is a big difference between conducting and playing as a performer, and it mostly has to do with perspective and placement. If I were to move a violinist to where a percussionist sits in an orchestra, it would be a completely weird experience - not because the music would change by putting one person back there, but because for that person the way they hear the music would change dramatically. It would feel different and their perception would be completely altered.

To take it a step further, when I was a percussionist/timpanist, I felt that my part was at the center of the music - not because I was being narcissistic, but because I perceived its importance as I was playing simply because that is how I focused my energy. I knew intellectually it was a piece of a puzzle, but when performing, I was aware of how everyone fit around me on an aural level.

As a conductor what I thought would be important as a player turns out to be radically different. It's not that a conductor isn't aware of what's happening in the back row - one is. But because the conductor's focus is broad, there is nothing that becomes primary in a sense, unless something is going wrong. Rather your awareness, especially in performance, stays present in the whole, and the level of detail that goes into each instrumentalist's performance is not something in your vision. You are hearing and sensing how it all fits together. As a conductor, there is much less specificity at a certain level, because you simply can't think the way an instrumentalist does with the energy they put purely into their instrument on both technical and musical levels at every moment. You are much more aware of broader implications of musical choices that are made at individual and collective levels, and because you are placed at the center of where the sound is directed, your aural perspective also influences how you hear everything, including how energy is distributed with regard to a composer's holistic wishes.

Also the sensation of making sound is so different than just responding physically to it. I say this because, while there are times a conductor must lead, a good conductor wants to let the orchestra play - to give them freedom to be expressive, which creates buy-in and more of a chamber music aesthetic - you are responding to their sound in the present tense. I believe that when music is singing you, you in turn become a much greater leader than if you are trying to control sound. For an instrumentalist, there is a sense of action combined with response to what you are hearing, where as a conductor, I feel the needle leans more to the response side of the equation.

It's interesting because I think that there corollaries to effective leadership practice in a variety of media. If someone in a position of power does what they can to empower the people doing the work on the front lines, then the leader really is creating opportunities for motivated, connected, passionate response. That way the credit for success is placed where it should be, and in the case of an orchestra, toward the people making the sound. Having been both a player and a conductor, I can tell you that I feel I've had a successful concert when I have let the players use their gifts fully by not controlling them, but by helping them do their jobs and by allowing myself to be inspired by their artistry. When a conductor did this for me when I was playing, I would do anything to help make a performance magical.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Listening without the lens

Over the last two weeks I have been reading an extensive amount of political press coverage in a variety of media presenting radically different points of view, from the New York Times, to the Washington Times, to the Huffington Post, the Drudge report, to the NJ Star Ledger, to the Daily News. It's interesting to see how differently pundits frame issues - sometimes using what seems like outright deception, and other times just using effective advocacy - and this is on both sides of the aisle.

How does one really listen to all that is being said with objectivity and fairness? I find this extremely difficult in many ways, as it relates not only to politics, but also to music.

Part of what we do as conductors is to rehearse what we hear in live time - to really listen to what is being played in a given moment, and not just react to what we expect to hear. In other words, if I am listening only through the lens of my own experience, chances are I'll either miss an opportunity to incoporate an excellent idea, or I'll miss something that really needs help, or I'll go about fixing a problem in a manner that is not economical or on point (musicians hate when their time is wasted!).

So I am constantly trying to ask myself - am I really listening? I must confess that I am guilty of not doing as good a job as I should, with my excuse being the amount of work in front of me. This is not a great excuse honestly!

The question becomes how does one really get away from filtering material? How many times have you had a conversation with someone where they totally missed your point and visa versa?

I think it starts from taking moments during a busy day to calm one's mind. We have so much on our plates constantly that breathing deeply becomes difficult - are you breathing deeply now? Unless your body is in a position that is not clenched, then it is impossible for the mind to follow suit - who do you know that has an open mind and physical tension at the same time? Before I conduct a performance I always spend a little time by myself doing excercises called mentastics, developed by Joseph Traeger and taught to me by Joseph Gifford. This usually takes away a lot of my angst and puts me in a more open place to receive as a musician. I can tell when I'm not doing this in all parts of my life - I take things more personally, I am more volatle, more rigid. Do you find this in your case as well?

I am going to try to make a committment over the next two weeks to do some more meditation, to take conscious time aside to breathe deeply for a minute regularly throughout the day, and to do some more exercises that I hope will keep things more open and aligned, even if a performance isn't an hour away. I'll be curious to see how this shapes my experience in the short term and am interested in your experience as well!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Musical Memory

Part of what I'm doing now leading up to my concert with the Colonial Symphony on October 23rd, is to prepare to conduct three pieces from memory - Stravinsky's 1919 Firebird, Falla's Three Cornered Hat Suite No. 2, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol.

I think that memorizing music becomes easier as one gets older, which is counter intuitive in many ways. People always comment to me about how they seem to be having an increasingly difficult time remembering things from their past. On one level I think that is true, but on another, I think memory is related strictly to effort.

Here's what I mean: I think my musical memory has gotten sharper because I have a more profound love for music and appreciation of its depth. When I have a love for something such as a great score, I seem to look at it with different eyes - ones that cherish the moments I have in its presence. My time is more limited in study than it once was because of my family commitments and because of the steep administrative load I have (see the blog below!), but I work faster now and more intensely, and also with greater affection and appreciation. When I apply an honest passion, it becomes much easier to remember even small details of a massive work, and when that music is in my head and bones, it tends to sing me with greater precision and presence.

I think most of colleagues who have passed the 40 threshold would agree that they are much faster to digest material now - no matter if it is musical or not. The specificity with which they remember however, is related to the intensity and passion which they inject into their study, and in when applied with passion, the ability to remember seems to me to increase with age - no matter how old or young you are!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cultural Conversation

I was up early this morning and talking with my daughter and feeling surprised by the power of spontaneous observation a 2 1/2 year old can have! In smiling about it afterward, I started to think about how so much of our world has become less about talking/listening and more about talking points, whether in politics or in our work life.

In that light I began to reflect on how little serious conversation I hear about music these days, whether it be students or people I meet. Between a lack of time in our highly technology-inspired world, which creates so much for work for everyone, and also just a lack of experience, it's not something families seem to be discussing from conversations I've had with people from all walks of life over the past few weeks.

Even in my own world as an advocate for music, I tend to lean toward set talking points when I speak with community groups, although truth be told, whether at my pre-concert talks with the Colonial Symphony, or with presentations like I just made to the Mountain Lakes 55+ Club, my favorite part is always the question and answer portion. People have such interesting observations and questions and I find this dialogue so energizing. I walk away sad that it has to end, because simply put, I have a great time. The dialogue is where it's at.

I remember my days as a student at Florida State University sitting with friends listening to music into the early hours of the morning over a jug of bad wine and talking about why what we heard was great - or not! I particularly remember listening for several days to John Coltrane's Love Supreme and being both mystified and fascinated by the depth of his musical expression, his technical freedom, his spontaneous expression that went beyond sound alone. Something was happening, and I wanted to figure it out. In fact, 3 other friends and I set up a large room full of all kinds of instruments and started performing free music late at night in candlelight. I'm so thankful in retrospect that no one got this on film, but it's something my friends and I will always remember!

This was formative for me in the sense that talking about music was fun, deep, moving, and made me feel a bond with my friends that was different than when we just talked politics, health, economy, or pedagogy. It even led to action. We were speaking about things and doing things that were not economically viable, not directly career enhancing, but soul enriching (We certainly didn't become classical or jazz musicians to become rich!). This wasn't about making a point - it was about process and thought.

When I do hear students talking about music, it has more to do these days with the visual than the aural effect. Just watch MTV for a few minutes as it makes a point about how important it is to be in good physical more than musical shape! The visual element has tended to dominate, sometimes even in the Classical world, where marketing decisions are based on how folks look when they play, rather than on their musical merit. I would love to hear conversations about what an artist actually says and sounds like - why their groove is timeless, their expression deep, their sound unique, their voice powerful, in any musical genre.

I wonder what would happen if arts education was given the importance that research has shown it should have in the classroom? If families, friends, and students started talking about music and art on daily basis? With all the struggles that we collectively face these days, and the pressures so many feel, regardless of your political stripes, it seems to me that cultural discourse needs to become a larger part of our conversational diet. Beyond being simply fun, it goes to the heart of what makes life worth living, giving us a break from the daily grind, truly broadening our perspective, and getting us out of a rut of fear - especially these days.

Today I plan to talk about music with my daughter and fully expect to be amazed by her natural response to sound - one that is full of joy, depth, and laughter - she will teach me. I can't think of a better way to start my day! Later I'll talk with my wife about a new recording of Falla's Three Cornered Hat I just listened to, and hopefully we'll check it out together. Then I go to do a recruiting speech at Montclair State University for prospective students and am going to really try to stay away from talking points as much as I can and instead, create room for more dialogue.

In other words, beyond my political/economic/health/education concerns and my desire to talk and engage, I hope to have a great day surrounded by culture and art. This is what makes me happy. I mean, there's always time for political discourse and this is indeed important with an election looming, but I also feel we need to do things to keep perspective afloat about life's inherent pleasures, and culture does this as well as anything!

I hope you have a wonderful day full of music and art as well.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Re: Becoming a Conductor

When I first considered making the leap from being a percussionist to a conductor, I had many false impressions about how the conducting profession truly worked, even after having spent close to 12 years playing with pro orchestras and being around professional conductors since my student days in Youth Orchestras, starting in 1977 with the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra.

I understood that conductors must spend quite of bit of time studying, and this has proven quite true, since being able to listen with great intensity in rehearsal and concert requires an extremely precise and intimate knowledge of a score, with it's infinite details. You do this while moving through space, doing your best to embody the character of the music while giving information that helps instrumentalists and singers do their jobs. There is a universe of work just in this bit alone!

But where the real effort comes is in the administrative work. For years many conductors told me they loved making music, but that the administrative load was so heavy, and I always thought - huh? I just figured they must not like doing the little bit they must do. Little did I know that they were right!

So what does "administrative work" mean for a conductor? I truly didn't understand because no one ever really took the time to explain it to me.


As an example of what this means, here are a few things I have done this week to make conducting possible in collaboration with colleagues, and please forgive the volume - but I hope to show what a typical week looks like for a conductor!

For the Colonial Symphony, where I am the Music Director and Conductor
- I worked on production elements for our concert at the Community Theatre on October 23rd, from the amount of stage space needed for dancers in front of our orchestra, to set-up diagrams with every chair and stand accounted for, to coordinating this with our production manager and the Community Theatre's production director including sound needs at the concert, signs for backstage use directing people to proper locations, to making arrival arrangements for the dancers, to giving timings for each piece so that the stage crew can appropriately plan their work, to working on the specific type of floor needed in front of the orchestra for the dancers, to coordinating when the CS's production manager will pick up music from our music preparation person, who had already sent out practice parts to musicians. (NB - we use performance parts at the concert itself).
- I have been in touch with Local 16 this week, the musician's union, to make arrangements to make a video of myself conducting the orchestra to be used for grant purposes, and also for Kevin Coughlin of the Star Ledger to make a video of the rehearsal and performance for a 90 second video article. This requires emails, conversations with both the union and the musician's committee representative, and a letter to the union from both me and from Kevin Coughlin about the express use of the video material.
- I have been consulting this week with my orchestra contractor on a variety of musician issues, from changes in personnel for upcoming concerts to those who are new who must join the union to participate. We deal with issues daily.
- I developed and wrote a narrative about the Colonial Symphony that encapsulates what we do. After doing this I sent it to Suzanne, the executive director of the CS, and to John Hynes of Korn Hynes who does much of our marketing work. Once they finish putting their input into this document, we will distribute to both reporters and audience members.
- I developed and wrote a narrative about our Listening is Healing program, a therapeutic use of music project in collaboration with the the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center, the NJ Youth Symphony, and Montclair State University. In addition, I compiled a list of testimonials and a list of medical studies supporting the qualitative side of the work, the latter coming from recommendations by Dr. Joke Bradt and Dr. Brian Abrams. This also went to Suzanne and John.
- I worked with the NJYS to determine student musicians to be involved in the Listening is Healing program, put the program in motion with MSU students who I had already recruited along with our pro musicians, and set a rehearsal schedule in coordination with Leah Oswanski at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center.
- I am preparing the payroll for submission for the Listening is Healing program - there are four rehearsals involving 8 people this month, and I submit this to Suzanne for processing.
- I met with Kevin Couglin of the Star Ledger earlier this week to do a promotional video about conducting and dance, and coordinated with Deirdre Shea and Noelle Zielenbach of the Shea Jennings Irish Dance Troup for this project. I also met with Deirdre and Noelle to work out artistic details for the upcoming concert.
- I personally delivered promotional materials to my colleagues at Frelinghuysen Middle School, Randoph High School, and the New Jersey Youth Symphony in an effort to develop audience.
- I made phone calls to a prospective leaders for the Evening of Note, which is being coordinated out of the CS office.
- I am finalizing budgets and artistic plans for next season - budgets go hand in hand with what pieces one plans to perform. This is for an artistic committee meeting in October. I am also trying to recruit a musician from the orchestra to be involved beyond myself, our executive director, and members of the board.
- I spoke to Mike Tschappit of the Daily Record for an article that appeared yesterday.
- I went to my MSU library to find music to the Star Spangled Banner for the upcoming concert and delivered those materials to our production manager, after holding a meeting with her.
- I spent time working on the details for my pre-concert talk for next week's concert, as well as broad ideas on what I want to say before each piece so that I include people who don't have a lot of experience with Classical music, as well as words that will prove enlightening for people who have had tremendous exposure to this great music.
- I completed the program page for our upcoming program and wrote two program notes that will appear in the next program.
- I redid my bio for the program
- I attended a board meeting.
- And yes, I studied music - I plan to do the Firebird, Three Cornered Hat, and Capriccio Espagnol from memory!

For my work at Montclair State University as the Director of Orchestral Studies
- I met with the concert committee to work out scheduling of all major concerts for 2008-9, and also begin to do some preliminary visioning on the schedule of events for the opening of the new building.
- I worked on resolving some lingering scholarship issues as part of my duties managing the scholarship database.
- I led two students on recruiting visits - coordinating their schedules for their visits, and will lead a large group visiting tomorrow on campus. I also worked on visits by other students in upcoming weeks.
- I sent out recruiting information for the Orchestrafest I host every Spring, involving over 300 high school students and performances by faculty
- I put together the schedule for a visit by Arts High School on November 17th - from space reservation coordination to student and faculty ensembles that will participate.
- I coordinated with the Dean's office on bus scheduling to bring the Arts High Women's Chorus to MSU for a concert the last week of October.
- I worked on programs for next season - choosing repertoire that makes sense both as a concert experience and also pieces that fit into a pedagogical cycle of composers that I believe are important as an educational tool.
- I taught a free conducting lesson to a prospective Masters conducting student
- I met with 5 students individually to consult on future plans.
- I wrote four recommendations for students participating in competitions.
- I wrote two graduate recommendations for students, and filled out online applications for 4 schools.
- I worked on wind/brass/percussion assignments for the next concert period as well as string seating order.
- I contacted music publishers to both confirm music delivery schedules for rental music that is coming next week, as well as working to resolve a billing issue.
- I completed the web posting for the Masters in Conducting degree, which will tell potential students the audition requirements and schedule in the Spring.
- I finalized the program details for my upcoming concert in coordination with our concert manager.
- I set a meeting with the Associate and Assistant Conductors of the musical Crazy for You that I will be conducting in November - we need to meet to cover beat patterns and solidify the musical approach.
- And yes, I studied scores for the upcoming concert as well as the next concert period, which begins after November 2nd.
- This past Saturday I conducted at the Kaleidoscope concert, which I had helped to organize focusing primarily on logistics, which I then helped to execute at the concert itself.

For guest conducting work:
- I have been in touch with a presenter about bringing a contemporary opera to the stage with a contemporary music ensemble with whom I am involved.
- I have been working with the Westchester All-State Orchestra organizers to set a schedule during this event that happens November 12-13, as well as to firm up small details regarding instrument assignments.

For philanthropic work:
I met with a committee of the Arts Council of Morris Area to discuss recruitment of conversationalists for a fundraising event on March 26th. After I made calls to several artists working to engage them for this date in support of the amazing work the Arts Council does. I do this as a board member of this organization.

This is all in addition to the elementary conducting class I teach, the orchestra rehearsals I've held at MSU for both the Symphony and Pit Orchestra, and the two conducting lessons I teach, and of course, preparation time for each, never mind the hundreds of emails sent and received.

I also managed to spend precious time with my family, whom I love so very much.

I realize that this is an extensive laundry list, but I think it sheds light on the extra musical activities that a conductor must do - the "administrative work!" It requires tremendous organizational skills to get everything done, and this is something I am constantly working on - developing ways to be more efficient. What I can say is that when I finally get to make music, it is an experience that I try to truly cherish each time, since it is at the heart of what I love to do. But I also have come to realize that there are so many other things conductors do every day!

I hope you will find this illuminating about what a conductor's work life looks like in a typical week!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Re: First Blog

The first day of blogging has arrived and I feel as if I've finally joined a club that has been in existence since the Jurassic era! I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you over time and exploring both aesthetics and common sense values in the way music touches lives.

Talk more soon.... - Paul