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