Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Perception vs. Reality

I had the privilege of being a performing instrumentalist from the time I started playing in youth groups through the many years I performed professionally in New York City before I fully turned my attention to conducting. Particularly as a percussionist/timpanist, I had plenty of time to observe well over 200 conductors work, witnessing the art form at its highest level and also at levels considerably lower!
Before I started working on the podium I, like many musicians, had a sneaking suspicion that I could do a better job than the vast majority of conductors with whom I collaborated. Partly this was hutzpah, but it also came from the fact that I thought I knew what and what not to do by watching so many conductors work, and particularly with talented artists, seeing rehearsal technique and physical delivery that was economical and connected. How hard could it be if I just applied my own musical knowledge to movement, which is what I did anyway as a percussionist?
As it turns out (as with many things), it’s harder than it looks! I had numerous perceptions of the work conductors do that were just flat wrong, despite so many years of making music with amazing artists. It’s interesting that in conversations with instrumentalists and singers to this day, I still hear some of the same things about the art of conducting that I once thought myself, since the perception of what happens on the podium is hard to understand until you have actually done it for a while.
Here’s a list of some of the preconceptions that I had compared to some of the realities I have experienced:
Perception: Good stick technique is not hard to develop if you watch people who conduct well and just copy their physical delivery.
Reality: We are all different, and it is very hard for one person to copy another because of the physical and emotional differences we bring to our musical endeavors. The same gestures in my hands copied identically will sound different in yours. Beyond, it is so easy to develop habits that are inefficient/unhelpful. As conductors we have to constantly work on being fundamentally sound if we want to be in the good graces of our colleagues, and we truthfully need good will, or the sound will suffer. There are conductors whose musical IQ is that of a genius and who can use this intellectual gift as a tool to get around physical deficiencies, but these people are extremely rare. Usually conductors have worked on either pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, mentastics, alexander technique, body mapping, or other somatic pedagogies, many times in combinations with ferocious energy in order to allow musical energy to flow more freely, beyond the study of conducting with pedagogues who know how to teach. People who think they can just get up and do it usually have a higher estimation of their abilities than what they can actually deliver.
Perception: It’s not hard to move your hands and hear what is in a score.
Reality: It’s much harder than it looks, because while listening to musicians perform, as a conductor, you are multitasking well beyond right or wrong notes. You are adjusting your physical vocabulary, responding to the sound you hear and what you perceive is needed in the ensemble; you are adjusting your conception of the work in real time compared to what you imagined in study, since you need to empower musicians, taking advantage of their strengths and sensibilities, while at the same time balancing architectural details so there is a thread through a work from beginning to end – it is collaborative and not dictatorial; you are listening with your eyes, looking at players and trying to determine what psychological factors are at play within an ensemble, which necessitates adjustments in your conveyance of criticism/correction; you are determining what will fix itself vs. what needs your attention; you are mindful of the clock (whether working with unions or not), making choices on what to attack given time constraints; you are trying to vary the amount of verbal criticism/correction offered, so as not to be too predictable, sometimes being very quick, and other times taking a moment to explain or sing; in tandem to the prior comment, when stopping, you are determining the fastest way to fix a problem – metaphor or black and white, bowing/fingering change (which can be political/disrespectful), mallet change, articulative recommendations, intonation issues (also political), and a variety of other instrument or singer specific advice that may or may not be appropriate (diction for a soloist), etc…; you are trying to allow yourself to be emotionally connected to the music, yet still listening critically. These are a few of the moving pieces moving through a conductor’s head, and so leading an effective rehearsal while all this information moves in live time is indeed tricky.
Perception: I can do this better than that guy/gal!
Reality: Most of the time you can’t do it better without training and most importantly, podium time. Many conductors have spent very little time on the podium when they are judged initially, and this is so unfair. Can you imagine a few months of training on your instrument and then being asked to take an audition? This is what we face as conductors. Practice can only happen in standing in front of musicians – conducting to a recording does very little in reality to make one a better conductor. I heard Simon Rattle once say that conductors are afraid of being found out. Even after lots of podium time, this nagging feeling is there for those who aren’t arrogant!
Perception: If things don’t work out on my instrument or as a singer, I can always conduct.
Reality: I have heard this so many times, and it amazes me how many people have wanted to pursue conducting without having achieved anything as an instrumental or vocal performer. Otto Werner Mueller once said that if you can make chamber music with world class artists and they are willing to listen to your opinions, then you might have a chance to be a conductor. My sense is without the first hand perspective of actually MAKING the sound, it’s very difficult to connect deeply to the sound and its infinite level of details. How can you feel comfortable leading excellent musicians who have done what you could not do yourself? It does not mean you have to win an orchestral audition, or perform with a major opera company, but somewhere along the line you need to have had the experience of performing on your instrument or singing at a world class level with the highest caliber musicians. Otherwise life on the podium will be about faking it, and at some point this will catch up to you.
Perception: The conductor has tremendous power.
Reality: A conductor does indeed have some power, but not as much as you might think. In today’s world, where unions are still very strong in the orchestral and operatic realms, and boards are also becoming more fiscally conservative, there are many masters to whom you must answer, never mind your audience, who you have to both lead and please. It’s a difficult balancing act on all sides, full of compromise.
Perception: A conductor spends most of his/her time working with musicians, making music.
Reality: A conductor spends a very small amount of time actually making music compared to the number of hours required in study, and these days, doing administrative work and fundraising. I wrote another blog post about the administrative duties a conductor typically performs, particularly if you have the role of a music director, or in a college/high school, a program director. You have to have a tremendously organized mind to get everything in, and the truth is that you will spend more time doing non music work if you are to make a living as a conductor, unless you are super gifted and can just serve as a guest conductor. But even then, there are still lots of details to craft when putting a program together when working with managements.
Perception: once you get a job as a conductor, it becomes easier to work with greater repertoire in your hand and more experience.
Reality: It is extremely difficult to sustain a career. Some can do so because they have other gifts, such as raising money, or programming creatively. But I’ve known many assistant and associate conductors of major orchestras who have had difficulty through their careers maintaining both an income that sustains a decent quality of life, as well as one that is artistically satisfying. Winning one job does not guarantee anything, unless you’ve been conducting as a guest at the major orchestra level, and then you probably will find your way.

When I first told friends I was going to change my career from playing to conducting, most thought I was absolutely out of my mind! Truthfully, if knew then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have made the move the way I did. However, my feeling has always been that if one is able to work hard enough and be completely dedicated to the craft, eventually if you truly love the work (and all the work a conductor must do), it will somehow work out, even if there are misperceptions along the way as I had starting my career on the podium.

The Desire to Author a Conducting Text

The desire to author a conducting text was the culmination of numerous life experiences that were not in any way synchronous; this is of course representative of all of our lives, none of which seems to go on the straight line as we plan! However, the steps that led to the construction of OnMusic Conducting: Connect to the Sound may prove interesting, particularly since the path to its formation was slightly unconventional.
To start, and as background, I had the privilege of performing with a tremendous number of ensembles in New York City professionally for over 10 years before I even gave conducting a serious thought. During that time I usually brought a score to rehearsals and, as a percussionist/timpanist, used the rests to watch what conductors were doing that was both successful and ineffective – and I saw a lot of both!
When I finally began to change my career from an instrumentalist to that of a conductor in my 30’s, most of my friends thought I was crazy! However, my conviction to make the move was facilitated by the kindness of many mentors and musicians who were encouraging despite the odds we all know (a few of these are James Levine, Larry Rachleff, Eric Stern, Brad Keimach, Robert Shaw, and Richard Woitach). After conducting professionally for several years and after winning a few jobs, I decided to calm my life down a bit from the constant travel required and won a full time faculty position at Montclair State University before taking my current job at the Schwob School of Music, Columbus State University.
When I began my academic work, I taught basic conducting virtually every semester for 10 years and through that process, used a variety of texts, from Hunsberger to Labuta to Green. I also reviewed countless books about conducting in all shapes and sizes, from McElheran to Schuller to Wittry to Colson to Miller to Watkins to Battisti to Farberman and others, never mind countless autobiographies and biographies of great conductors.
As I continued to teach and think about how conducting is communicated, I began to see that at the basic level, the main goal I had was getting students to connect their physical movement to the sound in a manner that was responsive to what they were hearing both externally and internally – that tricky combination! It seemed to me that a text would need to have greater flexibility and offer deeper opportunities for dynamic interaction outside of class than what was currently available if I was to achieve the results I thought possible, even though so many I had read and used possessed tremendously valuable information. But they were delivering in a static environment with too much detail that could be accomplished in a semester, and my sense was that there might be a better approach.
Through this process, I also had an opportunity to teach music appreciation to college students. I had used a variety of texts before being introduced by my colleague, Dr. Fred Cohen, to Connect for Education (C4E). Once I had a look, I decided to use a turnkey online text of theirs called OnMusic Appreciation and found it to be terrific, eliciting very positive outcomes from students. It was from that experience that I began to seriously think about writing a conducting text, since the use of a similar platform in conducting would provide options that were interesting. The thought of collaborating with them entered my mind.
From here I began to think about using the C4E interface, but perhaps in a hybrid fashion, since it would give me a chance to:
  • 1.    Offer video components for review both in demonstration and in the upload of student work. Seeing what others do and what you are doing yourself is of immense help as all conductors know. The C4E Acclaim tool provided a specific opportunity for interactive dialog and enhanced learning outside of class. And it’s integrated and easy to use.
  • 2.    Create modules that can be adapted by professors. Any text has material with which individuals may not agree, since conducting is such a highly personalized art form. The ability to remove or add material that complimented sections which were consonant with a teacher’s approach would allow a more personal class-based delivery.
  • 3.    Create the opportunity for implementing changes. Faculty who teach the course will have insight to share along the way, as one person can’t see all angles. We have the ability to update our text at any point without going through another printing, and this was very attractive.
  • 4.    Offer automated testing outside of the conducting assessments, reducing the work load of teaching faculty, thus giving more time for individual assistance as the physical side of conducting is developed, and this needs attention.
  • 5.    Provide relationships with numerous entities, including the NY Philharmonic score archive as an example, which shows students marked scores and parts. My sense is that we could get the rights from many vendors with whom we could collaborate, offering students video and narrative resources.
  • 6.    Create a dynamic learning environment, where prep tests and questions could be presented in an interactive format, all geared toward the manner in which students are learning today.
  • 7.    Create a web based calendar that is easy for professors to follow and manage.
  • 8.    Offer everything under one umbrella at one location, from a grade book that automatically configures weighted percentages to information that is sequenced in weekly, digestible form, to all manner of video information.

These are a few of the elements that I thought would function better in a hybrid format.
The course moved forward after a meeting with Dongsook Kim, the visionary CEO of Connect for Education over dinner at a Houlihan’s, and then was consummated after a meeting with Dr. Carlos Maldonado, C4E’s chief learning architect (and an accomplished musician/conductor). I came to realize that their entire team was creative, accomplished, responsive, honest, and perceptive, fully collaborating in the design and delivery of every element in this text. My former student (and now colleague) Michael Mahadeen created arrangements that fit with my conception for the assessments (including transposed instrumental scores), and finally, I drew on the conversations I had engaged in through 25 years as a professional with countless musicians, educators, administrators, and talented students, all of whom provided remarkable insight into the teaching of conducting.

What I have seen so far is truly wonderful: OnMusic Conducting helps students to develop a somatic sense that is connected to the sound on emotional and technical levels – the hybrid approach combined with thoughtful pedagogy works beautifully. This has made the journey so very gratifying, and I am confident that your experience will be similar using this text. I wish you all the best!!