meaning

The subtitle of the blog is “meaning, music, and conducting.” So I want to address meaning — what it is, why it matters.

As defined by positive psychology research, meaning is the feeling of being connected to something larger than yourself. Often it feels like being of service to something larger. Might be God or community or the Prime Directive or the wellbeing of your students. As long as it gives you a sense of feeling connected or of service to something larger than yourself, it’s meaningful.

Positive psychology research tells us that this sensation is essential for our health. And it doesn’t matter where that sensation comes from. As long as you feel like you’re part of something bigger, you’ll experience greater wellbeing.

But the World wants to tell you what’s really meaningful. Why be a musician when you could contribute something of real value like the cure for cancer or a solution to homelessness? That’s the one I wrestle with. But if we take this kind of thinking to its absurdest manifestations, we see religions claiming to be “the only way to God,” and that the path to God is the only meaningful thing humanity has access to. Then each specific religion has their own ideas about how to do it, and that causes wars…

So, can we stop telling people what’s meaningful? Stop deciding for other people what they should care about? Stop insisting that everyone care about the same things you care about? We’re all just doing the best we can with what we have to work with. It’s nobody’s place to judge.

Admittedly, this has some grey areas. There’s a very real risk that people can feel of service to something that does harm to other people. So, yeah, if the KKK makes you feel connected to something larger than yourself, I’m gonna argue with you. But if we have a population full of people who feel their lives have meaning, and we don’t make them defend themselves all the time, we’ll have a population of people who are a little happier and less stressed out. It will require a society where judgement is not standard operating procedure. Which I suspect will lead to fewer people who feel like they need to fight for their own few inches of life against whatever scapegoat comes along.

On a related note, my sister has explained why we need to stop telling people they can’t be happy while there’s still evil in the world (link NSFW).

Anyway.

Meaning, music, and conducting.

I feel of service to my singers. I feel part of a community of musicians. I feel connected to composers from a long history, and cultures whose traditions created music from all over the world. It gives me the feeling that I’m connected to things that are larger than myself.

I even find it writing for the blog. I feel like I put some things on record that haven’t been said before, or said enough. And now, here they are, available to anyone who wants to look.

I’m reminded now of a conversation I had in my first year of teaching with the physics teacher at my school. We were talking about why we teach and I told him “to save the world.” Of course. I still feel like that’s where this goes. Eventually. Tiny step by tiny step. Word by word.

And now I’ve got this other opportunity to write something that will reach a larger audience. My sister and I are writing a book about health, feminism, sociology, history, art, mindfulness… Emily describes it as a book about why women feel exhausted all the time but still feel like they’re not doing enough. It has the premise that women’s self-care is a radical act of protest against misogyny. It’s a vast and sprawling subject. We’re combining our very different expertises in order to discuss this important subject in a way that it’s never been discussed before. Hopefully, it will be a way that is inviting and compelling and clear. And I also feel a sense of purpose and meaning in that project.

And because that’s also a paid gig, I’m gonna focus on that for the next several months, and step away from Thoughtful Gestures temporarily. I’ll be posting overflow from the book — especially stories and research that are too music-specific to be relevant to the book — over at Medium. If you’re interested in that stuff or are just curious, I hope you’ll follow me over there. I think most of you click on my blog posts through  my Facebook page, and I’ll be linking the Medium posts there, too. So, no additional clicking required for those folks.

See you in a few months. In the meantime, help save the world. Enjoy what connects you to something larger than yourself, and let other people enjoy their connection to whatever feels meaningful to them.

Happy new year,

Amelia

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L’Amour de Loin

I was at the opening of L’Amour de Loin at the Met last night. It was a powerful opera, staged and performed with overwhelming thoughtfulness.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no set. There is nothing on the stage to indicate that the opera is going on at a place or time. The stage is all black, except for strips of LED lights stretched above the stage — forty thousand total bulbs, according to the program — that serve as set, lighting, Greek Chorus (the lights themselves provide commentary, though in addition to that, the chorus is literally in there, standing between strips of lights), and as much an illustration of the psychology of the characters and their world as the orchestra. In fact, the lights look the way the music sounds: washes of color, splashes and sparkles, formless turmoil, glistening stillness. Just as the music provides only the barest sense that it is ever tonally or melodically grounded, the stage floats, disconnected and unearthly. The singers  glide by, standing on machines or boats  that carry them across the stage. There are two significant exceptions to this. But from the first moment, the stage shows us that we are in a mental, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, metaphysical universe of affect, ideas, emotion, character. This isn’t an opera about a Medieval story or historical figures; this is an opera about philosophy.

I’ll admit, it’s a little hard to watch for two hours. As hard as it is for most of us to listen to atonal music for two hours. You start to get anxious for some kind of center you can grab onto. But I think that’s part of the point.

The hero, Jaufre, falls in love with the idea of a perfect woman. When a pilgrim tells Jaufre such a woman exists far away, he becomes obsessed. When the far-away woman, Clemence, complains to the pilgrim that no one in her land knows her, the pilgrim comforts her with the suggestion that this man knows her, or at least of her, and even loves her.

Clemence has mixed reactions, but ends up very interested in the possibility that someone might know her. We’re starting to think that maybe she’s a little shallow, to be so attracted to that kind of flattery, even though it does come from the desire simply to be known for herself. But at the end of this act, Clemence descends from her balcony and walks barefoot on the stage itself, between strips of LED lights. She repeats the words the pilgrim used to describe her supposed perfection to Jaufre, questioning how they could be true. Here, on the ground, her feet to the planks, she doesn’t try to respond the way she thinks she should respond. She is honest. Natural. She admits her flaws. She expresses doubt that she is good enough, that she deserves admiration.

Then the pilgrim tells Jaufre that Clemence knows about his songs, so Jaufre can’t resist travelling to see her. The journey makes him ill, and he hallucinates a Clemence who can literally walk on water. In reality, Clemence knows Jaufre is coming, and she wonders how she should act — play hard to get? Welcome him warmly? How, she wonders as she floats on her balcony, would the woman in his songs behave?

At the end of the journey, Jaufre is dying on the shores of Clemence’s homeland. Clemence descends from her balcony and meets him, maybe loves him in that moment. Jaufre dies.

And Clemence loses her shit.

She rages at God, literally stamping her foot on the stage and screaming. And here comes the chorus: “Be quiet. Your passions lead you astray. Silence!” She rages and wails, and the chorus tells her to shut the hell up because God will punish all of them unless she can rope it in like a good girl.

Clemence runs out of fight. She climbs back on her balcony, which then lifts her up even higher, even further from the floor, the stage, the earth, her honesty and her real self. She sings to God that He is now her love from afar.

Which is when my jaw fell open, and hung there until the curtain calls.

She conforms. She becomes the one destined for tragic death as she admires a distant, unknowable ideal. She denies what was real and natural, coming from her truest self. The abandons the hope of being known and loved for herself in order to do what she’s told. Twenty feet off the stage, disconnected from her truth, she vows to commit her life to this demand from the Chorus.

It felt like magic to watch. By far the most transporting experience I’ve ever had in a theater. It felt like time stopped and we swam for a while in questions and possibility. And when it ended with rejection of earthly connection, and return to the ideals of the distance and unknowability…

It leaves room for celebration, if you want it. If you believe, as I agree is a legitimate perspective, that personal connection and fulfillment through a sense of being known are secondary to commitment to the greater good, then it gives you that.

If you believe, as happens to be my perspective, that individuals can serve the greater good more effectively if they feel a sense that their individuality matters to someone, then it’s heartbreaking.

It’s ambivalent in the way only the greatest art can be.

Kaija Saariaho, you flooded me with wonder.

Susanna Malkki, I stand in awe.

Robert Lapage, that was beautiful and terrible as the dawn.

The singers — in roles and the chorus — holy moly that was amazing. Such a demanding score, floating between tonal loveliness and impossible-to-hear intervals with extended techniques… Wow.

Everyone should go see this. It’s like nothing else. Truly the highest and best that art has to offer.

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choral v. instrumental

This is another post in response to a question my conducting students had. They wanted to know the differences between choral and instrumental conducting. I explained in class that there is some controversy over this subject, and that there are lots of conductors who would disagree with me, but this is my experience:

There is no difference.

Good conducting is good conducting. Because you’re conducting the music, not the musicians.

That said, there are lots of different kinds of conducting based on more than just the content of the music, such as logistics, skill level, your familiarity with the ensemble, and how well they know the music. Conducting a stage performance from a pit is a completely different technique. Conducting recitative is a totally separate skill from conducting anything else. And, yes, there are some fundamental differences between singing and playing an instrument that suggest different needs from a conductor; although, those influence the rehearsal process more than how you actually conduct the music.

A singer usually has a score that lets them see other parts, so they can listen and count, and are less dependent on seeing every downbeat. A nice, clear pattern will be helpful when they’re just learning the music, but if they know it well, all they’ll need from you is a compelling intention. On the other hand, a singer’s instrument is made of muscle and cartilage, and is directly influenced by their autonomic nervous system. They are more dependent on your physical and mental stability because of the subconscious influence you have on their emotions that will influence how well they sing. Then again, if you work with them a long time, they can adjust to whatever chronic tension is in your shoulders or whatever, and not allow it to contaminate them.

An instrumentalist doesn’t have a full score to know what else is going on around their part, but with enough practice, they will learn what to listen for and become less dependent on your cues and downbeats. Given enough time, they won’t need any patterns from you, just reminders about the intensity and affect they are creating. Their instrument is not directly tied into their nervous system, so your stress will have less effect on their playing; but research still shows that the better they know you and the more they like you, the more closely they will follow your gesture.

Here’s a couple of very common for-instances:

You conduct a church choir. At Christmas you have a string quartet, who do one rehearsal with you, then play two services. Your choir likely doesn’t need anything from your gesture but a reminder to pour out their hearts. The string players will need every downbeat, and a pattern as clear as the finest crystal.

On the other hand, imagine you conduct a community orchestra. You’ve worked with them for months on a choral/orchestral work, while someone else is preparing the choir. Your orchestra knows the music well enough that they just need you to set the tempo, bring them in, and then keep reminding them when important things happen with abstract gestures and expressive eyebrows. The choir comes for their first rehearsal with you, all prepared and ready, but unfamiliar with you, your tempos, your interpretation. They will want clarity from you above all else. You had better cue every damn entrance, at the first rehearsal at least.

You see, it’s not a matter of whether the ensemble sings or plays. It’s a matter of how well they know the music, how well they know you, how much time you have to fit it all together, etc.

In this Basic Conducting class, I’m mostly teaching you to speak the common language of gestures that are universally understood by professional musicians. Most of you are already at the point where you “speak” the gestural language of conducting well enough that you could handle any situation like these two.

At the same time, I’m also trying to sandwich that technical information between two slices of art. Because, mostly, you’ll be working with ensembles of amateurs and students, who will need your clarity and your vision to show them how their part fits into the whole. And why it matters. Your gesture needs to be clear about tempo and dynamics, just like a sandwich has to have meat or cheese or lettuce or whatever. But your gesture can have so much more. It’s a conductor’s job is to discover what the “more” is in each piece of music, then put it in her gesture. (I’ll be spending more time in class talking about how to find that, as part of your requested deeper exploration of score prep.) But so far, I’ve mostly been trying to teach you the process by which your gesture becomes expressive, so you’ll be able to put anything in. Like, when you learn how bread is made, it becomes clear how to make different kinds of bread.

And, yeah, full disclosure: this art/technique/art sandwich is just one of the available treats in the broad buffet that is conducting. This is not all there is to it. Hence my twenty years of studying and practicing, and blogging, and working, and still learning all the time.

But, mostly, you conduct the music, not the musicians.

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protocol

I asked my conducting students what they wanted to know that I haven’t talked about yet. They had several great questions, some of which I will definitely deal with in class where doing the work and watching their colleagues do the work is most helpful. But a couple of the things are best addressed in conversation. Or writing. So this post addresses one of those.

They asked about protocol, etiquette, how to deal/interact with the ensemble.

The short answer is, “love them.”

If that makes sense to you, you can stop reading now. That’s all the wisdom I have to offer. But if you wonder how love manifests itself in behaviors from the podium, I’ll break it down a bit more.

  1. Show them respect.
    1. Arrive early, start on time, and end on time.
    2. Be prepared. Know all their parts as well as if you would be performing them yourself. Anticipate potential problems and have some solutions ready. Do not get on the podium without a clue about what the sound will be, and figure you’ll learn the music in the rehearsal process — maybe you did this as an ensemble member, but conductors can’t. They all learn their own parts, but your job is to know each part and also to have a concept of how the parts all fit together.
    3. Plan your rehearsal in detail. Know what you want to accomplish, and tell them. “Today, we’ve got to get the second movement fugue cleaned up, and then blah blah whatever.” And then do that. If you don’t accomplish what you wanted to, don’t blame them. You planned too much. (Everything is always your fault.)
    4. Do not waste their time while you work on gestural issues. If you can’t give a clear cue or keep a tempo change consistent in rehearsal, drop it, work on it by yourself before you stand on the podium again, and rehearse it again when you’re ready.
  2. Share something you care about with them. Have an opinion, a perspective. Bring something to the music that isn’t on the page. Let it be personal. Let it be yours. Find space in it to be theirs, too.
  3. Listen to them; and trust them.
    1. Statistically, you are probably average. Average intelligence, average musicianship, average kinesthetic skills. Some of them will be smarter than you, better musicians. Unless they are students, they will almost certainly know more about the capabilities of their instruments than you do. Ask their opinions, be open to their ideas.
    2. Not only does this give you the benefit of their expertise, but also it makes your performance unique to the humanity of those individuals in the ensemble. And it’s easier for them to invest if they have a sense of ownership.
  4. Don’t dump your baggage on them.
    1. If you’re stressed or angry with the world or whatever, put it on a shelf until the end of rehearsal. Then, by all means, pick it back up and deal with it.
    2. Or, if it’s too big for a shelf, be honest with them. Put it into the music if you can. Your humanity if a gift to them and to the art. If you’re distracted and/or suffering, do what you can. Maybe the rehearsal won’t be productive the way you planned, but you’ll probably accomplish something valuable.
    3. Do not, by any means, snap at the ensemble because you’re cranky from traffic. If you’re cranky with them, ask yourself why. Is it really them? Or have you brought something into the room with you, left over from earlier in the day, or the week, or your childhood, or whatever? It’s almost always you.

Above all, remember that making music together isn’t just business. Well, it can be. But when it’s really good, it’s personal, too. The shared experience of creating music together is powerful and pleasurable, and should expose your heart a little.

Like your gestural technique, none of the logistics really matters as long as you go into it with the intention of caring for the ensemble and making some really interesting music.

Yeah, this is an annoyingly vague answer. “But, Amelia, what do we do?” And the answer is “it depends.” Who is in your ensemble? What repertoire are you working on? How many rehearsals do you have before the performance? Sometimes you’ll push them hard. Sometimes you’ll luxuriate in the music.

There’s this myth that conducting is about being in control. That you should be a benevolent dictator. It’s not true. A conductor is a servant to the music. Do whatever it takes to make the music everything it wants to be, but remember that this will inevitably require the musicians to be at their best mentally and physically. So, take care of them.

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we’re gonna need a bigger boat

All this time, I’ve been writing about being a woman conductor.

“Is that rare?” my psychiatrist asked me, when I suggested to him that this was a source of stress in my life.

“Yes,” I informed this otherwise highly educated man. “Conducting may be the last remaining overwhelmingly male-dominated profession in the music industry. Overwhelmingly white, too.”

I’ve been called “sweetie” by colleagues who barely know me. I’ve regularly been the only woman in the room in meetings with conductors, and almost always in the minority — unless they are children’s choir conductors. I’ve been told, “you were great, we just felt more of a connection with [the male conductor who is half my age, with a third of my education and none of my experience].” And I thought all that was built on people’s subconscious, implicit biases against women in authority.

I didn’t know how deep the problem was until last week. I had no idea how wide.  I’ve been so protected. So blind? So innocent? So gullible? How did I not know it was this bad?

It turns out damn near half the country is not only subconsciously biased against women in authority while they would never consciously say or do sexist things, but is also totally comfortable with promoting a man who says outright misogynist things, has a history of treating women as objects, and has been accused of sexual assault.

And now I know more about my country than I did last week. I know how much worse the problem really is.

Now, when I’m in the grocery store, I look at the people around me and my heart fills with worry. “Is that one of the ones who think it’s okay to touch women without their consent? To brag about it? Is he one of the ones who thinks women who speak out are nasty? Is he one of the ones who thinks I’m less than a real person?”

I knew those people existed. But I thought that population was tiny. I thought it was dying. Now all of it has been validated, given credibility. And, yes, I’ve been treated differently in public since then, as have lots of women I know. Because now sexists have permission. The will of the electorate and the constitution have said misogyny is the way things should be.

The racism, homophobia, and religious intolerance worry me deeply, too; but other voices are also addressing those with greater authority. I don’t want to speak on their behalf.

The problems are much bigger than I thought.

What helps me most is that I’m writing a book about how to deal with this. My sister and I have a contract with Simon & Schuster, publisher of her last book, and we have most of a first draft. But, as of last week, we discovered how much bigger the problem is, and how much more this information is going to be needed in the next few years. And how much more we’re going to have to convince people that the premise, “sexism is real,” is actually true.

We’re writing about how sociology interacts with psychology, and how this process is exposed and healed in art. Kinda like this, which Emily wrote Wednesday morning while I was spending two and a half hours digging a trench and shoveling gravel to put a slate walkway in front of my house in an effort to purge some my reaction before I had to go to work and talk about the relationship between art and truth.

I’m hoping reality isn’t saving the shots of the real shark for the end of the movie. I hope we’ve already seen the worst. But even so, they may have survived if they had had a bigger boat, right? So, let’s build one.

Our boat is made of outspoken support for women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, refugees, and anyone else who doesn’t feel as safe now as they did last week.

Outspoken support! Pour it out.

 

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singing teacher, lecturer, wizard

This is true.

singing teacher, music  lecturer, wizard

singing teacher, music lecturer, wizard

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mozart in the jungle

A colleague — a theater professor — recommended the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle to me. She said the first couple of episodes are a little clunky, but if you get through them, it’s totally worth it. She has good taste, so I checked it out.

First of all, I see why a theater person would be drawn in right away: the acting is awesome, and the writing is good. The stories… improve as the series goes on.

The most painful thing, right from the start is the awful, terrible, unrealistic fake “playing” of actors pretending to be in an orchestra. Like, the production staff handed an instrument to an actor and gave them zero instruction on how it’s played or how to hold it or anything. Maybe a few of them took the initiative to look at some pictures of how real players look when they’re playing; but some of them didn’t even bother to do that carefully. The bent wrists, the wrong hands, the total lack of fingers moving… it’s so horribly fake that I had to fast-forward through it. It was too painful to watch.

And then there’s the conducting. There are several conductors — all men, though of various ages, races, and nationalities, which is a thing they explore in a pleasant way. There is one sentence that refers to women, and that’s Bernadette Frikkin Peters shrugging, “it’s so hard to find great women conductors.” And then they go ahead and just have all men conductors and never mention it again. So it’s a nice level playing field where all of the conducting is equally terrible — and, oh gods and bicycles, the conducting is terrible. It’s worse than any real conducting student I’ve ever seen. I know nobody likes to see their profession portrayed inexpertly by actors, and I’m sure 90% of the audience aren’t bothered about how ridiculously useless most of the conducting is… but a show about classical music should give a hoot about the quality of performing that goes on. And conducting is the musical task where it really matters what it looks like. So, I wish they cared a little.

The conductors’ acting is really good. The writers exploration of a conductor’s relationship to the score and the composer is even pretty true. Their inclusion of the role of conductor as advocate for the ensemble, fundraiser, charismatic leader, humble servant of art… all of that is really, really interesting and gets deeper and better as the series goes on. I’m so glad they dig into that, and it really rings true. It’s just the arm-waving that is cringe-inducing.

Toward the end of the second series, they start to have real instrumentalists actually playing on camera — including a for-real youth orchestra for-real playing some for-real legit good stuff. With horrible, stupid, fake conducting being perpetrated in front of them by an otherwise very compelling actor. I bet any of those kids could have conducted better than that poor actor.

The first twenty episodes got better and better, so I intend to watch the third season (currently in production, according to IMDB), anticipating it will continue to improve. Further, I hope that the next season will increase the presence of real musicians to include a real conductor (or at least some more realistic conducting) and maybe that conductor will be a woman.

I hope.

But for the record…

 

Dear Mozart in the Jungle:

Please include some women conductors. We exist, we’re not hard to find, and we’re awesome. And if you hire a woman to portray a conductor, give her some damn training so she doesn’t look as moronic as the current actors you have thus far forced to embarrass themselves with idiotic arm waving.

Thanks,

Amelia

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