There is a culture of devotion to ensemble music-making. Band geeks, choir kids, community choir singers who devote hours to fundraising. I write about it in the “Thoughtful Gestures” article, how entrainment unites ensembles into passionate, powerful bodies. But there’s an added dimension to that, and that is devotion not just to the ensemble, but to the conductor.
I don’t think this is true with professional ensembles. Professionals do not necessarily connect with their fellows over the experience of music-making because they do it a lot, and the level they have to reach in order for that to occur increases with their experience. I’m talking about amateur ensembles and school groups.
When I was in the seventh grade, my junior high school choir director left and we had a new one for eighth grade. In the tenth grade, the high school choir director (who had been teaching for so long, he had been my mother’s high school choir director!) retired and we got a new one for eleventh grade. Right before I started college at the University of Delaware, the choral director left and I was at UD while they searched for his replacement. I taught at two schools, and at both I replaced a choral director who was beloved. My first year at Westminster Choir College was the year after Joe Flummerfelt retired, so I was there while they searched for his replacement. At the University of Connecticut, I am currently assistant to two interim conductors, waiting for them to search for and hire a permanent Director of Choral Activities. (If you know anyone who’s looking for that kind of position, pass the word along that they’ll have they best doctoral assistant ever!)
The point of that history is that I’ve seen transitions at every level from many perspectives. I’ve seen kids nearly worship a choir director, love him, weep over his leaving. Singers, especially adolescents, can easily feel bonded to a conductor–more easily than with a math teacher, I would venture to guess. And today I’m asking, “why?”
I subscribe to Whole Living Body + Soul magazine, though I object to the duality suggested by the name. I think Self gets it right with the title, but actually tends to be about bodies, not whole selves. There is an article in this month’s issue about the book Click: the Magic of Instant Connections, which I think makes a step towards explaining why singers, especially amateurs, feel connected to their conductors.
According to the book, reported by the article, the “recipe for clicking contains five ingredients: proximity, vulnerability, resonance, similarity, and a safe place.”
All this happens in an ensemble.
Proximity, because, yes, we rehearse together. Duh.
Vulnerability–this is where I think the gap lies for professionals, because they are well trained and therefore feel less vulnerable as they perform. Most amateurs, especially singers, are relying on the conductor to help them learn both what to perform and how to perform, and that reliance can make them feel vulnerable. A conductor’s job is to make them comfortable and confident enough to perform, which means the conductor steps into their vulnerability, embraces it, and then provides them support and strength. It’s a powerful act that creates a bond between conductor and singer as well as among the ensemble.
Resonance is described in the article as “tuning in to others’ emotions.” I’d have to read the book to get a clearer picture (or maybe Emily will pipe in with some details) but if it has anything to do with sharing a common emotional experience, then singing in an ensemble will provide it.
Similarity is kind of a given: everyone there loves to sing. Or play, if it’s a band, but my inclination and the majority of my experience is with singing. Additional similarity beyond that is gravy.
A safe place. This is so important to conducting. Creating a safe place to be expressive and emotional, and to sing (which scares the willies out of a lot of people!) is a huge part of my job. The love and support and guidance and encouragement I give isn’t just me being nice, it’s making the choir sing better. They feel better so they sing better, and that serves the composer and the performers and the audience. The article described a safe place as anywhere “that separates you… from the rest of the world.” Choir is exactly that. When high school kids come to choir, their other world is left out in the other parts of the building. I’ve seen so many instances where students behave entirely differently in choir than they do in any other class–usually much better for me than for other teachers.
No wonder people feel connected to their conductors. No wonder it’s emotional and challenging to lose a conductor, and difficult to replace one.
The the heading of the last paragraph in the article is DARE TO DISCLOSE. It continues, “when you chance a little intimacy, perhaps by sharing something that you’re currently struggling with or a personal anecdote, you make yourself vulnerable and give the other person something to respond to.” I have a whole set of other reasons for conductors telling true stories about their own lives, which I write about in the “Thoughtful Gestures” article, and I’ll have to talk about later here, but this is a another one, related to the social, communal responsibilities of a conductor. Good conductors are comfortable with themselves, with their flaws, and are content to be themselves, in all their imperfection, in front of the ensemble.
One of the reasons I say that conductors have to live a life that is conducive to their profession–that you can’t be a composer and then expect to get up and conduct as well as an actual conductor–is that you can’t get up in front of an ensemble and lead them anywhere for anything unless you feel pretty good about yourself. If you feel self-conscious or insecure, you won’t be very effective. Self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-love are fundamental necessities for conductors. They’re important for everyone as human beings, but a conductor can’t do his job without them.
I think this might add to the mystique of conductors. As singers are considered “divas” for taking care of themselves the way they need to in order to maintain the health of their whole selves that is required for them to sing as well as they can [must write post on opera singers!], a conductor could be an interesting creature off the podium. There are no stupid conductors. I’ve never met a shy conductor. Most conductors are highly verbal and are easy in conversation. The quality of their listening varies–not surprising since in our work we’re nearly always the one talking/leading/in charge.
The magazine article says the ability to “click,” to provide all the social ingredients for connection, is a set of skills to which some people (“high self-monitors,” which is yet another thing I’ll have to go into separately at another time) have greater natural inclination than others, but that can also be taught.
I wonder if clickers tend to become conductors, or if the process of learning to be a conductor happens to teach those skills. Probably a combination of the two, don’t you think?