“Uh, not yet…” I admitted.
“Well, don’t freak out. There’s a letter to the editor about your article…”
As if I’ve ever freaked out about anything. Lately. Since the last time.
The letter says my model of conducting “holds the director responsible for the unified emotional expression of the singers–with the director being the leading spark in the circuit… Unfortunately, this model disempowers the singers.” The writer then goes on to offer an alternative, with some methods of empowering singers to “sing with a unified expression of their own.”
That’s not what I meant to say. What I meant to say was this:
All the stuff conductors learn to do isn’t just artsy fartsy music baloney; it’s a process supported by some very cool science.
I know the paradigm of conductor-as-monarch exists, both in terms of emotional leadership and musical guidance; so, that makes it my fault for not directly clarifying how my model is different from that. I took it for granted that conductors all know that the individual members of the ensemble have to be individually empowered to perform the music with their own expressive intent.
Here is my clarification. (Well, if you read the whole blog it’ll become clear, but for those who don’t have time for that, here’s a condensed version.) Ahem:
A conductor is not responsible for the unified emotional expression of the singers. The singers are and must be responsible for their own emotional expression. A conductor is responsible for embodying the expressive intent of the composer
though gesture (just as the ensemble members are responsible for expressing the composer’s intention through singing or playing) and, in fact, the point of my model is that the conductor is responsible for consistent embodiment of the expressive intent of the composer so that he may remind the singers to do so, too. So that he may influence the sound though living intention, fostering the living intention of the ensemble members.
I do not state explicitly in the article, but I think the article supports the idea that it’s counterintuitive for us to ask our singers to have a “compelling purpose for singing” (in the well-chosen words of the letter-writer) unless we display compelling purpose in our gesture. If we have compelling purpose, it will only benefit the singers, help them to commit more fully to their expression.
The letter-writer says, “even when the director’s affect is deadpan, such a choir will bring down the house.” To which I reply, “oh, but what if the conductor lived the music with them? Wouldn’t that make it easier for them? Might that not inspire them?”
Yes. Yes, it would.
Because, as I explain so eloquently in the article as well as here
, we are built to communicate. We are made to feel the feelings of those around us.
If the conductor stands deadpan, which no one is actually advocating, then the singers must first shut the conductor out–make the choice to ignore the feelings that are seeping out of him (because the fact is, we influence them whether we intend to or not; there are feelings seeping out in spontaneous expression of our inner state, even from what may appear to be a “deadpan” expression). Then they are on their own to express of their own initiative.
That could work, but the way we actually do it is so much easier! It eliminates the step of turning off their natural inclination to empathize and instead takes advantage of it. If the conductor is showing them living humanity, that feeds them and makes it easier for them to do their job.
So you see, there isn’t actually any controversy. We all know conductors must be expressive–the question of “how” is open to interpretation, and I discuss that elsewhere. The question of “why” is the one I was addressing in the article.
To the conductors who are reading this, I’ll just also let you know that I’ve got a whole other sciencey controversy saying mirror neurons have never been seen in humans and biomotion
is where it’s at
. I’m still wading through all that–it’s much slower, obviously, because it’s a foreign language to me, but I’ll let you know when (?) I have any kind of insight.
And now, my response to the response to the response.
The Editorial Associate who responds to the letter, David Stocker (hello!), says the letter “errs about the same distance as the original author [me!], only on the other side of the continuum.”
Well, I mean. I ask you. Really?!
Granted, the article is written to conductors about conducting and is, yes, explaining why it’s important for a conductor to embody the emotional intent of the composer. So, no, I don’t talk much about the singers’ own intentions. So I can see where he might get the whole “erring the same distance on the other side of the continuum” thing. But I’m here to tell you that I do, in fact, believe that every singer’s intention is every bit as important as the conductor’s and that the conductor’s expressive displays are only useful insomuch as they inspire and influence the initiative of the performers’ intention.
(Look, the limit for articles at Choral Journal was eighteen pages and I wrote twenty after substantial editing and making the font smaller. I can’t write about everything all at once! That’s why I have a blog now. I can write about everything in little snippets. James Jordan keeps writing books. I’m a generation younger, so I have a blog. We, Dr. Jordan’s students, sometimes tease him about the library of books he keeps writing, but I can relate to the impulse that drives him to it.)
Anyway, Dr. Stocker then goes on, “The issue here is ‘What is an ensemble?'”
That is a fascinating issue, though it was not the issue I was writing about
(because I can’t write about everything all at once): again, I was just trying to demonstrate that all the stuff conductors learn to do isn’t just artsy fartsy music baloney; it’s a process supported by some very cool science. It works not just because of cultural conventions constructed around it, but because it comes from the deepest nature of our humanity.
But since he asked…
What is an ensemble?
That’s going to have to wait for another post, I’m afraid. This one is already too long.