After I gave a sample lesson in my my undergraduate music ed class in the fall of 1998, my teacher, Paul Head, turned to the board and drew this:
This, he explained, is the Dork Meter. Notice that it is drawn with the needle quite high up the scale.
He said when he was teaching high school, his students invented the dork meter as a way of describing his teaching. High measurement on the Dork Meter is a good thing, mostly. It means I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the point across, my own dignity notwithstanding.
BBC4 puts it in a more sciencey way in one episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage (a show featuring science dorks), “Science and the Supernatural.” Around minute 13, there’s an experiment: psychologist Richard Wiseman (good name for a psychologist, eh?) tells the audience to close their eyes and holds their hands out in front of them, then describes the right hand being pulled up, left hand being weighed down. About 10% of the audience end up with their hands at different levels, demonstrating they are “highly suggestible,” with “very good imaginations” These are the people who are more likely to end up on a stage at a hypnosis show “eating an onion, naked.”
Imagination and passion: combine them and it’s doesn’t take a hypnotist to get us to do potentially embarrassing things–and because I stand on a podium for my job, those things are usually quite public for me. I shall refer to this combination of imagination, passion, and potential embarrassment as “dorkiness,” measurable on the Dork Meter.
The intensity and persistence that contribute to dorkiness are unchanging personality traits built into people. My dorkiness was nurtured in college. So by the time I conducted a college choir ten tears later, the student evaluations at the end of the semester praised me as “passionate” and “positive”–those words came up over and over. One particularly articulate singer actually wrote “boundless enthusiasm” to describe the strengths of my teaching.
So, I embrace my dorkiness, and I think it serves me as a conductor. I am often bored by conductors who would rather protect their dignity than communicate with unbridled sincerity. Dorky conductors are “in the moment,” living fully in their embodiment of composer’s intentions. A little dorkiness means willingness to take risks, which is entertaining. Often, audiences find it charming and generally enjoyable.
There are also, of course, contexts where polish and moderation are preferred, where personal investment is frowned upon. In those contexts, dorkiness seems overly colloquial and even glib. My experience of those contexts is that they are artificial and standardized in the worst way because I have to work hard to fake moderation and polish. People who are not dorks probably perceive those events as the highest form of communication–academic poetry! And I quite admire non-dorks, and envy their socially acceptable levels of enthusiasm. President Obama, for example, is rarely dorky. We are charmed by his occasional singing of Al Green or slow jamming of the news, but on the whole he is highly dignified and polished. That’s appropriate. For him, it’s not artificial or falsely standardized, he’s just naturally dignified. His unbridled sincerity never gets to the point of intensity that results in loud speech, big gestures, and colloquial vocabulary. Maybe that’s the difference between an entertainer and a politician: both Jon Stewart and Barack Obama need to be competent, smart, and articulate. But Jon Stewart can say “dude.”
It is a challenge for me to suppress the dork and showcase my tiny sliver of dignified scholar in those contexts where polish is appropriate. (I suspect the same is true for Jon Stewart, who, when he interviewed the president, called him “dude.”) Mostly, the dignified scholar in me is just there to serve the dork.
BTW, here is the Dignified Scholar Meter: