Last week I went to the El Sistema Symposium to talk about Social Action Through Music with brilliant, passionate musicians to feed my soul with inspiration to keep focused on the importance of the work I do with little kids, even in the face of the drudgery and tedium of dealing with them that sometimes eclipses how wonderful that work is.
I didn’t exactly get what I was looking for, probably because I arrived on the last day and missed the bulk of the conversations. Alas. The disappointing thing was a break-away conversation about “the role of a conductor in an el sistema inspired music program.”
I joined that conversation, thinking I would be talking with conductors about what we do with young kids to keep them connected to music and their own sense of personal responsibility. Asking them to follow and still be independent at the same time, you know?
It turned out to be a conversation with non-conductors who were looking to hire a conductor and had had unpleasant experiences with conductors. They had seen tyrants and demagogues who yell and scream and are mean.
“No, no,” I objected, “that’s an old-fashioned stereotype. Conductors aren’t like that any more.”
Some conductors, it turns out, haven’t gotten the memo.
“Well, that’s a poorly trained conductor,” I defended.
I don’t think there is any difference between conducting kids and conducting adults. The repertoire is different, and the structure is different, but all my singers really just have two rules: 1.) Always sing your best, and 2.) Do as you are told. That’s it. And beyond that, it’s my job to create an environment that is conducive to artistic creativity, joyous hard work, and satisfying connection to each other and the music.
Apparently lots of conductors don’t do that–even ones who choose to work in an environment like an el sistema inspired ensemble.
I find that shocking. And irritating.
I’ve been writing a blog for two years about the real work of conductors–that we’re not jerks who flail our arms around, that we rely on emotional intelligence, that we communicate with our whole selves and take on responsibility for the wellbeing of our ensemble members in rehearsal as well as the musical vision of the program.
And apparently there’s a whole flock of conductors out there giving lie to everything I say.
Jerks who flail, no doubt.
That afternoon, I observed the magnificent Paul Bryan rehearsing the PlayOn Philly orchestra in front of all of us, and he was AMAZING! Everyone should be like him! I wish I had gotten to meet him, but he disappeared before I could track him down and gush about his fabulousness.
Not a jerk at all, and no flailing whatsoever.
And then, later that night, I attended the performance of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra conducted by The Dude. It was amazing. Not so precise as (for example) the NY Philharmonic, but GUTSY! Passionate! SPECIFIC!!! Shapely and tender and raw, showing the committed investment of every individual player.
Dudamel conducted the entire concert from memory. He didn’t just ignore a score on a stand in front of him, he didn’t have a score. For the Strauss Alpensinfonie. Christalmighty, that’s amazing.
And then we went backstage after the concert. I also saw, though did not shake hands with, Jose Abreu; but I’ll have to save that for another post. Then Maestro Dudamel came out of his dressing room and shook hands and was so friendly and enthusiastic about meeting the crowd of us from the symposium. Of course I took a picture.
The fuscia blur on the left is my boss, Calida. He shook her hand, and she said she had been to Venezuela, and he was happy to hear it–seemed to connect a little more with her for their shared experience in his home country. Then he shook my hand. “Hi,” I said, “I’m a conductor for Calida.” “Great, wonderful!” he said.
This must be why Dudamel is such a rock star. The sweetness of temperament, and interest in what’s going on in the world–not just on the pages of musical scores–still marks him as more unique than I would have guessed.
The other musicians from my morning’s conversation lingered in my mind. They were looking for someone who would be a good musician and a loving human being. Like Paul Bryan. Like Dudamel. I’ve been saying “training and artistry,” all this time, but it’s even more personal than that. I’ve been taking it for granted that conductors are care-takers of their ensembles, but out in the world that hasn’t been nearly so true as I assumed.
So, please, fellow conductors: get your heads straightened out and stop yelling at your ensembles. Love them! Take care of them! Cooperate with them! They aren’t there to do your will. They’re there to be artists. Nurture their independence. Foster their creativity. Let them be wrong as long as they give you their best.
Please? Get on board with me and the el sistema conductors. You’ll be so glad you did! And so will your ensembles.