research 1: delicious

I want to talk about the value of research. I’ll be writing a few entries about it in preparation for the next ACDA Eastern Conference, where I hope to help promote research and scholarship among choral musicians.

The word academic can have negative connotations: it refers to things not immediately applicable to practical implementation; things that are theoretical or semantic, that only only describe behavior–or, if they have influence, it is indirect. In my experience, this connotation is only true to the extent that you believe it is true. With judicious application of imagination (more important than knowledge, according to the Albert Einstein poster in my office), research becomes one of most powerful tools for improving real-world results.

At its essence, research consists of finding out what other people have already thought of and tried, imagining something new, and/or combining disparate things into something new. Then you try it, and report on what works.

Here’s a non-musical example to illustrate an obvious connection: I have made Thanksgiving dinner every year for the past twelve years. This year, my adult step-daughter asked me “where did you learn to roast a turkey?” The only answer I could think of was the many times I have attempted it. I have a lot of practice, and that makes me better at it every time I do it. That’s what I told her. In the same way, if she had asked “where did you learn to conduct?” I probably would have cited my experience first, then my formal training; but that’s not even close to the whole truth.

But when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, the truth is I also read about options–do research about how to brine, whether to cover or not, baste or not, stuff or not (and if not, this leads to the question of how to get non-stuffing/dressing to taste as good as if it were cooked in a moist and flavorful turkey*). I read to find answers other people have discovered, and then I experiment to discover what works. And when I got a new oven two years ago, all my options changed!

All of that is true in my conducting, too. I’ve explored lots people’s opinions on running a rehearsal, conducting clearly/expressively, selecting repertoire, programming a concert, etc. Not only do I have lots of practice in refining what works for me, I keep my mind open and actively seek out what other people say works for them. I try things and incorporate them in to my approach or not, as I discern fit. And when I get a new ensemble, all my options change!

Gravy is one tiny but important part of the turkey process, the subject of much debate, and has lots of possible correct methods of creation. I started out making it the way I remember my mother making it: laboriously separating the grease from the juices with a spoon and ice cubes on the edge of a tilted pan. But that method is a major pain in the ass, and I enjoy fat in my gravy more than she does. So I read about other recipes and methods, watched lots of cooking shows. I’ve tried thickening it with all kinds of things: wheat flour, potato starch, blended vegetables roasted in the bottom of the pan, various combinations thereof, and discovered what I like the best.

Clearly expressive gesture is one tiny but important part of the conducting process, the subject of much debate, and has lots of possible correct methods of creation. I first learned to conduct in high school, when I was a senior and student conductor to the freshman girls’ chorus. I don’t remember much of the instruction I got then, frankly, but I distinctly remember getting to college conducting classes and recognizing that what I had learned before was not information or technique that I wanted to keep. But I didn’t just take my requisite two semesters and assume that made me the best I could be. I read about other methods, took extra semesters of conducting, and attended additional seminars to discover a lot of options people had already found worked for them. I’ve tried them all, and discovered what I like the best.

Sometimes I apply disparate techniques from other cooking to my Thanksgiving cooking. For example, I often render out schmaltz from chicken skin when I roast a chicken, and use it to make other things taste more delicious. Entirely unrelated to that, I make roux from butter and flour to make cheese sauce and cream soups. This year, I combined those techniques, rendered fat from the turkey skin to render turkey schmaltz, then made roux from the schmaltz and flour to thicken the gravy. Result? Best gravy ever. I never did it before because I assumed people like to eat the skin… also, it never occurred to me there might be a better use. Why did none of my reading tell me about this? Because it turns out you don’t get much fat from turkey skin. I had to augment it with a second helping of roux made from potato starch and the drippings already in the pan.

Sometimes I apply disparate techniques from the rest of my life to my conducting. For example, I started practicing Tai Chi for stress management. Entirely unrelated to that, I did research on the neurobiology of empathy with psychology and communications professors at my grad school. Eventually, I tried to harness the power of Tai Chi leadership techniques with my choir, and influence them even more directly and explicitly than the What They See is What You Get approach (sort of an external exploration of power of subconscious influence). Result? So far so good. This takes longer to reach a result than gravy, but I’ll be sure to let you  know. 🙂

I know some of the favorite and best-attended sessions at ACDA conferences are the practical ones with titles that are variations on “How to Do a Thing.” Straight-up instruction like that is important; but the farther afield from Practical-How-To instruction we allow ourselves to explore, the more likely it is we’ll discover something new that will be more useful to us than we could have imagined.

And that power to make connections that never existed before is what I believe Einstein meant when he said “imagination is more important than knowledge.” And it only exists because we keep our minds open to new knowledge, even if it seems “merely academic.”

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*Simmer the giblets for a million years, chop them up into tiny pieces, reduce the liquid you boiled them in, and add all of it to the dressing to make it moist and strongly turkey-flavored.

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