I’m writing this in response a “contemplative, or maybe even nostalgic… sentimental” Facebook status update from Paul Head.
I’ve written very few personal blog posts. Because my mother reads my blog, you know? But conducting is art, so it’s personal. It’s also leadership, so it’s personal. It requires the investment of one’s whole self–you can only get out of an ensemble as much as you give them. So I’ve worked my whole adult life to take responsibility for what I’m really showing them by figuring out what it is, and to get comfortable with my flawed humanity. I’ve worked to learn that who I am matters to the singers I work with and to the music I make with them.
So I must acknowledge that “who I am” is worth writing about here, even if it’s less interesting than an objective, universal topic like tai chi or feminism or Rachmaninoff. And the fact that I’ve been writing blog posts about conducting for almost five years, but have only now accepted the possibility that my own personal experience of becoming a conductor is worthy of attention is just one of many examples of how I have had to work to learn that feelings are A.) real, B.) natural, and C.) important.
Yep. Had to work to learn those things. And it was, in part, the study and practice of conducting that taught them to me.
There was also a team of mental health professionals, but the lessons about the reality and importance of emotions might not have mattered unless I had seen them in action in my education and work.
Society doesn’t want you to learn them–society wants you to think that emotions make you weak and shameful. My childhood didn’t convince me otherwise, and by the time I got to college, I believed (I know this sounds crazy–because it is crazy) that emotions were fiction. That people pretended to have them just to entertain or impress each other. Until I was 21 or so, I thought evidence of my own emotions was just socialized habit, that I was giving in to some convention that everyone took for granted. This belief is insane. And living with it made me… um… unpleasant to be around sometimes.
Ugh. I’m ashamed of who I was then, how I treated people. And I hate that I still carry that shame. I’m ashamed of my shame! Gaahhhhhh! Arright, look, I told you I’m still trying to get comfortable with my flawed humanity. It’s a work in progress.
Yet, I thought I would be a conductor. I wanted to be in control of an ensemble–well, no, I wanted to be in control of the world so I could stop it from being such a mess. And when I say “the world,” what I subconsciously meant was myself. And while, as Jim Butcher phrased it, walking the razor’s edge of an organic emotional instability, I try to live inside some composer’s heart, and ask a choir to crawl in there with me and feel it for themselves. That sounds like a terrible idea, destined for disaster, right?
But then again, who better to show them it’s possible to find a composer’s heart than someone who had to learn the process from scratch, intentionally, by choice? Lots of people intuit that there’s emotion in music, that it feels good to sing, and that all that is important; but I didn’t know any of it. I thought people who believed it were just imagining it. Because where does one gather evidence for such a notion?
I got it like this:
First, there was Paul Head. An early blog post, the first titled Touchy Feely, tells a story about him blowing my mind when, in a meeting, he suggested there were feelings in music. But even more significant than that meeting were the years of regular rehearsals where he took for granted that feelings were real, natural, and important. And I was like, “no, I don’t think that could possibly be correct.” Because I had never been in a situation where I had to learn it. My parents didn’t teach me (they had other things to worry about, I don’t blame them, it’s all good), and no teacher is really responsible for that kind of information, even implicitly. Unlike other kinds of teachers, a conductor MUST be a whole person, must show and share their heart in order to get any heart from the singers. Paul Head was the first person who ever suggested in a context that got through to me that hearts mattered, that emotions were real, natural, and important.
Then my miracle of a husband came along. If I say my heart grew three sizes that day, will you understand the power of the revelation that he was to me? It was from him that I learned to metaphorically carve the roast beast. He’s also an excellent musician, which I believe is directly related to his general wonderfulness.
Then there was Andrew Megill, whose kindness and thoughtfulness and artistry are beyond my capacity to write about succinctly. Like Paul, he just does the work with grace and honesty, as a model and example to be aspired to.
Then there was James Jordan, who has the audacity to claim it’s not only possible but also important to talk about these things. Out loud! In writing! However! Just be explicit about the whole process of being a human being on a podium, and how hard it is and how great it is, and why we pretend to be better than we are and then confess that we’re impostors, and then start the whole thing over again!!! He’s the one who argued against the people who told me, “if you don’t ‘just get it,’ no one can teach you.”
Thanks to those (possibly unintentional, certainly implicit) lessons in undergrad; the patience of my generous, steadfast, kind, dashing husband; properly maintained medication; a gaggle of psychologists and psychiatrists; the struggles of graduate school that turned out to be far more emotional than academic; and throughout all of it, witnessing my mother and sister’s parallel and frankly astounding journeys upstream against a current of genetic and circumstantial challenges closely related to mine have all brought me to this touchy feely place where I acknowledge the importance of my heart in my conducting; but still think this post should be shorter so it seems less self-indulgent. (Work in progress.)
I’m both proud and embarrassed that almost every choir I’ve ever conducted has seen me moved to tears.
I both love and hate that I spend so much time in rehearsal talking about what things mean and how they feel.
I’m both relieved and afraid to say all of this.
I feel both brave and stupid for writing any of it down.
I’m grateful to have learned so much and to have the opportunity to use it to make music with singers who are interested in and capable of more than singing the right notes; and I’m humbled by progress I have yet to make on a road that I can’t predict but that I know is ahead of me, and eager to take it.
Art teaches us who we are, and the process of making it with others shines light on the deepest shadows. It has allowed me glimpses of truth about the nature of humanity and my place in it.
Fahoo fores, dahoo dores, y’all.