being right

I have a quote from Elaine Brown on a sticky note on my desktop:

If our being is right, our doing will take care of itself.

I love this idea; and it sums up the embodied approach to conducting in a lovely, poetic way. But it’s so much more complicated than it seems, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since my last post about policing my own tone in order to communicate truth in a more broadly palatable way. And thinking it through makes me suspect that Elaine Brown was wrong. The Doing doesn’t take care of itself.

I suspect that Elaine Brown had a genius for Doing, and that she was gifted with Doing that did take care of itself. I suspect this is true for lots of the most gifted conductors and performers in all media. So she was probably correctly describing her own experience. But I don’t think it’s true for everyone.

In polite society, the relationship between being and doing is complicated. For example, I love and respect people of all races, genders, sexualities, and even musical tastes. I want them to have equality in the world. As I wrote in the previous post, being a loving, respectful seeker of justice sometimes means doing things differently than my instincts dictate. We all spend our childhoods learning to reign in our mammalian instincts, so we don’t act upon every urge and emotion we feel. We are taught the rules for preventing our being from becoming our doing, because our being is naturally interested in self-preservation; so it is selfish, gets angry, gets hurt. Therefore, polite society requires us to keep a strong barrier between our being and our doing. I’ve gotten so good at it that, as in my Girly Voiced poster, my being and my doing can actually contradict each other at one particular moment while they serve the same long term goal. The ends justify the compromises?

In terms of conducting, I’ve always believed in the being/doing truth — that if I have the music in my ears, and the composer’s expressive intention in my mind, then the most effectively communicative gestures will pour out of my body. And I still believe that’s true. But it’s only true for me now because I’ve taught my body how to do it. A lot of my conducting training has been about dissolving the socially-mandated barrier between instinct and action, to allow the music to pour out of me immediately and clearly. So it turns out the truth of “being and doing” as a musician is longer term than I first thought. Because the Doing did not take care of itself. I had to give the Doing permission, teach the Doing that I trusted it, make the Doing comfortable with exposing my Being.

Now, in front of the ensemble, my barriers are down. My doing is my being. It’s why I love it so much. There’s no filter, no editing, no apology. Just the music and my whole heart and mind, expressed with physical expertise refined over decades of kinesthetic training.

And the best part — the BEST part!!! — is that I get to teach it to my singers, and give them a safe space to experience unity of being and doing, of feeling and expression. For me, it’s thought and gesture. For them, it’s emotion and voice. For all of us, it’s mind and body. And discovering that they aren’t two separate things after all.

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