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Why Everyone Should Study Conducting

I’ve recently been reflecting on how so much of my work as a teacher and an artist is focused toward the simple goal of being more human. My work with younger students is literally training them how to be people. The college actors I work with are striving to make their gestures and words more genuine and real. And despite the fact that conducting a band or orchestra is an activity which most humans never experience, teaching conducting very often sounds the same as helping people to be more human. (This is not to say that I have attained the apex of my own humanity, but I do think that teaching conducting is helping me along that path.) And I think maybe everyone could benefit from some of the lessons of CON 314. So here goes:

Lesson #1: Stand up straight.

This one needs no lengthy explanation. It’s just painfully obvious that we as a human species are slowly reverting to whatever came before Homo erectus, and I think it’s a damn shame. Let’s all commit to making the extra effort to put our heads on top of our spines, bring our shoulders down and back, and lift our gaze so we can look people in the eyes.

Lesson #2: Put space between your elbows and your ribs.

This is one of the most fundamental concepts that I teach my conducting students. It’s among the first things we cover at the beginning of the semester (as part of the lesson on standing), because I have found it to be so important, and also because many students seem to struggle with it. The positive effects of making this adjustment are many: the conductor has a more commanding presence in front of the ensemble; the conductor can access more horizontal and vertical space; and it is easier for the conductor to present the baton between her eyes and the eyes of the players. There is, however, one negative effect, which I think explains why some students find it so incredibly difficult: the conductor is now vulnerable. I joke in class about how once you raise your arms from your sides, you are immediately open to attack (which is why recently, I heard one of my students remind his classmate to “make sure you leave some knife space”). With your arms lifted like that, you can’t protect yourself. And that’s the point.

I read once that it is easier to tell if a person is lying when they are singing, versus when they are simply speaking. I have no idea if this is true, or how someone would even prove it. In fact, I have tried with zero success to find the source of this claim (and now I’ve forgotten which book I read it in), so it may not actually be true at all. But it would explain why singing in public is so much scarier than speaking (for most people). In singing maybe we somehow feel that we are revealing more of ourselves, or at least, we feel that others can see more of us. But that’s the way it should be. If I want to make music with you, I can’t stand here with a protective wall around myself. I can’t text it, email it, post it, or phone or mail it in from behind some bulletproof glass. I have to be there in person, face to face with you, breathing the same air as you, looking you in the eyes. And raising my arms out from my sides. In this gesture of vulnerability, I offer you the chance to be vulnerable enough to share your music with me.

Of course, there are times when it is not hard at all to raise our arms: we do it when we celebrate, when we greet a friend, and when we embrace someone we love. Imagine if our conducting (and our lives) were filled with more celebrations, more joyful greetings, and more embraces!

Lesson #3: Breathe.

After we learn to stand and make ourselves more stabbable (sp?), the next order of business is breathing. Just as we take a breath before swinging an axe, heaving a football, or doing something brave, we have to take a breath before we start making music. Breath gives us power to move, power to act. [Aside: I have always found it so delightful that music is one of the few activities which require us to pay attention to another person’s breathing. I love the closeness of that.] And this musical breath isn’t some tight sniff or a hiss through clenched teeth. This is a lung-filling, chest-opening drinking-in of air and energy. The tuba player is going to breathe with you, so you’d better make sure you’re taking in enough air to play the tuba!

There are so many qualities we can convey with a mere breath: joy, sorrow, pain, awe, fury, pride. And once we start paying attention to the breath, we realize that it is the source of nearly every gesture we make. In conducting, the breath is where the energy of the music lives. It sort of works like this: imagine that the music lives somewhere inside your rib cage. Maybe it feels like a lightness that flows out through your arms and lifts them into the air. Maybe it feels like a weight that your hands must struggle against. Maybe it is a laugh that tickles you and bubbles up into your shoulders. Maybe it is an explosion of energy that shoots straight out of your fingertips and the end of your baton. Whatever it is, that living breath is the reason that any other part of your body moves. Beginning conductors often focus so much on their arms that they seem to be disconnected from the rest of their body. When that happens, conducting becomes a series of sign language instructions rather than an honest visual expression of music. But in fact, if we can feel the music living within our breath, we often don’t need the arms at all.

In developing my yoga practice over the course of the past few years, I have come to appreciate the breath, and the act of attending to the breath. Taking a few minutes to stop and focus on my breath can make the difference between being a calm, levelheaded grownup and being a crazy stressball. (I highly recommend spending your morning commute simply breathing and hydrating in preparation for your day.) Also, science tells us that there are approximately a gajillion health benefits to deep breathing. So before you read the last lesson, take 5 deep breaths and notice how it affects every part of your body.

Lesson #35: BE the music.

Skipping ahead! There are a bunch more lessons on baton grip, action point, preparation, baton speed, and good ol’ beat patterns, and most of those are not applicable to life off the podium. But I think this one is. It’s something that I’ve found children do very well, but older people have to work much harder to achieve. And it’s the thing that conductors are always striving for, because when you achieve it is when the magic happens.

There are certain gestures that beginning conductors use which we can interpret fairly easily, even if they don’t feel particularly musical. If the conductor raises his left hand like a waiter carrying a tray, the players know that means he wants them to get louder, and if he makes a little counterclockwise loop with his baton, they know to stop playing. These kinds of gestures, I tell my class, are fine. They aren’t intuitive—that is, they wouldn’t mean anything to a layperson—but they are instructive. As players we generally know what they mean and can execute the intended action. This is what I call prefrontal cortex conducting. I feel a certain way about the music, I use the thinking part of my brain to convert that feeling to a coded signal that I show the players, then the players use the thinking parts of their brains to interpret that signal and do what I want them to do. It seems pretty straightforward. But what if there was a way for me to skip the thinking part and go right from feeling to feeling? This is what I call brainstem conducting, where I go right from that instinctive part of my brain to the instinctive part of yours. Or, you might (if you were into this sort of thing) say that I’m going directly from my heart to yours. Instead of seeing my gesture and interpreting it, I want the ensemble to see the gesture and be COMPELLED to make that sound. I want to BE the music.

I always use a story about Bob Reynolds to demonstrate this concept. [For anyone who is not a conducting nerd, Bob Reynolds is a legend among wind band conductors. He is also my teacher’s teacher.] One summer, Bob led a weeklong conducting clinic at Hartt, and I played clarinet in the band. It was the end of a day where we had played only slow, lyrical pieces, and my face was so tired I could barely keep hold of my mouthpiece. One of the clinic participants was working through Bob’s own arrangement of Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” (If you don’t know it, stop reading this and go listen to the original choral version, because it’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever ever.) No one else in the clarinet section wanted to take the solo, so it fell to me, even though the corners of my mouth were shaking trying to maintain any kind of embouchure. Just as we got to the beginning of the solo, Bob stopped the student conductor so he could demonstrate something. He turned to the clarinet section, said something like, “Come on, you can do better than that,” and brought us in with a breath. We started playing, and—this is exactly how I remember it—suddenly I heard the most beautiful sound coming from my clarinet. I still couldn’t tell you exactly how he did it, but something about his presence in front of me gave me no other choice but to play one of the most gorgeous solos of my life. It felt like a wizard was waving a magic wand and drawing the sound out of my instrument. Or, maybe more accurately (but equally magical): his concept of the music was so clear, and his presence so strong, that I was compelled to make exactly the music that he wanted, and I didn’t even have to think about it.

In my opinion, that is the ultimate goal of the conductor: To know the music so well that you feel it in your gut, to feel the music so strongly that you can become the music, and to be so committed to being the music that you let go of any pretense or self-protective shell so that all the players see is the music. When I want the music to get bigger, instead of the old waiter move, I simply get bigger myself by taking air into my lungs and expanding my chest [See Lesson #3]. When I want the sound to dissipate, I slowly release the energy through my fingertips. I don’t instruct or command the ensemble the get softer. I just live and breathe in the music, and welcome them to join me. Of course, I can’t just stand there “being” the music all the time. Occasionally I will need to signal something to the ensemble or help them navigate or to make an adjustment in the sound, but I am always striving for this brain-stem-to-brain-stem connection, when I feel the music so strongly that the ensemble feels it too. There is something really incredible about connecting with people on this level, and I don’t know many other situations where it happens.

So how does this relate to being human? I think we spend a lot of time TRYING: to fit in, to stand out, to convince the world that we are smart, successful, happy, confident, whatever. We show a series of coded signals (selfies, expensive shoes, fake smiles, curated social media) to others to indicate all our supposed positive traits. We do this sometimes instead of just BEING these things, maybe because we don’t believe we are these things at all. Or maybe we have spent so much time TRYING that we don’t actually know who or what we are to begin with. There’s a really great book called Psychocybernetics, which is all about how our unconscious mind is more in control of our decision-making than we realize. Many of the choices we make come from the instinctive, feeling part of the brain, because this is where our truest beliefs live. And we may not even be aware of what these beliefs are, because the feeling part of the brain forms these beliefs behind the scenes, by observing our behavior. For example, if I give money regularly to charity, my instinctive brain will come to believe that I am a generous person. If I persevere through many obstacles, my brain will believe that I am tough. It seems counterintuitive, but that’s how it works. And this part of the brain likes being right, so it will work very hard to confirm these core beliefs. So, if I constantly give up when faced with challenges, then my brain will develop the core belief that I am weak. And when the next challenge comes along, it will work behind the scenes to prove my weakness. It may cause me to sabotage an audition or job interview, or to avoid taking a risk because deep down, I believe I will fail anyway. Even if in the logical, reasoning part of my brain I make a goal to improve my life, my instinctive brain will believe that I am not worthy and will make choices to make this belief a reality.

All this is to point out the importance of being and doing the things we want to be and do. You may not believe you are brave, but if you do enough brave things, it will become true. Simply BEING breaks down the barrier between who you are and who you want to be, but it also breaks down the barrier between you and other people. It may be scary to stand in the open and let everyone see who you really are, but that may be all another person needs in order to break down her own barriers and reveal her true self to you. Imagine a world of brave, joyful, honest people who allow themselves to be truly seen without pretense. Imagine the music those people could make together!

My conducting teacher used to liken conducting to opening up your chest, taking your heart out and presenting it to the ensemble. Terrifying, vulnerable, exhilarating. I think we should spend more of our lives like that.

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