The Balancing Act

Through the wonders of social media, last week I saw a headline from The Spectator Magazine entitled “The mean bullying maestro is extinct- or should be.” The article by Peter Phillips (of Tallis Scholars fame) asserts that deplorable behavior from aggressive conductors indicates that they feel their extraordinary talent warrants said behavior “despite the fact that every musician knows they will perform better if they are encouraged rather than being shouted at. In this day and age, to have to play or sing in a state of fear of the maestro out front is simply counterproductive. No one will tolerate it; nor should they.”

I’ve been seeing more and more of this sentiment around as of late- from recent interviews with Esa Pekka-Salonen to talks with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s Joshua Haberman. The idea is simple- if you want to get the most out of your performing forces (and if you want the experience to be one of growth for the performers), you need to do it from a place of respect. Encourage them, instruct them, and correct them when necessary. Guide them down a path to success rather than beating them into submission. If you’re a rational outsider, you wouldn’t think this was a radical idea. Unfortunately, it really is.

When I was a Master’s candidate at Westminster Choir College, I was basically told point blank that I was never going to be the kind of leader to “get in somebody’s face.” And I didn’t want to be. My personal history, coupled with experiencing what happened with my own participation in choir when shouting and bullying were in any way a means of “teaching,” had already shown me that I was not interested in acting that way. “But,” I was told, “perhaps you could cajole them into doing it.” And thus a conducting persona was born- although it would take a good 5 or 6 years to start to blossom.

As time has gone on and as I continue to develop (because I’m under no delusion that I’m a fully evolved conductor) I have tried to care for the people involved in music making while insisting on what I want. Relying on fear is not really necessary, at least in the realm of conducting adults. One can choose to draw a line in the sand and say, “no- do it again- this way” without launching a full-blown attack (or having a full-blown meltdown, as I’ve sometimes seen).  If you rely on a teaching cycle and stick to your guns, you can begin to move forward without the theatrics.

Essentially, it all comes down to being able to guide and inspire people. If you don’t jump up and down, throw music stands, and belittle people to get what you want, does it mean that you don’t care about the outcome? Of course not. It means that the conductor is actually investing time, energy, and study into being a teacher and a leader rather than a bully who expects the singers to be able to do it without the conductor (or even worse, in spite of the conductor). It means that the conductor cares about and values the people involved in the music making in addition to the music itself. This practice, however, means caring enough about both the performers and the music to tell people when what they are doing is not good enough and how it can be better. It’s a balancing act, and I find that it’s the messenger, not the message, that influences the final outcome. If you respect people enough to tell them when it’s wrong, to tell them in a way that is constructive, and to show them how to fix it, you’re on the right track.

With the Santa Fe Men's Camerata. Photo by Robin Rupe.

With the Santa Fe Men’s Camerata. Photo by Robin Rupe.

In my choirs, we have a good time AND we learn things. Sometimes my singers are admittedly a little too excited to see each other, and I find I need to contend with their social exuberance. But, overall, I know they feel both pushed and safe- safe from a human perspective to engage in the choral experience, pushed from a musical perspective (and sometimes I’ll wager on a personal level) to go past their comfort zones. Very often the first comment I get from spectators is on the “way” I have with the singers and how the “lightness and levity” really helps the rehearsal process.

I have been honored and amazed to see the growth that occurs over time within the choirs. It happens in its time, with steadfast support and instruction, and often with me saying things like:

“No. That’s not what I just asked for. Do it again.”

“Is that the way we rehearsed it? Do it again.”

“We’ve encountered this same musical/vocal/vowel/phrasing situation 9,000 times in 2 billion pieces. What do you think I want from you here?”

(Okay, that last one is a paraphrase, but essentially the way it happens. Conductors know what I’m talking about.)

If you insist on it, and in a way the singers can understand, they will do it for you. There’s really no need to act like you need a diaper change. Inherently the performers should WANT to do well, and they’re looking to you for information on how to make it the best it can be. If they’re not doing what you want, the first thing a conductor should ask him/herself is “what am I doing or not doing to make the choir sing this the way I would like?” I know- I have to ask myself that almost every day. As Phillips states,  “the maestro’s belief that he is right by definition” is an outdated, erroneous modus operandi. This is where we can let the singers be OUR teachers. Like the performers, the conductor must also be willing to evolve and adapt to make the performance be the best one possible.

So is the bullying maestro extinct? Should “he” (or “she”) go the way of the dinosaur? I think the more of us there are that can gently but insistently push our choirs to continued new heights of achievement through education, firmness, and encouragement, the better the music world will be. I know I personally will be continuing to work on perfecting this balancing act. In another 30 years or so, I should almost have it.

Encourage growth in unexpected places.

Encourage growth in unexpected places.


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