Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cheers! A wine-tasting approach to music benefits performers.

Wine-tasting and listening to music pair well, of course, and share some important traits. First, both are perceived by a ‘hidden’ sensory organ. Tasting and hearing happen inside the head in a way that makes it very difficult to point out to another person just what, where, or how an object is to be perceived. Unlike visual perception, there is nothing to nail down for all to witness. Second, wine-tasting and music are both about metaphor. When speaking of wines we use words and phrases such as: silky, lingering, steely, intense; rich in blackcurrant, vanilla and spices; shades of damp leather; notes of dark chocolate. All this from grapes. With music, we may speak of golden sunsets, cold solitude, remorse, lush pools of color, stark terror, or possibly re-live an earlier moment in time, or discover a sudden recognition. All this from sounds. Clearly there are no gooseberries in a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, nor majestic mountain peaks in a symphony, yet we connect to wine and music through these types of metaphors. Music, especially, is full of metaphor. Call a note ‘high’ or ‘low’ — and we’re already in the world of metaphor.


Nonetheless wine and music are matters of serious human concern – and affection. For me classical music is an art to enjoy, explore, and savor. Just as you can explore the palette of your taste-buds, you can explore the palette of your ears.

This is exactly what I do as the Classical Connoisseur, a program series I began over two years ago, and now present at four public library districts in the Chicago and northern Illinois area. The Classical Connoisseur is about awakening the palette and finding the connection between sounds and meaning. The format is very much like wine-tasting, where music is ‘tasted’ with brief samples of 10 seconds to two minutes of duration. The excerpts are short, but we may repeat listenings numerous times.

For example, I was once asked to explore "loving and longing in music" with a woodwind quartet of flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. We explored not just how a composer might create loving and longing in music, but how musicians can shape music to make connections between sounds and meaning. We can try out the character of individual intervals, for example, and hear how small changes will create completely different characters and gestures in the music. We can hear varieties in breath, vibrato, articulation, dynamics, energy levels, pacing, color, phrasing, etc. The tool box for creating and expressing music is wonderfully bottomless when guiding performers through how they can create metaphor and how the composer may be asking them to create metaphor. Why is this passage written in the lower register? How does the melodic interval create a distinct quality? Why would too much vibrato kill the mood? Which note carries rhetorical weight? Would a faster bow make the sound less personable? How long does a sustained note carry meaning?

One of my favorite aspects of music is time. Music uses time, composers use time, and listeners are asked by music to relate to time. I love exploring time because it is a very personal and human part of every musician’s and listener’s life. This important and musical art of using time is a skill which can only be learned in front of an audience. Most musicians play, and are trained to play, according to the clock. In other words, the clock or ticking pulse, dictates events rather than the musician or composer. But how quickly is quick enough for this moment? How does a split second of silence shift the inflection of a phrase? At what tempo does color fade into texture? How do we create and pace expectation, or prolong anticipation?  

Conductors often make such choices of metaphor building. For example, in a presentation on Sound Qualities working with CD recordings,I offered two versions of the opening of the Andante of Bruckner’s 7th symphony. One conductor stacked the viola/tuba line with the brass tucked homogeneously inside the violas, resulting in a very passionate, pulsating, and human effect. We heard full viola vibrato performed in a mid-range, resonant tessitura. Another sample, however, offered the five tubas as the main event, stacking the top tuba line as a solo melody. Without the viola line and its flavor exposed, the result was very different – muscular and majestic. Here, instead of the influence of string vibrato, we heard the breath required by the brass players and how it adds its own expressive nuance. When working with live musicians I provide hands-on opportunity to explore musical choices and offer insight as to how these choices affect a listener’s concept, enjoyment, and understanding of a piece.

The goal of making classical music meaningful to our listeners and ourselves is a vital artistic endeavor. Unfortunately classical music and wine have a common ability to terrify those who feel uninitiated or “uneducated.” In the wine world, Leslie Brenner has a book called Fear of Wine. The opening sentence reads perfectly for the world of classical music:

“How in the world did we manage to get so far in life and still wind up so terribly afraid of something that’s just – dare we say it – a beverage?"  -- Leslie Brenner, Fear of Wine.
Indeed, how did we manage to get so far in life and still wind up so terribly afraid of something that’s just sounds? My presentations as the Classical Connoisseur demonstrate that listeners are highly perceptive. A wine-tasting approach gives them the skills to overcome what previously had been carried as a burden of ignorance or fear: “Well, I didn’t like that, but if it’s a superstar performer then it must be good. The problem is me - I must not understand music.” The benefits of a wine-tasting approach to music include developing an ability to discuss and articulate what was heard, a better understanding of ones personal tastes, and an increased comfort level -  what I call being ‘many-eared’ -  when hearing new works and varied styles.

For professional performers whose studies are focused on technique, historical-traditional, and textual correctness, the Classical Connoisseur approach provides concepts for recognizing how composers use their tools of metaphor and how a performer’s musical choices may affect a listener. Musicians then develop a process for seeing beyond the notes to a deeper layer of musical intent and meaning. With this insight a performer has a rich array of communicative tools and a direct understanding of their implementation.

Today’s musicians want to reach audiences in a way that creates a vivid experience for the listener and an artistically satisfying moment for the performer and composer. The Classical Connoisseur events allow me to coach listeners in the art of experiencing the magic of music, and to coach players in the art of making magic out of sound.

I leave musicians with these three wishes as they continue on as a Classical Connoisseur:

♦ Be driven by curiosity and wonder, rather than the need to be right, or knowing.
♦ Be many-eared, as there is no single style of listening that reveals the whole.
♦ Insist that music and its practitioners – composers, performers – honor the metaphor.

It is through this imaginative realm of metaphor that we, perhaps, become less of a stranger to our self, each other, and the human experience.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Take off the plastic-wrap and breathe!

I recently consulted my Dictionary of Bowing and Pizzicato Terms (Berman, Jackson, Sarch: ASTA, Fourth edition, 1999) to check a bowing usage. The dictionary has over 100 bowing terms from the Italian, English, French and German languages. Flipping through the booklet I wondered how many of the terms are in use today, as many of the terms have their origins in the Baroque era. Modern playing as I hear it tends to lean heavily on two styles of bowing; up and down. Although with the current style of “seamless sound” one could argue there is only one. Would a modern player know what to make of the term Fouetté? Strappato? Collé?

This has little to do with the capabilities of today’s players but with the style of playing which is in vogue and taught as an ideal. The prevailing concept of beautiful string sound is one of endless flow, void of overt articulation. This style, exemplified in the Eugene Ormandy sheen, seems even more prevalent in American than in Europe or Russia.
(Interestingly, we hear this seamlessness in New Age music, with its endless synthesized strings. Personally, this sound is particularly distressing. Nothing like trying to sink into a relaxing massage or spa visit while being carried along by background music that never breathes. Gasp! Very stressful!)
I consider much of this preference for seamless bowing as a result of both modern recordings and the influence of the 19th century aesthetic ideal. From the modern recording aspect, there has been commentary on how today’s orchestras and performers tend to imitate recordings, and seek an unblemished, smoothly packaged sound of digital perfection. It is a loss that we idolize this ‘plastic-wrapped’ sound. Yes, the recorded-sound bears repeated listening and up-close scrutiny, but the result is a style of performance that offends no one and offers little character.
From the 19th century we take on a concept of endless, flowing beauty: a style of ‘cantabile’ without breathing, which allowed instrumental music to rise ‘above’ vocal music. The violin – the king of instruments – was a perfect poster-child for this machine-like non-stop production of beauty.  And so yet today, string players seem to aim at making bowing an invisible, internal function of a high-performance machine. Bowing - as an expressive tool itself - is no longer an aspect to be heard for its musical sake.
When coaching musicians, for example, the biggest musical issue seems to be phrasing; how to end one phrase and begin the next. Too often that process is completed with a simple, uneventful change of bow direction. But a phrase or note can be closed in a variety of ways: with a vowel or consonant, gently, harshly, left open, ‘torn,’ allowed to vaporize, moving forward with energy or winding-down, etc. The next phrase may need to begin with an explosive edge tone, or slow-energy hesitancy, or a defiant nudge, for example. And then there is the manner of “connecting” one phrase - or note – to the next. Seamlessly, or with space between? How much space? How do you pace the transition?
This isn’t just an issue for string players. The ideal of this gorgeous streaming violin sound as perfect beauty also permeates the aesthetic concepts of other instruments. Wind players, for example, rather unknowingly and unquestioningly, imitate this ideal. This, when wind players have at their disposal two of the most evocative, expressive tools: breath and articulation.  It is particularly sad to see wind players ignore the use of a rich palette of breath and articulation for the development of super-human lungs in order to remove any trace of being a human that breathes. Most wind players are unaware of their imitating a violin sound. This speaks not to their ignorance but rather shows the sheer dominance of the violin as the perfect instrument of ideal beauty and the de facto assumptions of 19th century aesthetics on music.
I realize that the era of music as rhetoric - as conceived in the Baroque era - is passed; however, articulation and phrasing still provide living metaphors in music. (I’d rather argue that in this post-modern world perhaps beauty in music based on the 19th century and 20th century ideals may contribute to the dead metaphors that plague music today.)
From the Baroque manuals stuffed full with rules of articulation and phrasing, we’ve moved to an ironed-out, plastic-wrapped packaging of sound. Whereas Vivaldi needed to add to his score the admonition of “guardate la legatura” to ensure players would mind the slur. Today we are in need of strong reminders to mind the articulation! And, most ironically – to breathe!


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Do you play Diehnelt or Caprio? Revamping the role of composer.


With an approaching premiere of the work premiere of CAPRIO, for oboe and strings I’ve had lively conversations with performers and music-lovers. One striking question keeps appearing: Does the performer play Diehnelt the composer, or Caprio the work-entity?

Music, unlike literature and theater, tends to perceive the composer - or “the composer’s intent” - as the aspect to dwell on, explore, and attempt to ‘channel’ while preparing a piece for performance. We think almost exclusively in this manner. How else could it be?

I love crossing over to theater for ideas on the art of presenting live performances from a text-source. In theater, it is the character and its role which receives in-depth study by the performer. How do I, as Othello, portray and bring to life this character with a sense of understanding, depth, and truth? The actor rarely thinks: How do I portray the playwright? The playwright continues as an essential part of the process, yet remains behind the scenes, if you will.

We speak of actors owning or embodying a role. So-and-so’s Othello, another actor’s Nora. Rarely do we speak of an actor being a great Shakespeare, or identifying a performer with Ibsen.

With music, we leave out the intermediary character role. Here, the performer presents the playwright. We play Beethoven. We debate performers’ versions of Mozart; we give artists ownership of their Wagner, their Chopin, their Bach. This direct text-maker to stage-performer connection is unique to music, coming to the fore in the early 1800’s as composers, and instrumental music, gained status as being capable of independently speaking ‘truths.’

But when working with musicians on my own works in the present era, I find it odd they insist on reproducing me in the music. For example, Caprio is not me in guise of an oboist and string orchestra. It’s Caprio – almost a living character by itself. Indeed, the creative compositional process seems one of ‘bringing into life’ of a new entity.

I remember very strongly the reactions I went through while composing Postscript for solo cello . The plan in my head was not happening. Instead of moving toward the key-center, character-change I had planned out, the piece just wouldn’t ‘go there.’ After struggling numerous times to make the music stick to my plans I gave up and let the cello line go where it wanted. This experience seems in line with the experience of writers who may have a specific plan for a novel, but find that a character high-jacks the plot and compels its own unfolding. As with Caprio too, at some point this character propelled the music line forward to fulfill the character’s intent. (There may be an illusive art to knowing when to quiet the composer’s intent and listen carefully to the created entity.)

Yes, my works will always have Kim-isms, just as any playwright and their era has a particular style. I will always be interested in the use of time, give attention to how sounds combine to create metaphors, and resist the urge for unnecessary repetition.

However, this being the 21st century, I’d like to offer musicians the task of getting less inside the head of the composer and more into questioning “what does this musical ‘character’ ask of me?" Creating compositions of this sort gives the performer homework and decisions. Rather excitingly, it allows for more than one authentic way to present a work.

I encourage performers to take the risk and challenge to chew over the character/s that each piece presents. I will do my best to provide each member of the cast with lines worth speaking, worth mulling over for nuggets of depth and beauty.

Fortunately, Caprio is in good hands this week. Oboist Joni Day and Music Director Stephen Blackwelder are both capable of acknowledging the composer while courageously tending to the spirit of the music’s intent. We will hear a living, breathing, authentic Caprio!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Time to “just say no” to anxiety

The recent splash of an article poking fun at the  dark side  of orchestral life brings to the fore a touchy subject of drug use by musicians for performance anxiety. I would love to implement a ‘drug-free’ orchestra, yet it remains much too much of a sensitive topic to address directly. However, we may need to face a moment of self-admission if classical music is to thrive.

You may wonder why it matters whether or not players are using beta-blockers. It’s the presence of performance anxiety that concerns me. Performance anxiety is a fear of something that may happen in the future. It requires a focus on something other than the present, keeping one foot in the future. A performer who is not in the present is, simply, ‘not present,” and unable to communicate creatively.

Kay Gilley presents the issue quite concisely in her book  The Alchemy of Fear:
“Fear, by nature, rarely exists in present time and space, and therefore distracts us from being fully alert to conditions right now.” (p 34) “When we are afraid, we inevitably will work in a time dimension other than the present. The present is the only time dimension in which we can enact change or allow creativity to emerge.” (p.35)
Creativity can only exist in the present.

As a conductor, it is my priority to get each player to a place of “flow” – being present. That’s where the magic of music happens. Imagine if a whole room full of elite musicians were to ‘do their thing’ while fully present?! I have a feeling classical music would seldom be boring.

(Mind you, some conductors would rather the musicians were little machines that are programmed during rehearsals and simply ‘play on demand' come concert time. These musicians needn’t be present, I suppose. They probably are the most nervous, however, since the future must go exactly as planned.)

As the head coach, performance anxiety of each player is my concern. I’d love to see Kay Gilley, who currently works with NASA, apply her coaching skills to classical performance groups, but this would require everyone to acknowledge than anxiety does exists. Hopefully, we will soon move on from the dark humor surrounding the topic and begin to address the needs of musicians - as creative artists.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Artist’s Struggle: Seeing beyond the boulder

I enjoy exploring the histories and ideas about myths as I find they help me grasp the deeper premise of musical gestures and metaphors. I’m currently chewing on the myth of Sisyphus as it is presented in Phil Cousineau’s book  Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Modern Times

He offers this story as one to guide and inspire the artist. Yes, Sisyphus was the fellow who was condemned to push a boulder up the side of mount Tartarus, just to have it roll back down again.

Cousineau’s take on the myth sees beyond a sense of futileness and despair. As he writes:

"Sisyphus was condemned for all eternity to shoulder the boulder up the mountain of hell, and all the while Hades would be watching for the look of despair that would mark the defeat of another mere mortal. But Sisyphus resolved never to allow the gods to see him defeated by despair. He silently vowed that because his fate was in his hands he could be superior to it. That is the genius of the mythic view of this complex image, that this, "the hour of consciousness" as Camus called it, is born out of the beauty that can be heard in the midst of our ordeals.

“The myth of Sisyphus is a living myth, I concluded, because it reveals the inner meaning of our outer struggles. And who doesn't struggle? Who doesn't look for meaning in the everyday drama of their life? The myth personifies the notion set forth in models of drama, from Aristotle to screenwriter William Goldman, that growth comes through conflict, change from response to defeat. Moreover, it presages the marvelous thought of the Scottish poet Kathleen Raine about "the mysterious wisdom won by toil."


I’m still contemplating this version of the ‘artist's struggle.’ I see the boulder as the weight of creative endeavor. Each time we create something which seems ‘perfect’ and ‘beautiful’ - once it’s completed, the rock rolls back down the hill. To look once again up at the side of the mountain and ponder how to not just ‘do it again,’ but surpass the previous creation is unfathomable. Yet you lean into the rock and go to.

For our response to defeat, I have found the story of Otho, one of the late Caesars to be particularly apt. Otho’s response to an embarrassing military defeat was to retire to his chambers and kill himself. The irony of this is that Julius Caesar had suffered far larger losses and many more defeats, but Julius Caesar saw beyond the immediate struggle. What was a road block to Otho was a mere pot-hole to Julius Caesar. Maybe Julius was thinking of his life as something bigger than the boulder - a myth, his to bring to life.


A final word from Cousineau:

“Don’t be satisfied with the myths that come before you,” said the Sufi poet Rumi seven centuries ago, “unfold your own myth.” …... If we do, we may learn the eternal struggle from the depths towards the heights “is enough to fill a man’s heart” as Camus concluded, gloriously.

Out of the struggle with ourselves, from the fire in our soul, comes the thing that never existed before—the music, the art, the words that make life endurable, and more, creative and sublime.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Serving up fresh ingredients makes for success!

Composer Mark Warhol and his Ensemble Warhol have been putting together compact and vivid productions that combine live contemporary music, dance, theater, and visual arts. How refreshing to be involved in a production where everything from the music, stage designs – including mobile sculptures – to the choreography, were current, contemporary and actually produced solely for this production. The audiences responded with interest and approval to this fresh event with tailor-made elements!

The Photo Gallery from the recent production of Mark’s Memories and Fantasies shows how well the dancers, actors, and stage-set all worked together. Note how the white stage sculptures by James Fuhrman added another dimension for the imagination.

I certainly applaud artists such as Mark Warhol who realize and respect the potential of the stage as a live performance space, rather than a place for re-cycled reproductions of artistic heir-looms. Bravo!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Adieu Racheli - keep making your music!

I am deeply sadden that cellist Racheli Galay will soon be taking leave of the US and returning to her native land where richer opportunities exist. Racheli inspires and mesmerizes all that hear her play the cello. I would personally prefer to hear her over any of the world cello stars current doing the circuit. After a blazing performance of the Barber cello sonata a composer-colleague commented, “You know who she reminds me of, don’t you?” I had never seen Jacqueline du Pré live, but he had vivid memories her presence, and Racheli’s intensity is as compelling. Another colleague in the audience immediately booked Racheli as soloist with his group.

I could gather myself up onto a soap box and rant about the myth of 'hard work and talent' as the sole key to success, or the falsehood that  ‘cream rises to the top’ (when it is the spin that rises). But I’d rather say “Thank you, Racheli. You bring music to life - and life to music. Your music has touched me greatly and deeply.”

Chicagoans have one more opportunity to hear Racheli perform live at MAYSES UN KLANGEN - Stories and Sounds  at The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Skokie, IL. Sunday, July 10, 1:30pm.

(I admit to selfishly booking Racheli and her chamber musician friends for a private jam session/salon before she leaves.  Although live is best, perhaps I will be able to share some of this via video.)

Adieu Racheli. Remember, we still have the Elgar cello concerto to perform together. Keep that hope alive!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dear Search Committee: What is it you ask of me?

Dear Music Director Search Committee we need to talk. Your world and my world have drifted apart enough that I fear we might not be on the same page. Your interview questions and required submissions bewilder me.

First, let’s address this video issue. I know some orchestras, out of a shear need to cut down the quantity of applicants, will toss out any application which is not “complete.” The missing document is mostly likely a video prepared to your specifications.

I’m most concerned with the request for rehearsal footage. First, take a moment to consider your own perspective as an organization. Would you want videos of your musicians playing while in a rehearsal/training situation released for all the world to see? If you have a good conductor who is challenging players to perform at their peak, there are two things happening in a rehearsal scenario.  First, there is critical self-assessment as players’ skills and performance concepts are stretched. Second, space is allowed for mistakes, re-takes, efforts that fall flat, errors and howlers.  A rehearsal is a safe and ‘sacred’ space. What happens in rehearsal - stays in rehearsal. I owe that to each musician and each artistic endeavor. You will never see a rehearsal video of any group under my direction. Mind you, feel free to talk with the players. Ask them, did I prepare them efficiently and respectfully; inspire and infuse knowledge?  Were the players at their best come concert time? Did we ‘make magic’ during the performance? 

Also, please note that videos should have the complete consent of the players involved and require a release form, which does often come with a fee. Yes, a diligent conductor would ask permission formally and compensate the organization. Is it possible your organization is asking conductors to produce something you would not care to ‘give away’ yourself?

There is another odd perception about rehearsal videos. I am told that search committees want to see only rehearsal videos because “what happens in rehearsal will just be the same in performance.” What a terrifying thought!  Music is a live performance art. It happens only with an audience. If your current conductor steps out on stage and simply pushes “play” – that’s pathetic. No wonder the audience feels a bit jilted, senses a cold shoulder, haplessly peeking into a little box full of musicians scrambling away.

My premise is to create enchantment  -not just between me and the players during rehearsal, but also between players and listeners during performance. That can only happen in live performance – an audience changes everything. Now, maybe you and your colleagues are still riding the Toscanini myth that says there is ONLY ONE WAY to perform a piece, so if the conductor programs the players correctly they can step out on stage and hit ‘play’ and out will fly the ONE TRUE WAY, and all is good. Well, it may shock you to hear that every time you walk on stage, everything is different; the players are subtly different, the composer is different, the listeners are different, the moment is different. Our role is to seduce the listener with the moment.

To do so requires the conductor and players to listen to their listeners. (Try picking this talent out on a rehearsal video) Personally, I have hundreds of little receptors along my back. I can sense if listeners are ‘with us, ‘ or if ‘we read clearly,’ or if there is a complacency in the air, or perhaps if we are all ramped up and catching every nuance  -  with room for more. Want your audience to love your orchestra? Have a conductor who listens; to the players and to the audience. Ideally your conductor is teaching and training the musicians to listen to the audience, too. (Yes, update that memo of yours that still reads that a father-knows-best mentally makes the best conductor.)

What happens in performance should be a super-charged leap into the nuance and essence of the moment. Ironically, these magical moments are never caught in the visual/audio layers of any video. So ask listeners: What did I bring to a performance? And did they become a part of it? Did anything feel “pre-packaged” or was it fully genuine?

Watch a conductor in performance. Do they listen? How do they interact with players and audience? How do they acknowledge their own enhanced position on stage? Do they act like a host, or a bouncer?

There is also a very odd notion about conductors who conductor ‘from memory.’ Memory and musicality are two distinct areas of the brain. The mind does not readily access the musical brain when pre-occupied with down-loading files from the re-call area. (As I know this will tick-off my ‘by memory’ die-hards, I offer the following for consultation:”Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions” by S. L. Macknik and S. Martinez-Conde). Please update your memo that reads that music is better by memory. “By heart” unfortunately, too, usually means “performing while counting off sets of four-measures plus four-measures, etc.” Really, there is nothing wrong with having the composer there on stage with you. They would probably vote “Yes, please” if they could.

And then the interview questions. I had a recent interview where I was asked about what I do in the second rehearsal. I had just given my general philosophy of rehearsals, pacing, infusing style, presenting the premise of a piece, so I was dumbfounded when they continued to ask quite specifically, “What do you do in the second rehearsal of this piece?” “How do you start the rehearsal?” “How long do you spend on the piece?” Apparently the committee expected that one conducts a piece the same way, no matter what orchestra is playing. (I flash back to a book that came out a couple years ago called “Conducting the music, not the musicians.” As if conducting is about shaping the sound waves with your hands – no musicians needed!) An analogy here might work. Can you ask a doctor what they will diagnose and prescribe on the second visit? Even though the doctor doesn’t know at this moment, they certainly will know when the moment arrives. Conducting and rehearsing is an art. You sometimes know more by stopping and sniffing the air when you enter the rehearsal hall, catch the way a player handles their instrument, see the body language between wind players. Yes, I have my rehearsal plans, but I also know when the time is ripe to ditch it. Again, talk to the players, they know if it worked.

Asking for hypothetical programming for a hypothetical season is also awkward. I realize you would like to get a grasp on what sort of ‘taste’ I have and just what sort of poison or passion you might be subjected to under my direction. However, much programming comes out of the potential that the group offers, building on what is good, strengthening what could be better, exploring untapped areas of talent and curiosity. This goes for the audience base, too. Where are their potentials, curiosities, and untapped areas? Just as with the doctor analogy, programming requires familiarity with the players as individuals and as an ensemble, not just a blanket prescription for a generic patient.

Dear Search Committee, with this in mind, please reconsider whether you want to continue hiring the sorts of people who comply with your requirements. Use your video screening to find a delightful fashion model or cocktail party personality. But put the video criteria and out-dated perceptions aside at some point and listen to the experiences of performers and listeners. If your conductor sparks no enchantment, then apologize to your players and audience, and find a new one.

*And Yes, I do have two un-edited YouTube Videos as provided to me by the orchestra. But I’d gladly give you the manager’s phone number if you’d prefer to speak with management - or perhaps a few musicians.

** If I may turn the tables a bit on the selection process – here is my  Want Ad for an orchestra

***Better yet, leave a comment or question so that we can continue to clear up some of the cobwebs before either of us ever start the dating process.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What is it like to be a female conductor?

Yes, this is the question heard most frequently: “So what is it like being a female conductor?” People are curious so I’ll cut to the chase: You do a lot of hand-holding.

Let’s start by asking, “What is it like to be female?” It is to be either invisible or intimidating.



Seven months ago I made a new acquaintance and gave him my card which says “Kim Diehnelt –Conductor” in bold letters. I see him on a daily basis and just last week he realized I didn’t work on a train. (Invisible) So you smile patiently knowing that building new cognitive pathways takes longer for some people.

I once worked with a group where after conducting Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and again after conducting Ravel’s Daphne et Chloe the principle trombonist approached to say, “Wow, you really know this music. How do you do it?” (Oops, intimidated him enough that he needs to prove something) I’d like to think that now days I have the nerve to simply make a naïve-like tilt of the head and ask “What do you mean by that?” But at that moment I responded each time with a ‘correct’ answer of, “It’s great music; you have to love it!”(Ok, then, I’ll make my self invisible, so you feel comfortable)

With another group where I was Assistant, when I finally, after extensive lobbying, conducted a major concert a listener approached me afterwards to ask, “I can’t believe this; you’ve been on staff for the last 3 years. Why haven’t we seen you?”  (Invisible) You smile and stifle any inkling of comprehension. And when the president of the same orchestra said he had never heard the orchestra sound so good the call came from the music director three days later “I’m sorry to have to fire you, but there’s just no work for you next year.” (Intimidating) You smile knowing it was the highest, most genuine compliment this fellow could offer. (This is hardly a gender-specific issue; any young conductor can potentially threaten the established conductor. However, when a 30 year-old-female out shines a 60-year-male colleague, it is unlikely he will say, “Son, I’m proud of you,” and assume a mentoring role.)

I studied in Vienna one summer. The very first day the teacher announced, “Someday women conductors will be accepted the way female soloists are. But not yet.” (Invisible, temporarily.) I guess this means the teacher just went through the motions of teaching since, well, it was all too soon to take me seriously.

Why might it be such a mind-block to envision a woman as a conductor? First, conducting is one of the rare positions where, because you stand on a podium with that title, you have the authority to tell a person – literally - when to breathe. That much power comes with the job. You also control time. That’s immensely powerful and historically almost a sacred power. Our image of what this power looks like is quite limited.

Creativity is a mystery; to bring a text to life implies important wisdom and skill. Inspiration and genius wound together to bring universal truths, ideals, beauty and aesthetics into the world. Our image of what creativity looks like is quite narrow.

Conducting also requires the cooperation of large groups of people. You need more than a “room of one’s own.” A leader needs clout, political leverage, and most importantly, followers. Our image of what leadership looks like is quite narrow.

Power, creativity, leadership. Unfortunately the current images of how these traits look are so narrow and precise that everything else remains invisible or threatening.

A recent TEDx Michigan Ave speaker Ian David Moss of  Createquity gave insightful comments on this narrowness in the arts. The democratic and equal opportunity to experience the arts is a major reason for government funding of the arts. We have the noble mind-set that everyone should have the right to consume the arts. Yet, as he points out, the opportunity and right to produce the arts is held in the hands of a very narrow slice of society.

I’d like to challenge my fellow female conductors to join me in widening these defining lines. When women conductors are asked this question about being female in today’s world, the default and ‘proper’ answer is a glossy, up-beat, and politically bland, “There may be some discrimination, but I haven’t experienced any.” Yes, I understand the political forces that require an American woman to deny the existence of any scenario that could paint her as ‘a victim.’ Any hint of victim-hood makes you weak and culpable; a taboo and stigma in this society. However, such white-washing of the world smacks of self-centered complacency: “Well, I found my niche, so things must be good enough.” Just because you or I have eluded the barriers certainly doesn’t mean the situation is ‘good enough.’

For example, I have a colleague who purports to have some vague, mystical European heritage because his teacher told him a Mexican-American could never be a conductor. Rather than stretching the concept of conductor and being an inspiring pioneer on and off the podium, he has spent his life as a well-groomed forgery of no one. While he forgoes his essence, the music and our listeners lose a vital angle on the well-cut diamond of art. One less facet; a little less sparkle. And the same old map of power, creativity, and leadership stays in circulation.

I have fellow gay colleagues who politely toe the ‘openly closeted’ line that keeps the classical world comfortable. Again, it’s a loss. One less facet; a little less sparkle. And the map of the world squeaks by again without revision.

The human scope of music, especially the music of the orchestra, is inspired and enlivened by each new version of genuine being. A diamond sparkles with brilliance because of its numerous facets. One, singular, limited surface makes for a lack-luster gemstone. As each version of what a conductor looks like takes to the podium, music is offered a fresh moment to sparkle with magic. (This goes of course for every version of orchestral musician and composer, too)

I’ve never been one to use a dimmer switch, so I will continue to intimidate those who still work from an outdated map of power, creativity and leadership. However, I’d like to do less hand-holding. Perhaps with this little blog, we could remind each other to check the revision dates on our maps of the world. The more visible and genuine each dot on the map becomes the more complete the universe. One more facet; a little more sparkle.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

'Butts in Seats' at what value?

I’d like to add a bit of a twist on the assumption that getting ‘butts in seats’ is a form of creating demand. The standard mission of an orchestra’s marketing department is to broaden the audience base; I understand the math behind it all. My concern however, is that when the mission is to get people in seats, no one is tending to the need to create value and desire for live orchestra performances.

Here’s an odd example. Let’s say we sell cars, and we give our marketing department the mission of getting butts in seats. The more people who drive our cars, the better. So, we offer our cars to the public in many ways. For the folks who already own our brand of car and are loyal drivers, we will offer next year’s model at more than retail price. For those who may have owned our cars once, but aren’t current owners, we will offer our cars at a lower, easy-entrance price. Now, if you’ve never, ever owned our cars, we will give you a much reduced price, especially if you’re interested in the up-coming model and promise to drive it for one year. If you plan ahead and reserve a car it will cost more than if you appear on the door step of the show room just before closing time. Because butts in seats are so important, we will have our cars available for free if drivers pick up their cars in the park.

Soon you’ve done a great job at marketing and there are many butts in seats indeed! But what is the value now of your cars? The message mixed: if received in the park the value is FREE, if you’re ‘last-minute’ it is cheap. If you are loyal, it’s expensive. (we also offer a virtual car experience on CD at half the price so you don’t even need to own a car!) There will be few loyal owners, many brief relationships, i.e. much churn.

It’s the same car, made by the same people, yet the value range is across the boards. With orchestras, the same performance and performers are sometimes available for free, sometimes not. What is our value?

The most important question is -- What is our value? And how do we communicate this to our potential audiences? Currently, we present quite a mish-mash of conflicting info. Why are performances outside cheaper than inside? You hear the same music and players, yet the value shifts with location. Our value also shifts according to time of purchase and length of relationship, too.

Offering CDs and live streaming is another odd pricing system. Instead of coming to a performance, just listen to the music at half the cost. And we sell this as if it is an equivalent to the performance experience, though at a much reduced price. What’s the value of a live orchestra performance? I don’t know because we have so many messages out there. The butts in seats attitude is about getting people to hear what we do – at any price.

I know most arts people will declare that the value of music is ‘self-evident’ and so its value doesn’t really shift, regardless of the ticket value. I say it does. Value is created in the minds of those who desire. To go back to our car example. Who do you think will end up driving these cars when no one knows their value? Who will desire them? What is the value of a performance that is regularly given away while at the same moment also demanding steep prices? (I’m sure the car maker would consider the value of the car to be ‘self evident’ and find it demeaning to have to ‘defend’ the value of their car.)

Let’s refrain from giving our self away.  To give our performances away on one hand, and then say ‘we are valuable’ on the other, no longer makes sense to people. And  - our value isn’t self evident any more, because our ‘moral agenda’ is way out dated. (More on this another time)

Please Marketing folks - focus attention on creating value and desire for live music, and butts will appear in seats.