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.