Thursday, August 22, 2013

Musicianship: More Than Just Beautiful Sounds

We've always known that body language is important in communication. Some public speaking studies suggest non-verbal communication shapes 90% of the message. So I certainly coach performers in what I call ‘stagecraft,’ as well as in their sound production.

Surprisingly, efforts to improve stagecraft are often met with dismay.
“Do I have to listen to them [the audience] ? – shouldn't they do that work? I have enough to do to present such gorgeous sounds!”
Must I consider how my body language cuts off or welcomes the listener? Must I be concerned about the audience’s psychological needs? Do I need to understand how my gestures, eye contact, reactions to my own playing, reception of applause, and leadership (or lack of) affect an audience?

Yes, Yes, Yes!

Music is a performance art and I've already shared many thoughts in previous postings 

So at this time I’d love to pass along a new study by Chia-Jung Tsay, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal:

And some very readable commentary on this study by Melissa Hogenboom, the Science reporter at BBC News:

Why do we continue to think that music performance and communication functions drastically differently from other types of performance and communication?

I’m available for coaching sessions - stagecraft included.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Having "That Conversation"

Perhaps the most difficult and challenging aspect of being a Music Director today is dealing with an aging player population and having “That Conversation.”

As the need to negotiate these unpleasant waters becomes more frequent, I’m glad to have gotten the first one under my belt awhile ago, so I can continue to review and revise the formats for this difficult conversation.

Of course, one does all the usual good communications stuff; sit where both are presented as equals, without a table or other object between, and somewhere quiet and focused.

In my case, I began by acknowledging not only the musician’s many years of service, but the life-long identity as a musician, and their commitment to life as a musician. I specifically stated that being a musician is who they are, and therefore their dignity was present at the table, too; its presence shaped and inferred every word that would come out of my mouth.

In this particular discussion I needed to take the musician into a dark corner and expose him as being ‘deficient.’ Deteriorating capabilities had led him to recently play in concert a half-measure off throughout a movement of a strings-only piece, despite attempts by his stand partner and my self. Completely unaware, unable to hear, and perhaps unwilling to follow, this was a principal player no longer able to fulfill his role. I lead him down this unpleasant road of disclosure as the ultimate ‘failure’ as a musician.

First he shot back with resistance, anger and defense. I met him with passions of my own, too. And there, exposed and naked in a corner, confronted with a new reality of himself, he froze as if prepared for the blows to follow. The berating and slaps of shame and insults; that the knowledge of his limitations would now be used as a weapon against him. As if I was wielding a sword, honed to cut deep with the truth, he awaited the beating.

"As if I was wielding a sword, honed to cut deep with the truth, he awaited the beating."

Rather, we just locked eyes. The moment sunk in; the gravity, the painfulness acknowledged without further words. The moment was broken by a gesture, almost a physical body gesture, as I sheathed an invisible sword and discarded the weapon.

Looking back, this was probably the second most important element of That Conversation. To hold the power to crush a musician’s self and spirit, and yet choose dignity over insult may be one of the most important non-uses of power that conductors have.

".... to choose dignity over insult may be one of the most important non-uses of power that conductors have."

After this bridge was crossed, we could discuss options for moving forward. One option seems to be steering the player to move toward music-making which is more in their own control. The large orchestral scenario requires long-distance perceptions, long (time-wise) sweeps of extended focus and concentration. I propose an opportunity for players to regroup in smaller ensembles, as duos, trios, quartets.

My thought is that we ask players to step out of the large-scale music-making of an orchestra and we find ways for them to continue music-making on a more intimate fashion under their direct control. Let the playing field be theirs to shape: they select repertoire, pace rehearsals, set seating arrangements. As for performances, playing for peers is one opportunity, and as such we ask them to become role models for music-making as a life-long passion and way of being.

Whatever the options and opportunities, I do see it as part of our duties to find alternative avenues for music-making for that time when making music on a large orchestral scale becomes impossible. (The dance community has wonderful programs set in place to work with dancers after retirement.)

For a closing to this conversation, I offered what unknowingly became the keystone to the reception of the whole event. I simply said:

“Everything that just passed between us – stays between us.”

Sufficient time has passed since this conversation, so I now feel comfortable sharing the details. Perhaps the lesson I learned from That Conversation is - respect differs from politeness. Respect acknowledges the inherent kernel of dignity we each carry to the best of our ability.

We have much more to learn about this aspect of our jobs. Let’s start the conversation among ourselves as conductors and organizational leaders, and then turn to include the professional contractors, personnel managers and union leaders, and then let’s engage the teachers, parents, and coaches of young students.

After all, “That Conversation” reflects all of life  - with its twists and turns, as we try to carry a parcel of dignity to the best of our ability.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Message in a Bottle - for a Young Artist

You have a gift.
They call it “a gift” -
now it remains separate
from you.
How can you say “I am a gift” -
even Plato would complain.

You have a gift.
Now what your occupation?
A dutiful messenger?
A toiling gardener through turning seasons?
An attentive slave?

You have a gift.
A willful siren whose song
refuses to be hushed –
despite imminent shipwrecks on
despairing shores.

You have a gift.
Others hope and envy -
despise and sabotage.
Lore implies – a given
can be taken.

You have a gift.
Now the waters muddle
And the nights grow noisy.

Steer safely amongst the reef
my friend -

You have a gift.

© 2013 Kim Diehnelt

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Oh, the things we do and can’t blog about!

Yes, my blog has been quiet lately, but hardly because I've been doing or thinking nothing, but rather because so much of what happens….. well, it seems best to just keep quiet.

I’m thinking about behavior and actions by groups, musicians, organizations which make you wonder –incompetence? mental issues? intentional sabotage?

Simple sheet music, for example, seems to be a difficult aspect of ensemble management. Why is it that with months of preparation time groups will still need to rush parts over-night? This at a much higher cost and cutting into valuable preparation time.

Once I worked with a group where the parts for a major work that filled half the program were handed to the musicians at the first rehearsal, despite 14 months lead time (so much for marking bowings and allowing players to learn some notes). I did a concert once without the overture because even with over a year’s lead time, the organization didn't order the part until after the first rehearsal. I've also walked into the first rehearsal of a 3-hour work, with lots of thick 20th-century harmonies and large sections written seven flats – only to see the organization’s librarian distributing the “rush ordered” parts; this with 10 month’s preparation time.

Acquiring music is simple – pick up the phone and call Performers Music and tell them what you need. Being the conscientious professionals they are, they will ask you “When do you need this?” Please be prepared with an answer.

Sheet music brings up the world of Editions. I once conducted a concert with an amazing array of editions. I was instructed to use a Schirmer score. Indeed the musicians were given the Schirmer parts, but the concertmaster stuck to a personal copy of the Watkins-Shaw – as this was marked with familiar bowings. The contractor, however, had booked musicians based on the instrumentation of yet another edition. The harpsichordist had a Kalmus edition and I have no clue what the singers used. Nonetheless, we all smiled and performed wonderfully despite just a brief 1 ½ hour rehearsal prior to the performance. After all, the quality of the product reflects directly on my reputation, not the librarian’s.

Seating seems to be another difficult issue for organization’s to grasp. Once, a production group thought it would be perfectly fine if the players sat on those half-sized kindergarten chairs. All the better for the musicians to sit lower and be less visible – to leave a clear view of the events unfolding on stage behind.  Sorry to be a diva, but – “No.”

This reminds me of a performance where I conducted with viola players on my left, the concertmaster and friends on the right, and the soloists above and behind me.

Please don’t remind me of the time I helped carry the timpani up and down a spiral staircase.

One group saw no reason why players couldn’t leave their cases and belongings in the back of the auditorium, rather than securely backstage. Again, sorry but, “No.” (Some instrument cases themselves cost more than what you’re paying the musicians!)

Lighting is frequently over looked, too. I’ve been in more than one production where the house lights are lowered and the show awaits the start of the music from the orchestra - now suddenly sitting in complete darkness.

Perhaps some colleagues will remember an infamous conducting workshop where the players all huddled under one chandelier in the middle of a ballroom – and of course sight-read a work for which we paid for the privilege to conduct for seven very expensive minutes. (I bet the music was rushed over-night, too.)

Rehearsals tend to get chaotic treatment, too. I would ask organizations to respect rehearsal time. I was once told to “keep it down” during a rehearsal because of a media interview going on simultaneously at the back of the hall.

How many of my colleagues have gone into a performance without ever playing a production top to bottom? (Yes, conductors can bring this on themselves if they micromanage rehearsals or mismanage rehearsal time, but I’m talking about a lack of rehearsals, period.) I once did a production for a company that scheduled zero rehearsals focused solely on the music. (These sorts of musically repulsive experiences receive little or no mention on my resume.)  Unfortunately musicians, conductors, and composers – the care-takers of music - will be labeled whining divas if we speak out.

Organizational behavior is so dumbfounding sometimes, too. I once worked with a group which needed to book a four-player ensemble, yet managed to sign-on five players. Apparently there was confusion as to who played what. (The pathetic part is that player’s email address contained the name of the instrument.) Of course that one player was “released” the day of the first rehearsal - without compensation. (The player had also cleared their schedule for the weeks ahead because of the contracted gig, and now had no work lined up.)

If booking players is difficult for your organization, I highly recommend for folks in the Chicago area you contact Judy Davis at Klatt Employment Service.She actively scouts out new players, screens and matches suitable players to gigs.

And once you’ve booked a player, please remember to pay them.  Funny how checks are “forgotten.”

Once I worked with a group where the program included the music of a living, award-winning composer. The composer provided all the sheet music and even traveled across country to the venue and provided commentary at the concert - all at their own expense. When I inquired about the organization’s compensation for the composer, my query was met with incomprehension. Why should a composer be paid? (This was a lack of will, not funds) I suggested a nominal ‘honorarium’ would at least be a gracious and appropriately professional gesture. They did indeed then provide the composer with an honorarium – deducting the money from my own pay.

There is also the scenario of being booked to conduct a performance involving fully-paid union players – and due to these costs, therefore being asked to donate my services.

Why is it that every group, no matter the size, seems to have its one player with special needs? Such as the player whose music - always in single sheets - covers the floor like run-away dandruff? I once had to stop and restart a masterclass performance because of music falling – literally - into disarray. (So after the event, instead of being consumed with musical excitement the first question out an audience member’s mouth was, “Why don’t musicians ever have their music bound?”) There are businesses out there that can help you with this issue, too.

Of course, I've dealt with players who ignore my baton completely and bolt off on their own. With this behavior I’m never quite sure if it incompetence, psychological imbalances, or intentional sabotage.

I once had a concert master who decided they (trying to remain gender ambiguous!) knew best how the soloist (a good friend/colleague of mine) wanted the piece to go. The string players followed the concertmaster; the winds of course followed the visible baton. I wish I could have responded truthfully to the local critic’s comment about ‘ensemble problems.’

Once in an audition I conducted the opening of a piece with broad string chords. All but one principal player cut off the notes as I designated. The one player repeatedly held the note (รก la solo) as long as desired. I started again, using overly exaggerated gestures. Still the one player continued playing at whim. This was an interesting scenario - the section players ignoring their leader and the leader ignoring the conductor. I gladly walked away from this group; there were obviously some entangled psychological issues in their ensemble.

Once I auditioned with a group where none of the string players looked up. I even got a bit sassy and crouched in front of the players’ stand, peering over as if to say “gichy-gichy-goo” –seeing if a tickling gesture might crack a look or two. Nothing. Some major dysfunctional behavior brewing here!

Another audition – for an assistant position - had an odd process which involved hearing and dictation tests, as well as playing the 2nd clarinet part of a Brahms symphony at the piano. After the second-round cuts, a group of us rejected conductors gathered on a sidewalk cafe for drinks and commiseration. Soon our attention was drawn to noise coming from the sidewalk a half a block away. We turned to see the very Maestro who had just put us through a strange audition and dismissed us - having a full-blown kindergarten-style tizzy fit - complete with jumping up and down, and whining. We all turned back and looked at each other speechless. And then we raised our glasses for a toast. We were the lucky ones.

It is unfortunately rather typical for organizations to send out casual ‘Dear John’ letters as emails when they cut candidates from the application process. Once, even as a semi-finalist and having gone through an interview and extensive discussions over sample materials for the group, I was notified along with the other four (yes, 4) candidates being cut via a generic “dear candidate” email sent to us - with all of us copied (not blind copied) on the same email.

I think conductors have grown tired of the sloppy behavior of sending out causal email dismissals, especially when making the tasteless error of copying – rather than blind copying - everyone. I know of one instance where the conductors – a good list of 50-some conductors - enjoyed a volley of “reply all” - consoling colleagues and then also conjecturing whether there might be an administrative position opening soon (that of the poor soul who sent out the email!).

I admit music making is a complex team sport. We have our organizational growing pains and with luck learn from them. Yet, I’m concerned that there is very little pressure on groups or people to improve their behavior.

An organization can treat one group of players, conductors, composers, poorly knowing there will always be another new group willing to sign on.

We are also a very highly-motivated group of employees because our name is attached to the product. We will squeeze music out of a bad scenario, inadvertently making your organization look better than it’s justified to look.

So-called free-market forces hold little sway in the non-profit world. When a non-profit closes few consider it due to a shoddy product, being an unethical employer, or simply being inept.

Too often a ‘successful non-profit’ is synonymous solely with healthy finances and none of the other aspects of running a ‘business.’ The world easily remains unaware of the organizational behaviors and ineptitude - because we can’t blog about it!

Perhaps you'd like to share your stories?

***Before any person, organization, group, or entity becomes offended that I have “outed” their incompetencies, please note, I have given no dates, times, location, country, genre, or even gender. Only you, in your head, would know I was speaking of your group. I know too, but I’m keeping my distance: you’re probably not even mentioned on my resume.