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.


Amanda Winger said...

Hi Kim. Enjoyed this post. I agree with your stance. I wonder what alternative you would propose to search committees. Narrowing down the search from a pile of 100+ applications is a daunting task. Unfortunately videos/resumes seem to be the way but as you describe this is just scratching the surface of who a conductor is and what they might bring to an orchestra. What's the alternative though?

Maestra Kim Diehnelt said...

Amanda, thanks for reading and asking.

I’d love to sit down with member/s of orchestral management and put out on the table the all contingencies and goals related to each side. Then, look for ways to re-assemble and re-direct the process within this framework.

The biggest aspect I see influencing an organization’s decision process is their huge insecurity in knowing they are making the right choice. The process has become over-engineered with exact check lists to ensure that at the end of the day all can feel confident the ‘right candidate’ has been chosen.

This is understandable, conducting is an elusive art and difficult to quantify. Further, the quality of a future relation is even more intangible.

In this way, I tend to see the process a bit like dating and have posted a “personal ad” for a hypothetical “Orchestra-Match.com”.


I realize that by doing so I bucked the system completely --- like a politician taking a political stand on an issue before the poll results come out. I probably lose job offers because of this, but then I’d prefer working with a group on genuine grounds - rather than by making the correct pose.

I sense there are ways forward in this ‘dating process’ that neither side has considered yet. Count me in for any future forums on this topic.