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.