on conducting: getting paid to be a spaz

We may have to institute a rule for this blog that says we are not allowed to begin any post with apologies or excuses for time lapsed since last post, especially if it involves some lament about the busyness of our lives, because that’s just an incredibly boring and predictable way to begin a post.  It’s the blogging equivalent of “hey, this is some weather, huh?”

But there is no rule yet, so let me just say that November has been a busy month.  Two weekends ago we had our fall concerts, in which both student choirs sang.  This past weekend was the Christmas chapel, in which all the choirs sang, sometimes at the same time, and which I (abe) had a major hand in planning/coordinating.  As music teachers, we don’t have a lot of finals to give, so the busiest part of our season has just passed and now we begin the work of catching up on administrative and personal details that fell by the wayside during the rush of the past couple weeks.

This semester has been a fun ride, though.  Some days the kids drive you dotty (as the Brits like to say) and other days they are surprisingly sweet or insightful.  But regardless, I nearly always enjoy working with the choirs.  In my old job I had occasional conducting responsibilities and I wondered if I would tire of doing it if I had to do it every day.  As it turns out, the deeper I get, the more I love it.

Those of you who know me well know that I’m what Meyers and Briggs would call a “P”.  I see shades of gray instead of black or white, possibilities rather than certainties, and I tend to speak in abstract terms.  This is part of what makes me a good artist but a bad administrator and it helps explain why the dark art of conducting is so endlessly fascinating: it can’t be codified, quantified or even properly described with words.  When I took classes in conducting, the professors never actually told us how to do it.  They demonstrated various beat patterns, showed how to breathe, and made us practice hand independence.  But conducting is like cooking and these are just ingredients.  They could never tell us just how to mix them to create a satisfying dish.  Nor did they shed any light on tangible differences between good conducting and bad conducting, other than the final product.  Ultimately the proof is in the pudding.  Good conducting was spoken about the way Potter Stewart described obscenity in that famous Supreme Court case: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

For our non-maestro readers, I’ve compiled a few fun, yet puzzling facts about conducting:

-Did you know that Robert Shaw (the preeminent choral conductor of the 20th      century) had bad stick technique?

-Beginner conductors adhere closely to specific beat patterns.  Maestros, on the other hand, usually bear little resemblance to beat patterns or classic conducting technique.   Watch Bernstein and tell me what “beat pattern” he’s showing us.  It’s more like spastic interpretive dance.

-Did you know that professional orchestras habitually play well behind the conductor’s beat, while a beginner band plays on the beat?  In fact, you can often tell how experienced an ensemble is by how far behind the beat they play.

We were fortunate to have artist-in-residence Vance George with us through the concert season.  He taught music at Woodstock in the 60’s and then went on to a successful career which culminated in a 23-year stint as the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.  Along the way, he won 4 Grammys, 1 Emmy and directed the choirs you hear singing in Amadeus and Godfather III.  With credentials like these, I promptly assigned him to work with our largely tone-deaf and unruly middle school choir to see if he could get them to simply sing unison in tune.  (answer: he could not.  he’s a world-class conductor, not a magician.)  However, he was very helpful with the high school and staff choirs, both in that I got to observe him work and the students learned that, relatively speaking, Mr. Okie is not so mean after all.

That’s mostly a joke.  Vance was very fair, yet demanding of them, and that’s helpful at a place like Woodstock where choral art is not so highly regarded in many of the cultures the students represent.  The kids are slowly realizing the potential of what a disciplined, musical choir can do.  They still have a long way to go, but they are much improved from the beginning of the semester.  You can hear their progress here on one of their favorites, Riu Riu Chiu:

Here’s the staff choir, under my direction, with Mr. George singing bass, on Joubert’s There is No Rose:

Lastly, while we’re on the subject of roses, here is bethraham singing a version of Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.


About bethraham

i blog.
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2 Responses to on conducting: getting paid to be a spaz

  1. ellen says:

    i need to learn how to blog audio files from you! abe, you are such a good writer…sounds like you are learning so much about yourselves. bethany, you sound so beautiful on lo how a rose (one of my absolute favorite Christmas hymns). can’t wait to see you soon!!!

  2. Pingback: on conducting: getting paid to flirt with the strings | doesn't fit in a suitcase

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