Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lead On

When I finally settled on music education as my degree path, I walked into it full of hope and bravado and high expectations. Of course, it proved to be a difficult degree--contrary to popular belief, music majors don't sit around strumming guitars and having sing-alongs all the time. We worked a lot of long hours for volatile professors who felt that choir/band/theory/ear training/whatever music class was the most important class we would ever take in our degree program, and oh, you have General Ed requirements, too? Psh. Whatever.

I had some incredible professors, but I also had a few who, looking back, were not entirely professional in how they dealt with us. The fallout from some of my experiences at Chico has lasted many years.

I took my first conducting course as a junior--a highly stressed junior who was dealing with a bad situation at home (roommates, oy!) and looking forward to the next semester, which I would spend in London. I did pretty well in the class, and the professor was pretty good. I figured I'd eventually take Advanced conducting with him, but alas, by the end of that year, he had moved on to greener pastures, and I ended up taking the advanced course in my second senior year. The class was offered in my last semester, as I prepared for my senior recital, helped throw a bridal shower for my soon-to-be sister-in-law, and then attended the wedding in the weekend before finals.

All of this would have been stressful, but I'm sure I could have handled it, if not for Dr. T's madcap style of teaching. Dr. T is a knowledgeable and fun guy, but his teaching style could be lacking--when adult students leave your class in tears, it might be time to rethink how you approach correcting their mistakes.

It was nerve-wracking and somewhat terrifying to face one assignment in particular--conducting the Wind Ensemble. This group was comprised of music majors who are used to excellent conducting, and, of course, they were our peers. I'd rather stand up and learn how to conduct in front of the New York Philharmonic than my own university classmates, any day. Imagine my alarm, then, when I made what Dr. T perceived to be a mistake in conducting, and he jumped out of his chair, rushed the podium, and grabbed my arm to forcefully jerk it through the "correct" way of conducting that particular passage.

I have hated conducting ever since, and every group I've ever worked with has known it, whether I've told them or not.

But I've learned a few things since college, through observation, life experience, and through participating in various choral groups. One particular lesson stands out: no two conductors I've worked with have conducted the same way. Some conductors are grandiose and showy, others subtle and restrained. Some connect fully with the ensemble they are leading, and others remain somewhat detached. Just as each conductor has brought his or her own personality to the leading of rehearsals, they have also brought it to their conducting style...but the music has never suffered for it.

As I have settled into my role of choir director the last couple of months, I've breathed a sigh of relief when giving my students songs that can be sung to a CD. "Ah," I think to myself. "That's me off the hook, then." But I can't escape conducting for long, and I don't really even want to. So I'm working on my confidence, thinking more about how I want to communicate with my choir when I'm leading them with just my hands and facial expressions. I'm realizing that Dr. T's strong, fierce personality and his matching style of conducting are absolutely wrong for me...and that it's okay to do things the "wrong" way, because I get the results I want from my students. Isn't that doing it the right way after all?

A few weeks ago, I sheepishly told my students why I get nervous about conducting. I kept it simple: "Look, I had a professor who would come up and grab our arms and yell, 'No, do it this way!!" I heard shocked gasps from the choir, so I went on. "A dear friend of mine once left the class in tears, she was so frustrated and embarrassed by him...needless to say, it affected how I feel about conducting for a long time. But I'm going to learn, and get better, working with you."

This was met with smiles, and, from one girl in the alto section, "You've got conducting PTSD!"

Today, we started a new song--a gorgeous jazzy arrangement of "Winter Wonderland"--and there was some confusion, at first, from the students because the very beginning of the song moves slowly before settling into a faster tempo. They got the harmonies quickly enough, after some sectional rehearsal, so I stood at my conductor's stand and started moving my right hand in a simple 4/4 pattern.

I noticed right away that they struggled to know when to change notes on the longer chords, so I began improvising my own conducting, showing them exactly where the note changes happen, feeling, for the first time ever in my conducting adventures, like I was actually coordinated and able.

Maybe I can finally vanquish the old fear, that old feeling of "I can't."

Hell yeah I can.

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