Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Little girly gesture language

I sang, at one point, for a (long-term substitute) conductor who did a lot of talking about how our choir needed to learn his "gesture language" if we were to follow him correctly. Every rehearsal, he used that phrase at least once, often accompanied by a sort of wilted clawing motion of his right hand. It became something of a running joke in the alto section; after all, isn't it HIS job to make himself clear? If he's not getting what he wants, shouldn't he try something else? As a conductor-in-training at that time, I was skeptical of what I perceived to be a rather whiny approach to the ensemble and a too-narrow conducting "dialect" on his part. Shouldn't the conductor model, insofar as is possible, the geist of the music on the page, so that the singers may then do the same?

Well, yes. But.

Also, at various points in my career, I have sung for a few "colorful" (read "temperamental, sometimes downright abusive") conductors. You know the stereotype--hollering, baton-throwing, blaming the ensemble for not achieving his (yes, his) superior interpretive vision. Some of these guys were truly visionary; some were just socially impaired and/or insecure. All of them got in the way of my participation and enjoyment as a singer, to varying degrees.

For the most part, now that I've conducted a number of different groups myself, I still think it's true that the conductor bears most of the responsibility for communicating interpretation and vision clearly and succinctly. If my choirs don't get what I'm asking of them, I think it's incumbent upon me to take a fresh approach. Sometimes that involves watching myself conduct a passage several different ways in the mirror. Sometimes it involves finding the right metaphor. Sometimes it's a question of vocal technique. And sometimes--heresy of heresies--it means asking them what they see/hear, and altering my own vision in a more collaborative direction.

When I was in grad school, I decided that I would spend my career finding out if it's possible to make really terrific music with people without turning into a tyrant. Because I believe that it's my job to engage people in the music making, but maybe it's not my job to have all the answers. I've got more training and spend more time thinking about the music than most (not all) of my singers; however, they are bright and talented and insightful, and I'd be stupid not to take that seriously. Does this make me, as Hans und Franz might say, a "little girly conductor?"

Because this is not how most musical ensembles operate. We are used to the sometimes-benevolent dictatorship model. What the conductor says, goes. Period.

Much of the time, this is a practical, time-saving teaching model (as the conductor has completed years of training, analyzed the musical score, thought through interpretation and technique, etc.); however, in order to maintain a healthy relationship, conductors and ensembles need to be open to one another, to really see and hear one another.

There are two main obstacles that prevent this open communication. One is the "conductor's ego as group's raison d'etre" situation I've already mentioned, in which the conductor can't see the ensemble as anything other than a means to an end. The other unhealthy situation arises when the ensemble refuses to really hear what the conductor is saying, for any of a variety of reasons. Orchestral conductor Marin Alsop describes one such dilemma:

When a woman makes a gesture,
the same gesture as a man,
it's interpreted entirely differently.
The thing I struggled with the most
was getting a big sound from the brass
because you really have to be strong.
But if you're too strong,
you're a b-i-t-c-h.

As a woman,
you have to be careful that it's not too harsh.

It's a subtle line.

Marin Alsop, to Barbara Kantrowicz of Newsweek

There is truth in this statement. I have experienced this from a couple of different angles; first, the one that Maestra Alsop mentions. Directness looks to some singers like anger...especially in the world of "Minnesota Nice." However, the converse is also true. If I operate from a less aggressive, more collaborative framework, it has sometimes been treated as a sign of weakness. And, based on many musicians' previous experience, no wonder:

Conductors have for so long been promoted
as imposing, larger than life,
acceptably aggressive personalities
who bend orchestras to their will
and to whom musicians submit in reverence and terror.

--as observed by Anna Hodgson, Contemporary Review

Hodgson really wrote an interesting article on the dearth of women orchestral conductors, BTW.

I really don't see "reverence and terror" as a useful model of musical leadership...and CERTAINLY not of ministry. I'd like to propose an alternative--that conductors and singers should do two things:
  • commit to doing everything they can to bring to life what's on the page in front of them, and
  • treat one another with respect.
I think it looks something like this:

I promise to

  • prepare for rehearsal and share what I know
  • engage my Inner Diagnostician
  • offer music that's worth doing and skill-appropriate
  • start and end rehearsal on time
  • not yell at or embarrass people
  • admit when I'm wrong
  • make our work together as inspiring and fun as I can, which is my way of saying "thank you" for their work and bravery and creativity and time.
In return, I want my singers to
  • come to rehearsal on time
  • trust that I'm trying to bring out their best as musicians
  • take care of their voice and use it well
  • have a pencil and use it!
  • be brave and willing to try something new
  • ask thoughtful, economical questions
  • have a sense of humor about what we're doing, tempered with a bit of wonder.
I want them to really engage with the music. And I want them to not care about my gender, sexual orientation, race, age and the fact that I prefer jeans to skirts. And--this is a big one--if something is wrong, or if they have a helpful idea, I want them to be able to approach me about it, without the slightest fear that I'll throw a baton at them.

My experience teaches me that this model bears much more fruit than an arena of drama. I've been blessed to conduct some delightful groups, made up of wonderful human beings. When I'm on that podium, I don't think the experience should be about whether or not I'm a "girly" conductor. It should be about bringing to life the music on the page in front of us. My "gesture language" is only one means to that end...not even the most important one. My ears (and theirs) are another, as well as our minds. And, most importantly, the full, joyous, brave participation of my singers.

If all of that is working, we can lift right off the floor together.


Cecilia said...

These are all things that make for good pastors, too (imho): being prepared and sharing my knowledge, engaging my inner diagnostician, offer (programming? hymns? bible studies? sermons?) that are worth taking seriously, whatever the congregation brings to them; respect people's time; not yell at or embarrass people; admit when I'm wrong; make our work together as fun as I can.... yep. I agree with all those.

Has anyone ever suggested to you that you'd make a good pastor?

(Ducking, running).

Pax, C.

nhmsrory said...

I don't know if I'm allowed to comment here; mainly I've just been following the discourse.
The first time I witnessed the writer conducting I remarked to my wife (in a TOTALLY non-sexist manner) that she conducted like a man! (Hope I didn't step in it!)
I mean, by this, that there was not the over-compensation that I have seen in most women conductors. I believe the over-compensation is due, not to gender matters, but limb size and proportion. For a woman of average size to gesture in the dramatic, sweeping visuals that we are used to, a certain amount of overcompensation (and thus, distraction from the meaning of the gesture) is necessitated. I don't think the over-compensation is necessary, and often I think it might be a mental compensation in fact, masked as a physical compensation.
Is it possible that the superior woman conductor hangs up her gender at the entrance to the rehearsal space, communes with the music and her "instrument", and engages them such that they watch for the physical cues they expect. Body language it is, and it need not be taught. Body language of the conductor is bonded with the music, and as such, it brings the ensemble into the conceptual world of the conductor.

Choralgirl said...

Of COURSE you're welcome to comment! :-)

Ooo...lots of food for thought there--thank you!

Mary Beth said...

Great stuff. I'd love to sing for you.

liz garnett said...

Did you see David Griggs-Janower's post this week? (Link: http://blogs.timesunion.com/albanypromusica/?p=343#comment-520) I find it really interesting to see two conductors in the same week both arguing in favour of a collaborative rather than dictatorial relationship between conductor and ensemble. Anyway, I hope you find it encouraging to see male conductors supporting your agenda without belittling it as overly feminine!

Choralgirl said...

Just read it, Liz--thanks! That was terrific!

CurrentConductor said...

What a great post - thank you for writing it! I think I will come back to your list of promises and expectations every so often to check in with myself as a conductor and see how I'm doing.

I have to take issue with nhmsrory's comment, though! I wrote a post about it at my own blog here.

nhmsrory said...

What Are Conductors Made Of?

• A conductor’s soul must be music.
• A conductor must have communication skills that embody the orator, or the poet.
• A conductor must have a personality that embodies the qualities of “charisma”.

Some might say that a conductor must project “authority”; I contend that any authority ascribed to great conductors comes from the above three qualities only.
None of the above qualities require a gender (or a racial) identity. The idea that a conductor should “leave their gender” at the door of the rehearsal room does not abrogate the gender of the conductor; it’s merely that the gender is irrelevant, and probably a distraction from the rehearsal.
This is not to say that those hiring conductors don’t have confused ideas of what qualities are needed for a conductor. These hiring authorities are just people, with the biases and faulty perceptions of people. Mostly, these boards of directors are not musicians. Unfortunately they do make the decisions. The task of prospective conductors, regardless of gender or race, is to project the soul of music, the communication skills of the orator, and the charisma that leaves boards of directors drawn to them.
Lacking the three qualities, a conductor might have a less than stellar career. Some might acknowledge their lack of the three qualities; and some might ascribe their lot to gender bias, racial bias, or any number of tangential and irrelevant things. It seems counterproductive for a conductor to be focused on anything other than the qualities and skills required to be effective in their job. No one likes unfair bias, but it exists. We choose what we want to be our essence; we can choose an essence of music, or the essence of a freedom-fighter. Our lives aren’t long enough to do both.
Hopefully you’ll be able to smile at a little poke; a dose of sexism to make the hair of both genders curl.

What Are Little Boys Made Of?

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails,
And that are little boys made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice,
And that are little girls made of.

What are young men made of?
What are young men made of?
Sighs and leers, and crocodile tears,
And that are young men made of.

What are young women made of?
What are young women made of?
Ribbons and laces, and sweet pretty faces,
And that are young women made of.

Original poem by Robert Southey

Choralgirl said...

(giggle) That's me, all ribbons & laces! :-)

"We choose what we want to be our essence; we can choose an essence of music, or the essence of a freedom-fighter."

I like that. It's empowering to any conductor.

And I think it's mostly true-and that freedom fighters are sort of the "first wave" of any new group trying to break down a prejudice of any kind. I'm a generation or two down the road from that first wave, and so have more choices about "essence" than my predecessors did. I also think that freedom fighters are sprinters within the context of a given community; I'm more interested in the marathon, which requires and allows a richer, more subtle field of interaction.

Thanks for this!

liz garnett said...

Hi, me again. Just thought you might like to know that I've been writing about this thought-provoking discussion too. Link: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/?q=gendergesture


Janet G. said...

Thank you so much! Much food for thought. It's good to know there are other women conductors struggling with these issues.