Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Conducting lab

Into the third week. Yesterday was my first fully-scheduled Monday. This is because on Friday, I found out that I got into the Westminster Choir. Yippee! The Westminster Choir is currently the elite chorus on campus. I say currently b/c two new groups just started up this year, the Williamson Voices led by James Jordan, which is doing a lot of premieres, and Kantorei led by Dr. Megill, which specializes in Renaissance music. I have friends in both groups, and I hear they are both sounding fabulous, so there soon may be 3 elite choruses on campus. Or more...Jubilee Singers promises to be an experience entirely unlike the others, and I think in a very good way.

So perhaps it would be best to say that Westminster Choir currently gets some of the best gigs. ;) I will be singing Handel's Messiah with the New York Philharmonic this December, and best of all, the Westminster Choir goes to the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina every year from mid-May to mid-June, and gets paid to be the chorus for all the operas that are staged. So that should be fantastic. Don Giovanni, here I come!

Despite yesterday being a long day (Westminster Choir meets from 4:30 - 6:00 pm on MWF, so I had an extra hour and a half of rehearsal before Jubilee Singers began) today was much more exhausting, and it was all due to conducting lab. Conducting lab is a part of Conducting I, but it meets only once a week, on Tuesdays, and the point is to work on how you teach a piece, rather than how you conduct it (teaching methods versus conducting methods and gesture work.) Since there are about 10 people in the class, two people go each week, and they have half an hour each, and everyone goes up about once every month and a half. The class format is not much different from Conducting I (although in Conducting I, people usually get in the hot seat for in 10-minute chunks, and everyone goes once a week.) But for me, the lab was a very different experience.

I used Weep, O Mine Eyes by Bennet as my piece, b/c I love it so much. However, I remember having problems with this piece when I conducted it for the Elizabethans, and it seems I still have massive work to do. First of all, I started out trying to listen...so I stared at the music for the entire first read-through. I did this for a very concrete reason. I did this b/c Prof. Marvin at Harvard, w/ whom I audited a conducting class about two years ago, said, "On the first read-through, look at the music, so that you can tell if something goes wrong." It made great sense at the time (I found Prof. Marvin to generally be a man of emminent sense as well as good humor.) However, this proved to be not so good in this situation for several reasons. First of all, the conductors at Westminster are all such good sight-readers that they don't make mistakes that often. Secondly, I know the piece well enough that I don't need to be looking down to catch the mistakes. Thirdly, and most importantly, it meant I cut myself off from the singers, and the sound that came out was timid. The other problem was that I was listening for mistakes...whereas I should have been listening for the music. Listening in a negative way, for negative things, means they will happen, and listening for positive things, like the music, means that will happen. It's amazing what can happen if you just expect it to.

So they worked on getting me to look up...on getting me to make gestures to bring people in, to get them to sing, on expressing the line more with my arms...all things about making me be more giving to the chorus, and more concerned with inviting them to sing well. Now, this is all the sort of stuff that we also work on in Conducting I class, on Mondays and Wednesdays, so I thought I would be prepared. But for some reason, the half-hour session left me feeling like a wrung-out washcloth, and very much wanting to cry. I've discovered over the past few years that I may feel like crying not because I'm necessarily sad or angry, but just because...well, I'm not sure! I wasn't sure today! Too much emotion? What was the emotion? Inadequacy? Insecurity? Learning? Can simply learning make you want to cry? I know I did improve immensely over the half hour, though I wished at the end of it that I had started out doing all the things we worked on right so we could have worked on other things and I could have made more progress, b/c I feel like all this is stuff I should know. I think this overwhelmed crying feeling has happened before in lessons, come to think of it...

Prof. Jordan has written a lot of books, and I began to read one (before I got side-tracked by the Brother Cadfael mystery series.) In it he talked about vulnerability, and how it's an absolutely essential quality for a conductor. I wonder if that is related to this? Perhaps what I am feeling is exposed. And exposure is not a negative feeling, which is why I may be confused, but it can still be very emotional. Learning is very exposing. Perhaps that is why it comes up when I'm on the spot in learning situations - being exposed shakes me up and makes me feel like crying. I'll go with that theory for now.

Side note: This reminds me of the fact that my body will often register emotions that I'm not conscious of feeling. The most common one is getting shivers while singing in a chorus, or directing. I am not aware of hearing anything particularly more beautiful at that moment, but if I get goosebumps, I know something good has just happened. I think it happened for the first time when I sang the Brahm's Requiem at Williams.

Anyways. It was quite an exhausting day. Too bad I still have so much homework to do.


  1. Can simply learning make you want to cry?Yes -- absolutely yes!

    Lately I'm trying to learn to just let the tears happen if they need to, without judging myself for the emotional outburst. Harder than it sounds. :-)

    I'm envious that you get to sing Handel's Messiah w/ the NY Philharmonic -- that sounds like such fun.

  2. Ah, except that one can't really cry when one is conducting! Tisn't done. :)