Lean back when you want something.
When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the idea of lucid dreams. In a lucid dream, you are aware that you are dreaming; you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it, and can even exert a certain degree of control.
Most of us have had this experience once or twice. I spent quite a lot of time reading about the phenomenon, and trying various techniques to induce this state of lucidity. I enjoyed moderate success, inducing a few such dreams over a couple of months, during which I had immersed myself in the lucid dreaming world (then confined to a few self-help volumes and some old-school internet fora). In fact, the only reason I stopped is that I was becoming too tired, from waking up constantly after vivid dreams.
What unlocked the latent ability to induce waking dreams during that time was the use of simple mantras, along with conditioning certain repeated patterns of behaviour.
For example, one book encouraged the prospective oneironaut to get into the habit of poking the finger of one hand into the palm of the other, as if testing its consistency. One did this at various times during the day, with the goal being that the subconscious mind would do it too, in a dream, prompting one to become aware of the dream-state. The first time it worked for me, my hand remained perfectly solid, but I found one of the fingers had tied itself into a knot – a giveaway that I was not in fact awake, but dreaming.
The mantra worked more simply: repeating the phrase ‘I will remember my dreams. I will become aware that I am dreaming’ or a variation on it, over and over, before going to sleep.
I recently had an opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of mantras and habitual physical behaviours. I had gone to conduct a rehearsal – my first after several weeks of lockdown-enforced inactivity – buzzing with enthusiasm. I thought of the choir, what it would sound like, the music, what I could do with it. I was excited.
In the event, my running of the rehearsal was mediocre, and my conducting execrable. It became apparent to me that I had ‘forgotten how to conduct’ in the previous few weeks.
Now, this is not to say it would have been noticeable to the singers, who were far too busy exercising dormant singing muscles, huddling against the chill, and straining their eyes to sight-read in the semi-gloom of the rehearsal space. But when you know, you know. My posture was all over the place; I spoke, too often and in rushed fragments, and practically fell over myself at some points. My gestures were wild, unpredictable, my habitual ellipse a deranged parallelogram. I was a mess.
I returned home despondent, questioning everything. How could I have forgotten everything so easily? Did it really only take a month off for all of my discipline to leave me?
Next time, on the train to the rehearsal, I decided to take a different tack. I remembered some words I had been told, and they stayed there, hanging in my mind for a few minutes: lean back when you want something. This is not the title of a self-help book – though it could have been – but a very good piece of advice from a very good conducting teacher. It was originally a corrective to a classic problem of mine, which I would describe as an inability to separate an inner musical impulse from an unhelpful exterior mannerism. It usually manifested in a strange forward motion accompanying something I wanted to happen – a stress, an accent, a particular effect.
I held it in my mind for a while, repeating it a few times, and felt my body relax from a tension I didn’t even know had been there. Later, in the rehearsal, I had regained the control of myself that I had lacked on the previous occasion. I felt the return of the elusive, tingly spidey-sense of heightened awareness that accompanies listening, really listening to what was around me.
Let’s return to my earlier description of a lucid dream: ‘you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it and can even exert a certain degree of control.’
The rehearsal room is the dream-state: an unreal experience in which a number of people stare at you and expect you to lead or guide them. The only difference is that in the real thing you are normally permitted to remain clothed. Sometimes it’s a nightmare, in which nothing goes right no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it merely has the uneasy feeling of uncontrol that comes with a meandering dream.
My brief use of a calming mantra generated a physical response, which triggered in the rehearsal. When I wanted something – ensemble, diminuendo, rubato, breath – I leaned back. The situation was still unreal, but I was at peace with it, and I had regained a little control – over myself at least.
Again, probably noone else in the room detected anything. That universal and seemingly unlikely truth – that nobody is really thinking about you as much as you think they are – holds just as true for the conductor as anyone else. I don’t imagine anyone else noticed the small adjustment. But when you know, you know.
If I were in the business of coining terminology – like Mark Gibson, whose conducting tome I explored earlier – I would probably be trying to make lucid conducting happen right now. Good physical habits and mantras triggering subconsciously, to calm the mind and render the bizarre world of the rehearsal or concert hall less alien and more manageable. An induced state of flow, the conductor’s Witcher-sense, deep listening as opposed to surface-level fire-fighting.
Lean back when you want something. Perhaps we can come up with some other good conducting mantras. Small hands, big listening. Or maybe simply Breathe.