One of the advantages of being half classical musician, half tech nerd is that I’ve actively enjoyed being forced to grapple with new technologies as a result of the pandemic. In order to keep doing some version of what we do, musicians have adapted to make use of video-conferencing, audio recording, and pretty much anything else we can get our hands on. I’m now the proud owner of a fancy webcam, various peripherals, and a ring light apparently designed for make-up tutorials (a potential side-hustle I will consider carefully).
Even before the pandemic, though, I had been thinking about going ‘paperless’, or something approaching it. Environmental reasons aside, I live in London now, and most of my scores are stowed in an attic. I don’t own a printer; keeping it stocked with ink (expensive) or paper (wasteful) would be a pain.
For most of my life, going paperless hasn’t been a viable option. The technology and hardware either haven’t existed or haven’t been cost-effective. Now, it seems, the tide may have turned. In this blog, I’m going to detail my experiences with going paperless, and how it’s turned out.
Tablet: iPad Pro 12.9in
I was advised by friends to go for the biggest screen possible – anything smaller than A4 doesn’t allow you to display enough of a score to work from. This led to the eventual purchase of a 12.9in iPad Pro 2020 – together with the most expensive pencil I have ever bought, the Apple Pencil 2. I decided it was worth doing it properly – and after all, as a professional tool, at least part of it will be claimable against my taxes this year.
Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Windows advocate, I have to admit that Apple make a really good product. It’s quick, sturdy, and it looks professional, especially in the natty case I purchased for it. Apple fans tend to say ‘it just works!’ and, even though my customary response is ‘where’s the fun in that?’, it does indeed just work.
Score-reading app: ForScore
There are now a handful of apps for managing and viewing your scores, and a fair amount of variety between them. I’m indebted to the Scoring Notes blog for the thorough review of forScore which convinced me it was the one to go for.
forScore is available to download for a one-off payment of £19.99. It’s a powerful bit of software with a lot going on under the hood, though you don’t need to mess around for too long to figure out its basic functionality.
There’s still a degree of orientation required, and you have to get used to tapping the right part of the screen for what you need, for example to bring up the menu. In other words, it needs a little investment of time to ‘learn’ the software. For the first two or three rehearsals using it, I brought along hard copies just in case I couldn’t negotiate the app quickly enough, but it wasn’t long before I was happily zipping through my digital scores.
There’s no lag between page turns, which was something I had initially worried about – they respond instantaneously to a touch on the relevant side of the screen, in the same manner as Amazon’s Kindle. I’ve found I’m able to turn a page much more quickly – and with a more economical gesture – than when using a physical score, though this is a tradeoff for only being able to view one page of a score at a time.
It’s interesting the difference that this makes. As a conductor, you want to be able to absorb the salient points of a score at a glance, rather than spending all your time with your head down. Arguably, the two-page open layout of a regular physical score would be more useful in this regard. But it’s possible, with practice, to flick rapidly back and forth while conducting, due to the speed of the page-turns.
forScore has a wealth of other features including an onscreen keyboard and a metronome, which I haven’t used a great deal, but are nice to have.
Remember that expensive pencil? Well, it does more than clip to the side of the tablet looking pretty (and charging via induction). forScore’s integration with the Apple Pencil is rather clever, and I’ve quickly grown accustomed to using it for markings.
It’s easy to reach for it, and as soon as you start marking the score, the software puts you into marking mode. This works well, and you can double tap on the Pencil to turn it into an eraser, which, with a little practice, is reasonably intuitive.
My only problem here was with not always remembering to exit marking mode (by clicking the ‘Done’ button) after having replaced the Pencil. As such, when I went to turn the page, I ended up jabbing fruitlessly at a corner before realising the software was still in mark-up mode. It turns out there is a feature buried in Settings which fixes this by automatically exiting mark-up mode after a short delay.
I’ve enjoyed marking up my scores in this new environment. I’m not a big colour-coder, but the potential is there, and it’s reassuring to think that you can scribble all over it and erase it later if you go overboard.
forScore is reasonably good at importing scores from cloud-based services such as Dropbox (which I use) and Google Drive. You can then edit their title and composer information in the metadata as you please.
Here I’ll admit to a tiny bit of frustration. The integration with cloud services such as Dropbox isn’t two-way, and I’d prefer it if my markings on a score could be synchronised to the cloud-saved file. As it is, you have to manually export the score back in order to do this (unless there’s something I’m missing), which is too fiddly to do regularly. As such, I have ended up with two digital copies of a piece: one unadulterated but on the cloud, accessible anywhere on any computer; and one beautifully marked-up, but accessible only on my iPad.
The other quibble concerns the Labels you are able to add to scores, helping you organise them in the digital library. It’s nice being able to give things ‘Tags’, ‘Genres’, and ‘Labels’, but it’s not clear how each are supposed to be different. This is because each field is actually customisable and can be anything you’d like. In practice, though, I find myself getting confused trying to remember whether I’ve decided that ‘Canticle’ or ‘Sacred’ are Genres or Tags, and as such I haven’t really made use of this function.
First, the pros. I can travel light, with one tablet instead of multiple scores. All the music I need for multiple projects is accessible in one place, with all my markings, backed up on the cloud. The device is robust, and using it is a pleasure. I make more markings, and spend more time with my scores, because they’re always right there, just a click away.
That said, it’s not without its drawbacks. One obvious thing that I haven’t mentioned is that in order to make use of it, you need to possess a pdf or scan of the score. This is all very well with music in the public domain, which these days is available on IMSLP or CPDL – but contemporary music is a different story. Publishers have been wary of digital downloads, perhaps waiting for an app which can control permissions, like Amazon’s Kindle. It would be great, for example, to be able to have heavy books such as choral warhorse Carols for Choirs or my Bärenreiter B Minor Mass available in pdf form.
And one more important warning: remember that the iPad itself, while not exactly heavy, is still weighty enough to slide off an insufficiently robust music stand. It’s enough to give you Black Mirror-style cracked-screen nightmares.
These caveats aside, I’m very glad I took the leap. I now find it difficult to imagine my life without the iPad as my primary score-machine. It looks good, it feels good to use, and it does pretty much everything I need it to. I don’t have to worry about printing a lot of music for a one-off gig. Summoning a score I need at the touch of a button – well, it feels like the future.
Also, I can amuse myself by playing its little onscreen keyboard for hours on end. Myself, mind – I doubt anyone else is amused…
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.
It is a truism that conducting can’t be learned from a book. I don’t actually think there are any books out there that purport to be able to teach conducting in complete isolation from actual experience in front of a group of musicians. But I’ve often found books on conducting helpful in clarifying ideas, or untangling tricky concepts both theoretical and practical.
It’s probably also the case that with the relative paucity of conducting time during the pandemic, I’ve been turning to the books occasionally to keep certain concepts fresh in my mind, or to challenge my thinking on various ideas.
So, I’ve decided to make brief notes on a few conducting manuals, drawing out some key quotes, with the aim of distilling some of the insights that I’ve found helpful or interesting, and putting them in one place for ease of referral. And they’re going on this blog in case they’re helpful to anyone else.
It’s been interesting to reflect on the various books about conducting I’ve read over the years. Sometimes I find myself vigorously nodding as page after page illuminates my own experience in ways I hadn’t considered; other times my brow furrows at a concept or illustration that doesn’t make sense to me. There are as many different opinions about what makes good conducting, and good conductors, as there are conductors, musicians, and concert-goers.
I’m starting off with a book that very largely falls into the ‘vigorous nodding’ camp for me, and that’s The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson.
The Beat Stops Here: Lessons on and off the Podium for Today’s Conductor
2017, Oxford University Press
Director of Orchestral Studies at CCM, University of Cincinnati
An experienced teacher and performer, Gibson shares insights honed from years of teaching in the University of Cincinnati’s conducting programme. The book is divided into two, with the first half consisting of intensive studies of particular overtures or movements and workshopping the challenges they present to the conductor. The second half is a more disparate collection of writings on other aspects of conducting, from teaching, to working in particular genres, score study, and more.
(My observations/comments in blue)
Many books begin with physical technique, but for Gibson, score study is more important, and that’s why the book begins with it instead
Gibson describes himself as ‘anti-beating’:
Conducting is as much about waving one’s arms as golf is, which is to say, not as much as people think. Both are highly disciplined kinetic activities whose physical manifestations – a beat, a swing – conceal an abundance of subtle movement, both with the body and the mind. (xi)
Focus on the beat as the principle idea of conducting is reductive and counter-productive. Hence, the beat stops here!
The right equipment for the conducting student is, every day, a score, any score, a pencil, preferably with a good eraser, and a mind that is willing, curious, and relentless. (xiv)
The study of conducting is circuitous; there is no straight line to mastery or success (xiv)
Gibson really doesn’t like beating or the idea that conducting should begin with it – it’s the ‘original sin’ of conducting
Hard not to agree. I was once told that beating time is what conductors had to learn to do in response to music like the Rite of Spring, but that merely beating time is not the same as showing music. Gibson says it can become ‘the death of music-making’ and that ‘beats beget beats’
Words are insufficient to convey what is in music – that’s partly why Gibson tries to avoid the standard words, and looks to invent new terminology related to everyday gestures or images
Score study is of primary importance: the aim is ‘to know in the richest sense of the word, any given work the composer has written’
Only armed with that knowledge and understanding will we then be able to communicate what we know of that work to an ensemble and to an audience, employing our bodies from head to toe to speak a nonverbal language of gesture with style and taste. (xv)
Part 1: Repertoire Lessons
The first part of the book consists of bar-by-bar analyses of movements from various genres of classical music: Overture, Opera, Concert, Larger Symphonic Works, etc.
Opens with Gustav Meier (Gibson’s teacher) quotation:
There are only three things you have to do to be a conductor: Study scores, study scores, and study scores.
Gibson begins with a glossary of his teaching terminology, much of it an amusing or inventive take on a particular gesture or mannerism. I love them all and there is a wealth of useful insight. Here are some selected examples:
Advertising: ‘Many young conductors exaggerate the size of the upbeat; this we call “advertising”‘
Buddha face: ‘Images of the Buddha reveal a calm, knowing visage, engaged but not emotional, open and receptive but not active’. Conductors should emulate this, there’s no need for exaggerated facial motion
Helium hand – ‘an easy, slow, vertical, non-inflected rising of the left arm and hand in preparation for a signal’
‘S/he who lives by the beat, dies by the beat’
Small hand – ‘the bigger the beat, the smaller the listening’
‘Toss the pasta’ – ’round gestures promote connected playing and generate flow’
‘Two adjectives’ – the conducting should communicate the spirit of the work as well as the other necessary information (how loud, soft, fast, or slow). ‘Think of adjectives that accurately describe the spirit of any given passage’
The repertoire studies which follow are brilliantly and sometimes minutely detailed. One needs the score to hand (easy enough with IMSLP) to get the most out of it. It takes the music blow-by-blow, bar-by-bar, explaining the context, highlighting passages which are tricky for the players, drawing analogies to contemporary works or others by the same conductor, and explaining what this means for the conductor.
You very much have the feeling of being with him in his studio as he takes you through his approach. He deals thoroughly with thorny problems – awkward starts, like the upbeat of Mendelssohn’s Die schone Melusine overture – and mixes in general observations clearly drawn from practical performing experience – in the theatre pit, always go strong to the violas!
It’s not for beginners by any stretch – it’s not entry-level stuff. Gibson’s hope expressed in the preface that the book may be of interest to non-musicians wishing to learn more of the conductor’s craft needs to be taken in the light of detailed passages of craft such as: ‘Use your left hand to go from 1st violins straight up to Donna Elvira for her entrance. Don’t shy away from the sfp in bar 4; it should cause a shiver up the spine, both hers and the listener’s, but make sure there is ample bow to sustain the chord its full length.’
It wouldn’t be very helpful for me to summarise this part of the book for ‘notes’ purposes as it’s so minute in detail, and tied to the particular scores. But focussing on these analyses one at a time is a masterclass in the sensitive appraisal of a score and one of the book’s most helpful features.
Part 2: Professional Lessons
Part 2 consists of of a number of articles, some adapted from blog posts, on a variety of subjects from peripheral conducting skills such as building a inner metronome, to management techniques for orchestras and choruses. Here are some things that stuck with me:
‘Not the Eternal Tao: Conducting is ‘the intersection of gesture and pulse’ (175). The focus on giving a ‘clear beat’ is reductive and unhelpful – the orchestra will not simply play more together if you beat more vigorously
You may think the orchestra wants or needs a clear “beat”. Members of the orchestra may even tell you they want one[…]but in my experience, that is not what they mean and not really what they want (176)
The problem with the ‘beat’ as in a singular point of arrival is that, with the exception of percussion, sound in an orchestra or choir doesn’t work that way. A beat can indicate tempo but little else, and doesn’t even need to do that after the upbeat has established the tempo
Musicians can keep tempo by themselves, usually
If you find yourself over-beating (‘beats generate beats’), stop and try and plug into the group’s tempo, to feel the pulse as something organic that arises out of the group’s activity
Left hand should be independent and useful, not contradicting the right or giving the orchestra multiple ‘targets’ – preferably at a different height to avoid the appearance or temptation of mirroring
Mirroring is not uniformly bad, but can leave the right hand with no space to go to across the body
In cathedral music, with the choir on either side of the conductor, it can sometimes be an important tool, if it used as such, ie with intent. If done all the time though, it decreases the variety of tone available to you
The left hand is a crutch, something to do, but it should have intent. If it’s not doing anything, put it away
Vigorous nodding once more (even, perhaps especially, in the knowledge that I use it without intent far too often. I was once taught that the left hand does one of three things: 1) nothing (in which case it is placed by the waist), 2) information, 3) mirrors the right )
Make Your Own Metronome
This is a fun way of learning to internalise tempo:
Learn a piece with a clearly defined metronome mark, such as a Beethoven scherzo, such that it can be recalled at will and its tempo marking applied. Do this for all the metronome markings
Here it is pleasing to observe Gibson joining me on the smallest hill on which I will die, which is non-existent metronome markings, such as those giving crotchet = 41, or 65, or 113. ‘those numbers don’t exist on a metronome’, says Gibson, adding with tongue in cheek, ‘no real composer uses them’
Note to self: a metronome goes up, from 60, in 3s, then from 72 in 4s, then from 120 in 6s, and from 144 in 8s)
It has the tempos you need, but the given tempo might not be the right one in a particular circumstance – they’re an important starting point but not a finishing point
Trouble shaping a melody? Why not invent some words in the right character? Uses example of giving a Dvorak melody folk-esque words. Generates a narrative and helps you find musical shapes
Heads, shoulders, knees and toes
Deals with the physicality of conducting – this is much more than just arms and gesture
Disassociate the bobbing of the head with an accent in the music – young conductors do this a lot
(I certainly did and continue to if unpoliced)
The face: be like the calm bus-driver ‘who knows where s/he is going, and gets you there without fuss or drama.’ Try not to exaggerate facial expressions (to which I would add Zoom is a painful reminder that we do this a lot in an attempt to please)
Gibson advocates ‘Buddha face’: ‘the serene visage of a generous, knowing presence’. Open, aware, listening, but not dominating or being needy (angle of chin also has a bearing on this latter)
Sniffing as an upbeat is a ‘disagreeable habit’ and distracting to audience and orchestra alike – for one thing, the wind and brass players, not to mention singers, for whom you are a model, mostly breathe through the mouth. Don’t open the mouth too far though as it looks silly
For Gibson, the arm is the breath (this is good – I often feel like I breathe too much and find myself hyperventilating)
Mouthing along to chorus (particular pertinent to choir directors of course and a much discussed issue). Like mirroring, it is not as simple as saying ‘never’ or ‘always’. It can help reinforce a particular onset or bring ‘bite’ to a certain word or phrase, but done to excess it inhibits the listening of the conductor to what they are actually doing, much like an exaggerated beat does
It also annoys the choir, who might feel consciously or otherwise that they are not being trusted to read words
Generally ‘the more we do physically, the less we listen’ (197)
Keep lips relaxed
Stand up straight and try not to bend over – must be balanced with a proper centre of gravity
Knee bends! A difficult habit to break
I find they’re especially bad in propulsive baroque music where the knees just really want to get involved
The entire act, from backstage from the dressing room to the podium should be practised and rehearsed – this avoids nervous habits, extraneous movement, or a loss of control. The behaviour and demeanour of the conductor is being assessed before they even take the podium
If you have to look at the score to turn the page, you don’t know it well enough. Consider also when to turn the page – it might not be where the publisher has put a page turn
Don’t turn the music stand around – if the music’s at a 90-degree angle to the floor you’re going to have to lean over to see it – orchestras distrust this
Interesting. I’ve seen lots of people do this in masterclasses and always wondered why they did as I would always panic that the score was going to fall off
Discipline your body, your posture, and your head, and your conducting will grow in confidence, simplicity, and effect (199)
Annuziata Tomaro contributes a guest article with some tough truths about score-reading
You should read clefs as what they are, rather than transposing them in your mind to a clef with which you are more familiar
Alto clef a classic example, the middle line is C, not ‘a B in treble clef and therefore transpose up one to get C’
Bill Buford: ‘one does and does and does until one eventually knows more than others and learns the craft’ (214)
If you want a conducting career: helps if you don’t want worldly possessions. Pack light. Be thick-skinned
Nothing sexy about the mastery of the craft, and no guarantees of success. ‘People win competitions and positions; I know neither how or why’
So much is hard to measure – you can test specific things but there are many that elude measurement
‘When all else is in place, art shows up’
Three-Part Conducting Rules for All Occasions
1. if the orchestra doesn’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.
2. if you don’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.
3. if you really know the score, it still doesn’t matter where you put your hands. (233)
He knows when to pose questions rather than offer simple solutions: for example on the vexed question of whether, how, and why an orchestra should ‘watch’ the conductor.
Of course I’m also interested in what he has to say about working with singers and choruses, and there are a couple of articles on that here too. Gibson learned his chorus chops in the opera house. It’s always worth hearing the orchestral conductor’s perspective on choirs
…amateur and student choruses are working with you out of love; they love the music and/or they love the social dynamic of singing in a chorus. Very different from the orchestral situation[…]if you ignore them from the podium, you let them down (241)
Whereas he permits the orchestra to look at their music and spare you the odd glance if you’re very lucky, he notes that choruses need to be out of their copies in order to communicate emotion, and for their voices to speak out into the building, and so that they have a feeling of communication.
He goes into the chorus rehearsal with the music memorised, and makes the bargain: I won’t look down if you won’t.
I like this, even if it feels like a tough challenge when the musical workload goes up
Lauds Romano Gandolfi, with whom he worked, who conducted with very small gestures and insisted on the chorus’s maximum attention
Returns to the issue of ‘don’t mouth the words’ with the further observation – why do we do it? Do we think we are helping, and if so, why? ‘Never once have I had a chorus member ask me to mouth the words’ (242)
When working with chorus, know when to ‘press the button’. Late in the rehearsal process, something isn’t working and the ensemble has lost focus – it can sometimes be permitted to ‘press the button’, stop proceedings and gently but firmly remind the chorus of what we had rehearsed and thank them for their attention. Stresses this should only be used with amateur choruses and then at most once
Be encouraging and have high energy at all times. Choral rehearsals are ‘exhausting and exhilarating’
‘know before whom you are standing’ (Hebrew proverb)
There are also some useful comments on careers and people skills towards the end:
Only after a while, and often too late, do you, as the recently engaged music director, realise that no only were you putting on a show for the orchestra during the audition process, the orchestra and its various entities were putting on a show for you. Both parties were selling, and now both must deal with the reality of living together. (250)
This rings true and brings to mind the observation that in an audition, both parties should evaluate each other for fit, not just one way around!
Who lives by the beat, dies by the beat. Try to avoid making it the focus of your craft, instead think about the interaction of gesture and pulse.
Generate a vocabulary of gesture with imagery and metaphor to provide the widest range of physical responses to music.
Score study is vital and neglected at your peril.
Who’s the book for?
Conducting students and those looking for fresh perspectives on their craft. Anyone interested in the analysis of music from a performer’s perspective.
I hope you’ve found this summary helpful. If you’d like to buy the book, you can use the links at the top of the post. I intend to give one or two other books the same treatment, so watch this space if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!
I feel, as they say, seen. The themed programme is a staple of choral concerts the world over, and yet it can often feel unsatisfying. So convinced are we of the need to theme an evening’s musical offering, to weave it tightly together to make a cogent whole, that we can often end up in an uncomfortable straitjacket. I find myself casting around for something that hasn’t already ‘been done’ in order to justify a selection of music. But is it really necessary, and can we avoid the hassle that the themed programme so often entails?
Why we use themes
The obsession with themes tends to manifest in classical choirs, and rather less so in orchestras. Partly that’s because orchestras deal on the whole in much larger chunks of music. The standard orchestral concert programme requires an overture, a concerto, and a symphony – three items, increasing in length, and usually filling up a couple of hours quite neatly. There’s often simply no need for any kind of external bracket to unify the music. Job done.
Choirs, on the other hand, have additional considerations, at least when performing on their own, or with a single accompanying instrument. The most obvious is the endurance level of the singers, reckoned generally to be lower than that of most orchestral instruments. The other is the available corpus of music, ranging from miniatures to epics, but often on the shorter side, especially where sacred music is concerned.
To compensate for the lumpy proportions of the music, choral programmes have embraced the extra-musical linking device of the theme. We want audiences to feel that what they’re hearing is a cogent hour or so’s music, and that it hangs together with some kind of consistency.
It comes from a hyper-awareness of an audience, wanting to provide them with a guide, a narrative thread, that will give them a route in to understanding and appreciating the music that the choir has prepared.
Advantages of the themed programme
A theme offers this curated experience, taking the listener lightly by the hand and leading them on a tour of whatever it is that’s being explored. A theme, whether loose or tightly-concentrated, provides a prism through which to view the music, a way to help understand and contextualise it.
Additionally, juxtaposition of items is a powerful tool to illuminate connections in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the most seemingly unlikely of segues can yield great insights into compositional process or musical sentiment. There was a recent, thrilling example of this in one of the BBC Proms’ eerily audience-less concerts this summer – Simon Rattle led the LSO straight from a Gabrieli canzona into Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, a striking and unpredictable segue which played up the dramatic contrasts of groups of instruments in both pieces.
Of course, juxtaposition of this sort need not be confined to the themed programme per se. But another reason we value a unifying extra-musical element is that it provides an entry point, especially to non-specialists or those less familiar with the genre of music on offer. Even the presence of just one or two words, nominally applying to all the pieces in a concert, allows someone with little experience of listening to a particular kind of music to find ways to apply these descriptors, and find a way in.
Problems with themes
However, it’s very easy to get bogged down in a theme, or for these themes to become tired and lazy through unthinking repetition. It has become a standing joke in choral circles (if not a particularly hilarious one) that a newly-formed chamber choir will specialise in early music, new music, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell.
When inspiration doesn’t strike, it can be all to easy to pick a well-worn trope and use it as the basis for a programme – or to try and squeeze pieces into a theme that don’t belong there. Audiences can be forgiving (especially if you do this with a wink!), but it’s awkward when a piece is shoehorned into a programme where it doesn’t belong. Constructing a programme within a restrictive theme can be like playing Tetris in four dimensions.
Equally, in the desire to present a theme which hasn’t been ‘done’, it can quickly get quite abstruse. I remember thinking myself very clever for a segment of a Christmas concert which I entitled ‘The Three Kings’ and populated with music by Caspar Othmayr, Melchior Hoffman, and Balthasar Resinarius. I might have been royally pleased with myself – but did it add anything apart from being a little glib?
I sometimes think the use of themes in this heavy-handed way betrays a rather patrician lack of trust in the audience. Do we really feel that audiences can’t handle a programme which is simply a selection of music we want to perform? The enthusiasm gained on our part is surely much more valuable to the success of the concert.
In these situations, why don’t we simply free ourselves from the strictures of the theme – let ourselves off the hook a little? After all, audiences are rarely thinking about the intricacies of a programme when listening to it as much as we are when assembling it. Better to embrace this sometimes and simply say: here is some music that we think represents us right now. We hope you enjoy it.
There’s a palpable sense of relief in casting aside that unworkable theme and replacing it with the answer to the question: what do the ensemble and I actually want to perform at the moment? The results of investigating that question could be of much more value than a too-clever theme.
Teach without being didactic
Ultimately, I like to leave an artistic event, be it a concert or a visit to a gallery, feeling cleverer – but not simply because I’ve been taught something, but because I’ve figured it out for myself. I think the most successful programmes are ones that gently lead an audience to work something out on its own – figure out a connection, understand a form.
That’s one of the reasons the much-maligned chronological programme remains useful. Art galleries still generally arrange works in chronological order from early to late, and that works for us – we notice the developments in style and form, even if we don’t have specialised training. The clever curator leaves clues so that we can teach ourselves what they want us to learn from the exhibition.
In live performance, we know that even the most carefully-designed programme only comes to life if it is presented engagingly. When I first started programming and conducting concerts, I was very determined that the music should speak for itself. I remained resolutely tight-lipped as my meticulously planned programme segued imperceptibly from one piece to another. I’m sure there are times when this approach can work, but now I think it can alienate as much as it can draw in, especially with a new listener. These days – depending on the programme and the place and all sorts of other factors – I’m generally much more comfortable interrupting the musical flow at intervals to speak to the audience and offer a few thoughts on what to listen for, or how.
Clearly, these extra-musical elements are important, especially to those new to the form. It’s interesting that some of the most successful and artistically interesting choral presentations to come out of the Year of Hell that is 2020 have involved a heavy dose of narrative, implied or actual: Marian Consort’s sequence of collaborative filmed projects, or Stile Antico’s recent Journey of the Mayflower.
The challenge, then, is to find extra-musical narratives, be they thematic or otherwise, which help us generate programmes that we are actually excited about performing, and that audiences will find energising and informative.
When you’re in training for something, it’s common to receive fairly regular doses of positive reinforcement. Messages of congratulation on a job well done, a pat on the back on a challenge overcome. Praise, when carefully administered by teachers or peers, is a powerful incentive – it’s a feedback loop that helps keep us learning.
However, I’ve noticed that once you reach a certain stage of proficiency, the formerly reliable dopamine injection of praise drops off a little. Once you’re viewed as essentially competent, people just assume you know you’re doing a good job, and that you no longer require positive reinforcement.
It’s a perfectly sensible reaction. One doesn’t want to risk patronising someone by offering praise for something they consider routine, or didn’t struggle to achieve. Likewise, an overabundance of unnecessary praise could lead to dependence or ego inflation – and goodness knows there’s enough of the latter in the creative world.
Nevertheless, there’s an adjustment that an emerging artist or creative person, or really anyone in any field, must make, as they move from disciple to practitioner. It can be very hard to shake the requirement for regular praise, a dependence which we form during our chrysalis phase.
I think this adjustment can result in particular difficulties for those who assume leadership positions. I’ll use conductors as a convenient example from my field, but I think it applies across the board.
Those who seek out leadership often have a very high tolerance for praise. Some may even be ‘praise addicts’, as described by Martha Beck in her article, Are you addicted to praise?
To summarise Beck: essentially, everyone can tolerate a certain amount of praise, before it makes them uncomfortable. Beck’s ‘praise addicts’, however, can quite happily receive near limitless amounts of the dopamine-inducing feedback – it gives them a rush, and it becomes a subconscious imperative to seek out the next ‘hit’.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I daresay all musicians can think of conductors who fit this profile. To an extent, it’s a manifestation of a societal problem: the world seems to teach us that we should be special, or stand out somehow. Accordingly, we have a tendency to view ourselves as special, and we expect people to respond accordingly. Leon Seltzer approaches the same problem from a different point of view:
In one way or another, virtually everybody dreams of standing out, being admired or acclaimed. To be viewed, and to view ourselves, as merely “average” or “adequate” really doesn’t do very much for our ego. This may be all the more so because we live in a meritorious, American-Idol-type society that refuses to celebrate or lavish praise on individuals unless they’re judged exceptional.
How do we avoid falling into the trap of requiring constant praise? How should we approach the transition from student to practitioner, when we can’t rely on the praise of our mentors to motivate us? It’s not like the need to learn goes away – we’re all always learning, or should be.
The courage to be normal
It’s natural that the regularity of positive feedback from others should decrease once we achieve proficiency. However, validation has to come from somewhere, and even the most experienced and competent require it. Here are a few ways I’m exploring to reconcile this disparity:
Absence of praise ≠ criticism Silence doesn’t imply judgement. We should not expect to always be greeted like a master returning home to a dog. People are generally more like cats – perfectly content with you but not demonstrative about it…
Save really good feedback I’ve taken to saving some of the nicest comments I’ve received from choir members, concert-goers or peers in a folder on my computer. That way, if I ever find myself in need of a bit of validation, I can return to them and be shocked anew at the nice things people have said.
Learn to reward yourself Here’s Seltzer again:
…it’s crucial that when you’ve executed something well, demonstrated skill or talent, behaved generously or selflessly, you learn how to congratulate yourself.
Ultimately, we’re the only ones who can provide ourselves with confidence and motivation – we can’t always rely on external forces to supply it.
Have the ‘courage to be normal’ Earlier, we saw how the need for praise can arise out of the desire to be special or extraordinary. It’s a natural tendency, especially when we compare ourselves to others. But we know, really, that everyone is normal, whatever society might be trying to tell us.
‘The courage to be normal’ is one of the key insights of the book The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga:
Why is it necessary to be special? Probably because one cannot accept one’s normal self.
The days are past when conductors, standing well above the orchestra, commanded unquestioned respect because of their towering genius – when their perceived ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ qualities permitted them to be dictatorial and excused unacceptable, even abusive behaviour.
Of course, there are still a handful of people around who haven’t got the memo. But, by and large, we now expect and encourage a spirit of collaboration, in which a degree of responsibility is shared out among the group or team, and no one is the ‘special’ one, not even the conductor (perhaps especially not the conductor – after all, they are the only one not making any noise).
It’s in cultivating this ‘courage to be normal’, then, that we stand a chance of avoiding the pitfalls of excessive praise-seeking, and instead become collaborative, imaginative musicians or artists, secure and confident in our own abilities – but not so confident that we can’t continue to learn.