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Human Beings of the Atlantic Coast

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Last Thursday took me zooming over to Portugal to lead a seminar on ‘Working with Human Beings’ with the students of the Atlantic Coast International Conducting Academy. Every time I work with a group of conductors I remark on the dedication and insight they collectively bring to the discussion, and this time I was also struck by their sense of shared ethos and values.

This is clearly in part a function of the course itself: course leader Luis Clemente spoke to me before we started about the goal to produce ‘responsible’ conductors. The contributions the participants made to discussions bore this out, showing not only a high level of thoughtfulness and care in how they were articulated, but also a shared philosophy that saw the ensemble as active artistic participants in the production of music, not just the conductor’s ‘instrument’.

One student talked about ensembles as ‘microsocieties’, for example, while another talked about how all types of group (professional, amateur, youth) shared the fundamental of the ‘concert ideal’ – the principle that everyone agrees to come together to create music – in a way that rather reminded me of the ideas of contract theory I explored in my chapter for the Cambridge Companion to Choral Music. There were also some interesting, if not fully developed, discussions about the relationship between the individual identities of musicians and the supra-personal, corporate identities of the ensembles.

This recognition of and respect for the agency of participating musicians is strikingly different from the authoritarian concept of conducting you find in much of the classic literature. The ‘maestro model’ is often conceived in military metaphors (‘rank and file players’) of analogously to 19th-century production line structures. The overseeing eye of the all-powerful conductor at the centre also brings to mind Foucault’s use of the Panopticon as both exemplar and model for a form of disciplinary surveillance.

More recent conducting literature has seen a shift towards more collaborative concepts (I’m thinking here in particular of Ramona Wis on servant leadership), but it is heartening to see this philosophical journey reflected in the practical training for the profession as well. There is a notable contrast here to the impact of feminist musicology on the content of the curricula and concert/recital programming in conservatoires, where any changes are mostly, even now, mostly cosmetic.

In the light of the group’s propensity to philosophy, I was pleased that I had maintained a practical focus in the material I had prepared: here are the ideas, here’s how they are reflected in the behaviours you’ll see in rehearsal, and this is how you change your own behaviour in response. The philosophy underpins and shapes behaviours, but it is what you actually do and say that impacts directly on musicians.

One great practical question is what you do when somebody asks you a question to which you don’t immediately know the answer. It is very easy for conductors to put themselves under pressure to feel that they should know all the answers, especially as the maestro-model of conductorly power still has a good deal of cultural currency. But we had also already discussed how when a conductor shows some humility, some shared humanity with the ensemble, it helps build trust and a sense of safety.

So, ‘Good question, let me have a think about that,’ is a perfectly valid answer. ‘Good question – what do you think?’ can also on occasion be very useful, particularly if you sense the person who asks a question is expressing unfulfilled esteem needs.

On the other hand, giving yourself permission not to be omniscient does not let you off the hook for preparing properly. It is not unreasonable that musicians look to the conductor for information – however collaborative your philosophy, however much space you want to give ensemble members to be expressive, the conductor’s job is still to provide direction. As Luis charmingly put it: when you go to a party, you should always bring something to contribute.

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