Surrounded By Greatness

 

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Something I’ve noticed a lot over the years: The great performers, in any genre, who create new and exciting things, last across generations and put a stamp on the field do so by doing one thing—collaborating with other artists who are at least their equal or even sometimes better than themselves. From Arturo Toscanini to Frank Zappa, these musicians surrounded themselves with other great musicians, which allowed for them to realize an artistic vision. Toscanini wanted the best orchestra possible, so the NBC Symphony was an assemblage of some of the finest classical musicians of the era. This enabled him to further explore his own creative pursuits and provide performances at an unparalleled level. Frank Zappa did the same thing, as does Sting, Paul Simon, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and so many others.

It doesn’t matter what the personality traits of the artist in question. They can be autocrats, like Toscanini and Zappa, or great humanists like Marsalis and Ma. It is the assemblage that matters–the act of collaboration. And collaborations can be long or brief; maybe it is just for one performance or album, perhaps it is for years or an entire career.

We tend to think of these artists as super egos (even the nice ones). Certainly a certain amount of ego is necessary to perform. But, among those in the “truly great category,” few to none are threatened by other musicians, even those that may surpass their depth, skill or knowledge. Rather, they grow and thrive because they surround themselves with great talents. Yo-Yo Ma is the prime example of this.

Not that this is without its problems. The Fab 4 and the Guarneri Quartet both had well documented issues of getting along with each other, and yes, Toscanini’s tantrums are the stuff of legends. But there is something to be said for their successes as well. But besides the personality issues, there is something about the group dynamic that makes it worthwhile. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

What does this mean for a college educator, community conductor or chamber musician? EVERYTHING. While we may not have the resources of a great maestro or rock star to add already developed artists to our ensembles, we still strive to engage with the best musicians possible. We hold auditions to add new members to established groups to enhance the quality of the ensemble; we engage in new collaborations to open new pathways, and we develop student musicians into the artists to reach higher levels of achievement. And part of that equation is the charge to continually develop our students into better musicians. From our engagement, new performers and teachers will enter the profession, new ensembles will emerge, new art will be created.

And that, is why I love my job.

Copyright 2017, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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Barefoot Conducting: An Introduction

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The sensation of warm sand between the toes.  The coolness of grass beneath bare feet.  The pain as a 1-inch thorn pierces my flesh after penetrating the thin sole of a minimalist shoe…  I’ve experienced all of these sensations recently, and like all of life’s events it has provided an interesting tangent upon which to contemplate music.

I conduct orchestras for a living. The amount of time I actually spend conducting is relatively small, however.  Depending on the orchestra, I spend only a few hours each week rehearsing or performing, and even less time bowing to an audience.  Rather, I spend most of my musical time alone, studying orchestral scores and pondering rehearsal strategies.

Conductors begin the process early, as the only ensemble musicians with all of the information in front of them. The conductor’s score contains every player’s part, notated so that they can be read at the same time.  (If I’d get my feet out of the way above, you might be able to see that from the photo).   By contrast, an orchestral player’s sheet music contains only their individual part.  It may have some clues as to what others are doing, called cues, but usually they only see their own notes, rests, articulations, etc.

Like a member of some secret club, the conductor seems to have all of the passwords, secret signs, handshakes and symbolism to relate each part to the whole.  But rather than esoteric knowledge, the score represents the conductor’s responsibility. My task is to increase the awareness of how the parts represent the whole.

But what about all that hair flinging and grunting that conductors are known for? And that stuffy know-it-all attitude as we approach the podium? Here’s a video from one of my conducting heroes:

Seriously though, the arm waving is important.  As part of a language of gesture, it communicates to the other musicians the tempo, pulse, phrasing, dynamics (loud/soft), articulation (length of notes), and other elements of the music.  It helps each part relate to the others. It is an overwhelming task if you stop and think about it.  Besides that, the conductor is charged with presenting a unified interpretation.  The challenge of encouraging 90 musicians to play music together with the same intent is daunting.   If the conductor falls into the trap of telling the musicians that he somehow knows better, or is better, then a classic dysfunctional relationship has emerged—the Classical Dysfunctional Relationship, perhaps.

So, where do my feet figure into all of this?  I’ve been fascinated by the barefoot and minimalist shoe fad.  This has enabled people to experience something taken for granted in a new and holistic way, walking and running.  We’ve learned that the mechanics of the foot is important.  The feel of the ground is important.  The transmission of sensation through the foot to the body may be something we have been missing for generations.  It is important to the entire body, mind and spirit, and experiencing it can affect our lives.

I propose that we think of the conductor and orchestra differently. Too often we think of the conductor as the head of the orchestral body—the mind and brains.  What if we conceive of the conductor as the feet of the ensemble?  Consider a concept of music coming from the ground up, so to speak.  The sensation of the ground, the composer’s score, is translated through the sensations of the conductor to the orchestra, the vital parts of the body, interrelated and interactive.  The orchestral body may experience greater freedom to play and engage in a holistic music making rather than being directed from above.   In my experience, musicians have more meaningful experiences and audiences have more genuine responses when music is produced in this way.

I don’t have plans to conduct an orchestra barefoot, not even with my spiffy new Five Finger shoes.  Rather, my new experiences and study have prodded me to strip this down to the bare essentials.   I plan future entries in this thread that will deal with the nuts and bolts of music, and how we can distill the essence of music by viewing it from this new angle.  It is my hope that it will be applicable to all musicians, not just us silent, arm waving types.

Now, take of your shoes and sit a spell!  The concert is about to begin.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

*Bonus points to those who noticed that Bugs Bunny was not wearing shoes in the video!