Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Erin Freeman's Advice for Conductors

In May, I observed Richmond Symphony Associate Conductor Erin Freeman give Bobbie Barajas, classical music director for WCVE, a conducting lesson in preparation for the symphony's "Celebrity Maestro" fundraising event.

In the course of the hour-or-so lesson, Erin said, in effect: If things seem about to fall apart, a conductor should direct her attention to the section of the orchestra that is doing things right, not the section that's struggling. The musicians pay attention to what the conductor is paying attention to.

This made immediate sense to me, in that way that feels like you've known something all along, but didn't know that you knew it.

On the surface, the principle is counter-intuitive: Shouldn't a leader help errants correct their errors? Why wouldn't this mean that the conductor should turn to the section that's having trouble, make sure they can see her beat, her face, and her gestures?

Musicians listen as much as they watch, which is one of the reasons Erin's lesson works, but I think the bigger insight has to do with where the true power of a leader lies, and how leaders can use that power most effectively.

As it happened, the very next week I subbed for two days in a classroom of kindergarteners. I deliberately tried to apply Erin's advice. I can't say it helped in any immediate, practical way (probably because the kids didn't regard me as their leader), but its validity was evident when, for example, I was reading a book to the class. Previously in that same classroom when I'd stop reading to (firmly, kindly) admonish interrupters, it would take forever to get through a book and even the listeners would start to lose focus. This time, I just kept reading, paying attention to the book and looking in the eyes of children who were listening. 

I don't know how far outside the concert hall this principle stretches. It's related to how sleight-of-hand magicians work, but isn't it more satisfying to reap insights from conductors of beautiful music than from sweaty men with cards on a TV dinner tray outside the second-run movie theater?

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