Guest Conducting and the Role of Love

paul_broomheadYou walk into the school gymnasium at quarter-to-nine on a Friday morning and see some 300 adolescents buzzing with energy. A few teachers are yelling out instructions, trying to get the students into the right seats (hopefully not the bleachers, but, hey, maybe the bleachers). Rehearsal is scheduled, with a few breaks, from nine until four. Then, you conduct these students that same evening in a concert. Your job: transform these presently unfocused kids—previously strangers—into a refined, artistic, responsive ensemble whose performance creates a moving experience and an unforgettable memory.

You’ve chosen great music, and performances naturally create meaningful moments, so this should be easy, right? The only thing that stands between you and that unforgettable performance is six hours of rehearsal. In order for those six hours to have the desired result, you cannot have distracted students, but you also cannot alienate them. You cannot bore them, or use up their energy, or wear out their voices, or, or, or… You understand that this could go really badly or really well. One key for thriving in this situation is love.

You already have love for the choral art and for people. This was one of the major factors in your decision to enter a choral profession in the first place. But, the need to nurture this love is amplified in a guest-conducting situation. There are at least three crucial love relationships that a guest conductor must nurture: love between conductor and singer, love of singers for each other, and love for music and the act of making it artistic. I’ll write briefly about each of these love relationships and then talk about the role of forgiveness in nurturing this love.

It is true. Singers must love the conductor. In order to be inspired by you they must love you. But, how do you make someone love you? Of course, you can’t make someone love you, and this is the scariest part of guest conducting. However, the most powerful force in loving people is to feel their love for you. You can stack the deck in your favor if you can find ways to honestly love the singers. When you look out at the singers, you can choose how to see them. There is plenty to love in young singers: their energy, their vulnerability, their cleverness, and the list goes on. Choosing to see their traits as lovable can transform your feelings about them. Their disorderly energy, for example, might feel threatening, but you can learn to love it. You might practice thinking, “Wow! What energy. I can’t wait to channel that beautiful stuff into artistic music. What an exciting challenge!”

Love between singers may be a little more challenging. However, this love is crucial for the desired artistic results as it provides emotional energy and fertile ground for artistic expression. Helping singers see each other’s strengths and helping them develop an identity as a group can contribute to performances that feel inspired. You can nurture this love by inundating the singers with sincere comments such as, “I have never heard a cleaner release than what you just did. You guys just met today?!” Or, “I hope you all realize what a rare privilege it is to spend a day with other incredible people like you.” Or, “I cannot remember the last time I was in a room with this many extraordinary young people. You are among greatness today.” Can you plan to say such things in advance and still be sincere? Yes. Kids are amazing and you will see what you are looking for. You need to help them see it in each other too.

Love for pieces of music is, again, something you can’t make someone feel. However, if you truly love the music you have selected and unabashedly put your passion on display, this love will be difficult for students to resist—even if they think you are a little weird. They can develop a deep sense of the churning rhythmic undercurrent, or the seamless sustain, or the heroic declamation, (etc.) by seeing it in your vividly communicative movements. Then, add repeated statements about how you are beginning to see understanding and passion for the music in the singers, and you begin an upward spiral of love for the music. “The way many of you are moving your bodies shows me you are starting to feel the groove of this piece. I’ll bet you all can really pound the dance floor.” Or, “I can see in your faces that you understand both the pain and the peace that this piece expresses. It’s incredible. Both you and the piece are having healing effect right now. Oh! This is great stuff!”

The three love relationships discussed above may come across as if singers will be sitting there, eagerly awaiting each inspired expression that comes forth from the mouth of the honored guest. Of course, this is often not the case in guest conducting. In almost every situation there are participants who refuse to engage, who may even show outward disrespect. Furthermore, an entire choir can come across as uncaring, unmotivated, and disrespectful. Negative influences such as these tend to derail our efforts to nurture the love relationships that I have promoted here. In order for these love relationships to thrive during a long day of rehearsal with adolescents, forgiveness is required.

Forgiveness is a key that helps you see past negative influences and continue to see opportunities to nurture love. This is not to say that the negative should be ignored. Seeing past negative behaviors does not mean ignoring them or failing to attend appropriately to them. It means refusing to allow the negative to set the tone, or to settle in your heart and mind. Forgiving and seeing past the negative allows you to deal with problems in the most loving, positive way possible and then return to your uplifting demeanor that stems from love. At such moments of forgiveness, you might say, “It is so inspiring to me that, out of 300 singers, only 12 are not listening to me right now. You guys are tops. [Pause.] And, now, look, every single person is ready to go. I love working with this group.” Or, “You know, I’m starting to get tired. We’ve been rehearsing for hours. No wonder you did not do that crescendo I just showed you. Whew! All right. I’m going to up my effort. Join me? Let’s do this again and make it artistic. We can do this!”

As I have attempted to nurture these love relationships and have practiced this brand of forgiveness, I have seen situations where student demeanor has changed and nearly all singers—even those who previously behaved as if they were not interested—have enjoyed the exhilaration of a moving performance. I have sometimes been surprised at who comes up to me afterwards for a picture. It is important to note that all of these aspects of love create spirals that can go upward or downward. With continued nurturing, the positive love spiral can continue upward throughout the day until, with a little extra adrenaline during the performance, it can become a powerful force at making that performance an unforgettable experience.
Paul Broomhead
Professor of Music Education
Brighan Young University

Posted by Jeffrey Bauman, NAfME Choral Education Chair-Elect
Young Harris College