2+2=?

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Notes about the October retreat
…we might say that they have the theoretical ability to make 2+2 equal at least 4 and possibly 5, but in practice they produce a result of no more than 3.

Since our latest conductors’ retreat in Budapest, I have been reflecting on the difficulty of stepping over the limitations we sometimes like to impose upon ourselves.

Each of the conductors who attended has a good understanding of principles of sound and gesture and how to apply these.  Although some more subtle points in terms of analysis of the material in question sometimes eluded them – entirely understandable at this point in their development – in the case of much of the music we looked at they understood what information the auftakt / upbeat needed to convey and the style and content of movements required to produce this and then maintain the flow of line and musical energy.  Added to this, they had ideas about the quality and colour of sound, emotional atmosphere etc. that they hoped to attain.

In this case, surely there should be little for a teacher to do?  Yet the opposite was invariably the case: every time they started with movements which were in some respect compromised in quality relative to their understanding of what was needed, and every time, with some careful analysis of precisely what they were doing and how to improve it, they were able to produce something far better very quickly.  In the majority of cases we rapidly progressed from invitations to sound so compromised that they would produce results quite difficult to manage to those which fully deserved a genuinely musical response.  Occasionally the development was more extreme – movements encouraging real beauty of sound and expression.

In short, we established that in general:

  • they know what information needs to be conveyed
  • they understand the mechanics of gesture which could achieve this
  • when put on the spot, they mostly fail to produce anything close to their real potential.

In simple mathematical terms we might say that they have the theoretical ability to make 2+2 equal at least 4 and possibly 5, but in practice they produce a result of no more than 3 at the first attempt.  This is something I have observed which is not unique to these students but, on the contrary, a relatively common phenomenon.

So why does this tend to happen? My suspicion is that there are two principal reasons and that anyone in this position should consider:

1. Revising thinking processes

The ultimate goal of conducting technique is surely that musical thought and gesture are so completely integrated that the one leads naturally to the other without any conscious process of translation. Whilst acquiring the means to do this, however, there will be an element of separation – the musical idea on the one hand and – via a process of analysis and translation – ideas about the related gesture(s).

Thus, when it comes to the crucial matter of an auftakt / upbeat, where a person with an integrated understanding of sound and gesture employs little conscious effort to engage with natural musical expression and flow, a less capable practitioner will need to engage with specific streams of thinking about gesture and musical content. Each of these streams is complex – in the case of the musical elements, the need to consider the combination of tempo, articulation, dynamic and direction of flow which will give the music a really expressive quality – and in my experience conductors concentrate a lot on the matter of the “right” tempo, too often without realising that this is an all-or-nothing game, where achieving the “right” tempo without appropriate musical characterisation is finally as meaningless as the “wrong” tempo. Then there is the need to think about how the gesture works – what information must be conveyed within it, which elements of movement will achieve this, what intensity and amplitude of movement are needed. On top of all this is the need to ensure that the muscles actually produce the right result, plus continued analysis and calibration of movement in response to its effects.

This generates a considerable load on mental processing power, hence the value of working from automated processes and systems – like every instrumentalist – becomes clear. It has been shown that those with mastery of complex activities think differently from those less skilled and in this case, if the mind and muscles are working in intimate harmony then mental activity is certainly different – one result of which appears to me to be faster understanding about what is happening and hence the possibility of faster implementation of strategy. This difference in reaction times is probably fractional but I suspect it produces a crucial difference in impact – somewhat like the difference that has been observed for violinists, that a master adjusts intonation before problems become audible to others. Developing the fluency of this mental and physical communication system to reach the point where it works effectively is a difficult and time-consuming process though, during which one must engage in actual conducting otherwise the skills cannot be learned: few people can learn a language effectively without ever actually speaking it! So the question becomes, how to manage the issue of mental overload in the interim?

My recollection of my early years is that I used to apply a great deal of mental energy to imagining the sound I was hoping to hear, in the naive belief that some process of magical osmosis would transform my thought into actual sound. A triumph of optimisim over logic if ever there was one and disappointment was, needless to say, frequent. Deep down I was perfectly well aware that mechanics which would better serve the objective needs of the musicians would be desirable but although I was sure the knowledge must exist somewhere, my own experimentation was at best only partially successful. It was only after I had the good fortune of meeting and studying with Yuri Simonov that the pieces started to fall into place; thanks to his kindness, patience and incredible expertise, I was eventually able to connect my hands to my thoughts and in so doing start to explore the world of my dreams, one of sonic beauty, nuance and subtlety.

Before that, in the absence of the right information, sheer will-power seemed like the best option and from my observation of many others, I think this is a natural intuitive tendency – to take what appears to be the more creative option (thinking about the music) over the more prosaic (thinking only about the technique).  Something we observed very consistently and clearly at our October retreat though, was that forgetting about the abstract musical aim and concentrating entirely on the tangible information required by the musicians tended to produce better results for those making sounds. This is deeply frustrating for the person who is making the gestures – who feels entirely disengaged from music – but from an objective standpoint the results were perfectly clear.

Therefore, my conclusion is that until one is able to absolutely trust the accuracy of gesture arising from a musical thought, it is better to devote mental energy to providing information which can actually produce good results rather than over-thinking (or rather over-hoping) the sounds themselves.  I believe that this will teach the mind and the body good habits: it will lead to gradual calibration of the muscles to eventually provide the right gestures automatically, whilst one is able to focus the processing power of the mind entirely on the music. It is a classic case of delayed gratification: yes, during the process of acquiring the right skills the conductor will feel disengaged and yes, the musicians will sense this and this will negatively impact on the immediate results. Nonetheless, I believe that for those who persevere, the subsequent reward in terms of transmission of real musical expression and energy will be worth the wait and the effort. Added to this, frustration is a great motivator for doing the legwork assiduously and hence passing through this stage as fast as possible.

The need to thwart what seems to us naturally as a more creative approach in favour of a more disciplined one seeking greater long-term achievement is only part of the story though.  From my observation many sensitive musicians have a further issue which acts in combination with failure concerning the automatic synchronisation of thought and gesture. This is:

2. Embracing real responsibility

Something I remember very clearly from my own early development is what my then teacher once referred to as the tendency to engage in “anti-conducting” – a bizarre tendency to undermine something which was otherwise working quite well.  I remember at the time of that particular crisis we talked at some length and reached no conclusion as to why anyone should do this – the only comfort he could offer was to say that this was not, as I thought, some issue unique to me but one which he had suffered through himself.

I now start to think it is a a variant of what is called “imposter syndrome” – perhaps we could call it “success shyness.”  It is one thing to have real ambition for sound but there is something in human nature – or that of at least some of those with the right kind of ambition for sound – which finds it easier to cope with failure than success. Somehow, deep down, giving a half-baked auftakt, getting a compromised result and working hard to repair the damage we have done is easier for us to accept as what we might call “valid endeavour” than giving ourselves permission to step into a world where, apparently with little effort, we are able to make real choices about sound.

Perhaps this is because we are afraid of the inherent responsibility: after all, if we provide a compromised launch to a stream of musical energy we not only fail ourselves but, ethically speaking, we give permission for those we lead to fail as well.  Everyone becomes guilty but, because everyone made an effort, no one is finally responsible. Perhaps no one is entirely satisfied but all can leave the scene of the crime with dignity: the musicians can blame the conductor for not providing what they needed and the conductor can blame the musicians for not fully understanding what was offered, despite the immense effort of will undertaken to convey this on one side and, in many cases, a comparable effort to understand on the other. Where there is goodwill, however, there can also be forgiveness and so the game can continue ad nauseum, the only casualty being the lost expressive power of the music.

Conversely, if we succeed and provide the perfect auftakt (if there were such a thing) and ongoing support then everyone, including the conductor, has to up their game: all become responsible to each other and to the art.  This is intimidating, for there is no third party to blame for anything which goes wrong. In this scenario the sheer power of an idea becomes huge and it arises from the original proposition of a single person: of course this is particularly daunting for that person, for what if the proposition were – perish the thought – wrong! I think many of those with artistic inclinations are plagued by doubt (and any who are not should be), so there is an element of appeal in being able to flagellate ourselves a little for failure rather than the possible guilt arising from saddling the world with a “wrong” idea. As a risk analysis it is ridiculous – to elect for guaranteed failure in preference to possible success – but this is a story we can see in so many managerial contexts that it would seem reasonable to conclude that it derives from normal human tendencies. Consequently I believe that we must consciously confront and reject the relative comfort of ever allowing ourselves the luxury of forgiveness for failing to achieve a musical objective and embrace the relative discomfort of being ultimately responsible for an idea, in the full understanding that it may in itself be flawed or in some other way offensive to others.

To summarise, I think there are two issues here, and that they tend to cloud each other: one is the technical issue of teaching the muscles to simply react correctly to a musical thought without the need for a process of translation of that thought into gesture and the other involves stepping past the limitations we like to place on ourselves.  The first is relatively easily solved, it requires only the expertise deriving from knowledge, practise and experience.  The second will partially solve itself at the same time but may need a further mental step: the need to give oneself permission to exceed one’s own expectations – and to accept the consequences.

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© Jonathan Brett 2016

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