One Woman Show

I’m spending this weekend in Forest Grove, Oregon at the Music in May festival here at Pacific University.  I brought with me four choir students and one band student, all of whom are behaving wonderfully and contributing to the success of the groups.  I intended to spend most of this weekend holed up in a hotel room grading post-concert evaluations and continuing to plan for next school year.  But my weekend is not going as planned.  Every time I drop in a rehearsal “just for a few minutes,”  I am always compelled to stay for the entire three hours.  All of the guest conductors here are fantastic, and I find myself taking furious notes, just to get down the wonderful things they are saying before I forget.  Here’s my absolute favorite quote of the weekend (so far).  The choir was working on Libertango, a driving piece that required exquisite focus from every single member.  Here’s what the conductor told the Sopranos when they were singing with very little energy (you have to picture this coming from a tiny, powerful Russian woman):

“Look, everything about this body says confidence.  This is not a teenage girl trying to find herself.  The tango is a mature dance!  We are not asking “Ooh, what Disney princess would I be?”  We are saying “Disney cannot HANDLE a princess like ME!”  To which the entire choir cheered and gave her a standing ovation, myself included.

And as I write down the quotes from both the choir director and the band director (both of whom, to some degree, remind me of the band and choir conductors I had in college) I realize how different these fields are.  The guest band conductor has these students playing beautifully with a balanced, gorgeous, in-tune sound with over 150 high school students.  He’s having them play difficult music, and providing the structure for them to do it successfully.  Students are playing their warm-ups backwards, practicing good and bad balance, beautiful and ugly sound so that they can explore and find what it means to be a band, really and truly.  I can’t pull myself away from how beautiful, complicated, compelling, and moving the music is.  The energy of this group is incredible.  And my students have never been a part of anything like this, anywhere else.

Then I look at my notes from the choir conductor, and think on other conductors I’ve had.  Excellent choir conductors really focus on full body, mind and spirit – not just the voice.  Today the choir started their morning with yoga, followed by pitch retention exercises focused on tone production, and ended with some complicated solfege workouts.  These students did not come with their music learned, and she is having to work very hard to get them to learn pitches, rhythms, and pronunciation on very complicated pieces – not what she came here to do.  But at the same time, she talks about the history of music, dating back to ancient tribal times.  She talks about the music as it relates to every day life, and how we as musicians have a responsibility to provide beautiful, compelling music to our audiences that is passionate, technically sound, and has beautiful tone quality – not just us today, but all musicians everywhere and every day.  I am moved to tears by both the music, and the words that she says.  The beauty is overwhelming, and the impact she has on these students (and me) is palpable.  And my students have never been a part of anything like this, anywhere else.

The band director is highly intellectual, knows exactly what he needs from each player, but is still goofy and a nice guy to be around.  I truly respect him and enjoy his company.  The choir director is very in tune with her emotions, and has incredibly high expectations for the singers.  While in rehearsal, she is absolutely a force to be reckoned with, and will not allow anything less than exquisite.  I truly respect her, and outside of the rehearsal context, I enjoy her company also.

Here’s my dilemma:  It is my job to be both of these people.  To be the highly intellectual yet goofy band director and the highly emotionally in tune woman who will not accept anything less than exceptional from every singer.  I’m not saying these two personalities are the only ones who exist in these fields, because that is certainly not true.  But it does seem to be that certain personalities gravitate towards certain musical tendencies.  In many ways, I still feel like a student.  I am very, very early on in my career, and nothing is completely decided for me.  When people ask “What’s your dream job?” I can pretty much always answer with confidence.  But the answer I give has changed so many times over the past 6 years, and I know that it is likely to continue to change.  As much as I feel that I am a mediocre choir director at best, I see the way that excellent choir directors lead and work with students, and I think to myself “I can totally see myself being that one day.  I want to grow up to be like them.”  And then I look at excellent band directors who I admire and I say the exact same thing.  “I want to grow up to be like them.”  But these people are completely different.

The truth of the matter is, there is to my knowledge no one in the professional music world who is both a professional choir director and a professional band director.  Everybody who has done both for a time eventually chooses.  If I was forced to make a choice at this point in my career I would choose band, if only because it’s what I have done longer and am more comfortable with.  But I am so drawn to the holistic approach to choir, addressing mind, body and soul.  I am drawn to the incredible beauty you can create with a group of people using no more than the body that God gave them, no added tools in their hands.  I don’t know that I ever want to completely leave either field, and I anticipate that difficult choice that I may have to one day make.

But for now, I will be satisfied with being the One Woman Show – being the end all, be all of music education for the students at Clara Brownell and Umatilla High.  For now, I am not forced to choose one or the other, just pushed to be excellent in these two different fields and lacking the expertise to do so.

One Response to “One Woman Show”
  1. Margaret Wetterling says:

    Very well written and insightful.

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