Are you creating or obeying? What I learned about conducting from theatre director David Mamet

We need to escape the carefully cultivated habit of obeying.

The vast majority of our musical training is spent in pursuit of an impossible perfection. Deluged by the demands of technique, we forget the entire purpose of our art is to connect. To move people. To change people.

"The audience will teach you how to act...The classroom will teach you how to obey, and obedience in the theatre will get you nowhere. It's a soothing falsity. Like the belief of the terminally ill in medicine, the belief of the legitimately frightened in the educational process is a comforting lie."

David Mamet, True and False, p. 19.

Why am I, as a teacher, so convinced of the truth in David's words? Shouldn't I be railing against someone whose just said that the umpteen years I've spent in formal training is not useful? Who says, in fact, "Formal education of the player is not only useless, but harmful." *

Why doesn't this outrage me?

It doesn't outrage me because it is true.

The vast majority of our musical training is spent in pursuit of an impossible perfection. Deluged by the demands of technique, we forget the entire purpose of our art is to connect. To move people. To change people.

Yet we spend our hours perfecting that passage, ironing out the humanity. We wring the life out of the music, instead of uncovering it. The magic is there, waiting to be unlocked. Like a just-add-water magic towel, ready to absorb our life, energy and humanity and spring to life.

The purpose of all that wrangling is to uncover that magic. The technique MUST be in pursuit of the music, the expression, the communication. Not perfection for perfection's sake. That's what makes performances that leave us cold.

This isn't to say we should forsake accuracy, good intonation and beautiful sound. Quite the opposite. We must pursue that relentlessly - but only in service of the bigger purpose of our music making. To connect. To grow. To share. All these technical aspects need to be great so that the message is clear and unimpeded. Like tuning in the radio set. Our technique is reducing the static so that the audience can hear what we're really giving them, without being distracted or having to strain to get to it.

The technique is in service of a performance that leaves us hot, excited, shocked, confused, sated, on edge, angry - anything but bored.

We need to escape the carefully cultivated habit of obeying. And start having our own ideas, and making space for the musicians around us to have theirs.

If that's new for you, it feels uncomfortable. Like the awakening of muscles you never knew you had after your first workout in days, months, years. Immediately, the die-hard habits we have kick in: Is this a good idea? Is this the right idea? Is this the right interpretation? This is your training speaking. The training that told you to do it someone else's way because that's the way it's done. The education that trained you to accept rather than question. To compliantly copy instead of create anew.

Let go of being right.

Creativity is about experimentation, not perfection. You won't get to 'good' without creating and wading through a swamp full of 'bad'. If you won't experiment, create or imagine until it's good enough you'll never start. You are good enough. So start. Play with an idea the way you used to play with lego. Without an agenda, or pre-determined outcome in mind. Without anxiety about whether your tower will pass a test. The only person back then that measured your success was you. Not an exam, or a panel, or a teacher.

The only way you will create a path forward for yourself as a teacher, artist, musician, person is by knowing yourself. Being brave enough to put yourself out into the world and learning. Learning from the audience. Learning from the musicians who have been gifted to you. The world wants to hear your collective version of the piece. What you think the composer's intent was. Not your half-baked reconstruction of someone else's interpretation. Even if they're Carlos Kleiber, or Yoyo Ma or Wynton Marsalis.

Obedience will get you nowhere. It only produces bland, unmemorable performances and rehearsals that don't mean anything. That don't speak to anyone's real experience. Even if you mimic a master, it won't come across as real. Because it isn't.

Don't fake it. Don't make up something that isn't real for you. Whether you're alone with the score, or in a room with 100 others show up as you are.

"Invent nothing. Deny nothing"

Lean into the discomfort. We ARE frightened. Sharing ourselves with others with openness and vulnerability is confronting. But now more than ever, as leaders, we need to show up during the uncertainty. Not to be superheroes who parrot that things will be ok. But to share the challenges of the moment with our students and ensembles. To channel that in our music making. Instead of denying the uncertainty we need to talk about it openly and honestly. That's what creates connection, respect and love.

And maybe, paradoxically, some peace.

*I've had the privilege of learning from many extraordinary teachers. The ones who had the most profound impact were those who encouraged me to be independent-minded, creative and to seek my own answers, not (just) the ones at the back of the book. They helped me become and know myself. These people operated within, and despite, a system that values compliance, obedience, rule-following and conservation over creativity, risk-taking, failure and experimentation. That's what we can change, together, one rehearsal at a time.

I highly recommend reading David Mamet's 'True or False'. You'll probably find it challenging, maybe even insulting! Yes, there are some things that you might not agree with after mulling them over. I don't know anything about acting. I never even did drama at school - too busy doing music! Just replace the word 'actor' with 'musician' or 'conductor' and the word 'theatre' with 'concert hall' and you'll find a wealth of insights that, if nothing else, will cause you to question how you think and behave. What could be better?

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