Why and how does change happen? How do we innovate, lead, experiment and grow to create a better future? What compels us to remain stuck, fixed, unyielding?
Right now, we're in a remarkable time. Just as we're remarking on it now, so too will people in the future.
Just about everyone in the world has experienced unprecedented disruption, upheaval and challenge in the last 8 months. Our daily lives, our work, our livelihoods have been transformed.
Everyone working in and around large ensembles has had the rug pulled out from under them. No concerts. No rehearsals. Distanced. Online. Hybrid. On again. Off again. We've had to adapt quickly in the face of crisis. Like everything, some have done it better than others.
Change isn't easy.
There's lots of experimentation and failure. And if you've been leading an ensemble through this pandemic, and you've tried to do something better, then odds are you've failed publicly, in front of the people you seek to serve. Your ensemble, your colleagues, or even your audience.
And it probably sucked for you. A lot.
Because in classical music, we're mostly trained to never fail publicly. Perfection or death. Getting it right is the ultimate accomplishment.
And so we sit in our practice rooms or with our scores and our focus narrows. Away from ourselves - our musical intuition, our creativity, our ideas. Away from the audience and ensemble in front of us. Away from people.
Our focus narrows to a piece of paper. Some dots.
In our desperate search for precision, we lose our humanity. And the humanness of the music we're gifted to share with others.
We're human. Flawed. Imperfect. All of us.
We're also unique. With a point of view to share, and a voice to be heard.
Now is the time for all of us to pause and ask:
What compels us to remain stuck, fixed, unyielding?
A fear of getting it wrong. A fear of being different. Of breaking convention. An obsession with an impossible perfection. A need to follow the rules. The perceived safety of compliance.
Why and how does change happen? How do we innovate, lead, experiment and grow to create a better future?
By showing up with courage in the face of fear. By bravely trying new things without a guarantee they'll work. Leading by example to show those around us we can choose change and learning over fear and stasis.
By holding space for those around us to do the same - without us trying to fix them, or constrain them by what's gone before.
By lifting up those around us who are bravely challenging 'the way we've always done things' with 'you know what we could do?!'
As we slowly work out what 'COVID-normal' means for music the world over, we need to look back at the last year. We proved we could change. We could pivot. We could re-iterate. It's possible.
And it's possible to keep doing it and keep moving forward.
If we choose to.
Today I was inspired to write by composer William Bolcom's 2013 blog post The Future of the Orchestra - how one aspect of this institution has been stuck since the 1910s and the stifling downstream effects it's had on composers and music today. If you'd like to laugh at the joyous ingenuity that springs from 'You know what you could do?' thinking, watch Bolcom and his wife, Joan Morris, performing Threepenny Things.
And by a conversation I overheard this week. "In 1799 at the Paris Conservatoire, they we're arguing against the model of students only learning 6 pieces a year, in favor of a broader education"...and yet here we are in 2020. Two hundred and twenty one years later. How many pieces do our students learn each year? Why? What is the value of this (maybe deep, but usually superficial) narrow education?
Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.
We all know that expressive performances are way more engaging, satisfying and interesting for all involved. So why do we often get stuck grinding through notes, leading performances that barely get the dots across? What can we do about it?