In a world where rehearsals are online, performances are on hold and the future is uncertain, what are our ensembles for?
Right now, around the world, conductors and teachers are facing an unstable, rapidly shifting, dangerous landscape.
Many of us feel powerless as schools, districts and governments dictate where we should be when. What bites, is when those directions seem to directly compromise our own health and wellbeing. And that of our students.
We might not be able to control how or when we go back to schools or classrooms, but what we can control is what happens in our lessons and rehearsals.
When all the structures we've built, lived in and strived to maintain crumble, what is left?
The 'what' and the 'how' of what we do have shifted dramatically - whether we like it or not. We're negotiating socially distanced rehearsals, cancelled performances, online classes and many more challenges we never could have foreseen before 2020 came along.
The 'what' and the 'how' of pre-2020 is gone. It might never come back.
Let's first acknowledge that the circumstance sucks, and we wouldn't have chosen it. We've all been traumatised by COVID in some way - our lives have been completely disrupted. We need to acknowledge, consider and work through that trauma. And we also need to show up for our students and ensembles - tomorrow, next week, next month.
Without the 'what' and 'how' of band, orchestra, and choir, what's left?
It's not large ensemble performances.
It's not normal rehearsals.
It's not competitions.
What's left is the 'why'.
If we're clear on why we do what we do, then it's easy for us to reinvent new whats and hows.
But what many of us are discovering are that our 'why' was actually a 'what' or a 'how'.
Why do I conduct this ensemble? To play concerts.
Why do I run this band? To do competitions.
Why do I rehearse? To perform.
It's easy for this to have become the focus of our teaching and conducting, whether we intended it or not. You might think you're the most process-oriented teacher out there - but I bet the disappearance of normal concerts and rehearsals has made you realise we've all got a ways to go with this.
We can always do better and recommit to putting process over product. And right now, we don't have much of a choice anyway!
So, the question now is - what are your whys as a conductor?
What are the great big 'whys' of your ensemble or organisation or class?
To move people?
To give people an opportunity to express themselves?
To provide a safe space for human connection?
To broaden hearts and minds?
To develop more critical, engaged citizens?
To embrace diversity and inclusion?
To cultivate excellence?
To foster creativity and experimentation?
To develop empathetic listeners?
To instil healthy mindsets and approaches?
To inspire life-long learning?
Because if you've got a 'why' like these and you don't need a concert, or a band room...or even music.
Performing large (or small) ensemble music is just one very narrow tool.
And it's only one of many.
There's a whole Home Depot out there.
Now is the time to remember why we're at the work site.
And to get a bigger tool belt.
A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!
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.