Finding My Groove
It seems that every time I’ve written the date in my journal this week, it’s been a shock. Is it really the start of December?
Perhaps a (covid-induced) quieter couple of months has led to time going so quickly. Though classes have continued, I have found the majority of my time has been focused on score study and developing my skill-set as a conductor and general musician. It’s a real treat to delve so deep into repertoire, and to have time free for reflection and personal development, too. Still, I’m getting used to the flexibility in my time and being continually self-motivated.
Lists and schedules have been a God-send for me, as has the consistent set of tasks that I work on little and often. Without the pressure to be perfect immediately, I’ve been able to work at certain skills for 15-30 minutes each day; knowing that because it is every day, I will improve, even if it takes time. And I have.
Tasks that have this regular treatment include work on my sight-singing, score reading and keyboard skills, baton work (a conductor’s scales and arpeggios), and Dutch. On top of this, each day I’ve cycled through the repertoire I’m preparing for my upcoming competitions, working on memorisation and internalising the music through gestural development.
Sounds fancy but essentially I spend vast amounts of time in the mirror being viciously self-critical about each gesture in my conducting. Is it precisely what I intend to communicate? Could it be smaller, bigger, more horizontal, vertical, legato, staccato, etc, etc? How is the character? What is my face doing? How am I standing? For each particular phrase, I will also often practise a few variants - expanding my toolbox for when I am with the orchestra. It may be that the gesture I intend to use isn’t quite right, so it’s good to have a plan ‘b’ or ‘c’ gesture to hand.
The golden rule of conducting is, if something goes wrong in the orchestra, it’s probably the conductor’s fault. So I always need to be prepared to adapt what I’m doing at any given moment.
After a morning of skill-development, I move onto score study. For the past month, I’ve been working through repertoire, preparing for upcoming competitions in London and Rotterdam. Each composer, each work, requires a slightly different approach…I’m discovering. Anything written before 1900, I generally begin with a full-scale analysis - of the harmonies and tonalities used, structure, form, melodic development, metric structure. Later music, perhaps harmony is less important but rhythm more so, or the compositional technique used needs to be explored and analysed.
Then, I start to try to hear the music in my head: singing through lines, maybe playing it on the keyboard. I begin to make decisions about things such as articulation, dynamics, colours, sounds, character. Indeed, the character is often a starting pointing - a springboard from which other decisions are made. What’s the story being told, and how do the other elements - the particulars - fit into this story.
Supplementing this analysis of the work itself, I search for inspiration in books and recordings, as well as always immersing myself in the world around me, and the relationships around me.
For reading, I’ll try to read the most contemporary scholarship on the work I can find - what do we know now about what was happening then? How can this inform my decision-making? How can I contextualise what this means for audiences now?
With recordings, I tend to select 4 or 5 (or more!), spanning the past 100 years, and I simply listen and write down what the conductor does in their interpretation. Generally, it’s hard for me not to make taste judgements, and I find that this process helps me to consolidate what I like and don’t like. It also adds tools to my kit. Maybe one recording poses a melody in a way I hadn’t considered; or maybe it appears that two tempos can work equally well, offering a choice if my primary decision doesn't work in rehearsal.
Flexibility is key when working with an orchestra, so, again, I keep interpretation clear but not fixed, and allow room for an open-mindedness where two or more options may work equally well. I allow space to determine specific choices based on the needs, preferences, and strengths of the particular orchestra and people I am working with.
If I’m focused, and start early enough, skill development and score study work is all usually all done by around 2pm! Which allows me the rest of the day for odd jobs - like writing blogs! - and inspiring trips in my surroundings. I’ve been trying not to set myself too much work to do, so that each day I can complete tasks, rather than leaving them half done. Little and often again being the key for thriving when faced with extended periods of self-motivated study.
Looking back, the past month has been full of work and fruitful days, so I suspect the time ‘flying by’ part is not a lack of stimulation, but just the similarity of my days. It was excellent to visit Enschede and work with the wonderful Phion Orchestra a couple of weeks ago. Self-motivated work, personal study, is vital and hugely satisfying, but I find it is improved by weeks where I am doing something completely different.
It’s a blessing to once more be amongst live musicians, coming prepared with my thoughts and ideas, and ready and willing to assist the conductor. My time studying and preparing - developing skills - proves to be fruitful when I’m on placement and I find myself to be of use. It’s a privilege to be part of the artistic process, to offer something and see it bear influence or improvement to the performance and vision. I’m excited to see how the micro-moments in my time of personal preparation impact the powerful meeting with other musicians as I continue to learn and grow as a musician and conductor.