Committing to Magic

Posted by jlubans on October 24, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

It was fortuitous that only a week after leading a workshop in Atlanta on work place coaching – in which I mentioned the peer coaching of the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra*, (pictured above) - I was able to attend a rehearsal by a student orchestra (minus a conductor) coached by a musician from Orpheus!

Martha Caplin, Orpheus violinist, would coach an evening rehearsal of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, "Scottish," by the Manhattan School of Music student orchestra.

While still early, I was one of the last to get to the John C. Borden Auditorium, the School’s main performance space with its over 800 seats. The 25-30 musicians for the Bach piece were already there, either in the seats just below the elevated stage or up on the stage, tuning their instruments. All the energetic droning and sawing suggested to me that the group was wound up and ready to go.

Liz Mahler, the Orpheus coordinator (and a Juilliard graduate violinist), introduced me to Martha. Martha was in a pink bolero jacket – a half smock style and emanated an immediate friendliness, a kindliness approaching what I would call at evening’s end a motherly-ness or the loving ambiance of a favorite aunt.

Liz let me know the orchestra is zeroing in on its Friday performance, three days away! Instead of working a full semester at learning how to select the music, take responsibility for rehearsal and for performance, this student orchestra started at full speed, two weeks ago!

With only two more rehearsals after tonight for their three-piece performance, Liz cautioned me that Martha would intervene more than might be expected in a self managed rehearsal. I wondered how much she would revert to the conductor/leader model.

Unusually, as they began the Bach piece, all the violins were standing, 6 or 8 players in all. When I asked Liz why, she said the standing was unique to this piece, kind of like having multiple soloists.

(As the first bars of Bach’s music filled the hall, I made a note in my journal: “How nice to be here!” My relief probably was in large part due to the bother of getting to NYC; the first few notes of the music were indeed exhilarating and made it all worthwhile.)

To my untrained ear, the students seem to hurry their way through the Bach piece. And, there was no eye contact, each player focused on his or her paper score.

As promised, Martha steps in – in a gentle way. “OK”, says Martha, her violin in hand. “Your tempo is OK; remember this is an overture; you want to let the audience hear what is coming, but your playing should not have a feeling of anxiety." Use “bigger beats”. “Big, big beats”, she demonstrates with her arms, gesturing from her toes up. “(It’s) different from rushing through, rushing ahead. You are right about the enthusiasm (in the music) Yes! BUT, Ahh. Wait for it, the ahhhh for the audience.”

She demonstrates with her violin, light, advises, “listen to the brass”, be in touch all the time." “Already better.”

Martha uses both “adjusting" and "reinforcing" statements” – the ones I talked about in my workshop – to good effect. Her criticism is well balanced, with more pats on the back than asking the players to modify a sound or tempo. Students respond to her, engage with her. There’s a growing comfort, an easy willingness to try stuff, to adjust toward what Martha is telling them she is hearing.

Martha’s now up on stage, alongside the second violin in the middle, playing. Then, back in the center aisle out front of the stage, keeping time, swaying with hands and arms.

She cautions a second time about the anxiety. Then, “Way better”. I can see a concurrent agreement among the players. Now the clarinetist's eyes are in contact with others.

Martha is back on stage, walking in their midst.

She further sets them at ease, describes that their rushing, even running, through the piece, may result in missing, forgetting a nuance, An, “Oh, shit”…moment (Much laughter) of what might have been had we taken it slower. She asks them for “more air, more delighted-ness” in the playing.
Martha moves with the music, displays her fondness for it. Now, a high thumbs up for the group.

A cellist player is out in auditorium, listening. He stops the group and gives feedback to the group.

Another student violinist goes into the auditorium to hear, encourages them to play “like with the knees” to simulate the movement in the playing, the feeling in the music.

“OK”, even I can pick up the added richness to the music by the students' slowing down. More violinist feedback from out front. Martha: “Really good, sounds great.”

There are now six 6 players out listening to the collective sound, “lovely.”
Lots of discussion now, peer coaching going on in every direction.

Martha talks a bit about different ways of playing this piece, two styles; she prefers them to make a “commitment to magic” Martha demonstrates on her violin what THAT sounds like.

I’m picking up layers of sound, as the students fine-tune their instrumental groups. A coming together.

A touch of anxiety reasserts. “Bach, trust him”, encourages Martha. “Listen to the trumpet”. It's silvery smooth sound, glides above the orchestra.

More discussion among the players, only a few do not say anything. In general, highly participatory. “Just try it a bit,” Martha promotes experimentation.
The timpanist speaks up. (A first in my observing rehearsals for several years!) Martha tells whom to listen to for the sound in a particular segment. “Listen to the cello.” “Getting better, just trust it.”

The extra players for the Mendelssohn piece are coming in now. Different students coming in – checking their cell phones instead of talking to each other.

This is a larger musical piece; the winds and brass will be on risers. Tuning up again. There’s a new concertmaster and the person who was the 1st violin in the Bach is now a second fiddle. Martha is side by side with them. Her mannerisms, her gestures, are always encouraging the students, welcoming them to try out something different, to push themselves, Martha’s coaching is more about showing, suggesting, than about telling, directing.

These students want to be coached by someone like Martha. By someone who knows what she is doing. And, they listen to each other!

The orchestra is now double. It starts to play, Martha is gesturing, more up, be involved. (Now it’s slow, draggy). A “dreamy” sequence someone calls it. Soporific, too, I note.

“More subtle” asks Martha. In her feedback, Martha alludes to the sensation of a “heart warming up”.

She asks for more listeners in audience, promoting and prompting their individual roles in giving feedback, being proactive – after all there is no musical director, no conductor to tell them. The winds speak up. There are as many as 4-6 listeners in audience.

The concertmaster acknowledges the 3rd violin, out on the wing of the orchestra. Martha plays alongside the concertmaster, walks over to the winds, side by side. and plays alongside the satellite player on the wing.
Martha models the tempo, tone, and gives them all a reminder about the time – they have until 9:30PM.

She asks, “What do you want to do?” They decide.

Martha tells the brass when to kick in. She stands next to them. “Let’s see what happens. Try it out.” She is a coach/leader, very much in the middle, alongside other leaders. She inspires conversations with her and among other musicians. She demonstrates - quickly always with minimum airtime – no speeches or historical lectures about the music. There’s time and space for peer coaching to take place.

*In chapter 17: “Peer Coaching for the New Library”
of LfM, I elaborate on my “take-aways” from observing several student orchestras learning to play without a conductor. In summary, I saw these as essential elements for the orchestra’s success, and by extension, for the success of any self-managing group:

Collective listening
Time management
Delegation of responsibility
Being prepared
Being proactive
Communication – talking - giving feedback

The not so effective coach

Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

While my recent “Committing to Magic” story tells of coaching that results in a higher level of musicality among student musicians - along with personal and team development - the reader probably knows that not all coaching is alike or at the same level. Not everyone has Coach Martha Caplin’s gift for relationship building.

So, it might be helpful for me to define the other end of the coaching spectrum: the not-so-effective-coach.

I’ve observed a rehearsal of student musicians when the coaching did not help; it may even have hindered the performance.

In the coaching chapters in my book and in my workshops I mention five essential elements* that are shared between the coach and the person(s) coached, in this case, the student musicians. Each shared element has an average range and can vary from below average to high above average.

A below average score indicates that the coaching could be better. I admit my index is imperfect and it is open to (mis)interpretation. I could be wrong in my observation of this one rehearsal, but here is what I learned about HOW NOT to coach,

Since using negative examples is not my favorite way to explain something, I’ll keep it brief:

- Be directive. Minimize interaction. Let them know who’s in charge through posture and the use of interrogation instead of conversation. Do not promote, demonstrate or suggest ways for the students to hear the music – among themselves or out front in the auditorium, listening and observing.

- Use up airtime; hold tight the (invisible) mike. Give long explanations of the piece being rehearsed. Tell the group, but do not encourage a response. You are the expert, you are the conductor. (Ooops! That slipped out.)

- If at first your technique for some musical point does not get results, try, try again. The players’ reluctance and lack of engagement means they are slow learners and do not fully understand what you are doing for them. Tell them they are “blessed” to be performing this piece; imply they need to step up their efforts.

- Ignore the work done in previous rehearsals. Be oblivious to the work of the student core group, those instrumental heads who have thrashed out the tempo and interpretation and mood of the piece. After all, you have played this piece many times and know how it should go.

- Do not expect to learn from the student players. Instead provide expert direction for them to imitate. As you know, the outside expert brings considerable expertise to solving problems. If the players have anything to teach you, there’d be no reason for you to be there.

- Finally, if the group is not talking, don’t stop the rehearsal to find out what is going on even if you are coaching them the Orpheus skills on how to be self-managing, self-directing, and self-sufficient musicians!

*James Flaherty. Coaching – Evoking Excellence in Others. Boston: Butterworth/Heinemann, 1999.
Elements of coaching:
1. Relationship
2. Pragmatic
3. Two tracks.
4. Always/already.
5. Techniques don’t work.

“The Maestro Complex” Part 1.

Posted by jlubans on May 10, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Vivian Hagner
While in New York city in April I had the pleasure of observing the violinist Viviane Hagner rehearse with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. She was their guest soloist for a performance at Carnnegie Hall. If you follow this blog, you know that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (composed of between 25 -40 musicians depending on the piece of music) plays without a conductor. There is no boss. The players make all musical decisions (tone, mood, interpretation, tempo, etc.) Each musician is free to offer well-considered and well-informed commentary within the rehearsal time frame. The collective goal is an outstanding performance. While I have written extensively about their democratic process, I always find fresh insights at each rehearsal about their unique way of making decisions.
One of my on-the-road reads was “What Do Conductors Do?” by Justin Davidson, New York magazine’s music critic. He tells - a la George Plimpton or maybe, Walter Mitty – of his adventures in conducting the Juilliard School of Music student orchestra. Not a rank amateur, Mr. Davidson is a student of music and once conducted a few of his own compositions in college. And, he spent two months diligently preparing, with two Juilliard conducting coaches, before taking wand in hand for the 6-minute overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Still, Mr. Davidson is to be admired for his adventurous spirit and frame-by-frame analysis of how he did it. You can see a brief video of what happened at this .
My interest in his story was more about how he led the orchestra than his musical interpretation of Mozart. The anxiety, the “Maestro Complex,” he feels about his leadership - that “the person responsible for the totality of sound produces none” - probably is similar to that of a work group meeting for the first time with a new manager or leader. The workers, just like the musicians, are thinking: “Does this person know what he is doing? Can we have confidence, trust in his leadership? And, the leader shares in the uncertainty: “How am I coming across? Am I being clear about my expectations? Are these people on board with my leadership? Will we excel or muddle along?”
There are multiple theories about how much we should involve workers in decisions about getting the job done. Some managers prefer to direct the worker – the expert manager knows more (he or she certainly believes that) than anyone else therefore it is for him or her to make all the decisions. Others, less certain about knowing it all, take a more democratic approach and expect the worker to have ideas on how to do a better job. While this manager “lets go”, he or she is no different from the micromanager in wanting results. In my experience, a manager’s genuinely “letting go” results in more innovation and higher productivity than does the omniscient micromanager.
The conductor, as a highly visible leader, gives us insights into the process of leadership and followership. Conducting is not karaoke – a version of singing along. In a live musical performance the conductor is literally a beat ahead of the orchestra. The orchestra follows. Like what a dancing instructor told me: “On the dance floor, good leaders initiate the movement they want from their partner and then follow the movement they've created.” That’s sort of like it is between the conductor and the musician. What’s unknown is how much input the musicians have had in the decision making prior to the performance; how much collaboration has gone on among the musicians and between them and the conductor in developing the interpretation and delivery of the music. Lots, some or none?
20120516-Orpheus USEIT.jpeg
Caption: Orpheus at ease.
Today’s rehearsal, at the Kraft Center on W. 115th Street, was Ms. Hagner’s first time playing with Orpheus
Ms. Hagner rehearsed two pieces: Henry Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor and Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Major.
I got there late, but soon after I sat down and listened, I was captivated by the bel canto quality of Ms. Hagner’s playing. I use the operatic term "beautiful singing" deliberately because it has multiple meanings about musical depth, breadth and range. The term fits what I heard: a lightness and richness, transcending and soaring alongside that of the orchestra.
Ms. Hagner, in jeans, sweater and flat shoes, plays with energy, rising up on her toes, moving about, playing toward the orchestra. (Good naturadly, a violinist reminds her that she should face front, not toward the orchestra. I think she was enjoying the collaboration so much that it was natural to turn to the orchestra.) I picked up on what must have been an immediate camaraderie – a liking and trusting of each other. (That said, I discovered during the 2.5 hour rehearsal Ms. Hagner's unstated charm that draws people to her.)
Today’s concert master (and first violin – for both pieces was
Martha Caplin.
As the concertmaster, she is in charge of the “core”, the group of 4 or 5 musicians who make pre-rehearsal musical decisions. And, as concertmaster, she led and facilitated today's rehearsal. She is not, however, the only voice offering guidance and direction. At Orpheus ideas can come from any section of the orchestra.
Along with their patented forms of giving and sharing of information with each other – “say it, play it, sing it” -I have often seen Orpheus musicians stop playing and go out into the rehearsal hall to listen to the music. Today at least a half dozen players took turns to stand, a few steps behind me, and listen intently – score in hand. Then the musician describes what he or she heard and makes suggestions on what needs to be improved in the overall sound, pace and balance. Or, it can be a request to develop a less quantifiable quality, more nuanced, such as making the music “more sensitive” or “less mushy.” During the Beethoven piece an observer offered: “(The sound is) not as convincing; it should be darker, richer.”
Nor was Viviane reluctant to offer her ideas: At one point: (That was) “a little thick, get more air in the sound.” At another, she tells them, “That was good, that was great – we got it. One more time.” Shortly after, there is a mess up, but it results in good humor, not any blaming or finger pointing. Everyone wants the piece to work. That is what drives the discussion and decision-making; it is not one interpretation competing for first place. Rather the discussion, the back and forth, is about making the most of this musical piece. The process is collaborative; no one player has the answer. Instead the answer evolves, builds as the group rehearses and talks about it, tweaking, improving, and clarifying.
The group is having so much fun that Ronnie Bausch, a veteran member of Orpheus, admonishes: “Let’s do it for real; too many jokes, asides; now, all together.” The result gets applause.
Making decisions like this – typically the realm of the musical director - means knowing the ins and outs of the music, literally “knowing the score”. Each musical selection has at least a dozen or more Orpheans who hear the entire work, not just the sound his or her section makes. It is this shared overview (the big picture) that leads to the performance the orchestra wants. It is Orpheus’ unique sound.
At rehearsal’s end, I asked Ms. Hagner, “Did you miss having a conductor make decisions?” She smiled, “I did not miss one today.”
(Part 2 of "Maestro Complex" is here.)