Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBT community [1], but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBT and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

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Follow the Leader

“The conductor must not only make his orchestra play, he must make them want to play. He must exalt them. Lift them. Start their adrenaline pouring. Either by pleading or demanding or raging — it doesn’t matter. It is not so much imposing his will on them like a dictator. It is more like projecting his feelings around them…”

— Leonard Bernstein, in his Omnibus television lectures on conducting

This past week, I’ve had the opportunity to play in a series of conducting masterclasses held at my school.  Fifteen conductors — some young professionals, some well-established music educators, from the U.S. and abroad — conducted the wind orchestra and received critiques from renowned clinicians, including my school’s own professor of conducting.  The experience of playing for fifteen different conductors at various levels of their training was so enlightening.  First of all, I realized newly just how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to play under the baton of my school’s amazing conducting professor.  Through these masterclasses, I feel like I learned more about conducting than the masterclass participants did!  Seriously.  I had no idea about just how subtle conducting can be.  Example: one of the clinicians explained that if the baton is pointed slightly above the wrist, the ensemble will produce a brighter, more articulate sound; if it is pointed slightly below the wrist, it’ll create a darker, more fluid sound.  I didn’t believe it until he demonstrated.  The difference was mind-blowing.

I wondered, then — how do we, as musicians, know to play brighter when the baton is slanted a half-centimeter above the wrist?  No one taught us this.  The only thing we were ever told that a conductor does is keep the beat — but we intrinsically know that they do so much more.  The conductor is as much a musician as any of the players.  Their instrument is the orchestra.  Like the musicians they conducts, they’ve studied their “instrument” for years on end, practicing, perfecting.  Becoming a good conductor, let alone a great one, is just as difficult as becoming a great violinist, or oboist, or doctor, or journalist.  It requires incredible amounts of dedication and training and passion and charisma.  This video is one of the best, most innovative explanations of conducting I have ever encountered — seriously, watch it!

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize just how intricate an art conducting truly is.  Non-musicians (and even some musicians!) see the conductor as that guy who gets up on stage and waves their arms around.  It’s easy — anyone can do it!  Case in point:  Continue reading