I've been astounded, these past tricky months, at the explosion of creative thinking and doing by musicians around what can feel like a very shattered world. The news in the papers is universally awful: a third of MU members are thinking of leaving the profession, while the ISM has found that 64 per cent of musicians are considering the same, and there are eye-watering redundancies at many of our leading concert halls. And yet things have come about in six short months that we'd never have dreamed of a year ago, from ENO staging a drive-in La Bohème in the car park at Alexandra Palace, to the ability to tune in online to performances from far and wide, many of which are fortunately starting to charge for viewing, which they should.
With education and social life suffering abominably, creative initiatives that bring people together online for stimulating discussions and masterclasses are coming into their own. Among the best I've come across is Beyond Borders, devised by the conductor Rebecca Miller, which is launching on 2 October, aiming to gather musicians, educators and music industry leaders from all over the world. I'm delighted that she has written us a guest post. Please follow the links at the end to sign up and take part. JD
Can conductors change the world?
A guest post by conductor Rebecca Miller
Who is this crazy woman spouting about conducting masterclasses when the world is falling apart? What relevance do orchestras have to us today? Why should we try to save them? Can orchestras make the world a better place? How? What makes a community? How can we fix the world?
(…just a small insight into the current state of my mind)
From darkness to light
People often ask me if I have a favourite composer. I usually laugh and say, ‘that’s impossible to say - it’s like asking me which of my children I like best’. But if I had to choose one at gunpoint, I would choose Beethoven. Of all the composers who mastered the art of finding light through the darkness… for me, it is Beethoven. Of all the composers who excelled in imagination through extreme limitations… for me, it is Beethoven.
Throughout lockdown, throughout the darkness, the despair, the fear, the longing, I have found a token of strange and sombre comfort somewhere - it wasn’t in Beethoven, but it was in the knowledge that everyone in the world is in the same plight - that everyone is in this isolation - together; that everyone in the world is affected in some way by COVID and that we are all fighting the same fight. When else has it been that the whole world fights the same problem at the same time? That we are completely united as a world, against a single cause? As humans, as societies, we are usually wrapped up in our own problems - we often don’t pay enough attention to the problems of others. But here we are, every single person in the world has heard of COVID, is affected by COVID, wants to rid the world of COVID.
That unified purpose - that’s what an orchestra does on stage. We are all committed to one objective - to play this piece, at this time, on this day, for this audience, to the best of our abilities. Nothing else matters at this moment. It doesn’t matter who the person is next to us - what is the shape their violin, or what is the colour of their skin. All we care about is getting it right - getting it better, and better, as we strive further and further towards an unattainable perfection.
I started Beyond Borders out of isolation, out of a desire to overcome the restrictions on human contact - to bring people together, from across the world, in ways and for discussions and sessions that previously didn’t seem possible. I think we have all accepted - like it or not - that digital meetings and conferences are a way of the present and likely a way of the future - and I have decided to embrace it, rather than reject it. So I turn back to Beethoven. To find the light out of the darkness. To create something imaginative out of extreme limitations.
Beyond Borders aims to bring people throughout the world together through online sessions and masterclasses - to discuss and contemplate community, leadership, and orchestras, but through the eyes of a conductor. Individual sessions and masterclass series - details here and more below.
So… can conductors change the world?
I’m passionate about changing the world. I have been ever since I was little. I did realise at some point, however, that I cannot change it all myself. And I probably can’t change very much about it. But in my own little way, each day, I try to at least make small changes.
I want a world that is kinder, more respectful, more empathetic, and that listens more to each other. Through Beyond Borders I’m trying to take my small corner of the world - conducting an orchestra - and shed a light on the relevance to society of this rather strange and seemingly mysterious job.
I’m passionate about teaching my conducting students that the ‘stick technique’ (arm waving) is only a very small portion of ‘the job’. The majority of the job is actually the people skills, the collaboration, the leadership, the big ideas, and of course all the intense study of the music and its context that is the basis for all of the former. In order to lead you must be able to offer - at the very least - knowledge, ideas, and context, and then hopefully you’re also able to add a dollop of inspiration, trust, and enabling.
I bang on and on in my conducting lessons about stepping outside of yourself - what’s the view like from the other side? What do your co-collaborators need from you? Do you understand their position? Do you understand what they need in order to do what you are asking of them? That you serve the musicians - your team - not the other way around.
For me these skills - putting yourself in context, viewing yourself from the outside, and having a wide perspective - are life skills. And I hope that my students - conducting and orchestral - take these pieces of advice and apply them to their wider lives as human beings. I am convinced that by widening the perspective of a few young conductors, that I am in my own tiny little way, changing the world - just one conductor at a time. And that’s OK with me.
I hope you’ll join me at Beyond Borders - whether as a participant, as a guest at one of our sessions, or as a member of our mailing list to start. We will be rolling out sessions on orchestras, community, conducting, and leadership.
Our first offering is a master class series that touches on all of these topics - Making Waves - October 2-4th, with some fantastic guests from the industry. Please join with us - to help bring the world together and to work towards a kinder and more collaborative society.