Life Lessons from the Study of Choral Conducting
Saturday, August 15, 2015 - Author: Chris Walsh
For many people, music is an interest, a hobby, or a passion. For me, it is all of those things and more. I am a professional writer and musician and have devoted the last several years of my life to the study of choral conducting. Through several teachers, two diplomas, and countless musical experiences, I learned all of the musical lessons I expected: how do you coach the tenor section through a difficult passage, what are the great works of Bach and Brahms, etc. However, through music I also learned some of the defining lessons of my life that I apply daily in my work, study, and relationships. I carry three defining lessons with me that come from three influential teachers in my life.
Perhaps the most expansive lesson I have learned comes from Dr. Donald Nally, Professor of Music at Northwestern University (where I studied for my Masters degree). In his work, Dr. Nally often returns to the idea of why we make music and why humans are naturally drawn to live performance. It is easy to go down a rabbit hole of sentimental lectures on the power of music and how it can solve the problems of the world.
Dr. Nally's message is much more basic: we create and listen to music to find agreement. The fulfillment that we gain from live music stems from this experience: performer and audience member each open themselves up to the music and empathetically agree on the message, whatever it may be. We can agree on beauty, joy, sadness, fear, or anger. Regardless of where the music takes us, that basic premise of agreement is what nourishes us and brings us back to music.
A related lesson comes from Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, a choral conducting legend who was, coincidentally, Dr. Nally's mentor at Westminster Choir College. Dr. Flummerfelt can be a demanding teacher; masterclasses with him were some of the most stressful hours of my life. This intensity comes from a beautiful belief, however, in devotion to music and its careful expression. Dr. Flummerfelt preaches that conducting is about "allowing" and never about "controlling."
This lesson has a powerful effect for musicians but is also applicable to group leadership in any circumstance. As a manager or director, you can often achieve success by tightly controlling your group, but tight control does not tap into the mighty potential of a diverse group of people. True greatness is a result of intelligence, talent, and creativity allowed to flourish. A conductor must guide the music and musicians to do what comes naturally, rather than ruling with an iron fist and suppressing the human need for expression. Likewise, a leader in any circumstance who allows their team to work freely with intelligent guidance will reap the benefits of unbridled skill and innovation.
I've spoken above that I don't believe in music's power to solve the problems of the world. Music is a wonderful thing, but it cannot prevent tragedy, end war, or cure disease. Music's power is in giving us a means to respond to conflict and tragedy, a lesson that was crystallized for me by Māris Sirmais. Professor Sirmais is conductor the Latvian State Choir and my current mentor. He grew up in Latvia under the censorship of the Soviet Union, serving in the mandatory Soviet military until he was 20 years old. Professor Sirmais expressed to me the trauma of this period, in which he had no time to himself for two years and no opportunities for personal expression. Out of this experience, he created a choir for young Latvians: "Kamēr" This choir is known now as one of the finest in the world, remarkable for the vulnerability and expression of its singers.
For Professor Sirmais, the only escape from the Soviet Union was music, and he strives to provide this asylum to all of his singers. It is a conductor's greatest responsibility to provide a space for musicians to express themselves, and I hope to achieve this in the same way as Professor Sirmais.
I don't believe that music is the perfect escape for everyone, though its widespread appeal is undeniable. However, this feeling of asylum can be found through many passions: live music, team sports, quality literature, etc. If you haven't already, found your escape. I believe that it is the true key to a life of beauty.