Follow Me

“Just follow me,” I said to a choir who would be singing for Evensong at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis this past winter.  We were visitors, and I had asked how the choir should process in, so I confidently set off into the nave and up the side aisle as instructed. Halfway back I noted that it was strangely silent behind me.  I glanced quickly over my shoulder and worst fears were realized. The choir had shot straight into the crossing and were already up in the choir stalls. I made an abrupt – yet dignified – turn and joined them, testily whispering as I passed the sopranos that I hoped the choir would follow me better in singing than in processing. The Cathedral’s Dean made his lonely way up the center aisle to begin the service and the choir sang beautifully, so my story has a happy ending, but I would have preferred not to so ably demonstrate the idea that you cannot lead if no one is following.

Errant choirs notwithstanding, within the church we are supposed to think of ourselves as followers.  A noble goal, of course, when we’re talking about following the teachings of Jesus.  In various parts of our lives we’re sometimes called to be a leader though.  Certainly as a parent, in our work places, as part of a community organization, or in a crisis, there are times, no matter how introverted, humble, or inept we think we are, when we will be called to lead.

The mechanics, psychology and effects of leadership are very interesting to me, and considering that part of my work is leading various groups to do something – it isn’t surprising that an article titled “What Do Conductors Do?” would catch my eye. If you’ve never sung or played an instrument under a conductor it would be easy to wonder what’s actually going on up there. All that arm waving, sometimes to the point of histrionics – what does it all mean? What effect does that gesturing really have on the music itself? The article’s author studied the work of esteemed conductor Bernard Haitink in a master class setting, and saw up close just how much effect a great conductor does have on the music.

What Do Conductors Do?

The observation made in the article which was closest to my heart was not about the intellect that a conductor brings to the work – though there’s no denying that a thorough understanding of the music and its history are very important when guiding tens or hundreds of people towards an understanding of what you’re trying to do with a piece of music. For me, it was the role of “dance”, for lack of a better word, involved in conducting. How much can you show with your body language?  Too much talk gets in the way of the “deeply primitive and instinctual” way that a great conductor – or leader of any kind – has in herding a group of people to “breathe, move and feel as one.  It’s a gift:  you’ve either got it or you haven’t,” so states the article’s author.

I’m finally getting to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting by John Mauceri. Lots of great anecdotes and insights into the personalities and styles of famous conductors. I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in understanding more about what might be going on up there on stage. In the opening chapter, a brief history of the role of conductors reminds us that it was only as music became more complicated in the mid-19th century, with larger ensembles and more freedom of phrasing and tempo, that orchestral and choral conductors became obligatory. (There’s a big difference between orchestral and choral conductors, by the way, but that’s a subject for another day.)  Before then, simple cues came from someone within the performing ensemble.

Just for fun, in this centenary year celebrating Leonard Bernstein, here is a clip demonstrating a rather unusual conducting technique – something you could only get away with if you are Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: L.B. “conducting”

Words matter, and I should probably have used a few more in explaining to a choir how to walk into a Cathedral for Evensong… but moving people into new and meaningful directions requires something more than words. Courage of conviction perhaps? Clarity of vision? Walking the walk? I don’t know, but I find the questions and search for answers continually fascinating.

Peace,
Sonya

More?  Here is one of my favorite TED talks: Lead like the great conductors

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Wakener of the Songbirds

A group of singers I’m working with is preparing a program to sing on tour in France this summer, and one of the presenters of a concert series at a cathedral in southern France saw our program and expressed some concern about it not being entirely “religious.”  We hadn’t intended to put together a program of sacred music, but in fact we had done exactly that…just not music that drew exclusively from Christian texts.

The music in question is Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda. My group is learning the four movements of Part III of this early 20th century work: Hymn to the Dawn, Hymn to the Waters, Hymn to Vena, and Hymn of the Travellers. It’s not surprising that Holst was so deeply interested in Indian culture.  He was composing, after all, during the central years of the British Raj, and not so many years after Swami Vivekananda had been warmly received in the West with his teachings on Hinduism and interfaith connections, as well introducing Westerners to the practice of yoga.

The name Rig Veda  comes from the Sanskrit words for “praise” and “knowledge.”  I like that.  It seems to me that the goal for any religious tradition should include those two aspects of human needs – the need to acknowledge something larger than ourselves and our desire to try to understand those things which can’t always be explained by science.

Rig Veda, Part III – Gustav Holst

Based on sacred Hindu texts and translated from the original Sanskrit by the British composer himself, Holst drew inspiration from Indian classical music for much of the music he wrote in the first years of the 20th century.  An interest in astrology continued throughout his life and played some role in his most famous work, The Planets. Hinduism’s sacred texts in the Rig Veda  include more than 1,000 poems, composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and Holst sets 14 of these for mixed chorus, men’s chorus, orchestra, and in Part III, for women’s voices with harp.

Universal themes abound. In Hymn to the Waters the words speak of the cleansing waters flowing from the firmament, healing all in earth.  In Hymn to Vena we sing of a newborn infant who appears on the summit of creation, proclaiming the glory of our common Father, a healing light rejoicing in radiant splendor. Much like the “O Antiphons” of the medieval Christian church, various names are used here for God: Ensign of the Eternal, Mighty One, Wonder-worker, and my favorite, Wakener of the Songbirds. 

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Redefinitions

How many of you have said with some certainty, when you’ve heard rap music, “that’s not music!”? The Pulitzer Prize committee recently thought otherwise when it awarded rapper Kendrick Lamar its award for music. Maybe you had the same thought when you first learned about John Cage’s 4’33. Or maybe you’ve been to an exhibit at, say, London’s Tate Modern, and wondered “how can that be art?”Tate Modern, rocks Who heard about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and said, “HUH?”?

We’re all entitled to our opinions, of course, but don’t these examples give you at least a moment’s pause in weighing the actual worth of your opinions? Doesn’t the idea that your mind might be just a few sizes too small ricochet around your brain when you see that something you don’t value has been honored or appreciated in ways you don’t understand? You don’t wonder if maybe you just might be wrong?  That maybe you need to stay open to new definitions of art and music?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what a new definition for church might be, and some of my ideas would cause a lot of you to say “HUH?” As I think about redefining church for myself, I’m really only clear so far about what it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be boring, nor a place where drama and intellectual curiosity are feared as too showy or esoteric. For me, it can’t be a place of complacency, where people lie about others or to themselves, or a place where good enough and lackluster are equivalent. There is more than enough mediocrity and hypocrisy in our lives already.  There are plenty of forms of entertainment in our lives too, without needing our spirituality to also be entertaining.

I’m starting to see some of the ways that we might redefine church, including those things that people have long described as their experiences of what is sacred outside of church – nature, service to those in need, neighborliness, artistic expression. I don’t think I’m saying anything revelatory when I suggest that traditional church often fails and needs to be reimagined, even as it attempts to honor the very human needs for community and ritual.

No answers, just questions right now. I recently experienced church in a way that colored outside the lines. It was a concert of music and spoken word that illuminated some of those who have, historically, been side-lined in the creation of art – women and African-Americans. I know people on that Friday night were hearing and thinking about things that they hadn’t before, and I suspect their hearts were opened to a more loving way of seeing the world. That feels like church to me.

Peace,
Sonya

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.