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.

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Nurturing

If ever there was a recipe for stuffy, dissonant awkwardness, then composing a canon at the interval of a seventh would be it. Yet from these very formal techniques, Bach created a work of such tenderness and melodic beauty in the Goldberg’s 21st variation that one feels held in nurturing hands. Well, I did anyway. Others may find hints of tragedy or depression in Bach’s shift to G Minor with this variation, but I was taken to a place of quiet comfort.

Goldberg Variations, 21 (Nurturing)

There is, of course, the whole “nature versus nurture” debate swirling around the ways that we raise our children, and our pets too for that matter. As adults, we look at our own problems through one lens or the other, too often finding fault in how we were nurtured (or not) as a child, but there is no way to know how much of who we are is actually inherited.

Realistically, we have no control over those things created by nature, such as our genetic make-up, and every bit of control over those things we choose to nurture. The illusion of control that we bring to so many parts of our life is no illusion when we choose to care about something.  We can, after all, nurture hurt or health, friendships or animosities, cynicism or faith. We can nurture our dreams or our resentments.  We can nurture our ideals of perfection, or – and this is a big “or” – we can nurture children and gardens.

I was recently introduced to a song from Leonard Bernstein’s brief 1951 musical/opera, Trouble in Tahiti.  (to be sung on a concert I am doing with some of my favorite people, and you are cordially invited! June 22 St. Columba’s concert flyer). The song’s text, also by Bernstein, tells of a garden – in this case a relationship between husband and wife – that isn’t being nurtured: [There is a garden]

I was standing in a garden, a garden gone to seed, choked with every kind of weed. There were twisted trees around me, all black against the sky, black, and bare, and dead, and dry. My father called, come out of this place. I wanted to go, but there was no way, no sign, no path to show me the way. Then another voice was calling, it barely could be heard. I remember every word: “There is a garden, come with me. A shining garden, come and see. There, love will teach us harmony and grace. Then love will lead us to a quiet place.”

Taking the time to nurture anything, from our talents to our spiritual health, is not easy in this world of instant gratification.  But nurturing those things we care about, and allowing ourselves to be nurtured in turn by that which calls us to a quiet place of harmony and grace, sound like a recipe for happiness.

Peace,
Sonya

Please come: Thursday, June 22, 7:30 p.m. Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton, playing music for two pianos by Bernstein, Gershwin, Glass, and Reich. With special guest Joan Phalen singing songs of Bernstein and Sondheim.  St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, 4201 Albemarle Street, NW. [flyer] Donations gratefully accepted to benefit the work of empowering the homeless that is done by Samaritan Ministries of Greater Washington.


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.