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Strange beasts 4

Rehearsal 3/8 done. No panic as yet. I spent the whole rehearsal on two pieces: a work by an American composer Paul John Rudoi, which will be premiered next week and the longest movement, the sheep tango, from the Bodin suite. They are now pretty much in order, although they do need singing through. The thing that makes me calm is that we found the character of both works – as well as well-nigh all the notes – and they already sound really good.

Two thoughts arose at this point of the process: one concerning premieres and the other about how you tackle big and demanding tasks. As we are in the middle of a beast program, I’ll start with the latter. It namely involves an old friend of mine: the Instant Gratification Monkey.

There is a brilliant post by Tim Urban called Why procrastinators procrastinate, i.e. fill their time with anything but the relevant to-do list at hand. His explanation is the Instant Gratification Monkey that, seated firmly on our shoulder, whispers in our ear, enticing us to do something nice instead of tackling the real challenge at hand. When writing a paper, this can be hanging out on social media or watching Netflix (or animal videos, a real favourite if mine, for I am a true procrastinator at heart); when leading a rehearsal process, this is avoiding the toughest pieces and working on the ones that give a quicker gratification. O boy, do I know that whisper…

There is only one thing that the Monkey is afraid of and that banishes it from our shoulder: the Panic Monster. The Monster appears at the last minute when there just is absolutely no avoiding the inevitable (writing the paper, tackling the most difficult piece). Well, you might say, what is the problem? You get it done by deadline anyway and have had fun on the way. The problem is that you don’t really get it done as well as you would have liked, and you feel stress and guilt all through the process. And when you are leading a group through the process, you feel guilt for the underachievement of the group. It is not nice. Believe me, I know from experience.

So how has the monkey fared so far in Strange beasts? Not too well, actually. I have pretty much gone for the jugular of the toughest pieces – maybe excepting one Bodin movement that is new to me as well as the choir. I will need to take it on tomorrow and hope that I haven’t under-estimated its difficulty (we did sing it through once last week, so I should be OK…).

The other theme of this post is premiering pieces. This is at the same time a little scary – there is no reference to turn to – and very exciting. Every new work is an adventure that will probably take you to places you didn’t expect. First you just try to work out how it should sound; then find the character of the piece; then make music of it; and finally, do your best to reveal its (for lack of a better word) soul. With a skilled amateur choir, one has time on one’s side, whereas with professionals I need to have taken almost all the steps I outlined above with the piece before I meet the choir (remember last week’s thoughts about being of so much more use as a conductor when you have done the piece before – with the premieres, that is, by definition, impossible).

At the same time, with an amateur choir, I often felt the commissioned pieces were a little too difficult (and almost always much longer than outlined in the commission!) for the group and just getting to step one, where everyone knew what it was meant to sound like, took far too long in the process and left too little time for the other steps. Ironically, with a professional choir, most of the premieres could actually be more demanding, but as all sensible composers want to ensure that the pieces can have broader exposure, they do not want to write the piece for professional groups only.

There was a production meeting this afternoon where we went through the practicalities of the last rehearsal and concert with the stage and sales managers. This approach was new to me and I can only say it would save a lot of Panic Monster moments for all performing groups to do something similar well before the concert. After the meeting everyone in the leadership group knows the timings, the stage setup, risers, lights etc. One of the benefits of joining a seasoned organization.

After about 10 days of blue sky, the clouds arrived in the morning, only to disperse towards the evening. No rain is expected until later in the week, with temperatures of ca. 10 degrees. The past weekend was absolutely glorious with blue skies and the last remnants of the fall colors still burning in the sunlight.


One comment on “Strange beasts 4

  1. Joanna Dundas says:

    I am greatly enjoying these blog posts! Thank you so much for sharing. It is particularly great to read your thoughts on conducting and music direction challenges of difficult music. I look forward to the concert.


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