A Fine and Private Place
I distinctly remember during my rookie season being somewhat disconcerted to find that the first flutist in the top band, an excellent player by anyone’s standard, never used a music stand when she practiced. Rather, she simply laid her music on her pillow and sat crouched over on her bed reading the music placed, nonchalantly I suspect, on her billowing makeshift stand. Horrified and mystified, I soon made inquiries as to the practice habits of other students and learned all to quickly that few made use of the proper equipment available to them, and that no one had a practice sanctuary in which to escape the trials and tribulations of daily life. Most practiced in bedrooms shared with siblings, some in family rooms with televisions or radios going frill tilt, and others still in the garage, their only escape from the hustle and the bustle of family life. Sadly, some told me they could only practice when family members or were not around as parents, brothers or sisters, and sometimes even pets, objected.
How could this be allowed to happen? How could it be that day to day living got in the way of a young person’s musical growth and no one sees that this was causing irreparable harm? The thought of a clarinet student sitting crossed legged on a bed using a case as a music stand began to haunt me. Sorry, wrong work. The thought began to obsess me, and I began a crusade to teach not only the proper practicing procedures, but also to advocate the need for a proper practice facility. However, it was quite some time before I realized that for all my preaching the one person I was unable to reach, the one person who was obviously sleeping in the back row when I was on the pulpit, was myself. I had an office, a desk, a piano, a metronome, all the colored pencils a teacher could ever hop to have, rulers and erasers of all shapes and sizes, but I did not have a sanctuary, that fine and private place to run off where imaginative gymnastics and fanciful logic could freely commingle.
This was brought to my attention one day when an administrator noticed that as she passed me driving into work one day I was apparently reading. She was right. I had a pocket score resting on the steering column so I could snatch quick glances at the score when stopping at the numerous intersections that conveniently halted me on the ride into school. I even remember deliberately trying to be caught by red lights so a few more moments of musical meandering could be accomplished. My colleague pleaded with me to be careful and, as I thought about my musical complicity, which I dared to dignify by the term, study, it occurred to me that most of my so called score study took place in my car. Other favorite haunts included the band office, where during nutriently deficient lunches with students bustling about, I attempted to catch a few quality moments between bites and gulps, staff meetings where I hid scores inside school folders ready to act violently at the mention of block scheduling and budgets cuts while musing over ways of balancing a chord in Schuman’s “George Washington Bridge,” or at the desk in the main corridor when on hall monitoring duty. Looking back, I see that I was working my craft with the compunction of a beggar picking for any morsel, unable to feast on a complete meal. Yes I was the equivalent of the percussionist “practicing.” Exaltation on the thighs.
The only comfort I could take from all this was that I was not alone. Many of my colleagues were no better off, and it soon became evident that there was an epidemic at hand. Hardly anyone I knew had a proper place to study. Some had big desk, even neat ones, and some had all the computer equipment you could ask for, some had darkrooms, and complete workshops in their garages, but the practice sanctuary where the sole business was score preparation was not to be fund. This is not to say that no one was studying his or her craft diligently. Heavens no, it was just that they, too, prepared rehearsals and studied scores under the same dreaded circumstances. This was made all the worst by the knowledge that there was a time when I had a study routine and space to create. Remembering those days of bachelorhood when I woke before dawn, and in the silence of my apartment carefully worked my way through every measure of every part, I decided that I was tired of learning the music between the cracks, the need was not the knowledge as to how to study a score, but rather the proper place to do it. The issue that needed to be urgently addressed was one of space: a space that would allow the efficient use of time, the key to successfully nurturing the art.
If you had the perfect place to study, what would it look like? Would it be a glamorous parlor complete with oak desk and a grand piano strewn with old manuscripts? Maybe there is a silk robe and a clay pipe about, when serious work need be done. Perhaps you picture yourself in a garden as you sit peacefully among the flowers and fauna and you have nothing more than a score and a pencil. Whatever you imagine, it is probably a sure bet that it is not quite the reality you are living. To build a study, from the beginning and to imagine yourself as the artist you wish to be, or, better yet, the more perfect version of the artist you already are. Begin fanciful and luxuriant and then move on from there.
After a bit of imaginative play, it will be time to set to serious work building that perfect work place. By far the most important necessity is seclusion, a place far away from any kind of interruption. With seclusion comes, hopefully, silence, every conductor’s best friend. It is always welcome given the noisy and hectic life style of most music directors. When the world slows down, when alone with your thoughts, insights will surely follow. In quiet contemplation with a score, the true course of rehearsal preparation will be revealed. The physical manifestation of the conducting, and the pedagogic mapping of the rehearsals are all a result of the drama that occurs in a silence that allows the imagination to have a voice. Logically, and with ease, ideas and relationships will come to the conductor and, though maybe not profound, seem hidden throughout the course of the anxious day. For this reason, any place at school is out of the question unless it can be accessed after hours. Even then it is not advised, as it will be too much of a temptation to fiddle time away on daily administrative tasks rather then solely musical matters. Seclusion is the first criterion, but for may the most impossible to accommodate. Here remember that it is not necessary to be physically far away from noise and distractions; only that when entering your arena, you have a sense of distance and tranquility.
There are really two types of study areas. One is a permanent place, as a library in one’s home, and another is the portable one that allows one to set up shop wherever and whenever one chooses. What matters most here is that the conductor is able to work without distractions or confusion caused by inefficiency. In al full blown study area all the reference material may be close at hand as well as a library of scores and parts. A collection of recordings, invaluable in research and programming decisions and all placed in some concise order, can be at your command. The availability of a keyboard, necessary computer equipment, and other instruments may all be added to the space, availing the conductor of every aspect of the craft. Too, if the study is as inviting as it is complete, it will soon become a joy to return to at the end of an impossibly busy day. However, a study does not need to be a permanent edifice. The portable study has the advantage of getting one out of the school or home into a place more conducive to intense study such as the local library or church, and in the summer months a neighborhood park. But again, it is not the physical distance that matters; and for this reason, maybe a trip to the bedroom with the door closed could be all that is necessary. There is a variety of portable desktops made that have adjustable writing surface and side pockets that can be easily transported anywhere in the home or garden. If stocked with the right equipment, pencils, metronome, and a small keyboard, you would have a miniature study at your service whenever the muse calls. Find the place and you will soon find the time.
Certainly it is time to do away with the kitchen table or the desk used to pay the bills. Put an end to the sprawling charts that litter the den floor and treat yourself to the serenity of a proper workspace made just for you by you. Create for yourself that place where she has no desire to tolerate your halfhearted efforts and endless distractions. Score study, and everything that entails, is the key to a conductor’s success; but without a proper place to do the study demanded all will be lost. It is also important to remember that without thoughtful study nothing new or truly individualistic can be presented. The walk to the mountaintop might be as simple as a walk down to your basement. Just be sure to close the door once you are there.