Conducting: Outside & Inside


2015 Celebration of a gentle conductor, Martha Burford

Conducting: Outside & Inside

A meditation during election season

            Preparing to perform at the birthday of a dear friend has led me to think that my life has been made of performances. When I write or compose, I want to compress into performances such understandings, favorite words, beloved faces, and lifelong talks with the vocal dead as have meant the most to me. I move from expressions of cadence to words, from words to music, from music to narrative line, and then, going back over everything, from narrative to form and production values. I seem to sink more securely into what I’m suited to do as the expression becomes complete. And of course, what one is suited to do is a calling.

Teaching was once  my calling. It required daily preparation—a script, a role, and props. Improvisation was always needed because the audience was always changing. I found that I learned more through performance than I had through academic training. This did not come as a surprise because whenever I’d had difficulty learning something, I could learn it by portraying and performing it to myself. (This was my key to organic chemistry.) But I did not understand what I was doing until I became a teacher. One of the first books I read at that time was Stanislavki’s An Actor Prepares, a text familiar to young actors. For me, it was about my own way of learning and producing.

Even as early as 1948, I sang and danced to “I’m looking over a four-leaf clover” for the customers gathered in a diner from a cold, snowy night in Rome, New York. For me, performance, learning, and production are the same process. Call it rehearsal—or call it worship. It is through performance that one shows what matters, whatever the calling may be.

Related to this is conduct. All the thinking and effort of production and performance is a conduct of moderation. One moderates between faculties of sensation, action, and cognition. Moderations are little agreements under the guidance of an honest broker or conductor. (Sometimes this is called metacognition. ) Production, learning, and performance also moderate and modulate transactions between ideas, actions, hopes, and achievements. Such moderation is a rehearsal-process fundamental to ethical conduct. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1) because it is the firm and dutiful kind of conduct we must have in order to realize our aspirations—to turn hopes into substance and things not seen into things in good evidence—matters that we have “seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and touched with our hands.” (I John 1:1)

The sustained attention, creative engagement, and compassion in this conduct result in invention, understanding, artistic expressions of all kinds, and mutually compassionate relationships. Again, I am reminded of my generous friend and of my father, whose life was a sustained performance of generosity and devotion.

The moderating, modulating, and transformative processes of rehearsal are exemplified by the give-and-take of performers in a small ensemble. Rehearsal requires the acceptance of limitations and an understanding of context. Whether the performers are other people or the agents of one’s own mind, the role of the conductor is the same. She listens to the whole sound.  If I try to evaluate feelings or other thoughts without a conductor, moderation is not possible. Instead, I will accept only my own experience as valid. I will exaggerate my own perspective and preferences. I will forget that knowledge is provisional and, whether between people, fields, or cultures, not easily translated. Permit the conductor to work and transformations can begin.

Different voicings and thematic emphases can emerge. New patterns of understanding can appear. Then the search is on again for ways to bind hearts to human fundamentals. I’d have to say that I prefer the path of creative engagement and expression to the path of groupthink, self-promotion, and self-confirming assertions, by the way. The way of conducted rehearsals and moderation differs from reducing other views to a version of our own. Just as an actor allows herself to feel and become the person she portrays—just as one who tries to help a learner or another person must do so in a heart-felt, non-manipulative way—so also, one who seeks to moderate the dialogue between different concepts, political views, systems, and cultures must work to grasp and understand all of the voices in the ensemble.  This kind of conducting, whether external or internal, begins with an acceptance of limitations.           

            All of the true conductors in us and among us follow the path to help, to foster life, and to promote growth, learning, and creative imagination. This is the path of moderation: the work that we do by strengthening conductors in our inner worlds and by finding good conductors for the ensembles in our social world. Conductors persist in making little agreements between their struggling performers in order to lead them away from what they have always done to a new work that they can do together, a work of wisdom.  As Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible, and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.”