Metaphors and Professionalism

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There were some interesting discussions over on ChoralNet at the end of January about the use of metaphors in rehearsal, and the response they got from various types of musician. There seemed to be a consensus that metaphors are useful when working with community choirs peopled by amateur singers, but that they might be found objectionable to other performers.

Allen Simon said:

Of course, this is what instrumentalists hate about choir directors: that we use these metaphors instead of simple musical terms like loud and soft.

and was challenged by John Howell, who said:

I've never known instrumentalists to object to the use of metaphors… What instrumentalists WILL object to, with good and sufficient reason, is conducting that looks like interpretive dance and ignores the downbeats that are absolutely essential to counting rests!

Anna Dembska inflected the discussion with the comment:

In my experience, untrained singers (or those I've trained myself) have no trouble with expressive rather than dynamic directions, and it's very effective. The more professional the singers, the more they want dynamics and don't find metaphors useful.

I think there are at least two things going on to generate the (not entirely uniform) cultural expectations these comments reflect.

First, there is the depth of formal training involved, as Anna points out. This partly explains the singer/instrumentalist distinction Allen makes, since even amateur instrumentalists will necessarily have had a certain amount of training before they can join an ensemble, whereas amateur singers may get their primary training from within the choir.

And if you’ve had years of structured training, you will have a well-developed interior landscape of musical meanings. You will have internalised the stylistic and emotional connotations of the primary repertories you work with such that your understanding is implicit in what you do. In this context, the metaphors we use to help less experienced musicians make the connection between the notes and their expressive purpose may feel rather patronising – like being back in your beginner’s lessons.

During the rehearsal observations that fed into my book on choral conducting, I had the opportunity to see a particular director work with both a community choral society and a men-and-boys cathedral choir. It was striking that he used many more metaphors with the former than the latter.

This partly reflects the difference between people participating in a choir as a leisure pursuit and the time pressures of a specialist choir with heavy commitments for both regular and special services. The former elicited a more urbane and entertaining rehearsal style, while the latter just needed to get through the music in time. But the professional choir already had a much more developed sense of style and shape than the amateur singers, so didn’t need much more than a few concrete instructions to turn top-notch sight-reading into a performance.

(Mind you, if they’d had time to think about it at a metaphorical level, you wonder how much more they might have achieved. So much of British professional musical life is a kind of high-level damage control, in which demon sight-readers get most of the work so as to save paying for anything more than minimal rehearsal time.)

The other thing that’s going on when musicians object to metaphors, though, is a form of passive-aggression. This may be tangled up with a resentment of feeling patronised, but it is a rather different thing from the developmental point. Musicians are routinely rude about conductors, and it is understandable why. In order to get work in an orchestra, you will have been trained to a very high level and encouraged to develop the capacity to make nuanced and intelligent performance decisions.

You then spend most of your professional life doing what other people tell you to. And these jumped-up dictators get all the glory and are stupidly well-paid at the top of the profession. So it’s not surprising that instrumentalists start saying things like, ‘Just give us the down-beat and f*** off’.

So, when a metaphor in rehearsal elicits the question, ‘Does that mean you want it louder or softer?’, what we are hearing is the chip on someone’s shoulder. The metaphor may be perfectly apt, but a deliberate obtuseness masquerading as seeking instruction is just the player’s way of telling the conductor not to get too far up themselves.

It looks, therefore, like there are three variables that may affect how happily advanced musicians respond to metaphors in rehearsal:

  • Appropriateness of the metaphor to the level of performance
  • Amount of time available to prepare the music
  • Degree of trust between director and musicians

I saw a lovely example of a complex metaphor in video footage of a rehearsal of the Kreutzer Quartet working with Michael Finnissy on a piece of his they were due to premiere. It was clearly a project in which they were all investing a good deal of time and attention, and as a result had built up a high level of trust between ensemble and composer. They were thus more than ready to take it in their stride when he said a certain passage needed to sound ‘more salty’.

In that same mould, where musicians are essentially self-sufficient performance-decision-makers - if somewhere within you you reckon it's your job as a person with a heart to respond to the music you're making (as one would!), then of course your conductor's there for a mix of loose-rein performance decisions and beat-giving.

The mix will vary and vary. There's a good deference/response+individual sense mix in the best orchestras I've seen, and I think the best choirs I've seen are getting there. (Also, it's not a zero-sum thing - more individual sense can [probably practically always does?] come with more response to leadership.)

But - the foundation of the conductor's job is still beat-giving. I suppose it's a bit like stoking the engine of a road-rolling steam-engine. The creative and interesting bit is the driving, but it'll stall if you don't tend to the furnace. Not quite a working analogy, but close.

The other interesting side to that is that musicians really don't like being reminded that they can't count. :) So you get classical projection - 'why can't our conductor keep a beat?!' when really the frustration is 'why can't you damn well keep a beat, self?! Why does someone else have to do it for you?'. Only comes into play when the beat falls apart of course! (Obviously there's also no point in being able to keep a beat on your own unless you play/sing a key part and others listen to you.) Otherwise it's a plain useful delegation, and works.

Sorry, that was sort of teapot dregs of thought - not exactly well-organised!

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