Lessons Learned From Zelda

For over a year I’ve had the opportunity to be one of the conductors on the Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses touring production.   In this time I’ve traveled to Mexico, Chile, Canada and throughout the US conducting for thousands of people.   It’s not the type of conducting gig you come upon every day and through the process of working with hundreds of musicians and racking up many frequent flyer miles there have been observations that have bubbled to the surface for me.   Life and perspective is evolving, but when I sit down to capture them today this is what comes to my mind.

For some context, each time I stand on the podium to conduct this show the tempo is exactly the same because it is synchronized to a click track. It is my job to keep the orchestra with the click so we align with the visuals on the screen.   I always aim to add musicality to what could be a very pedantic experience.

Focus and the Brain

I am fascinated by the process of repeatedly coming to a fixed unit of time with the variants of my body and mind and the orchestra in front of me.   As all musicians know, we are humans and not machines and our rhythmic accuracy even for the best of us at times can be flawed.   I now know all of the places where musicians will rush or slow, or the pitfalls where things can come apart.   I also know my own tendencies as well – places where I want to slow the end of a phrase, or where the click seems to speed for a moment due to some rhythmic variation.   I’ve also now transcended into the place of comfort and understanding with the music where even on the days where my mind may be somewhat clouded, I still have an ingrained focus and quick reactivity because I have gone through the “exercise” of performing this music so many times.   As if conducting an experiment, having gone through this “controlled” performance on many occasions I can more accurately identify the variable that I am and the musicians are bringing to each performance and that is liberating.   As performers it is a gift that through performance, practice and rehearsal we have the opportunity to explore the inner canvas of our own perceptions and how they operate in the world.

Kindness and a Smile

Musicians arrive at the rehearsal with a spectrum of emotions – excitement if they are Zelda fans, trepidation if they’ve never worked with a click, and the range of people just having a good or bad day.   When I step on the podium it is my job to achieve the best possible outcome with the resources I have in front of me.   On one particular occasion a musician was not happy about anything – the placement of their instrument in the set-up, having to use the click, the way the music was printed, how loud the amplification was, and that they were playing music that they personally did not respect.   You could feel the negative energy shooting off of this person.   Once we started playing it was clear that this individual was having a difficult time and there were a few occasions where we had to stop and fix things.   As the negativity came towards me I continued to be calm, patient, kind and also focused on our job and what we needed to do to move through difficult places.   You could see the negative shell around the person diminishing and she truly blended into the larger ensemble.   It’s more clear to me now then ever that escalating a conflict or responding with impatient, negative frustrated eyes does nothing to improve the situation.   You can stand your ground, expect the best from people and be kind in the process.  

The Job at Hand

On Zelda days I arrive to a new city and stand in front of a group of musicians that I’ve never worked with and we make music together for almost 6 hours in one afternoon and evening.   You bond in a unique way with these musicians as you share an experience without really knowing each other or saying many words.     For me, the best way to build rapport has been simply to focus on the task at hand.   By immediately digging in and focusing on the music everything else seems to melt away.   Conductors are notoriously judged the moment they step on the podium and early in my career I would often try to contrive ways of bonding with the orchestra.   “I’ll tell them this nugget of historical info – yeah, they’ll love that!” or “If I rehearse this really hard part in this very specific way that will show the depth of my musicianship – yippee!”   These days I just say “Here we go” and we’re off.   I know that my personality, my appreciation for them and this music and the adventure of it all will seep through somehow during our time together and we will enjoy the ride by doing the work.   We’re not there to become friends or love each other – we’re there to make music, give the best performance possible, enjoy our time together, be light and present and listen.  

Talent and Expectation

Having arrived in many cities – some large and some small – it’s easy to speculate and have notions of what to expect when you arrive.   The classical world loves to rank people and laud some as “world-class” and others as “amateur” and everywhere in between.     My take – talented people are everywhere and it is best to meet people with the presumption that they are talented and capable.   There are incredible musicians in every pocket of our world regardless of any pedigree of famous schools or teachers.   This experience has taught me to arrive on the podium expecting the best.

What We Have in Common

We are not so different from each other.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen musicians in different cities that physically look very much like each other.   I recognize that our brains want to see patterns and not randomness and so we search for it, but the patterns are there.   We are all unique, yet our human experience isn’t as different as we can imagine.   Orchestras around the world all operate in a very similar way with similar personality types and similar responses to the same experiences.

Making Mistakes

So many trouble scenarios have occurred during my time on the tour – we’ve gotten off of the click, my video monitor has gone out, the choir has been missing music, etc.   These things happen when you do this volume of performances.   Each time a musical problem occurs I cheer inside because it offers me a deeper understanding of the piece so I know the next time I arrive at that spot I will be ready and watching out for the same problems.  Mistakes and challenges are gifts.  

Unexpected Things

No matter how comfortable you become with a piece or a given scenario, unexpected things can still pop up at any time anywhere.   The experience of conducting Zelda has shown me time and time again how unexpected things can happen and you cannot lose focus or attention even in something that is very known.   The randomness of life is real and all we can do is remain calm and learn.

I’m grateful for this musical journey.   I’m sure I’ll have other observations along the way.   It’s thrilling to see such enthusiastic audiences and to know that I’m a part of something that is bringing joy to people.

Classical is alive!

This is month two of my blog and it’s time to write about classical music. It’s fitting since it’s classical music month and I urge you all to read Proclamation 6716 from Clinton’s Presidency.  It eloquently discusses this robust repertoire and its ability to bridge divides and to communicate powerful messages without any words.

Intersection - A Dino Named Sue
Intersection performing in June at Green Door Gourmet – Pooh, Zoo and a Dino Named Sue. Photo by Alex Ferrari

I live in Nashville – “Music City”. We all know the facts – that there is a greater concentration of people working in the music industry here then anywhere else in the world, that Nashville is considered to be a global music industry center along with New York, London and LA and that Nashville is growing at an unprecedented rate.

Classical music is a living art form. Composers around the world are creating new works that reflect their time and more then ever, classical music is diverse and explorative. A discussion for another day is whether or not we should even be using the term “classical” since it in no way captures the robust repertoire we create and communicate. But, this is where we live – in a genre steeped in tradition, often misunderstood, with perceived barriers to entry (even though as a classical musician, I passionately believe classical music is for everyone and I know that most classical organizations are welcoming and open to all).

With the new excitement in Nashville surrounding Intersection, Chatterbird, and OZ and the great work of ALIAS, the Nashville Symphony, the Nashville Opera and many others (as well as our great colleagues at DART) I firmly believe that we are in the midst of a special time here in Nashville, not unlike Paris in the 20s (I know that’s a big leap – but why not!). Something amazing is happening here. There is a spirit of creativity, collaboration, support and exploration and a feeling that anything can happen. It is exciting and I believe it is here, in Music City, that we will realize a music industry that embraces “classical” music as relevant to everyone. I have a vision that we can build a music community that sees classical not as some side thing, but as a central voice in artistic expression and I applaud artists like Ben Folds for having the bravery to explore and use whatever medium they need to express their voice – whether it is a band, a guitar, an ensemble of classical players or an orchestra.

But, here’s the truth – it’s hard. It’s very hard. With any artistic renewal and cultural movement, there is great effort in realizing the change. I love the analogy of a large ship on a given course. If you shift that course by just a degree, you see little to no immediate impact. The further out you go and the longer you stay the new course the more you see how far you have come and recognize that you are in a completely new place as a result of even a minor change. Now imagine the impact of even a large degree of change!

Music has value and the music industry is in the midst of its own sea change as streaming becomes the new primary model of consumption. There is consistent discussion on the best ways to monetize music and how to fairly compensate musicians and classical needs to be open to new models and evolve as well.

One thing that I will not compromise is that musicians must be paid for their work, time, expertise and passion. With Intersection, the repertoire we are playing is not easy. It takes skilled musicians to bring this music to life. To put it into hard numbers – for our October performance we have 18 musicians performing. When you calculate the cost of paying them for rehearsals (4 rehearsals) and the performance that adds up to $12,921.90. That is at a rate of $104 for a 3-hour rehearsal and $138 for the performance. It’s really not that much. I wish we could pay them more – they certainly deserve it! If we want to hear this music and have composers like Julia Wolfe the 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize come to Nashville this is what it costs. And, this is just the cost of the musicians – there are additional expenses related to renting the music, producing the concert, etc. We can be creative about finding partnerships that are mutually beneficial and turning things into in-kind donations to keep costs down, but compensating musicians is non-negotiable.

Here’s where I get to the question of action and sustainability. I, like everyone else, grow tired of the constant bombardment from non-profits asking for money. I, too, ask myself – “isn’t there another way” and am constantly searching for an answer. But, now that I am on the side of running a non-profit and growing something that I hope will be sustainable I realize there is no work around. We are here for you – the community – for all people that believe in the value of music, for all that believe that composers have a voice that deserves to be heard, for all that are curious and for all that recognize the power of the universal language of music. And, therefore, it falls into the hands of all of us.

The question is – do we want these arts organizations to be here? If yes, then WE need to do something about it. I am guilty of deleting the emails, throwing the mailings in the trash and listening to NPR for years without ever making a donation. But, I am trying to change. Excuse my poor analogy, but for me I think about emptying the dishwasher – I never want to do it, it seems like such a chore, yet the truth is that it takes only 5 minutes, I always feel better when it’s done and I VALUE having a clean house. Even though it may take effort, I strive for action and make small changes and hopefully (maybe one day!) I’ll have a clean home.

Here’s the point. The next time you get an email or something in the mail from a non-profit asking for support – think twice before you throw it away. Ask yourself, “Is this something I value? Would I be sad if this was gone?” If yes, then take the five minutes to pull out your credit card and make a donation at any level, or buy a ticket, or sign-up to volunteer, or spread the word about what it means to you! The point is to engage and show the world what you value. That is the only way to insure sustainability for the things we cherish.

Right now people are wondering “Does Nashville want Intersection?” We can certainly make the case that we are unique, filling a gap, offering something that no one else is doing and that “Music City” needs us to be a true “Music City”. But, do we WANT it? And, if so, how are our actions reflecting that?

I am forever hopeful and optimistic about the great opportunities and potential that exists in this city and I am excited about the future. I feel honored and inspired to be here, now, in this remarkable time. Thank you all for all that you do to make Nashville great and to propel classical music into our future.

Check out Intersection’s current funding campaign and Season 2 video here.  

Off we go!

It was a beautiful day.   Kids were gathered for the annual Easter egg hunt – covering the perimeter of the field.    Parents and children alike were watching the field carefully as the eggs were tossed about and spread evenly.   This was a day of fun and lightness.   It was about joy and tradition.   It was a day meant to be silly, grab as many eggs as possible in a frenzy that seemed to last just seconds and then just smile and enjoy the treasure of the day – simple pleasure.    I held the hand of my daughter and we smiled with excitement and both shared the same enthusiasm for the moment when they would say “go”.

Then, all of a sudden, as we watched, the main egg layer reached gently into her pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a special, shiny, glowing golden egg.    She tossed it into the field and at that moment I remembered that if you found the golden egg you received a special prize.    Who knew what this prize was or if it was worth the peril of trying to get it.    In that moment, my daughter and I both saw that egg.   We knew exactly where it was – only mere feet from us – and we knew that WE were going to get that egg (or perhaps I should rephrase and say that I knew that we were going to get the egg – my daughter was 4 and she was just there to have fun).

I held her hand tight, looked in her eyes and said – “do you want to try for the golden egg?”  and, she said “Yes”.    In an instant, we took off.   My eyes were on the egg and I was just about to grab it for my little girl, so proud of the fact that she would get this prize – my hand a mere inch away, when I looked behind me and saw my little girl on the ground crying!   I let the egg go and instantly a little boy snatched it and I turned my attention to my daughter.    She said “Mommy, I couldn’t run that fast!” and it turned out my little girl had tripped and I had nearly dragged her to the golden egg!   My heart sank and I instantly realized that while I was trying to do what I thought was best for her by getting that silly egg, by turning my attention towards this other thing – I had completely let her down.    In that instant, with the madness of kids frantically grabbing easter eggs as fast as possible, my daughter sat teary eyed with her shoe off of her foot!

I quickly grabbed her shoe, wiped away her tears, snatched her up and said “It’s ok, honey, let’s just do what we can” and we grabbed a handful of eggs and found our way to a quiet patch of grass.   We sat there, my daughter asking “Mommy, why did you run so fast” and me continually beating myself up for having completely had my focus in the wrong place.    For nights afterwards, my daughter would ask me again and again about the golden egg, what I thought was in it, and why I wanted it so much.

Now I laugh at this story and have the perspective to realize that this will not scar my child.    Yet, the lesson of the golden egg has stayed with me.   How many other times am I looking somewhere else, running as fast as I can, with the best of intentions to grab something that I believe will be the best thing for everyone, when really I should just be looking in my daughter’s eyes?  This echoes well beyond parenting.

My hope for this blog is that it will be a place to explore, to pose questions, to search for answers and to share our experiences.     Thank you for listening!