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.