When conducting meets teaching, or the other way around

About six years ago, I moved to Singapore from the UK, where I had lived all my life. As much happiness as the move brought, it also involved saying goodbye — or at least au revoir — to Unlock the Music Singers, the choir I had formed and trained. My final concert with them was at the parish church in which I grew up and had been musical director, a building which boasted arguably the finest acoustics in Coventry for choral music. We performed Kodaly’s Pange Lingua, my favourite choral piece, and one I had fallen in love with whilst studying it during my Masters, and Purcell’s Come Ye Sons Of Art, which had become the choir’s signature piece.

The choir consisted of singing teachers, their students, their students’ parents and families, and members of my church choir. Amateur choir as it was, we had to improvise a few bits, such as using altos as tenors in places, and using organ accompaniments in sections that should have been a Capella. Conducting, especially ensembles of mixed ability, incorporates a significant amount of music education — and as a conductor and educator, I enjoy exploring the intersections between these two aspects of music. Much of my approach to both is underpinned by a strong sense of empathy: understanding where students or musicians are at currently, and giving them the tools to improve and grow in their understanding and performance.

Recently, when I was reading a New York Times piece about Gustavo Dudamel, a phrase that jumped out at me was, “Show up, get an instrument, participate”. That’s how I got into music. It’s how the choir I formed came together, although as a choir, they were the instruments themselves. And participation is an integral part of every music lesson I’ve taught or enjoyed. As I read on, I was increasingly pleased to find several phrases that highlight the similarities between Dudamel’s approach to conducting, and some of the best music education I’ve received.

“a ghost at his shoulder”

Educators inspire educators; it’s that simple. For Gustavo Dudamel, it was his mentor, José Antonio Abreu. For myself and other teachers I know, there have often been key figures, people who’ve shaped the way we think about music, learning, life, and ourselves. We all teach with ghosts at our shoulders, and we want, someday, to be the voices that our students hear in their heads, guiding them gently, urging them to ask difficult questions, encouraging them to push their own intellectual and musical boundaries to create something remarkable.

“prefers collaboration to control”

Dudamel belies the stereotype of the bad-tempered, controlling conductor, taking a more collaborative approach (which by no means implies that he does not have a clear vision which he insists on making manifest). As a conductor and a teacher, I would like to think that music teachers at least don’t suffer from quite the same stereotype — but it is tempting, especially when it comes to something we know so well, to approach knowledge simply as something we transmit to the ‘less-knowledgeable’. But music is as personal as it is social, and we need to remember that our students’ responses (even if they respond with something ostensibly trivial) are essential parts of the discourse around music. We must see their contributions as valid and relevant, no less so than our responses, informed as we may be after years of specialist education. This humility forces us to keep learning as teachers, but also demonstrates to students that the concepts are not being handed down to them; instead, these ideas are theirs, to explore, engage with, and challenge.

“if people only listen”

“Isn’t music wonderful,” I’ve often said, whether in response to a video on YouTube or an outstanding performance. It’s a cliché that music brings great reward to those who would listen, but it’s important we don’t lose sight of this. However, this isn’t easy when we teach class after class, or when we’re weighed down by paperwork, marking, and the routine of our own everyday lives. It’s often a challenge to bring new energy to each class, to listen as if for the first time, and to keep students engaged and interested. We don’t always succeed. But we cannot lose the intention of keeping our senses engaged, because our students will, and do, respond to our own attitudes to music. When we show them that every encounter, every performance, and every class, brings with it a new perspective, it helps them understand how music is a growing, living thing.

“hard questions”

The role of art in modern society is hardly a modern debate, and in every age, we challenge the value of art both in terms of the big picture, and in terms of micro-effects the arts have on everyday life. I’ve always believed shying away from the tough questions to be a mistake in music education. Music is much more than performance and production; it’s also about the intellectual approach to how it functions in society. Rather than avoiding difficult questions that result in even more difficult answers, we need to think about how to talk effectively about these issues with students of different age groups, helping them make sense of their worlds, and encouraging them to engage with music on a deeper level.

“and in joy — especially in joy —”

Music is joy. There is joy in listening, joy in performing, and joy in the academic rigour involved in making connections, drawing out ideas, and developing new ways of thinking about music. And then there’s the sheer nameless joy that every educator has a responsibility to bring out, which is expressed in an unparalleled way by another great conductor and educator, Benjamin Zander, in his TED talk

Just over a year after my final concert with Unlock The Music Singers, I returned to the same church, but wasn’t singing or conducting this time. This time, it was my wedding day, and I was waiting at the altar to get married. Singing and playing during the wedding (with music including a Gloria I composed), were the same choir and same organist, under a conductor I had mentored during my time there. It’s a testament to the friendship and learning that can come out of showing up, getting an instrument, and participating. I’ve been fortunate to have been inspired by great conductors and great educators who’ve shown me how the two fields intersect. The best conductors often are the best educators. And the best educators? They’re responsible for creating some of the best human beings around.