Danger! Men at Work.

Danger! Men at Work

At last I have made a positive start to what is going to be a short book … in fact it is meant to be as short as possible … about Conducting. To show how serious a move this is I can tell any reader straight away that one crucial fact enabled me to start: I ditched the computer and started to use pencil and paper, just like in the old days. Instead of dithering over producing perfect computer-copy first off (which I rarely succeed in doing anyway) I had to start thinking in whole sentences and paragraphs. Old-fashioned disciplines re-emerged from the depths of my mind and once on the move my pencil literally had trouble keeping up with my thoughts. I must admit though that I have to cross out at least half of what I write in order not to be boring or libellous.

Like my two previous books ‘The Trumpet’ and ‘The Art of Practice’, this will not be a read-through-in-a-straight-line-to-the-end sort of book, but a dip-into-and-put-down-as-soon-as-your-mind-wanders sort of book. In short not an epic but more of a what-if book. I must admit that during my activities as a teacher, now at an end, I was a fan of teasing out responses from students, rather than telling them what to do or think. It seemed better to encourage them to put their own minds to work. After all they had to spend the rest of their lives with their own minds, not mine, and as it was all they had, the sooner they learned to use them the better it would be for them.

I have always felt that Socrates’ methods (he was a Greek, a Philosopher, and very Ancient) of teasing out answers from his young pupils offered the most enlightenment to them, even if it was their confusion that came over most strongly in their chats. It seems hard, even so long ago and far away, that he was required to die just because of asking some innocent questions and in the process annoying some very dim people. (It was a democratic vote after all, so perhaps one should not be surprised.) Perhaps his radar was set rather too high not to realise that  he was being so annoying. To be told “Behave or Die,” he just did not see it coming. (He himself did not write the books about his thought games. They come down to us as written up by his disciple Plato.) I trust that my readers, if there are any, will be able to forgive me for any annoyances caused by this book-to-be. Please. I don’t want to die just yet. And the local supermarket is fresh out of hemlock. (For more information on this appetising drink, try googling the word itself, or the old-fashioned drinker’s welcome “What’s your poison?”).

The point of my view (and Socrates’) is that the answers to our questions are already inside us just waiting to pop out if only we can find them. My first priority, as a humble teacher of musical matters, has always been to cart away the rubbish that blocks the flourishing of peoples’ talents. Once that’s done then the real work can start. In the book I will be trying to help the budding conductor clear away his or her own rubbish in order to open up to his or her own answers. Not mine, theirs.

I loved teaching in all its forms, and still do. It is a sacred trust to be asked if you can make a difference to the course of someone’s life, not by bossing them around and telling them what to do, but by drawing out their own musical responses with simple questions – but not too simple.

Back to the podium … All conductors are different in how they mix their skills together to make themselves effective. However, all good conductors have the same core skills, notwithstanding the superficial differences between them. Throughout the book I offer pen-portraits of some of the finest conductors of the past, and identify as closely as I can what allowed their musical talents to flourish. Some of the many I met were impressive as humans, others were just egos looking for a stage, any stage, but still producing musical marvels. Others, by common consent, merited nothing more on the personal level than the title of ‘a very nasty piece of work.’ They could be very good too: good character and fine achievement do not necessarily go together.

A dozen years ago, after finishing ‘The Art of Practice’, I admit I did instruct my wife … I very rarely dare to instruct my wife, but I was desperate … to shoot me if I attempted to write another book. Writing a book is no walk in the park. It’s more like a war of attrition against an army of words, ideas and general mental bric-a-brac, all fighting me and each other to get onto the paper: the truth and the poor writer can go hang. Like the wreck of a boxer who has just gone many painful rounds with a far superior opponent, I shall be bewitched, battered and bewildered by the end of it.

But I mustn’t complain: perhaps I will dip into one of my previous books to get a few hints about staying calm, thinking straight and controlling my anxiety. Or does anyone have Plato’s phone number? No, better tough it out. Where’s that pencil? Back to Work. Back to the trenches.