Music Directing and Leadership

conducting-leadershipMusic Directing and Leadership. Two topics I have, at various stages of my life, given considerable time, thought and work. The other day I stumbled upon a podcast from the Art Works Podcast series from the National Endowment for the Arts. The interview featured Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. During the interview, he was asked, “What is it that a conductor does?” His answer resonated with me, demonstrating how good conducting is analogous to good leadership. I found the transcript online, and here is the excerpt that most interested me.

Jo Reed: I want to ask you a very obvious question, which is: I’d like you to explain what it is that a conductor does?

Alan Gilbert: I wish that were an obvious question. At least the answer is not obvious to me. How can I answer this? Well, let me approach it this way: what I like about conducting is that it calls on so many different faculties and different capacities.

It’s challenging in such a myriad of ways. It’s obviously a physical activity. When you watch a conductor, you’re aware of the movements, the gesture. And the gestures ideally should have something very, very strongly and closely to do with how the music goes. I would say that on a very basic level, the conductor decides the tempo and indicates the tempo in a way that everybody in the orchestra can read it so they can play together. If you can imagine a group of people in a room, if you tell them, “Okay, everyone say the word ‘stop’ at the same time,” it would be very hard to do. If someone gives a signal and says, “Okay, I’m going to move my hand up, and then I’ll move it down, and when my hand comes back down to where it started, that’s when you say stop,” there’s a reasonable chance that it’ll be pretty close together. That’s more or less what a conductor does in terms of showing time. “This is where this beat happens. This is where this beat happens.” Musicians have music in front of them that shows where their notes fall in relation to the beat. If the conductor shows that beat, then they should be able to play in a way that actually coordinates with what everybody else has to do.

But it’s a lot more than that. That’s just the first layer of what a conductor does. There’s the idea of interpretation. I mean, that’s not an obvious question, but in part, it’s a very important part of what a conductor does, is to have an interpretation. What does that mean? That means, I think more than anything, to have a point of view about how the music feels. A lot is suggested by the music, and there’s an inherent spiritual quality to music—certainly the best music—but all music is conceived by humans, and is informed by human emotion and spiritual sense. And the character that is conveyed by the orchestra is a highly complex element, but it is clearly influenced by the point of view that the conductor brings to it. So if the conductor wants to emphasize—and this is a very elusive thing—and call it, at one moment, the optimistic side of things, or the depressed side of things, or the happy side of things, or the elusive, searching side of things. These things can be transmitted, and something in the way the conductor deals with the orchestra can highlight or create an atmosphere for the music-making.

It’s a two-way street though, because the conductor is also influenced by the orchestra, and the moments that I’ve found the most successful and gratifying and exciting in conducting are those in which I couldn’t really say where the spirit is coming from, only that it’s extremely vivid. It’s a question of one side influencing and inspiring the other. And ultimately, when it really clicks, when it really works, there’s a true synergy, and the music takes over, and it’s as if suddenly everyone is really tapping into the infinite possibilities and the infinite potential of the music.

How the conductor deals with the orchestra can make that more or less likely to happen, and that includes the rehearsal, how you talk about the music, how you tap into the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra. It’s all a very complicated process. The conductor tends to lead the rehearsals and say, “Okay, here we’re going to go for this. Let’s not play too loud here. If you could play this with a slightly more spirited articulation, it would help the character. If you could play this in a way that doesn’t give it away just yet, just save your energy so that we can really go for it five measures later.” There’s a way of setting it up so that finally when it takes its course, when it runs, it kind of can go in the most natural way. That means conducting well in the moment, but also setting it up so that there’s the possibility of it really taking off.

I’m kind of talking around the subject, because it’s very difficult, even though it’s something I do all the time and something I’ve thought about for many, many years, to really pinpoint how it works. But I think that’s why it’s an exciting profession.

Effective conductors like Alan Gilbert may be worth listening to when thinking about effective leadership. Conductors must approach their work with a vision and be able to communicate both the obvious as well as the subtleties of achieving the vision for a work of art. But it’s not all about the leader. Music making and leadership are synergistic activities. “It’s a question of one side influencing and inspiring the other.” If you aren’t working with the right people, it can be a drag. But when you are, it can be an “exciting profession.” Vision and synergy are both qualities of effective leadership, no matter what the domain.

I am reminded of the TED talk from Itay Talgam – Lead Like the Great Conductors. In the talk, Talgam also highlights the similarities between conducting and leadership, taking us on a “tour” of sorts through many famous conductors and their “leadership” styles. The TED talk as well as the Gilbert interview are worth spending time with especially if you are interested in leadership.


Engaging Online Learners

onlinelearningHere’s a topic that doesn’t run across my feed reader too often: Why online education is mostly a fantasy. The title certainly intrigued me, especially as we work in my district to develop the next steps of our vision for teaching and learning.

I agree with most of the writer’s points:

  • “The online education utopians ignore the fact that free learning has existed for decades in the form of the public library and despite that availability, every kid within bicycling distance to his local branch didn’t turn into a self taught entrepreneur.”
  • “Education is primarily driven by motivation, and online learning doesn’t do anything to address people’s motivational needs.”
  • “I’m not arguing that online courses have no value. They have tremendous value for those who are self-motivated and prone to seeking out knowledge on their own.”

What really struck me was the last bullet point – online learning has tremendous value for those who are “self-motivated and prone to seeking out knowledge on their own.” Is the writer saying that most learners today are not self-motivated seekers of knowledge? I don’t doubt that, but WHY is that, and do we consciously work for learners to be self-motivated? Is it a natural inclination? Or has self-motivation for learning something we educators have drummed out of our students as part of the K-12 system.

Does K-12 create learners dependent on an organization that pushes knowledge their way – tells learners what to learn and how to learn it? Shouldn’t one of the goals of schooling be to connect with learners in ways THEY find meaningful in order to develop the habit of being self-motivated seekers of knowledge?

While the writer’s assertions may be correct based on the types of learners K-12 is (literally) cranking out today, isn’t it incumbent upon us to engage all learners, in all learning environments including online, in ways that develop the habit of seeking out knowledge rather than waiting for an institution to provide it? After all, isn’t self-motivated learning a skill most needed in entrepreneurial and innovative kinds of jobs?

Generally, we do not engage learners well in face-to-face learning environments. Too many online learning experiences try to engage learners in the same ineffective ways. Do instructional designers need to think as a learners and engage differently? If we do this, will the potential of online learning come closer to the “fantasy” that many have about this mode of learning?

By Randy Ziegenfuss Posted in Learning

Some thoughts on social media in education

socialmediaI found an article this morning from Lisa Nielsen and Lisa Cooley, Newsflash: Social media is real life. Take a few minutes to go read it and then share it with a parent or educator. I think it is an excellent argument for why we as educators need to embrace social media. The ideas expressed can certainly aid us in the issue of technology distraction being put forward by numerous teachers and parents.

While the article was written prior to the events of the last 24 hours in Boston, it prompted me to think about the role technology and social media played in leading law enforcement to the successful capture of the second suspect. We can’t go anywhere (except our own homes) without being under video surveillance. While it took some time for law enforcement to cull through thousands of items of surveillance footage, they were able to identify the suspects within days. Once the suspects were identified, the media, including social media, were quick to disseminate the images. At that point, it was just a matter of time. There was no stopping the avalanche of information and communication.

I’m not sure if or how you followed the events, but following them on Twitter reminded me of the power of social media. We can now all be reporters. I was reading re-Tweets of people on the block of Franklin Street that were witness to the gunfire before the TV news media even reported it. In fact, I’m sure they were reading the same Tweets and taking their reporting from them. Everyone connected to the event was Tweeting – the common citizen, the mayor, the police department, the news media, etc.

The other thing the event brings to light for me about social media is that so much of our lives are already online, whether we want it to be this way or not. Once the suspects were identified, a flurry of information about them was discovered by others online. As the article so effectively argues, social media IS real life. We cannot opt out. And if we as individuals don’t shape the online part of our lives, who will?

Now more than ever, we need to engage students in effectively using social media tools for learning, and for engaging in meaningful and productive interactions about causes and issues that matter most to them. And it needs to start with us as educators.

Employers want people who…

Catching up on some RSS feeds, I ran across this on the Personalized Learning blog, the post “Who controls the Learning?”

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I really like this list. Two questions: (1) Are we providing our learners with the opportunity to develop these qualities? (2) Better yet… Do educators personally engage these qualities in their work….everyday? I know that I am painting with a broad brush here, but I would suggest we only have pockets of educators (teachers as well as leaders) that embrace these qualities. My opinion: The work that we do is too important for our students and the future of our world such that as educators we must exhude these qualities. If we want to make systemic change, we need to first change our individual mindsets. The never ending mission of leadership!