Words Without Song: A Musician's Blog

Sometimes I Am Wrong 

This particular post is for music directors.  Not just conductors, but all music directors.  If you're the MD of a band, the section leader of a choir, producer of an album, conductor of an orchestra, frontman of a local garage band, then this post is for you.  Whether seasoned veteran or aspiring music student, read on.  (If you're not in a position of music leadership, but make music under the direction of someone who is, I encourage you to continue with me as well). 

I am currently the director of the Seaway Chorale and Orchestra and bassist for The Phoenix Theory.  It is from these two very positive and current experiences that I reflect on past and present.

Music directors, I imagine you possess a base-line level of talent and musical knowledge to be in the position that you are.  I'd certainly like to believe that my opportunities to direct music groups from rock bands to pit orchestras to choirs are at least partially thanks to being musically capable.  As the captain of a ship, I put in a lot of effort to make sure that my vessel isn't headed straight toward killing Leonardo DiCaprio needlessly while Kate Winslet steals all the room on the floating door.

"I am a music director, and sometimes I am wrong."

Kate isn't the only one who is guilty of making a decision that was obviously a poor choice to anyone else watching.  As the leader of many a rehearsal and concert in my day, I have made mistakes.  I am a music director, and sometimes I am wrong.  

In a position of music leadership - like any position of leadership - we must show confidence and competence if we want a chance at being successful.  But where, oh where, is the line between confident, master-of-the-craft, and arrogant jackass?  It is a thin one, to be sure, but it is our job to find that line and stay on the right side of it. 

I have been the director or co-director of many different performance groups.  I would say that I can now look back with some degree of self-honesty and see when I was a strong leader (and when I was not).  I have also performed under many other directors, as pit musician, rock guitarist, orchestral percussionist, chorister, and as jazz bassist, to name a few.  Between directing and being directed, I think I've found some common threads that sew together a strong relationship between performers and their leader.

"Your level of talent is simply not analogous to your level of success." 

So maybe you're the best singer you know.  You were the top student in your music class.  You hear harmony in your head like a deaf Beethoven writing his greatest work.  You get frustrated that you operate at such a higher level than everyone around you.  That's really impressive, but you might be a terrible director.  When it comes to leading an ensemble of any kind, one principle seems to hold true: your level of talent is simply not analogous to your level of success. 

Yes, musical talent is needed for the job, but I've seen stunning talent take the wheel and hit the iceberg before even leaving port.  The quickest path to that failure?  Trying to hold onto an image of flawlessness in the eyes of your fellow performers.  After all, you'll quickly lose their trust if you admit it was you, the captain, that made a mistake that caused a problem in performance, right?  Sounds like solid logic, but in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. 

The problem with the "infallible maestro" method is that while you are insisting you didn't cause some kind of musical problem, the other capable musicians you're directing are simply aware that you have.  You can't easily fool another human being into thinking you're not also a human.  So when you don't own a mistake, or worse yet, deflect that ownership onto your players, bandmates, etc., the other musicians - if silent - have concluded one of two things: One, that you refuse to admit fault and you are therefore an arrogant little shit, or two, that you are genuinely unaware that you have made a mistake, and are therefore not fit to be the director.  Both conclusions are far worse for you than if you had simply "owned your oopsies."  I wish I could call this a rookie mistake, but I've seen it happen with beginners and long-time directors alike.  

"Every time we tag our own mistake onto someone else, we diminish the value of the times we are right."

A huge part of our job is to find flaws and fix them.  That has to include our own.  It's very important that musicians trust us and enjoy working with us, and every time we tag our own mistake onto someone else, we diminish the value of the times we are right.   If we tag ourselves instead, we're not above the crew, but we are part of it, sailing toward a common goal together.  As leaders, we must work hard to make as few mistakes as possible, but when those mistakes come, they are ours to own.   

Alternatively, you can try to insist that your ship is unsinkable, but the rest of us know how that movie ends.