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My good friend Michel recently pointed to this article about the importance of allowing failure if you want kids to do better in school. In brief: researchers found that kids who were told that problems were difficult and failure was common did much better on subsequent tests than kids who were not given that explicit encouragement.

This got me thinking quite a bit about my experiences with The Back Bay Chorale, an excellent amateur chorus here in Boston. It may seem strange for one of my first posts here to be about my experiences in choral music, but this struck me as the right place to write about it. Singing, perhaps especially with a large group, is such an embodied experience, concerned with breath, muscle control, placement of subtle shapes in the mouth and throat, and emotional expression. It engages me in all my parts – mind, body, emotions and spirit. It is also concerned, in a large choir, with an exquisite communion between the group and the person directing it, bringing all of these pieces together into one great voice. And of course Ilana Rubenfeld, the mother of this work, started out as a symphonic conductor, and Rubenfeld Synergy is deeply informed by her experiences in music. An RSM session can proceed like a piece of music: each movement happening in its own time, with crescendos and diminuendos, climaxes and rests.

I’ve been singing in some formal group or other for most of my life, but I’ve never experienced as much pleasure and satisfaction – not to mention marked improvement of ability – as I have since I started singing with this chorus.

I tend to blame this fact on Scott Jarrett, the marvelous director of the group. For a long time I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is that makes his direction so inspiring, so precise, so effective. Sure, he really knows his stuff; you can tell at every rehearsal that he has learned the music inside out and could probably sing the entire Bach St. John Passion – for example – from memory. But I’ve known plenty of conductors with this kind of expertise – great professionals – but I still haven’t enjoyed working with them.

So many conductors, especially orchestral ones, seem to prefer the use of shame and fear to get the desired results. “How many times do I have to tell you the same thing?” “No, no, no, NO!” Imitating our tone in a mocking voice. Questioning the man- or woman-hood of choristers. Yelling, berating, and belittling are all popular tools. I don’t know whether this comes from a tradition of eccentric geniuses crossed with corporally punishing boarding school dons, or whether it is encouraged in conducting school: you must be a jerk to make an orchestra or chorus respond to your demands. The musical results can be good from this technique, just as training a dog with fear promotes obedience. But it doesn’t infuse the musicians with joy in the work.

With an amateur chorus, you would think things would be different. Generally they are not, but at Back Bay they are, and people stay with it in spite of the sometimes grueling schedule and hard work because they love the music, yes, but also because they love Scott.

And I think I know why. The thing that most profoundly characterizes his style is a winning combination of gentle encouragement, and the findings of the study above: he lets us know he knows it’s hard, and that he knows we’re working hard. And he does work us hard: rhythmic precision, cleanness, gorgeousness (and appropriateness!) of tone is incredibly important to him. He does a tremendous job getting us to articulate the music in the proper style, and brings the emotional components to it as well. The most frustrated I’ve ever seen him get had him saying to us firmly – not yelling – “Come on, guys! Just – don’t do that. You know better than that. Just…do better.”

Because we do know better. We can do better. And the best encouragement he can give us is that reminder: this is hard, but I know you can do it.

And we do. Each concert I’ve sung with this 120-voice chorus has been better than the last, and I believe it is because this director shows us respect, allows us to rise to his level of excellence – the excellence he demands of us, with a gentle hand. I discovered early on that I didn’t just want to do this music. I wanted to do this music for Scott, because he deserved that I give back at least 1/120th as much as he was putting into it.

And the respect he offers makes this not only possible, but so much more likely. He has a subtlety of bodily communication that is so lucid that we as a chorus respond with him. Sometimes he tests this in rehearsal, saying things like, “Okay, sing what I show.” It always amazes me how highly developed his gestural language is, and how the chorus responds; it’s especially funny when he wants us to do something “wrong,” then correct it to what he’s looking for. When we tune our bodies to his, it works beautifully.

Over and over it seems, and in so many different venues, I learn that the best thing I can give to any effort is to connect with the person or people involved, meet them where they are, and be an encouraging guide. I’m grateful to have Scott and the Chorale in my life, and I hope someday to be as inspiring to my clients as he is to me.

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