I was at the 2010 ACDA Western Division Conference in sunny Tucson in 2010- a very nice break from Chicago winter weather. It was my first time attending a western division conference, as well as my first trip to Tucson, and it was a wonderful experience. The funky and historic Congress Hotel I stayed in was lots of fun. The entire conference was quite a success thanks to organizer Cheryl Anderson and many other folks (you can read what I blogged about it here and here).
Weston Noble gave the keystone address for the conference and it was brilliant. In fact, from the time I heard it I hoped that I could get in contact with him and ask if I could reproduce it here for folks who weren't lucky enough to be in Tucson that day.
Dr. Noble has graciously agreed to my request and what you will read now is his speech in full- I have done no editing whatsoever.
First a short bio, although it is hardly needed:
Now the Johnson Professor Emeritus of Music, Weston Noble had a 57 year tenure as a conductor and teacher at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He received wide acclaim as conductor of the Nordic choir from 1948 to 2005, the Concert Band from 1948 to 1973, and as a guest conductor for over 900 music festivals across four continents.
Weston Noble holds five honorary doctorate degrees and was also a recipient of the ACDA Robert Shaw Award. In the fall of 2011 he will be Resident Director at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
ACDA WESTERN DIVISION SPEECH
There came a moment in the middle of the song when he/she suddenly felt every heartbeat in the room & after that he/she never forgot he/she was part of something much bigger. – Brian Andreas
Bach – Air for G String 75 years ago
La Boheme 61 years ago
Riceville High School Band rehearsal 75 years ago
In Remembrance by Ames two weeks ago at the University of Tennessee with awesome silence
and my mother asking me if I would like to take piano lessons 82 years ago.
Unforgettable memories with such power we are transported into a world without words – our spirit world! Such moments filled with a transforming power, a power so strong that an electrical impulse causes two cell neurons to join awaken new places in our brain, never to be separated –creating a new pattern of thinking, a new pattern of life set forever.
We experience shades of emotions never felt before. Who we are deepens. Our palate of enrichment enlarges. Life becomes forever richer!
And wonder of wonders we are no longer just recipients, but we are also TEACHERS. Just As our brain patterns have been changed through our years, now we are an ingredient catalyst of for CHANGING LIVES of students through MUSIC on a daily basis!
We all aspire to be the best teachers possible. DVD interview [READ APPENDIX]
Howard Swan rehearsal – Cal State Fullerton. Common ingredient – VULNERABILITY – OPENNESS. [READ APPENDIX]
How do we bring this chief characteristic of good teaching into our rehearsals? First, may I preface this by sharing a very practical personal experience? A year ago I would not have dared to be this vulnerable as I am about to be. Enter a friend named Jabez, an Old Testament personality, who emerges only once in Scripture and briefly at that. He was noted for his expertise in prayer, addressing God with four basic ingredients. It is his second ingredient that is relevant here – that my sphere of influence might be increased today! We are all challenged by pride when success is enjoyed. This temptation is greatly reduced if we experience success in the context of an opportunity to increase our sphere of influence. I pray this daily.
Now, how do we bring vulnerability and openness into our rehearsals?
All of us can recall an exceptional rehearsal/concert. A note of gratitude, flattering to say the least, is received. We want to believe every word, even though these kind words cannot be true on a daily basis. Last summer, I experienced five consecutive rehearsal days and a concert with an alumni choir that will be forever memorable. I savor even yet the joy, the love, and the ensemble maturation. With trepidation, yet with the deep desire that my sphere of influence may be increased, I share this message written by the Alumni Choir accompanist, Joan Mork, a Luther student of the 50’s.
Thank you from the depths of our souls for another memorable Alumni week! Each of us comes with a different story to express through music. You, magically, help us find these stories…even baring our souls in ways we can hardly imagine – and then you affirm these stories and who we are! We all left feeling trusted and loved. The renewed energy and peace is such a gift.
The content of this note brings tears to my eyes even yet. It is truly beautiful. But this begs the question: how did this happen? Until a few years ago, I could not attempt an answer. Maybe I could not see the ‘woods for the trees’. One colleague termed it an unexplainable gift that cannot be dissected. Not satisfied, I wrote Joan and asked HOW her experiences came about. Her answer implied it had to be of the spirit with no soul words to explain it.
Still the question: How did this happen to Joan?
Several days ago I received an amazing email from Dr. Geoffrey Boers, one he had sent to his graduate students. I quote:
These thoughts are in response to a lecture: Neuroscientist Villayanur Ramachandran outlines the fascinating functions of mirror neurons. * Only recently discovered, these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors, some of which formed the foundations of human civilization as we know it.
I ran to the dictionary to find a definition of a neuron. I What I found it to be is that a neuron is any of the impulse-conducting cells that constitute the brain. The email went on to write, *Motor neurons tell my hand to pick up a fallen pencil and bring it back to my body. There are newly discovered mirror neurons as well, constituting about 20% of motor neurons. When we see someone else pick up a pencil, we experience it in a “virtual reality kind of way, we feel what it would be like, and in fact some of our nerves even fire. Someone who has lost a limb, for example, can still feel itches scratched and the relief of a massage, merely by observing another being touched--we feel physical sensations and experiences changes in our body as if we were doing the observed activity!!”
Mirror neurons encourage an empathetic response—a response which breaks down the barriers between people.
Dr. Boers: When we are conducting, we want to fire stimulate? mirror neurons so they can imitate and emulate what we as conductors are feeling physically and emotively. In other words, so that our singers can feel what we are experiencing physically and emotionally. Can we develop a set of conducting gestures that assist in firing a mirror neuron through our patterns, physical cues and other suggestions that can fire mirror responses in others?
Curiously, following Dr. Geoffrey Boer's email, Joan Mork shared a conversation with her husband, a member of the alumni choir by convenience, in which she asked how she had been guided to her feelings previously shared. I am very uncomfortable in sharing his response but hopefully expanding my sphere of influence: I am inspired by the way he lives his life. He brings his whole self to the podium. He is consistently honest, he laughs and cries, he hurts and loves, he explains, respects, and forgives, he demands and is humble, he is generous, he hears and listens, and there are moments when I feel like he is my biggest fan!
(Am I like this every day? No way. But daily, I can grow constantly with this goal in mind)
Now I understand. I HAD ACTIVATED MIRROR NEURONS IN JOAN AND CONVERSELY THE CHOIR. TOGETHER THEY HAD EXPERIENCED WHAT I FELT PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY. THE BARRIER BETWEEN THE CHOIR AND ME WAS GONE! MY SOURCE OF ENERGY, MY VULNERABILITY HAD IGNITED THEIR MIRROR NEURONS. AND THEY BEGAN TO IDENTIFY WITH WHAT I FELT PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY! I WAS FREE TO REHEARSE, TO BE OPEN AND VULNERABLE IN EVERY WAY. I ALLOWED THE CHOIR TO SEE ME NOT ONLY EXTERNALLY, BUT INTERNALLY AS WELL. THIS, IN TURN, ALLOWED THEM INDIVIDUALLY TO FIND THEIR STORY TO EXPRESS THROUGH MUSIC... EVEN BARING THEIR SOULS IN WAYS THEY COULD HARDLY IMAGINE. ‘WOULD THEY ALL LEFT FEELING TRUSTED AND LOVED. THE RENEWED ENERGY AND PEACE WOULD BE SUCH A GIFT.’
Prison Story [READ APPENDIX]
But this begs the question: how had I become that vulnerable to fire those mirror neurons?
Back to Howard Swan. He, in asking his singers if they had shared themselves with someone else, was opening the door to the shadow side of each individual. Any shadow element? Fear or dark side to ourselves that inhibits vulnerability can be an obstruction to the flow of the power of music. It that is becomes the opposite of openness; a challenge to the freedom of inhibits the ability to stimulate mirror neurons. A study conducted several years ago shows the average person thinks negatively NINETY-FIVE PERCENT of the time! NEGATIVISM and JUDGEMENTALISM do not belong in a rehearsal hoping to release mirror neurons! Conversely, vulnerability frees CREATIVITY and enhances FREEDOM, RESPECT, and LOVE. Vulnerability opens us to embrace SENSITIVITY, BEAUTY, and DEPTH as music is encountered!
VULNERABILITY IS A GROWTH PROCESS, DEGREE BY DEGREE. It is a life-long pursuit. No wonder it is the chief characteristic of an outstanding choir director. EVERY AREA of one's life becomes the beneficiary!
Now, listen to Howard Swan’s words of wisdom following the choir’s response to his question of vulnerability: All of you should have raised your hands when asked if you had shared yourselves with someone else. Recall those moments when you, as a singer, were experiencing those innermost feelings brought forth by the music whether in concert or rehearsal. You were giving your all – totally open. But you had the freedom to do this in that the person on each side of you became your ‘Linus Blanket’! [READ APPENDIX- STORY OF THREE SQUEEZES] He was also saying: "Without vulnerability, you can never truly pursue the beauty of Brahms."
Many of you are aware of the three methods of teaching: cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic. Affective employs a great use of IMAGINATION, imagery as to the intent of the composer. As you ask questions utilizing the student and his/her feelings for this moment of the music, you are enhancing the presence of collective physical and emotional responses. The firing of mirror neurons is greatly enhanced!
I VIVIDLY REMEMBER NOTICING GREAT INSTRUMENTAL AND CHORAL CONDUCTORS BEING NON-TRADITIONAL IN THEIR CONDUCTING PATTERNS. WHY WAS/IS THIS SO? WERE THERE CONDUCTING GESTURES FURTHER ENABLING THE RELEASE OF MIRROR NEURONS, AS OPPOSED TO THE MORE TRADITIONAL BEAT PATTERN?WHAT WAS PARAMOUNT WAS THE POWER OF COMMUNICATION, THE BEAT PATTERN BEING SECONDARY. NEVER NEGATE THE POWER OF THE FACE. YOUR FACE, ESPECIALLY YOUR EYES MUST BE PART OF GESTURE. EYES NEVER LIE!
In conclusion, every person in this room changes lives. At our best, and sometimes at our worst, we connect with our students through activated mirror neurons. Does your life consist in activating mirror neurons both ON and OFF the podium? Is your life one of spreading your sphere of influence?
May your touches, hugs, smiles, and affirmations be a moment of freeing awakening a MIRROR NEURON of a colleague at this convention. I predict the Tucson sky will be flooded illuminated and charged with all the freedom of our mirror neurons!
APPENDIX No. 1
My interviewer was very perceptive. His questions were very thoughtful, and I found myself anticipating each one. Then, this question: "Weston, what is the chief characteristic of an outstanding choir director?" Somewhat flustered, I poked here and there, but without a definitive answer. He smiled and said: "Weston, are you trying to say VULNERABILITY?" I felt a tingle go from my head to my feet; I knew he was right even though I was not certain why.
APPENDIX No. 2
Howard Swan rehearsal
I was attending a rehearsal of the Cal State Fullerton choir, conducted by the vulnerable Howard Swan. In the middle of the Brahms, he suddenly stopped and paused this question to members of the choir: "How many of you have ever shared yourself with someone else?" From a choir of seventy five members, roughly twenty eight members raised his or her hand. "How many of you have shared yourself twice with someone else?" The number of hands dropped to roughly twelve (I was one of them, but not visually) "How many of you have shared yourself three times? If you have, it is a miracle" (Again, I was one of them, but not visually)
The common ingredient of the two above stories is VULNERABILITY-OPENNESS!
APPENDIX No. 3
In January, I participated in a project called Arts in Prison. This program was started by the vulnerable Robert Shaw, and recently revived by Charles Bruffy, conductor of the Kansas City and Phoenix and Chorales. Two hundred and fifty singers from the Kansas City area volunteered to be members of an ad hoc choir (at the cost of forty five dollars per singer), the purpose of which was to share a program of choral music with members of the nearby prison choir. The prisoners' chorus meets weekly and is conducted by a volunteer.
A three hour rehearsal preceded the joint concert, held in a beautiful concert hall in Kansas City. The prisoners listened enthusiastically to our music from the third balcony under the supervision of the guards. Then, they came to the stage and shared their music with us. They were surprisingly good! Our standing ovation was prolonged and sincere. Tears were evident in both choirs.
In each of our hearts, there was a total absence of any judgmentalism of the prisoner's past life experiences. It was enshrouded by the love of sharing beautiful music with one another.
As a conclusion of the joint concert, the prisoners came to the stage for a photo op. I found myself in their presence with no guards on the stage. I took this opportunity to shake hands and congratulate each and every member of the choir. One prisoner sought me out afterward and said with tears in his eyes, "you can never know the meaning of receiving such a standing ovation when you have been told all of your life you amount to nothing"
APPENDIX No. 4
Story of Three Squeezes
A Nordic member, when giving his devotions prior to a Nordic Choir concert on tour, shared the meaning of his squeezing the hand (s) of the person next to him during a concert. This would occur at a moment of exceptional beauty within a selection or his being moved by the singer(s)' performance next to him. But the greatest three squeezes would simply mean: I love you!
APPENDIX No. 5
The following is a proposal from Dr. Boers for future collaboration.
This session will focus on the evolutionary nature of conducting pattern and gesture, and will consider changes to technique and process based upon recent research in brain science, particularly our understanding of mirror neurons...... Session leaders Geoffrey Boers and Weston Noble will explore gestures and rehearsal style that will encourage this type of brain action to become a consistent experience in rehearsal and performance, so that transcendent experience becomes a part of our technique, and ultimately, transformational for the choir.
[Indeed this lecture was created and shared as an interest session at ACDA 2011 in Chicago with Drs. Noble and Boers in front of a few hundred attendees- PC]
Coming Monday, May 2nd-- a two part interview with Ethan Sperry, Director of Choral Activities at Portland State University, and newly announced Artistic Director and Conductor of the Oregon Repertory Singers, Oregon’s most distinguished adult chorus. Ethan also is editor of the amazing Global Rhythms series at earthsongs.
To the readers
5 years ago