The Teacher as a Conductor of an Orchestra

Should Teachers Be More Like Conductors? This bog post from 2009 took me to the following TED talk by Itay Talgam.

Although I am not a musician, nor listen to much classical music, I was mesmerized. This TED talk was geared towards organization leaders, but I so agree with Tania Sheko, that it seemed to directly speak to me as an educator.

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I am quoting the following passages that made the connection to teaching and the classroom for me:

The magical moment, the magical moment of conducting. Which is, you go on to a stage. There is an orchestra sitting. They are all, you know, warming up and doing stuff. And I go on the podium. You know, this little office of the conductor. Or rather a cubicle, an open-space cubicle, with a lot of space. And in front of all that noise, You do a very small gesture. Something like this, not very pomp, not very sophisticated. And suddenly, out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music.

Carlos Kleiber clip:

But what about the conductor? What can you say the conductor was doing, actually? He was happy. […] he’s spreading happiness. And I think the happiness, the important thing is this happiness does not come from only his own story, and his joy of the music. The joy is about enabling other people’s stories to be heard at the same time.

You have the story of the orchestra as a professional body. You have the story of the audience as a community. Yeah. You have the stories of the individuals in the orchestra and in the audience. And then you have other stories, unseen. People who build this wonderful concert hall. People who made those Stradivarius, Amati, all those beautiful instruments. And all those stories are being heard at the same time. This is the true experience of a live concert.

Richard Strauss clip:

Did you see him turning pages in the score? Now, either he is senile, and doesn’t remember his own music, because he wrote the music. Or he is actually transferring a very strong message to them, saying, “Come on guys. You have to play by the book. So it’s not about my story. It’s not about your story. It’s only the execution of the written music, no interpretation.” Interpretation is the real story of the performer. So, no, he doesn’t want that. That’s a different kind of control.

Herbert von Karajan clip:

[The players] look at Karajan. And then they look at each other.  […] And after doing that, they really look at each other, and the first players of the orchestra lead the whole ensemble in playing together.

And when Karajan is asked about it he actually says, “Yes, the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that would prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra.” […] Meaning that you know you have no authority to change anything. It’s my music. The real music is only in Karajan’s head. And you have to guess my mind. So you are under tremendous pressure because I don’t give you instruction, and yet, you have to guess my mind. So it’s a different kind of, a very spiritual but yet, very firm control.

Carlos Kleiber clip 2:

I’m opening a space for you to put in another layer of interpretation. That is another story. But how does it really work together if it doesn’t give them instructions? It’s like being on a rollercoaster. Yeah? You’re not really given any instructions. But the forces of the process itself keep you in place. That’s what he does. The interesting thing is of course the rollercoaster does not really exist. It’s not a physical thing. It’s in the players heads.

And that’s what makes them into partners. You have the plan in your head. You know what to do, even though Kleiber is not conducting you. […] And you become a partner building the rollercoaster with sound, as you actually take the ride. This is very exciting for those players. […] It is very tiring. Yeah? But it’s the best music making, like this.

Carlos Kleiber clip 3:

What happens when there is a mistake?

Again you see the beautiful body language.  And now there is a trumpet player who does something not exactly the way it should be done. Second time for the same player.  And now the third time for the same player. When it’s needed, the authority is there. It’s very important. But authority is not enough to make people your partners.

Carlos Kleiber clip 4:

Kleiber not only creates a process, but also creates the conditions in the world in which this process takes place. So again, the oboe player is completely autonomous and therefore happy and proud of his work, and creative and all of that. And the level in which Kleiber is in control is in a different level. So control is no longer a zero-sum game. You have this control. And all you put together, in partnership, brings about the best music. So Kleiber is about process. Kleiber is about conditions in the world.

Lenny Bernstein clip:

You need to have process and content to create the meaning. […] Lenny Bernstein always started from the meaning […]  you can see the music on his face. You can see the baton left his hand. No more baton. Now it’s about you, the player, telling the story. Now it’s a reversed thing. You’re telling the story. And even briefly, you become the storyteller to which the community, the whole community, listens to. And Bernstein enables that. Isn’t that wonderful?

I am preparing a pre-conference workshop for Building Learning Communities Conference in Boston at the end of the month. The title of my workshop is: Orchestrating the Collaborative Classroom

Collaboration is one of the most sought after skills in the 21st century. How do you transform your classroom into a collaborative community where each student is empowered to contribute and to take ownership of their learning? How do you become the conductor of an orchestra full of “unique instruments and musicians”?

This session will share examples from the classroom where students take on “jobs” to become part of that orchestra. We will look at and play with different “instruments” that are uniquely tailored to encourage collaborative work. Participants will explore how they can use classroom time as rehearsals in order to prepare their students for a 21st century concerto.

I think snippets from the above video will spur some great conversations…