Conducting

Lessons for Ensemble Directors from Lorne Michaels of SNL

Running a Show, Directing the Band, Choir, Orchestra, etc.

I recently felt a need to unplug from the world for a moment and was fortunate to have the luxury of time to go for a run and listen to a podcast.

I happened across an interview with Lorne Michaels about his career with Saturday Night Live and his thoughts on what it’s all been about. (It’s from a podcast with Marc Maron called WTF – a terrific show – see the link below.) What struck me was that almost every major theme that emerged in regard to his involvement and ability to be successful with the show – despite over 40 years of societal change – seemed to me to be relevant to being successful in music teaching in some direct way.

As I was listening, I couldn’t help but think that these issues are some of the very same things that come up in conversations I have regularly had with preservice, current, and former ensemble directors about how they do what they do.

If you’re also a fan of SNL and are curious as to what these might be, read on and enjoy a distraction from some of the other things going on in the world at the moment.

Here are some curious parallels…

  • He arrived in NYC on a bus from Canada having previously worked for/with luminaries in comedy – Lily Tomlin, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Dick Cavitt, Phyllis Diller, Jack Benny, those involved with Laugh In, etc. He was explicitly cognizant of the impact that these people have had on him as teachers and/or mentors.
    • Most successful people I know, music teachers or otherwise, can describe how they were lucky to have at least one important mentor and if they weren’t lucky enough to have one early in their development, they can explain how they went out to get one. For example, I can think of several good friends who have used their personal days as teachers to travel the country and visit with people who have grown the kinds of music programs they aspire to create.
  • When setting up the program he called upon his friends and mentors and got help from everyone he knew – asking the questions and seeking the advice of those who could show him the ropes and methods for how things get done.
    • One of the most inspiring instrumental music teachers I have had the pleasure to work with was notorious for the openness he applied to his program. There was a constantly revolving door to his band room with guests from all over with all kinds of backgrounds streaming in to work with his kids and show him new and alternative ideas for helping kids engage with music.
  • Lorne describes the importance of intensely focused, deliberate work for achieving success – for both the performers and the show in general. In this part of the conversation he defines success as a program that resonates with people.
    • Successful music teachers recognize the value in practice and the hard work dedicated to refinement that is essential for developing individual musicianship and for creating a musical experience that people will value and appreciate.
  • He explains that when the show is great – people can recognize it as something they feel they’ve always known and something they’ve always knew they liked but, when the show is not great – people can question whether it’s necessary at all.
    • When a musical program presents work that is sincere and refined – people can recognize it as something they’ve always known and something they always knew was valuable but, when a music program presents work that is insincere and poorly arranged – people can question whether it’s necessary in a school at all.
  • When asked about his motivation… he clearly discounts an emphasis on a perfect product and emphasizes process instead. He explains how he was driven by building the show each week, the thrill of live performance, and the elusive objective of doing the best you possibly can.
    • In my experience, this is a mindset that successful music teachers often bring to their work as they try to create an optimal motivational atmosphere for their students. They invest in the process of music learning with an eye towards the outcome but without obsessing about perfection. Accordingly, they typically express goals and outcomes in relation to students’ efforts and progress rather than a particular point of arrival.
  • Lorne has purposefully let the program evolve – although there are parallels, he asserts that it is not the same show as it was 40 years ago.
    • Despite what some might believe, successful ensemble directors do not let their programs stagnate. They choose to be informed by their students’ culture and grow their programs with an appreciation for adaptations that are necessary to continue to be relevant to their communities. Beyond that, they are willing and able to relate to their students as they are and recognize that kids and what they value changes with time.
  • He recognizes he is not, nor should be the center of power – he is a guide, someone who helps sift good and bad ideas, someone who helps people understand why they’re successful as well as why they’re not, and someone who sees their role as pulling others forward.
    • Most of the successful directors that I know inspire their students and work as much along side them as they do from out in front of them. They give feedback such that students know when they’re succeeding or when they’re not succeeding and why. They cultivate a spirit of collaboration and appreciation for students’ individual perspectives while maintaining focus on the collective objectives of the group.
  • Lorne recognizes that no amount of success will ever eliminate the facts that (a) he works for someone else and (b) that there are always others that have power over what he does – ultimately it’s not about him, it’s about the community the show plays to.
    • No music teacher works in isolation from their community. We are always beholden to the people we serve and no degree of musical success or accomplishment will ever change that.

Take a listen for yourself:

http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_653_-_lorne_michaels

Note: Obviously the work space of SNL is in many ways NOT a model of the kind of atmosphere that is appropriate for kids. In addition, many performers in the ensemble have gone on to personal success as well as personal ruin. The message in this post is not that SNL is a metaphor for music education, it is that some of the principles that have helped Lorne Michaels be a successful producer are those that underlie success in any endeavor that aims to connect artists, programming, and communities.

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Near, Far, and In-between – Some views on instrumental music teaching effectiveness*

The summer course I’m teaching, Advanced Instrumental Methods, has kicked off this month and I thought I’d share a bit about the first topic we tackled. We began with an exploration of what it means to lead as an instrumental music educator and what factors seem to contribute to teaching effectiveness in instrumental music settings. As the title of this post implies, we tried to consider several perspectives – near, far, and in-between – to paint a picture of great instrumental music teaching.

One of the more entertaining discussion activities we tried in class was to draw a comic book superhero depicting what an ideal conductor might look like and trying to exemplify what kinds of superpowers a super-instrumental music teacher might have – here’s one image from some particularly gifted artists in class… see if you can guess the attributes they were trying to emphasize… Notice some of the more unique elements… the “third eye,” “lack of gender-specificity,” “inclusion of a student (with their own baton),” etc.

Dr. Madskillz

Here’s a quick glimpse of some of the perspectives we’ve brought to the issue as we zoom in and out in our discussions…

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