LIGHTEN THE LOAD
I don’t know what it means to be a good conductor. Video streaming has provided scores of examples of what a conductor can do in order to help the ensemble create music. From Bernstein simply looking at the Vienna Philharmonic on the 4th movement of Haydn’s 88 Symphony, to the plucky dancing of Peter Jan Leusink, or the virtuosic role-mixing of Barbara Hannigan, a conductor can do almost anything as long as the ensemble is willing.
Personally, I’ve felt my own conducting gesture has been both helped and hindered by my obsession with the ensemble’s breathing. I like to imagine their breaths, feel their inhalations and trace the line with my hands as they exhale. When I’m being kind to myself I can say I support the ensemble with my breath-conducting — but sometimes being kind to myself is difficult when I see that I’m often sacrificing exactness so I can chase down the whirly-swirly of air. But, fortunately, a conductor can get away with almost anything as long as the ensemble is willing.
Of course, the ensemble being “willing” is where the truth of the matter lies: We conductors like to spend time imagining we are music conductors — but the reality is we get our work done by caring about people more than music. A conductor’s greatest fear should be that the ensemble will do exactly what the conductor shows in her hands. But most ensembles are gracious enough to do what the music intends — and this happens more regularly if the conductor is kind and competent, rather than simply virtuosic.
Like many of my colleagues, I’m fortunate enough to believe I have the best students in the world. My students are kind, gentle, unassuming, mostly responsible, hard-working, and willing dreamers. More times than not, they decipher my hands, looking for the music’s intentions, and overlook my mistakes.
In February of 2019 the Glee Club was devastated when one of our members was tragically killed driving home with a friend from a church retreat on an icy road. I received a call late on Sunday from the President of the Glee Club — “Dr. Wiles, have you heard about Justin?”
Justin was the best of us. He cared deeply about people, was succeeding in school, was diligent in his responsibilities, and had an affable nature that found him with committed friends throughout his church, school, and Glee Club. He had a quiet confidence that seemed to be undergirded by his kindness and competence.
Justin had recently applied for a scholarship to go on the upcoming international tour with the Glee Club. On his application he wrote, “Being a member of the Glee Club means being a part of something greater than myself to bring our musical talents to the community and to lighten any load they may be carrying.” His focus on lightening the load of those in his family, friends, and world was something we would all remember in conversations about Justin.
Glee Clubbers came to my office throughout the next day. Some just sat down and stared in shock as if they were holding memories in their hands. Others tried to say something — but, of course, there’s nothing to say. All of them, however, asked if we were going to sing a vigil that evening in Justin’s memory.
“Yes. Yes we will. Dress warmly, ok? Where are you going next? Do you need me to walk you to class?”
If you’ve experienced death, you know that the trauma of loss permeates the mundane tasks of your day. Glee Clubbers were still receiving emails about university events like Brown Bag Lunches and Guest Lecturers. They still had figure out how to pay their bills. They still had to find food and do their laundry. Yet the memory of Justin — his laugh and his life — lingered as if he would be at the next rehearsal. Grief seems to land on your body over and over again as you navigate life’s routine.
The news about Justin and his friend, Tristan, spread on campus. The university administration showed their care for students through their gentleness and outreach. The word about the Glee Club vigil also spread. 6:45pm at the university Campanile.
The Glee Club meets at 6pm for rehearsal. I arrived a little early but was delayed into the rehearsal hall as I coordinated with the university grief counselor whom I had invited to speak to the Glee Club. So when I walked into the hall, everyone was already seated.
Under normal circumstances walking into a Glee Club rehearsal is reminiscent of walking into a doggie-daycare. There’s loud barking, some running around, and probably a few folk getting into trouble. It’s invigorating and magnetic.
Tonight it was silent. As though Justin’s absence had made the entire room empty. For me, wading into the Glee Club’s silence — that’s when grief’s sick, weighted blanket landed upon my body.
I said something that was probably feckless and useless. But I remember feeling better because we were finally together. At least we were in the same room together.
The university grief counselor tenderly shared about resources, left his card, and offered his sympathies.
In my mind I was counting minutes. My idea was to sing two songs at the vigil, have a brief moment of silence, and then the campanile bells would toll the hour. The single-digit degree weather was unforgiving and I didn’t want the students outside longer than necessary.
“OK, y’all. Justin knew this music by heart. Let’s make sure we do too.”
I forced myself to double check a few things about the music. We can sing this chord in tune, guys. Listen across the ensemble to each other. Find our rhythm.
“Ok, y’all. Let’s walk to the campanile.”
The Glee Club student leadership distributed candles, we put on our coats, and walked into the bitter Iowa February that many of us blamed for Justin’s death. The Glee Club’s procession was slow and halting as guys slipped on ice, breathed into their hands, and debated over the least treacherous route to the center of campus.
When we arrived at the campanile there were already about 100 people waiting. We took up a spot on the north end, facing the campanile, just in front of some low street lamps.
The guys began to light their candles and the little flames sprouted up across the half-moon they had formed by the campanile. I couldn’t tell if the sniffing sounds were from grief or the cold.
We sang our first song. The Biebl “Ave Maria” that so many people on our campus associate with the Glee Club. Its slow burn crescendoed into the night. We sang the Amen and let Silence, which had followed us from the rehearsal hall, have its moment.
After Silence nudged us to sing again, the guys shuffled around a bit. Changing the weight on their feet. Moving the candle to a different hand so the cold hand would have a chance to stay in their coat pocket. More sniffing.
We sang another standard, a song that might mean more to the Glee Club than the campus community. It’s called “Sing Your Way Home,” arranged by Joseph Martin. It’s simple and lovely.
...Sing your way home at the close of the day...
I waved my hands in front of the guys, the conductor. As I looked to the Glee Club, back lit by lamps and holding candles, I noticed the vapor of their breath escaping their mouths as they sang into the dark.
...Sing your way home, drive the shadows away...
Their breath was coordinated and steady. Punctuated by eight-note rests and gapped by long pauses in the music.
...Where‘ ere you go, Wherever you roam,...
99 singers, sending their breath upward only to vanish 12 inches above their heads as they intoned the words Justin recalled on his scholarship application.
...It will brighten your road, it will lighten your load If you sing your way home.
Silence arrived again and we remembered how cold it was in winter and without Justin.
After the campanile tolled her bells, the crowd moved away at its own pace. There were hugs, tears, and more sniffs. Members of the Glee Club moved back into the mundane, no doubt grief finding them throughout the week. We would remember Justin constantly in the following days — at the local pizza joint, on social media, and at his funeral.
As I write this we are only 8 days removed from Justin’s death. My job is to return to the rehearsal hall with all of my choirs and with my conducting students. There are concerts to prepare, tours to plan, future teachers to educate, and students who continue to show up to rehearsal searching for new experiences in music.
I know less about what it means to be a “good conductor” than I did a decade ago or even a week ago. And it seems like any kind of summary about conducting I would write in an essay would be feckless and useless — not to mention opportunistic given the subject of my reflection.
Yet for the past 7 days I’ve been unable to forget the Glee Club breathing together at the campanile — seeing their breath formed by the intentions of the music they had learned together. The image has clung to me as something special that I hope I never see again. Beautiful and terrible. Theophany.
Today, at least, I care very little about what makes a “good conductor.” I’m grateful for the good will of Justin and the Glee Club. That they sought out the intentions of the music, were able to look past the flaws I might have been showing them, and found a way to breathe together. And I’m grateful that I could stand with them as witness - because being a member of an ensemble means being a part of something greater than myself in order to bring music to the community and to lighten any load they may be carrying.