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Teacher as the silent conductor

“Listening for passion and commitment is the practice of the silent conductor… He can look in the eyes of the players and prepare to ask himself, ‘Who am I being that they are not shining?’ He can invite information and expression. He can speak to their passion. He can look for an opportunity to hand them the baton.”
“The Art of Possibility”
–Rosamund Stone Zander
–Benjamin Zander

By Cindy Reitzi

One of the nice things about subbing is that you get to “guest-conduct” for other teachers and try out their lives for a day. I usually enjoy playing variations on a theme.

Some years back, I subbed middle school, which, like middle schoolers, veered wildly from agony (usually) to ecstasy (occasionally). For me, the “problem” with middle school was way too much kinesthetic energy, energy that I couldn’t contain, corral or redirect. I always felt like a dictator to get compliance and I’ve never been comfortable with that.

So, after a “high noon shoot-out” with squirt bottles during a science lab, I decided to hang up middle school and stick with older smart alecks.

Yet, to my amazement, one of my favorite subbing experiences happened in middle school. One day, I found myself in front of a group of serious “tweens” with stringed instruments, looking for guidance. While I truly appreciate music, I have no clue how to conduct any ensemble of musicians. I was also hoping these musicians could actually play the stringed instruments. Violins that sound like first sopranos screeching to nail the high note is my personal circle of hell.

Wondering how the students were supposed to practice with me as leader of the pack, I decided the best thing to do was “facilitate.”
“I’m going to need some guest-conductors,” I began, an announcement with immediate ripple effects.

Butts wiggled in excitement and bounced on metal folding chairs. Arms shot up, torsos twisted in unnatural angles as students threw their whole bodies into volunteering, while panting, “Oh, oh!” “Me, me,” as only middle-schoolers can.

Gee, I thought, I never get this reception in the high school. Cool. With this many volunteers, I decided that each student could lead one song apiece.

As each conductor took his or her turn, I started to ham it up. Like a waiter flourishing the dessert tray, I presented the baton to each salivating conductor, dramatically transferring control amid slight giggles, excited shudders, or sly, power-hungry smirks. Whether aggressively jabbing or gently wafting, the way they directed the baton reflected their expressive personalities, their power as conductor, or their reverence for music.

Their squirrely energy was contagious, and I was having a blast. And yes, they could actually play their stringed instruments.

Then “Curtis” stepped up to the podium. Curtis was different. Outwardly, he wasn’t excited; he was…earnest. I recognized that look. Curtis was a perfectionist.

Instinctively, I matched his intensity. “Maestro,” I intoned as I passed the baton. Curtis accepted reverently. As he lightly lifted the conductor’s baton to gently alert his fellow musicians, his chin back and shoulders straightened, ever-so-slightly. Concentrating, he furrowed his brow and tensed his muscles, then eased the baton downward in introduction. Music – pretty good music – sang from his fellow musicians.

Afterwards, Curtis looked dissatisfied and a short conference ensued.

“So, how was that?” I inquired like a novice to an expert. “Fine,” rippled the musicians.

Curtis tentatively turned to me, looking pained. “We need to do it again. The dynamics were off.”

“It was fine,” complained the next conductor.

Sensing that Curtis needed a little backing from the “fake” music teacher in the room, I said, “Wait. Remember, he’s the conductor,” magical words which stilled further protest. Curtis inhaled deeply, blew out a sigh and quietly determined, “We need to do it again.”

“The whole piece or some parts?”

“The whole piece.”

Gee, this kid has some spine when he makes up his mind, even if he is kind of shy, I thought.

“Ok,” I said, turning to the class, “He’s in charge.” Since other students had already been in his shoes, they agreed to play it again. Besides, Curtis didn’t strike me as a grandstander; the power wouldn’t go to his head. Still, he was the only conductor who insisted on a retake.

“Proceed,” I gestured to Curtis formally. Once again, Curtis tensed into conductor posture and put the musicians through their paces a second time.

“How’d that go?” I asked. This time he looked more satisfied.

“Better.” He smiled tightly, nodded, and sat down to become a musician again.

Toward the end of class, their bemused teacher peeked in the rear classroom window after returning from her appointment, just as the last conductor cued up.

“Ooooh! Look, Mrs. Olson,” she squealed, “we got to be conductors today!”

“Mrs. Olson” smiled indulgently. After class, I was able to actually talk to the teacher instead of writing a note. I outlined pieces they practiced and listed volunteer conductors. She nodded drolly with the mention of the familiar overachievers.

“Oh,” I said, chuckling, “and Curtis.”

“Curtis volunteered? Really?” This veteran-who’d-seen-it-all got excited. “Wow!”

“Great kid. He seemed nervous, but he had them play it twice.”

“Curtis is an LD student,” she said in shorthand. “That’s a big step,” intensely pleased at what this development could mean.

Curtis took an educational risk; he made himself conspicuous and visible, instead of hiding in the group. And I was a silent conductor as witness. A small thrill shot through me. On days like these, I know why I love my job.

October 10, 2005

Education News