“You need to have a deep understanding of music to be a conductor”  

MindZ (“Muziek in de Zorg”) is a project of Dino and Teun, two Erasmus MC medical students. The purpose of this project is to develop music-based understanding by organizing lectures and attending concerts. The idea is to create a platform for medical students where they interact with music professionals so it might lead to further scientific research related to the use of music in the health care sector. The first class of this project started with a talk given by composer and conductor Kent Moussault (25) on leadership.

After a long working day I hurry to the first class. I don’t want to be late, in fact I always have an issue with being late for anything that is work related. My philosophy is that being on time sends out a signal of respect and that you value the time that others give you. Also, I feel incredibly awkward when twenty heads turn around just to see me struggle to find a place to sit. I guess this is exemplary of the style of leadership that I maintain while running my company. My style is to motivate others, but still being in control of any thinkable situation. I wonder, am I a born leader or just an annoying control freak? By the end of the class Kent Moussault will answer this burning question of mine. 

Antonia Brico

My knowledge about conducting is pretty much limited and recently acquired. I’ve attended many Western classical concerts, and my favorite concert experience is the Harry Potter music concerts in De Doelen Rotterdam. But understanding the importance of conducting came to me last year, when I saw the Dutch drama movie ‘De Dirigent’; a film about the life of Antonia Brico, a Dutch-American conductor and pianist (1902-1989). She was one of the first women that worked as a conductor. Being a working woman and a passionate music lover, she faced many challenges because of her gender, but due to her own persistence, hard work and focus, she overcame the prejudice that women can’t lead a group; in this case musicians. Brico founded the Women’s Symphony Orchestra (later Brico Symfonieorkest) to encourage women to work as professional musicians. Brico’s fight wasn’t about gender inequality, but it was about pursuing her own passion for music. She was a dreamer, believer and a do’er. She didn’t stop until she achieved her goals and this in itself is quite remarkable. One could state that Brico was a born leader, visionary and mentor. 

Antonia Brico conducting at the Philharmonie in Berlin, 1930

Leadership qualities

Coming back to Kent Moussault, he summed up three leadership qualities: 

  • First is having an idea about a subject, be it music or how to build a house by watching YouTube video’s. 
  • Second, a leader is responsible for the group dynamics within his group. 
  • Third a leader, or in his case a conductor should have acquired musical and didactic knowledge and skills to apply in practice. This type of leadership can only be achieved by constant practice and experience. 
Sandeep Virdee, Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust (Darbar) giving a talk on Indian classical music

Indian vs Western

Western music can’t be compared with Indian classical music, since Indian classical music doesn’t work with a conductor and music is being made with a smaller group of people. So basically the main artist leads the other musicians. He or she gives them space to play their own solo pieces, but always in the frame of this one particular raga that is chosen by the main artist. The leadership qualities mentioned by Kent are also applicable for traditional Indian music. In a recent interview, vocalist Kavita Krishnamurthy explains that honing your skills is required to become an authority. To make a non-music comparison: In case you ever need heart surgery, who would you trust more? A doctor who has overall knowledge about the human body, or the heart specialist who has years of training and deeper understanding of how the heart functions? Gosh, this really sounds awfully rigid. On a much lighter note, listening to music is not a matter of life or death, except if you were locked in a room and are forced to listen to an out of tune musician who makes your ears bleed. 

Words of wisdom

For one to become a conductor it’s necessary to have excellent imaginary skills. By the end of his talk Kent asked us all to stand up and participate by using our pen as a conductor pole. We had to make movements with our hands, using our body to lead. It was fun, but very hard to execute. Imagine that one person is standing in front of at least 50 to 70 people and telling them all how to play in a blink of a second. So how does one practice to be a good conductor? It’s much easier to practice when one sings or plays a music instrument, but how does one learn to become a conductor? Only if you are extremely wealthy and have a big living room you can have an orchestra at home to practice conducting. But most conductors are not this fortunate and have to be creative. Kent mentioned five ways to do this. 

  • Be prepared, preparation is everything. 
  • Constantly train your ears. 
  • Train your sense of rhythm, you can use a timekeeper while doing anything from cooking to riding a car. 
  • Have knowledge about music and question yourself how what your hearing is supposed to sound. 
  • It’s not easy to be a leader and this requires another set of skills.  

Leadership comes with experience or knowledge. It’s also important to be confident, this means you need to have a healthy relationship with your own ego. While maintaining this healthy relationship with yourself, do make sure that you trust in others, because that will help to gain trust as a leader. Realize that no matter what you do it eventually comes down to  teamwork. The last golden rule of becoming an excellent leader is to be aware that nothing in life goes according to your own pre-planned master plan. At the end even the control freaks amongst us must go with the flow…  

Mahesvari Autar

PS: my next blog about my second class will be uploaded next week! 

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