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How to make that first (and second, and third) impression

April 28, 2010

I came out to New Mexico this week at the invitation of the Albuquerque Public Schools to guest conduct their annual high school orchestra festival.  On tap?  The Janacek Suite for Strings and a high school orchestra arrangement of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

The drive from Mesa, Arizona, to Glorieta, New Mexico, isn’t a long one – about 8 hours if you are obeying the speed limit (let’s say I made it in less than 8) and the time in the car afforded me some time to think about the  first impression(s) we make as a conductor.

Really, there isn’t just one first impression. There are a few to consider.

When I was contacted for the conducting appearance I returned phone calls right away, exhanged e-mails with a professional tone, and didn’t go out of the way to make extravagent requests.  (Is there an Embassy Suites nearby? I really must have chilled imported spring water waiting for me at every orchestra break.) School districts, like the rest of us, are watching every penny and the last thing they need is a guest conductor coming in and freely spending their money.  The conversations I had with Art Sheinberg from Albuquerque High School were always friendly, positive, and above all, they established a sense of mutual confidence in the process.

Impression number two occurred the night before and the morning of the first rehearsal. I e-mailed my contacts to let them know I arrived safely and that I was looking forward to the next day’s rehearsal. Also, I confirmed the schedule.  (Sure enough, there were a few slight changes!) I confirmed the rehearsal location and made sure I arrived on time (meaning EARLY!).

Impression number three was when I entered the room.  The kids are naturally going to size you up by your appearance. They want to see if you look professional, pleasant, angry, disinterested, goofy, kempt or unkempt, calm or agitated, and in general, whether or not you look competent.  We can say that high school kids are driven by appearance, but let’s face it, adults do it too.  I wore a dress shirt, jacket, slacks and dress shoes. I took the jacket off to conduct.

Impression number four: how the rehearsal begins.  No, not how the rehearsing begins, but the rehearsal.  Your initial tone, speaking volume, posture, and attitude all affect the way the rest of the rehearsal (and day, and week) will go.  I was calm, solid, professional and pleasant and initiated a tuning sequence that set the tone (relaxed concentration) that I prefer for the rehearsal.

Impression number five starts with the music of the rehearsal. With this group, an eclectic collection of high school string players, I began with a simple set of scales as a warm-up. We didn’t just run through a battery of scales mindlessly, though.  I had them use the exercise to coordinate their approach to sound: bow length, non-vibrato for intonation, reacting to me specifically with regard to dynamics, articulation, speed, etc. This approach not only warmed up the ensemble physically, but also conveyed to them my values as a conductor.  This led to a productive rehearsal because we established the tone of finding specific issues and improving them in a very workmanlike, yet fun, manner.

You only have one chance to make a first impression? I wish it was that simple!

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