What do you think of when you hear the word “work?”
Some days, “work” feels like these dictionary definitions: Exertion, Labor, Toil, Slog, Drudgery. Ouch. Just reading these words makes us feel heavy, even if they accurately describe how we feel right now. It’s not that we don’t still love our art or care about the people we are given to lead. It’s just that we can feel weighed down by our work when the to-do list exceeds our time or energy and when our current choral reality has yet to mirror what we (think we) once had.
The dictionary also offers these definitions of work: Design, Creation, Opus, Handiwork, Masterpiece. What a difference. These words create a whole different feeling state . . . including (if I am honest) the sense that these lovely ideals are far out of reach in real life. How can “volunteer singers” or “young children” or for that matter, any musical population in a still-pandemic era co-exist with words like “opus” and “masterpiece?”
It starts with the spirit of work.
Spirit is a topic I have been encountering a lot lately, as though the universe has placed it on my radar for a reason. Maybe it’s because humanity is hungry for spirit, whether seen as a measure of mood, an intuitive sense or leading, a force of nature, a guiding deity (as in the Holy Spirit), or yoga’s prana, defined as vital life force, breath, or energy. Spirit is a very real intangible, something we experience but often ignore even when we sense it is there.
The essence of spirit is an inner knowing, an authentic leading that directs or re-directs our actions by starting from the heart. Not the ooey-gooey emotional heart, but the “I know this is the right thing to do now” heart. Spirit can guide our work away from toiling and repetitive managing in rehearsal and toward creating experiences aimed at the same musical goals but designed with fresh eyes and open hands.
Changing work from exhausting labor to creative design is not just a perspective change. It starts with humility and trust that if we go to the heart—of the music and the musicians—we will gain greater insight into the next step towards our own version of a masterpiece. Spirit is awareness—so ask yourself, “What is needed now?”
Start with the singers. When we really look at and listen to our singers, we become better aware of what they are experiencing—fatigue, frustration, boredom, freneticism, joy, anticipation, doubt, fear, or isolation. Design a rehearsal with this awareness in mind. Set a high bar but with love, not fear. I often remind singers that they don’t get out of bed in the morning and say, “yeah, I am aiming for mediocre today.” Everyone wants to be excellent, to know they matter, and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Tap into that human spirit.
Look at the music with fresh eyes. When we look for the “moments” in the music—the peaks of the phrases, a strong start and end, a better understanding of text and context, and the interplay of the parts in even the simplest call-and-response—we find a fresh approach to our rehearsal techniques, a spirit-led sense of direction that can revitalize the music and the relationships among our singers as they feel lifted on a new “breath” of energy. Make choices about the most impactful places in each piece and design strategies aimed at creating those moments. Trust that renewed spirit will have a positive impact elsewhere, because singers are now more interested in the piece, are likely to engage more in rehearsal and (one can hope), they just might practice on their own.
Listen to your spirit-led instincts. If you sense singers are discouraged, if you are not sleeping, or if rehearsals are just one slog after another, make some choices that will redirect your work together. This may mean postponing a piece until a later concert, reading a new piece, Zooming with a composer, or connecting the music in a surprising way to a current event. Is your spirit telling you to slow down, program less, simplify your approach, or find ways to bolster the singers’ ability to practice the music? Do that.
Practical me believes it’s a “both-and” world. In my last post, we talked about practice and staying with it (abhyasa) despite the challenges of our own Olympic journey as teachers and conductors. Better than anyone, competitive athletes know toil; they get to the slopes or the rink every day and do the work. But they also know that their spirit—the love for what they do, their larger awareness of their place in this world, and the beauty of their art—is the fuel for creating their own masterpiece performances.
We labor, as well, in our musical art. But if it is all labor, we have missed the point . Take a breath. Listen. Free your spirit. Then move in the direction that is needed right now, towards that masterpiece experience that is always possible.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at: