Sunday 14 April 2013

Mindful Music: Lessons from working with Eric Whitacre

Last week, I had the opportunity to work with Eric Whitacre, who is one of the most notable composers and conductors of our time, and my favourite live composer. He conducted our choir for a concert in Melbourne (here's a review). It was a mind-blowingly awesome experience, and I came away with so much respect for that man. Over a day of rehearsals, a dress rehearsal and a concert, I learnt so much about musicianship, leadership and love.

Mindful Music-Making and Musical Leadership

The way it felt to me, the music really come to life from the moment Eric started rehearsing us on Thursday morning. It felt like he literally breathed life and music into the choir. Prior to that, in our own rehearsals, we hadn't done much with his pieces, other than getting confident with the notes by singing through the pieces in a semi-autopilot mode. That completely changed on Thursday. 

Eric explained the intention and meaning behind each piece, and gave me a completely new and deep understanding of what he wanted out of our performance. For example:
  • In Lux Arumque, we were aiming to "hack the brains" of the audience, to train them to breathe in for four beats, then out for four beats with the two bar crescendo-decrescendo motif. The soprano solo was designed to be a microcosm of that motif. It was a constant pattern of blooming and releasing. This was a recurring motif in basically all of his pieces.
  • In the second movement of Five Hebrew Love Songs, "Kalah Kallah" the men were supposed to sound longing, with plenty of emphasis on the "K" consonant, making it "sensual" (Eric really likes his "K"'s!). The girls were supposed to sound playful and light on the "la la la" bits (as opposed to aggressive). Just before the last "la la la" section, there was a very quiet, calm and "introspective" moment for the girls, deciding about her future with the boy.
  • In The Seal Lullaby, what was required was a "maternal" tone - we're singing a baby to sleep! - and a cinematic mood, since this was written for a movie that was never made. We needed to make use of the "shhh" of "hush", because apparently the "shh" calms babies by simulating the rushing sound they hear in the womb.
  • In This Marriage, we really needed to think about diction (as with all his pieces), savouring what we were saying. The goal was to make his wife, who was in the audience that night, cry, since she hadn't heard that piece in concert for years apparently. In the last section, "I am out of words to describe how spirit mingles in this marriage", despite it being quiet, it needed to maintain a sense of urgency and ecstasy, which was carried through to the end.
  • A Boy and a Girl was a story about the beginning, middle and end of a lifetime of love between a shy, tender boy, and an electric, vibrant girl. It was made up of single, simple gestures, painting these moments.
  • Even the frivolous Animal Crackers were brought to life and made even funnier by his guidance. One of the most important things was again diction - humour based on wordplay required that the words actually be heard to be funny! In "The Panther", we alternated between genuine concern for the audience, and moments of terror, hiding behind a rock or something. In "The Canary", which I think is possibly my favourite out of the Animal Crackers, the sopranos were supposed to act like a ditzy songbird, completely unaware of the world around them, while completely driving everyone insane with their song that "never varies, never varies, never varies..."
  • We also sang a Bach chorale, conceived by London, Come Sweet Death, which ended with singing the first half in free time, all at different times, with choralography. Although a lot of the choristers were averse to the hand movements, it made a lot more sense when Eric explained how effective the piece was, as a visual symbol of the cycles of life and death, allowing the audience to see where everyone is in their personal "life course".
With that understanding, we were able to actually make musical progress. The rehearsal process was remarkably efficient - there was very little "singing through" of pieces which often becomes automatic. Instead, we would be given instructions regarding diction/dynamics/phrasing/intention, try it once, and move on!

We were also never in any doubt as to what he wanted from us musically when he was conducting. His movements perfectly mirrored the spirit of the different pieces, from very calm, tender and solemn moments, to more frivolous and playful sections. His intensity, focus, commitment to the music and enthusiasm was completely contagious. We were enraptured.

What's more, he was a complete pleasure to work with. I consider him to be a pretty mindful conductor actually. He was so positive, never speaking negatively or harshly, with any criticisms said very lightly and often with a laugh. Oh, and he actually giggled so much when he was pleased with the sounds we were making! It was hilarious. He never revealed a single trace of frustration or negativity, even when we were actually not doing that well on one of his pieces which we hadn't looked at as much. He simply told it as it was, in an equanimous, non-judgemental way, and requested that we look at it on Saturday because we couldn't do much with the music without being more confident with the notes. It was a statement, not a "RARRRRR". Also, when he sensed that our focus was slipping later on, he didn't get annoyed either, but sat down and literally was like, "What's up, guys?". He tried to understand why.

He was also extremely friendly, making a real effort to connect with the choristers individually, as best he could. On reflection, I still find it completely surreal that we had the opportunity to work so closely with Eric Whitacre! However, when we were actually rehearsing, there was no "star-struck-ness", because he was so down-to-earth and chilled out.

Despite rehearsals on Thursday going for 5 hours, I didn't feel drained by the end of the day, but felt inspired and pumped!! It just goes to show that the way in which rehearsals are run has an amazing impact on the motivation and energy of the choir. Eric's mindful musicianship and leadership, with his complete presence and intensity, made for an engaging, inspirational and magical musical experience.

On Love

I also learned a lot about love over these two days, by understanding the deeper meanings of his music, hearing his anecdotes, and seeing him with his family. His music is so full of love in all its forms, from the maternal, to the romantic, whether young and innocent, or reflecting lifelong devotion. He also talked so much about his wife and son in the context of his music, and you could really see how completely devoted he was to both of them.

In the concert, he noted that the lyrics of "This Marriage", which was written for his wife for their 7th wedding anniversary, is like a manual for marriages - regarding the line, "May this marriage be full of laughter", he commented that "it's all about the laughter, that's pretty much the whole damn thing!". Before the Five Hebrew Love Songs, which his wife wrote the lyrics for back when they were dating, he noted that "Normally my wife doesn't get to come to my concerts because she's a professional singer, so normally when I conduct this I feel really homesick...but now it just feels good." It was a pretty moving statement.

We also had the chance to meet his wife and son backstage. His son was so adorable, vibrant and spirited, and it was touching to see him so proud of his dad and to watch how happy they all were together.

There were so many moments during rehearsals, the concert, and in between, where I just felt so touched. Touched by the music, by the amazing opportunity, by a respect for Eric Whitacre, by seeing and singing about love and compassion.

Overall, it was the most special musical experience of my life, and one of the most mindful processes too, with the full engagement with every aspect of the music and conveying this in performance. I'm glad I was able to be completely present to savour each moment, transient as they always are.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Mindfulness and Engagement: Lessons from Social Psychology

Two weeks ago, I attended a public lecture at the University of Melbourne, "Beyond Pleasure and Pain: Value from Engagement", where the notable Professor E Tory Higgins from Columbia University presented his theory of motivation. He proposed that there is more to the story of motivation than simply hedonic pleasure and pain, or the "carrot and stick" layman conception. While pleasure and pain determine the direction of the experience of value as positive or negative, strength of engagement intensifies these forces of attraction and repulsion, making life more "alive".

Sources of engagement include: (1) regulatory fit between the orientation and the manner of goal pursuit; (2) using the right or proper means of goal pursuit; (3) opposing something that interferes with the goal pursuit; and (4) experiencing an upcoming event (relevant to the current goal pursuit) as being real because of its high expressed likelihood.

He only had time to talk a bit about the first two sources, though, which I'll describe here. I'll also explain the relevance of this theory to mindfulness.

1. Regulatory fit

Regulatory fit occurs when, given a current orientation, the manner of goal pursuit "sustains" the orientation. It strengthens engagement by making what you are doing "feel right".

For example, those who have a promotion focus are focused on aspirations, advancement, accomplishments, gains, and moving from "0" to "+1". Eager strategies fit promotion. In contrast, those who hold a prevention focus are focused on responsibilities, safety, security, non-losses, stopping movement from "0" to "-1". Vigilant strategies fit prevention.

Prof. Higgins described his study (Higgins, Idson, Freitas, Spiegel, & Molden, 2003) where participants were measured on their habitual orientation to pursuing goals (promotion or prevention). They were then asked to choose between a mug and a pen. Following this, half of the participants were told to think about what they would gain by choosing the mug or the pen (an eager strategy), and the other half were told to think about what they would lose by not choosing the mug or the pen (a vigilant strategy). Participants who chose the mug were shown an envelope containing the price of the mug, and were asked to offer a price, with their own money, to purchase the mug. If the price was higher or equal to the amount in the mug, they would get the mug for the price they offered, otherwise they would not get the mug. Participants with good regulatory fit in the Promotion + Eagerness and the Prevention + Vigilant conditions offered around $4.70. However, participants offered significantly less money, around $3, for the mug when they were in conditions with poor regulatory fit; the Promotion + Vigilant and Prevention + Eager conditions. This provided support for the hypothesis that regulatory fit enhances perception of value.

In the lecture, Prof. Higgins discussed the practical implications, aside from marketing. In education and work, it's a common notion that the way to motivate children, students and subordinates, is to add pleasure to whatever they're doing. However, if fit is more important, this strategy could be mistaken. Higgins argues that adding reward is adding extrinsic motivation to the task, which undermines intrinsic motivation. People feel like they are now doing a task "in order to...".  Similarly, adding a "fun orientation" to an important task can actually make it a non-fit, reducing engagement and therefore motivation.

In this light, it makes sense that if meditation is an important undertaking (which I believe it is), then perhaps engagement is enhanced when the practice is pursued in ways that enforce this "seriousness". For example, I have a dedicated clutter-free area in my room for meditating, it is (generally) the first thing I do upon waking - it's something I wake up early for - and the last thing I do at night, and I keep track of my practice to stay accountable for it.

2. Use of proper means

Use of proper means is all about feeling like you are doing things the right way (although this doesn't necessarily have to be in an ethical or moral sense). In another study (Higgins, Camacho, Idson, Spiegal, & Scholer, 2008), participants who were manipulated to make decisions the right way ("You need to make your decision in the right way. The right way is to make a decision is to think about which choice has the better consequences") offered a higher price for a mug, $6.35, than those who were directed to make decisions focusing on the best choice ("The best choice is the choice with the better consequences"), $2.61, but this effect only applied to those who were strongly orientated towards doing things the right way.

So what does it mean to live a life the right way? Well, religious and political belief systems tell the believer which activities are proper to do each day, and carrying out these daily proper activities will strengthen engagement in what they are doing. Similarly, other world views or lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism, veganism, or being environmentally-conscious, just to name a few, are based on a belief that these choices represent the right way to live.

Finally, and most relevant to this blog, I asked Prof. Higgins a question about whether engagement would only be strengthened while specific activities were being carried out in the proper way, or whether it would strengthen engagement in life in general. He responded by saying that it would probably be the latter - and brought in the example of meditation, which was exactly what I had in mind! After all, mindfulness practitioners really do believe that living life mindfully, with moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness, is the right way to live, intensifying the experiences of life through increased purpose, attention and awareness. This awareness isn't limited to the meditation cushion - while we engage in life in formal practice, the point is to try and bring this awareness and engagement to experiences in every moment of everyday life.

I left the lecture feeling truly inspired, with a new perspective on motivation and the purpose of mindfulness. On a larger scale though, research like this really helps to clarify misconceptions about human psychology and motivation, to point us in a direction that really helps us to get more out of life.

If you found this interesting, the public lecture is available for public listening (audio only) here.


Higgins, E. T., Idson, L. C., Freitas, A. L., Spiegel, S., & Molden, D. C. (2003). Transfer of Value From Fit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1140-1153. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.6.1140

Higgins, E. T., Camacho, C. J., Idson, L. C., Spiegel, S., & Scholer, A. A. (2008). How Making the Same Decision in a "Proper Way" Creates Value. Social Cognition, 26(5), 496-514. doi: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.5.496