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Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 1

Why the Students don’t listen to you in Rehearsal

In a recent paper, “Why Music Edu­ca­tion is no longer about Music,” I reviewed for the read­er the basic char­ac­ter­is­tics of our bicam­er­al brain.1 With respect to the pur­pos­es of the con­duc­tor we have a right hemi­sphere of the brain which is a depos­i­to­ry of per­son­al expe­ri­ences, includ­ing the emo­tions. Here, then, is under­stood the expe­ri­ence of pain, but it is an indi­vid­ual under­stand­ing based on a par­tic­u­lar individual’s own per­son­al expe­ri­ence with pain. It is the expe­ri­en­tial essence of the right hemi­sphere which makes that side the real us. It is there that we dif­fer with every­one else on the plan­et.

Pain is under­stood in the left hemi­sphere only as a dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion, one shared by every­one who speaks the lan­guage asso­ci­at­ed with that dic­tio­nary. In oth­er words, all infor­ma­tion stored in the left hemi­sphere is what Maslow called “spec­ta­tor infor­ma­tion,” for it was all of it told to the indi­vid­ual by some­one else. Some­one tells you 2 plus 2 is 4 and you mem­o­rize it. Every­one agrees; no one dif­fers. But there is one more very sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ter­is­tic here. All the infor­ma­tion stored in the left hemi­sphere is past tense. But we are always in the present tense. We can think about the past or future but we our­selves are only and always in the present tense. In oth­er words, the left hemi­sphere can nev­er be us! Is is not curi­ous, there­fore, that most of edu­ca­tion, which is said to edu­cate us, in fact is ded­i­cat­ed to the hemi­sphere which is not us.

Every school con­duc­tor has had the fol­low­ing expe­ri­ence. We stop the ensem­ble in rehearsal and point out some impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tic which needs atten­tion. “This pas­sage is marked piano, please play soft­ly here next time.” And then the next time this pas­sage is played in rehearsal noth­ing is changed, it is still not piano. The con­duc­tor thinks to him­self, “What am I doing here? No one is lis­ten­ing to me. Are they ignor­ing me on pur­pose? Are they test­ing me?”

Before I explain the real prob­lem here, let me recall an even more vivid expe­ri­ence of my own. I was just fin­ish­ing the rehearsal of a very emo­tion­al com­po­si­tion, one in which myself and the stu­dents were deeply involved in the emo­tion­al nature of the music. Per­haps it was Ein Helden Leben of Strauss, or some­thing like that. I gave a final release with the baton and thanked the musi­cians, thus end­ing the rehearsal. Just as I turned to step off the podi­um a stu­dent who was not in the ensem­ble, but in some class which used the room the fol­low­ing hour, asked me, “Is there a pen­cil sharp­en­er in this room?” I recall vivid­ly that at that moment I heard his ques­tion, I under­stood his ques­tion and I knew the answer to his ques­tion. But I could not answer him, I could not find the words to answer. It took sev­er­al sec­onds before, in my mind, I could leave the expe­ri­en­tial right hemi­sphere where I was so total­ly involved and progress to the left hemi­sphere which alone could form a sen­tence to answer the ques­tion, even though, as I said, I knew the answer all along.

And this is exact­ly what hap­pens in your rehearsal. The qual­i­ty of the music the stu­dents are play­ing in rehearsal does not mat­ter with regard to this issue. It is the fact that when they are play­ing they too are in the right hemi­sphere expe­ri­en­tial side. They hear, as a mat­ter of phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion, your voice, but they too are not able to shift to the left hemi­sphere fast enough to under­stand in the left hemi­sphere what you actu­al­ly said.

The best solu­tion for achiev­ing what you want in that pas­sage is to know the score so well that you can turn to them in rehearsal, look at them, and with face, body and baton con­vey piano. Now you are com­mu­ni­cat­ing in the hemi­sphere they are in and the next time they will play piano.

All expe­ri­enced con­duc­tors dis­cov­er this even­tu­al­ly and then come to under­stand how impor­tant it is to rehearse with­out talk­ing. Talk­ing is in the wrong hemi­sphere and in the wrong tense.

David Whitwell


  1. Since the ini­tial research which won the Nobel Prize in Med­i­cine, there has been a flood of pub­li­ca­tions which con­tin­ue to attempt to map the cir­cuits among our 3 tril­lion brain cells. All this notwith­stand­ing, the basic divi­sion of a ratio­nal left hemi­sphere and an expe­ri­en­tial right hemi­sphere remain valid. []