David Whitwell 
Written in honor of the retirement of Dr. Ronald Johnson from the University of Northern Iowa
On the final day of my 2017 conducting tour of Italy I took advantage of a rare non-professional day to visit the famous medieval cathedral in Milano. As I was sitting in the nave enjoying a quiet moment of contemplation following a very full five weeks of conducting and teaching seminars, not to mention the time consumed by travel itself, I began to consider my fellow visitors to this great architectural marvel.
The plaza before this cathedral is always filled with hundreds of visitors to Milano and a great many of them stand in very long lines waiting to obtain a ticket to visit the cathedral and then in additional long lines to actually enter the church. Why, I began to wonder, are these hundreds of ordinary tourists, most of whom had probably not been in any church during the past months, willing to stand an hour or more in lines to see the inside of this cathedral? To be sure, the building is prominently featured in all tourist publications as one of the things to see in Milano, but is there anything else in Milano, save the famous painting by Leonardo, for which they would make this physical sacrifice?
Continue reading The Conductor and his Audience
How the Right-Hemisphere understands Harmony
Somewhere in the dim distant reaches of my memory I recall being told of the modes in music that minor was sad and major was happy. But what key is nostalgia, which is often a mixture of the two emotions?
This old definition is, of course, a vast simplification and with no real basis. If you stop to think about it, the key of A minor includes three major triads and the key of A major has four minor triads. The materials being so similar reminds me of the centuries old debate among philosophers on the fine line between pleasure and pain.
Actually, common sense, supported by clinical brain research, tells us that in fact it is melody, not harmony, which conveys the emotions to the listener. There appear to be specific melodic patterns which are satisfying and which come genetically with birth. The great book on this subject, for conductors, is the The Language of Music by Deryck Cooke (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). Cooke, after much study, presents a very strong case for specific melodic patterns which composers across several centuries all seem to identify with specific emotions.
Continue reading Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 6
“Time” is not of our World
Whosoever danceth not, knoweth not the way of life.
Muscles were made for movement, and rhythm is movement.
It is impossible to conceive a rhythm without thinking of a body in motion.
To move, a body requires a quantum of space and a quantum of time.
The beginning and end of the movements determine the amount of time and space involved.
Time, as the word is used in ordinary conversation today, does not exist in the natural world. Time, as we used the word today, refers to an artificial man-made regimentation of our lives and is so foreign to our nature that we rebel against it every day, as, for example, is exemplified in our individual sleep requirements.
Continue reading Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 5
When the hall is heard filled by the emotions created by the music,
whose emotions are they?”
First of all, some important facts about the emotions as pertains to conducting:
1. The basic emotions and their expression are the same for all people on earth. There is no such thing as a Chinese smile, a German smile, etc.
2. The basic emotions are genetic, thus they are in place before birth. The smile can be seen in the face of the fetus, but it is not a learned expression for it has never seen a smile.
3. Considering the several million years which span the development of the human species, the so-called modern period, our period, includes the past 10,000 years. Therefore, since all the developmental processes are in place, it has been speculated that if one could go back to the age of the cave painters in Spain and France and adopt a new-born infant and bring him to a family living today, that child would grow up as a normal child.
The significance of this is that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are to be considered identical to us in their emotional makeup and should not be thought of as men from some distant period. If the contemplative conductor in his study comes to identify a certain emotion in some passage in Mozart, it is very likely to be identical with what Mozart himself felt. Beethoven’s Rondo, Op. 129, “Rage over a lost penny” expresses a frustration every listener today can identify with.
4. It is important to remember that the composer had the feeling first, before he wrote notes on paper. Thus the challenge for the conductor is to try and understand what the composer felt, not what he wrote.
Continue reading Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 4
Music is not an Art Object
A number of early philosophers debated what is meant by “Art.” Do we mean by Art what the artist has in his mind, or is it the actual manual activity of the artist or do we mean by Art the finished art object? The early Church fathers rejected all three, saying, No, the credit must go to God for he made the artist.
The question is even more complicated, yet more interesting, when the subject is Music. The ancient Greeks separated Music from the other arts, primarily because Music alone among them cannot be seen. This caused them to classify painting as a craft, but Music as something divine.
Certainly Music is something different from a Painting. A Painting is a past tense completed object hanging on a wall, whereas Music only exists in live performance in the present tense. For this reason, a Painting is a noun, but Music is a verb. A Painting can be owned by an individual, but no one owns Mozart. It is for these reasons alone that Music must be treated separately from Painting and Sculpture. Dance is even more problematic but it depends fundamentally on Music. In fact, some ancient Greeks referred to Dance as the 6th part of Music, the part you could see.
Continue reading Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 3
How to Write a Love Letter
For reasons reviewed in the first little essay in this series, here you are—the real you, trapped in the right-hemisphere of the brain which is mute, with respect to language, and victim of an educational system which primarily failed to educate the real you. Traditional education addressed itself to educating the left-hemisphere, assembling a mountain of data you can consult if you need to and all of it outside your own experience. Traditional education ignored, or perhaps we should say was not allowed, any educational steps for you to discover your own emotional template. Here, of course, is the perfect role for music education, but so far music educators are afraid to take on this vital role. And so society leaves it to you to discover this for yourself, even though the feelings you possess as an individual will determine all important choices in your life.
Continue reading Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 2
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. 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.
Continue reading Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 1