In praise of the slacker lifestyle

Am I proud to be a slacker? Can a conductor be a slacker? (I think we all know the answer)

During my summer in the conducting program at Aspen I was often struck by the ability of my former teacher David Zinman to always have at his mental fingertips a wealth of scholarly research and trivia about every work that came up during the long summer. In a way, his catalogue of scholarship was more intimidating for me as a younger conductor than his actual conducting or knowledge of the scores themselves, mostly because I just couldn’t envision how I was ever going to find the time to absorb that much research.

I was reminded of that feeling the other day when I caught myself spewing just that sort of trivia at a younger colleague, (although, I hope, in  my own way). With that realization came the larger one of just how much I’ve learned beyond notes and cues in the last 9 years since that Aspen summer- in many ways, more than I could have hoped for back then.

It took only a few seconds of introspection, naval gazing and analysis to figure out what the turning point was for me- it was quitting my teaching gig at EOU in 2002. I’ve always been very much a self-directed learner- not one to thrive as a student unless the projects assigned are aligned with my own curiosities of the moment. When I left the world of full-time employment with benefits for my current life as a free-lance conductor/slacker in 2002, I finally had the freedom to follow my muse.

Granted, many weeks I’m so busy that finding time to brush my teeth seems like a challenge, but in those weeks between concerts I actually have the time and freedom to chase down books and articles, compare editions or just follow the breadcrumbs in the score wherever they lead. One day you’re wondering “why this is that,” and 9 years late you actually know some stuff… Some days it’s even as simple as wondering “how the hell did my former teacher David Zinman know that in 2000?”

Most of my friends in the music business share a deep -seated hunger for a bit of stability in life (heaven knows, I do too), but I’ve never seen any correlation between stability and actual happiness in actual practice. My friends with killer orchestra jobs are by no means likely to be happier than my freelance buddies, nor are my conductor colleagues with iron-clad tenured positions any more chilled than those of us living from gig to gig. If I’d spent the last 6 years as a staff conductor covering all day every day with paid vacations and bennefits  or teaching week in week out, even at a good school, I’d know a lot less about a lot of scores than I do now.

That’s not to say I’d never settle down- we’ve got a wee one now, my travel schedule hurts me physically and mentally (being away from family sucks), and I would like nothing more than to have a partnership with an orchestra we could both grow in for the next 10 to 15 years.

I’m just saying to my younger colleagues, don’t be discouraged by the lack of stability and security in your  life. It’s a blessing- grab it and use it. I also know a lot of friends are in orchestras where their stability and their livelihoods are at risk in the current economic climate. I also know what they’ve given, done, expended and sacrificed to build that stability in their lives- a hard working musician deserves to be able to pay their mortgage without fear and put their kids through college, but if the worst happens, you’ve got to look at an uncertain future as an opportunity.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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