Abandoning Perfection? In Search of a Great Performance

Re-blogged from The Boston Herald-Read original post here


By Cynthia Woods, Music Director

Perfection is one of life’s great contradictions. From the time we begin to learn it’s held out in front of us as a sort of state of nirvana, the ultimate goal, the purest pursuit. Sure parents and friends say things like just do your best, we love you no matter what, but underneath, everyone knows, an A plus is better than an A, a score of 100 is better than 99.  And in our current culture where the objective, the quantifiable, dominates every learning process from standardized school tests, to audition score cards we have an almost religious belief in attaining 10 out of 10.

So we dig in, put our heads down and aim for that perfect moment and the glory that follows. And then it happens, betrayal.  After years of study, hours spent locked away in small rooms practicing till your head spins, you have it; that audition or performance where everything goes as planned; dead on intonation, flawless rhythm, exquisite phrasing, it’s the moment you dreamed of, trained for, where everyone will see and know, you’re worthy, you have it in you to be perfect. Smiling as you hit the last note, you look up, full of expectance, ready to see the gates open and welcome you to the land of special perfect people and that’s when it happens. Like a believer waking up the day after the end of the world to a breakfast of pancakes, your nightmare comes true. For instead of accolades, you’re greeted with restrained applause or worse yet, the bored judge, quietly nodding, and dismissing you with a sort of bored sniff. What?!?!  No! You’re sure there’s a mistake, indignation rises, you played by the rules, had an ace game, you deserve the prize.

And that’s when you come face to face with one of life’s great jokes, the quest to be great requires the pursuit of perfection, but in perfection one can sometimes find a sterile land, where art and expression struggle to thrive. Because music is at its most wondrous when it touches us, when it reflects the human condition; when it becomes a mirror for our human experience; an experience where we all know, perfection is noticeably absent. Does perfection keep us from connecting to our audience? Who do we cheer more, the player who plays the hardest or the player who plays the best? The answer seems obvious and yet the results can often surprise us, as we cross our fingers and joyfully bet on the underdog.

And so, for a brief moment there seems clarity, yes, that is it, that special X factor is found in abandoning perfection, sports, music, it doesn’t matter, the answer seems straight forward and clear, perfection is a false prophet and not to be trusted …until you hear your next Mozart Requiem or sit down to study a score of Beethoven’s 9 glory, and there it is again, sheer perfection, in all of its beauty and glory, beckoning you to its gates.

CSO performs Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, often described as one of the most “perfect”compositions ever written. Photography by Olivia Peterson.



Conductors Don’t Wear Pink..Or do they?

Re-blogged from the Boston Herald, read original here


Conductors don’t wear pink… or do they? What really makes a Maestro?

by Cynthia Woods, Music Director

As a member of the second generation of women coming up through the ranks of orchestra conductors, I have always counted myself lucky. I wasn’t the first and the door was definitely open. I had many wonderful, supportive teachers; I got jobs right out of school; and orchestral musicians were respectful. So why, unlike other areas such as politics and medicine, were there so few of me, and why was the “woman conductor” such a hot topic? Why are so many still asking the questions “Can they?” “Should they?” and my favorite, “But what on earth are they going to wear?”

While it looks like a rather benign topic on the surface, the clothing issue has become one of my greatest pet peeves on the Maestra front. From the very beginning, I was told by the most well-meaning mentors, yes, go for it, be a conductor, but you know, just don’t look too feminine. Then there were the national conferences and workshops where all the women were huddled off from the men to small rooms to talk about the dangers of wearing a fitted shirt, an open-toed shoe, or God help you, a primary color. We all sat around feeling awkward and baffled. What was so very wrong about dressing like a professional woman? And why, with a room full of eager young male conductors adorned with flip flops and scrappy T’s, were we being singled out with the “how to dress” chat? Some of our most revered conductors have been known for their eccentric looks—the great Leopold Stokowski routinely wore a floor length black cape with red satin lining. Where was all this fashion terror coming from?

The message was clear to me and my female colleagues: It’s OK to be a woman on the podium, as long as you don’t look like a woman on the podium. Put your hair in a bun or cut it off, invest in a wardrobe of ill-fitting navy and black, and ditch the cute shoes. Happily, things are slowly changing; women currently make up 15% percent of all conductors, up from zero. Older and wiser, I wear whatever I like, as long as I think it shows the proper respect for the music and musicians. But we still have a great deal of work to do to change the conversation from what conductors are to who we are. A conductor is not an old man with wild hair wearing a tuxedo on a podium. A conductor is a highly trained, dedicated musician, with a unique musical vision and passion they wish to share with an orchestra. If we are to entice our young women to become the next Maestro, engineer, scientist or CEO, the message has to be clear. Yes, dress professionally, but also be proud to be yourself, whomever and whatever that is, because that is where true leadership begins. And if pink happens to be one of your favorite colors, then so much the better.



Building A More Perfect Board

Building a more perfect Board, re-blogged from from the Boston Herald State of the Arts


Board of Directors President, Josh Garstka (left) and Vice President, Abe Dewing (right) in attendance at the TargetCancer Foundation Gala.


What makes a great Board of Directors?

Redefining the model and looking beyond the blame game for solutions for our struggling non-profits.

There’s been a lot of talk the last few years about the challenges that face the modern symphony orchestra and some very recent examples of ugly, heated battles between different parties on how to fix them.  I wish I could say I’ve seen a lot of thoughtful discussion on the topic, but sadly, most of what I have witnessed has been the usual series of easy go to complaints: musicians want to make a living wage, audiences aren’t smart enough and can’t be trusted, conductors program music that’s too “artsy”– none of which really helps us get to a better place. We need to look deeper.

For most of us, our image of a Board of Directors was formed watching Mary Poppins or It’s a Wonderful Life.  They’re the rich powerful people, the elite of the community, the folks with the clout and check books. We speak of them with awe and a little fear.  But what if we got rid of the required gift? What if we created a Board that was filled with people of all ages and incomes, what would happen then?

Then, maybe you could have people on your Board like:

  • The fabulous music teacher from that one program in your city that just seems to turn kids on and has the musical Midas touch.  How much could they bring to a discussion about your educational programs and getting kids involved?  A great deal, I think.
  • The excited young millennial fresh out of school. This group has taken a lot of heat lately for being too plugged in, but nobody knows how to use the internet and social media to push an agenda the way they do.  If no one on your Board has ever tweeted or used Facebook, chances are your group will not be in a position to benefit from them.
  • Musicians themselves.  Musicians care deeply and have sacrificed a lot to pursue their career.  Very few would have the funds needed to make large contributions, but their voice is critical in discussions and often helps the non-musician understand why certain things need to be done a certain way.  Sure, you can’t have players on your Board, but look around for others from different groups, maybe a chamber musician or professor from the University.   They could prove to be vital in smoothing the choppy waters of misunderstanding and the “them vs us” that has ripped so many groups apart as of late.
  • The really great accountant or money person with experience with small business. This is critical. (Especially with groups where staff is limited) So many groups get themselves in trouble by not managing the money they have well, bank fees, poor investments, no thought to cash flow, bad contracts.  Having someone who knows how to work the system can make the difference between navigating a bad year and going under.  Having someone who has done it under less than ideal circumstances is even better.
  • The overworked, super tired, middle aged parent.  Want to get this person to your concerts?  Have one included in in the discussion and really listen when they talk about family friendly or baby sitter costs or what they want in a date night.  They’ll keep you on track in a way that audience surveys won’t. My guess is, is  that the group where the average ticket price hit $267.00 for some productions (with lots of empty seats) didn’t have anyone freaking out about college tuition in the room or factoring in an additional $100 to the babysitter, when they voted yes on that.
  • The wise elder.  It’s all about balance and having someone who has been around the block a few times, has time to give, is the voice of caution and institutional memory and yes, a check book as well, is a wonderful thing.

These are just some examples of course, but for me, having a great Board of Directors means imagining the audience and community you wish to serve and seeing that reflected around your table.  Their one commonality shouldn’t be income, age or position, but a deep commitment to and faith in the art form and the people they serve. Then hopefully, thoughtful discussion and innovation can flourish as well as the organization itself.

-Cynthia Woods, Music Director, Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

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Re-blogged from the Boston Herald. View original here.


Cambridge Symphony Orchestra investigates: Today’s orchestra concerts–where’s the spark and where’s the scandal?
By Cynthia Woods, Music Director

It’s the hot topic these days in the classical music world: Where did everybody go and why aren’t our concerts as popular as they used to be?  These are the questions that have our industry up in arms looking for answers. From the economy to the music itself, conspiracy theories abound and blame is laid at many feet.

But perhaps the answer is simpler and less sinister. We’ve all been to that party, the party where everything looks gorgeous, the house immaculate, the food perfection, the wine sublime, and yet we have no fun.  Everyone stands around awkwardly, scared to drop a crumb or spill wine on the beautiful white rug, or even risk looking unsophisticated by laughing too loud at the wrong joke. We spend the evening with a rigid smile plastered on our faces and feel relief when the evening comes to a close. I have to wonder, have we let our orchestra concerts become that party?

There are, of course, many factors in play regarding ticket sales and audiences. Easy access to recorded music, a greater variety of entertainment options and the economic downturn have all had an impact.  But I think we would be remiss not to look closely and critically at ourselves and our industry. In honoring and revering our orchestral traditions, have we accidentally put our music up on a pedestal so high that most people can’t reach it?  Has our reverence for our music and traditions created a stifling atmosphere?  In the honorable pursuit of excellence, perfection and reliability, have we sacrificed freshness, spontaneity and creativity? Where are the fun scandal and buzz that existed back in the day when Berlioz infamously tackled the conductor performing his work, wrenching the baton out of his colleague’s hand in an effort to take control, all for a fermata held perhaps a bit too long? Or Furtwangler’s curses flung at Toscanini from the audience for conducting a too-precise opening of Beethoven’s Ninth? Not since the Rite of Spring premiere in 1913 has any work been deemed truly riot-worthy.  Everyone seems so well-behaved these days.  Have we given up too much of our own personal creativity to the performance practice cops, lest we be caught performing Bach on modern instruments? Shouldn’t the arts, by definition, be a place where exploration and imagination rule, and the unexpected is the most desirable conclusion?

Our orchestras are made up of some of the finest and most dedicated musicians in the world, who work tirelessly to perform at consistently outstanding levels.  But they struggle within the box.  Performing the same works over and over, in the same way, often leaves them frustrated and wishing for a new, unexpected challenge.  Smaller, quirky ensembles seem to thrive, while our iconic institutions struggle with stagnant audiences.  We owe it to them and to all of the great composers who have graced us with their music to try new things and stop making excuses. It’s time to stop blaming the public for lack of interest or good taste and start looking forward instead of back.  As Mahler said, “tradition is the worship of fire, not ashes.” So let’s take a leap of faith, leave the box behind, and give our beloved music the chance to flourish in the here and now.



Gifting The Musician In Your Life: Dos And Don’ts by Cambridge Symphony Orchestra


Re-blogged from he Boston Herald State of the Arts

read original post


by Cynthia Woods, Music Director

It’s that festive time of year again, and in the public service spirit, I’d like to take a moment to dispel some long standings myths about giving gifts to the musician in your life. First and foremost, things we really, and I mean really, don’t want…

Anything with a clef, especially a treble clef and especially if it involves some type of jewelry. A friend asked me recently what I had against these bobbles. I offered to buy her matching stethoscope earings to wear on her hospital rounds. She has since dropped the topic.

Ornaments shaped as the instrument we play. It does not matter if it’s a piano, violin or horn, we don’t want them. As artists, we like to portray ourselves as hip, edgy, folk living on the fringe and sadly, a montage of musical ornaments just says, “hi, I shop at my local card store…a lot.”

Any mug, tote or sweatshirt featuring a vampire chuckling “Bach of course my dear…” Please don’t make us walk around sporting these things, pretty please. Middle school was bad enough.

-Brightly colored scarves covered with happy children playing their instrument with the words, “Got Music?” embossed. I have a wonderful colleague always looks like she has just stepped out of a Vogue spread and every year gets this same gift from her students, which makes you wonder: Have they ever looked at their teacher? Do they buy these in bulk?

**Note: the previously stated no-garish-musically-adorned-accessories rule is suspended when applied to neckties worn by brass players in holiday performances. I am not sure why, but it seems to be a consistent exception.

So, with so many don’ts, what are some dos, you ask? Here we go…gifts we’ll love!

-Booze. String players tend to prefer wine; brass, Scotch or Bourbon; percussionists, beer; flautists, wine coolers. And for the kindest and bravest–those who teach small children how to play (beginning bassoon, beginning fiddle etc.), anything will do–quantity is what matters. As for us conductor types, we tend to opt for the classics: elegant vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.

-Good coffee. In general, we musicians like our caffeine, and we tend to be pretty snotty about it. Think Paris café meets avant-garde intellectualism and you’re on the right track. (Note, this pertains less to jazzers, but seems especially true for double reed players. Maybe it’s making all of those reeds…)

-Chocolate. This old standby might be overdone sometimes, but still, it’s always appreciated, especially after a day of teaching or rehearsing new music. And it pairs nicely with number one!

-Gift certificates to spas. I’ve never seem this route go wrong with anyone, musician or non-musician.

So, hopefully, that has cleared things up a bit and the next time you see that life-size inflatable snowman playing a French horn, complete with inclusive music box, step away…..step away.

Happy Holidays from the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra!