This semester in my studies, I've decided to concentrate on contemporary Finnish choral music. Last week, I arrived at class with a piece I had chosen for its absurd text: a poem about an unfortunate (Finnish) family whose story goes somewhat like this: the wife runs away with a Swede, the uncle goes to work in Kazakhstan, builds a sauna, burns it during a drinking spree and kills himself, the aunt has hallucinations of Jesus on the potato shed, the sons commit various crimes abroad and end up in jail, the daughter is abandoned by her husband with seven children, the family dog howls himself to death and the house is left to ruin. All this set to a cappella choir might not sound like a very beautiful piece, and believe me, it isn't. "What a great piece!" our professor smiled: "Finally something else to sing about Finland besides Lapland and the nature! This is the dark side of Finnish society!" And, of course, he was completely right.
What my professor calls Arctic hysteria might very well be something to understand only if you've lived here during autumn. The nights get longer, the weather colder, and bit by bit people start to go a bit nuts. Weirdly enough, instead of letting themselves relax during the harsh winter, people tend to work even longer and harder. And I can definitely tell you that, during the build-up to the Christmas period, choral conductors all go a little nuts. Talking with a friend and colleague some days ago on the phone, we realised that among the "choral conducting circles", talking about your free weekend seems so rare it's almost embarrassing when it happens. We're also often complaining of too much to do because, unlike orchestras which often have professional people taking care of the practical matters, choirs rely on their conductors to do a lot of the practical work in addition to actually choosing the repertoire and conducting the rehearsals and performances. This can be anything from making reservations for concert halls, checking the programmes for spelling mistakes, playing through parts on the piano and recording them for the singers to practise with, picking up scores from the store, etc etc.
I'm not complaining, because I love my job. As a freelancer, I have worked for 14 different choral organisations this year, including the three choirs I regularly conduct. It's great! It's also too much, I know, but it's not exceptional among conductors. Besides, everybody also knows that Helsinki is not a cheap place to live in, not to mention the possibility to have a holiday abroad once in a while, and we all need the euros our choirs can afford to pay us. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, given the huge amount of stress conductors (and musicians in general) encounter during a year, and given that many musicians are also highly impulsive and emotional people, the term Arctic Hysteria is something which now and then describes us very well.
Having said all this, I must admit I have lately become increasingly interested in a lifestyle which manages to combine a bit of hysterical running around, complaining about the weather and the price of everything, and also a bit of taking it easy and not stressing it that much. My motto for this semester was "one thing at a time, with breaks in between" and until now, I think I've managed to make it work quite well. To top it all, I was hit by a bad flu recently, and was forced to cancel various work-related things I had been looking forward to. As a result, it's been just me, the magazines, the books, and the dust-balls for several days now. And you wouldn't believe the weird things I've been able to do!
First of all, I've sat on the sofa and looked at the flat and the things around me. This is my home, and I like it a lot. The rent is absurdly high, but since I've decided to pull through with it I might as well be able to actually enjoy being at home once in a while! Today, I made myself tea and slowly watched the lemon juice swirling around in the cup and mixing together with the darker tea. I've dozed off and woken up laughing at some crazy dream I didn't remember anymore. I've browsed through our bookshelves and rediscovered stuff I had forgotten I owned. I've read magazines. Magazines!! I've reorganised our Finnish music scores into a new system. I've skyped with my sister in New York.
The list goes on and on, but the point is, I feel like I have bit by bit truly discovered the joys of being at home. It's almost embarrassing to admit it, but it's also something I've truly had to teach myself: to not be a little ashamed of taking a break for myself once in a while. Okay, so once I get going again I'll have days packed with three rehearsals, and I'll try to spend the time between the rehearsals preparing for next day's rehearsals. And of course, being a student does not mean lazying around - there's always new music to study and now projects to plan. However, I can't help feeling that after six years of concentrating entirely on reading about repertoire and voice production, standing in front of the mirror waving my hands about, singing through thousands of scores etc, it's time to learn something new about being a healthy and happy musician.
I believe that, for a musician, and most importantly for a conductor, you have to keep your mind occupied and your thoughts alive. My piano teacher once told me that music is not like a painting - it keeps evolving in your fingers and mind and is never really "ready" in the sense that a great painting is. And she was right: I can't hang an accomplished rehearsal up on the wall because next week everything might change again. Worse than that, I can't even perform to friends or relatives by myself, because I will always need musicians in front of me to release the knowledge I have been able to get from some magnificent teachers. However, as opposed to a pianist who might have to go through some rigorous physical warm-ups before she or he is able to perform a long-forgotten piece again, the conductor's most important task is to keep the mind active and stored with knowledge. A colleague recently posted as his status on Facebook: "How much is a Bach motet deposited in the vault of my brain worth?". Impossible to say. But once you know a Bach motet by heart, the chances are it will stay with you your entire life, as so many other wonderful wonderful choral pieces, and you'll be able to share them with as many choirs as you like.
Speaking of Bach: I recently stepped in for a friend to conduct her choir's rehearsal of the Christmas Oratorio. As so often happens, I was forced to leave my preparing work to the last minute and was then surprised by a very tight schedule. Other things came up, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of the choir without having opened the score once at home. As one of my conducting teachers once said: "You will never be able to avoid situations where you have to conduct from sight. It's just one part of this job." But then I realised that, after all, I was not conduct from sight. I have sung the Christmas oratorio for years as a small boy, and so I was able to conduct the rehearsal by remembering all those rehearsals so many years ago. My point: we really need to learn how to take it easy. Some things happen by themselves, some don't (and if you're not always on top shape, give yourself a break), but too many things happen by forcing them to - like having a burn-out.
Musicians - whether they are professionals or amateurs - want to have a happy person in front of them during a rehearsal. Happy as in smiling, yes, but also happy as in mentally balanced, present and, in general, satisfied with one's life. Can someone who spends every minute of his life studying a score, stressing about his choir's tenor situation or planning the next rehearsal, be happy? We all need outlets. My own are doing fun things with the people closest to me, reading fiction and, more recently, yoga. I have really started believing that reading a wonderful book, taking a walk in the park, going to the movies with my family, or just spending a cozy afternoon at home, waiting for dinner to be ready, is just as important to me and my work as studying posture and hand movements in front of a mirror. And once in a while, it's okay to get a little arctically hysterical....