When I was an undergrad at the University of Maine, I had the good fortune to be in the Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Rob Westerberg, then working on his masters degree in choral conducting (studying with the wonderful Dr. Dennis Cox). We met around lunchtime a couple of days a week, a mix of college kids and actual adults, music majors and non, with varied levels of singing expertise.
I'll never forget the first Collegiate Chorale rehearsal I attended. Rob (or Berg, as he is affectionately known to his high school students) conducted the entire rehearsal in silence. He used gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions, the piano, and the chalkboard to get his point across.
Since Rob, with his expressive features and tireless enthusiasm, gives the impression of a cartoon character come to life this was amusing, unsettling, and highly effective. And clearly memorable, since it's been well over a decade since that day and I can recall it in such detail.
Gimmicks are fun and can be helpful in getting a hundred people with different agendas to pay close attention to you. But we kept paying attention, and we kept attending even though Rob eventually started talking. Because when he talked, he was always postive, always finding things to praise, and always showing his gratitude for getting to work with such a great group.
And that's how he made us a great group.
Working with a choir, Rob is like a sculptor working with stone - he knows that there's something special in there, and he's shaping it towards its inevitable glory. He's not a mason building a wall from scratch, or an architect tearing down undesired walls.
He knows the singers already have the talent, and he's just cultivating it.
He expects great results, so that's what he gets.
Sure, he has the chops as a conductor. But don't we all know people with chops in their various fields of expertise who are utterly ineffective at getting great results? It's not just about talent and know-how.
Expect excellence and praise effort and progress toward that end - it's that simple.
With a large group of people, such as a choir, the effect of a subtle change can be dramatic, amplified by the sheer number of people. With an individual, it may take consistent attention over time to produce significant change, especially if it's you working on yourself.
But with every encounter, you have a choice: will you draw attention to that which is working, or that which is not? Will you choose to appreciate the good stuff, or point out the flaws?
Which way do you want to go? Up or down?
Mistakes and weaknesses don't necessarily need to be eradicated. When you focus on what's good, the other stuff drops away, whether in reality or perception.
Whenever I drift too far toward perfectionism, whether in my own work or that of my students, I think of that wonderful year with Rob Westerberg in Collegiate Chorale. I really do. It reminds me that it is entirely possible to build something worthwhile without using any criticism whatsoever.
I might as well expect great things - from myself, from my family, from my students. What do I have to lose?