Editor's note: As soon as I read this essay by conductor Ramona Wis, I wanted to share it with you. Dr. Wis's ideas offer comfort for everyone, not just musicians. We can all face an uncertain future with grace and courage. We're all in this together. ~ Brenda Tremblay
The Conductor as Yogi: From Holding Space to Making Space
By Ramona M. Wis
The first time I heard the phrase “holding space” was from a colleague describing her experience with someone going through a tough time. “I just held space for her,” she said. It was a phrase I was not familiar with but soon started seeing everywhere (or maybe it was just “blue car syndrome,” where my increased awareness led to noticing what was always there).
“Holding space” is being fully present with someone, usually someone who is experiencing a difficult time. By allowing them to express disappointment, frustration, pain, or anger without judging them, responding with our own life experiences, or trying to fix the situation, we “hold” space for them to feel safe and we respect their agency to work through their thoughts and feelings without interference.
Holding space for someone is challenging because our instinct is to launch into action to take away the pain. When our choirs went to virtual mode in March, and later, when our seniors graduated without final concerts and in-person commencements, they grieved and we had to hold space for them to do so. We couldn’t say, “Don’t feel that way” or “I had that same experience when . . . ,” or anything else we might otherwise have been inclined to offer. The reality of this global pandemic was so big that we just had to be with it, for our singers and for ourselves.
We are now well into July and the grieving is far from over. Concerts or full seasons are cancelled, large in-person rehearsals are not happening, and much of the ceremony and community we typically enjoy will be altered in significant ways. There will still be upset and confused singers (and colleagues) so we will still hold space for them to vent, cry, and question.
But even as we continue to hold space, we must move forward to the freedom and action of “making space.”
Making space is a common theme in my yoga classes because it has very real applications on and off the mat. When we make space in the body, we find freedom to move differently and we discover new mobility or strength. When we make space in the breath, we change our mood and energy level and encounter a sense of wholeness and balance. And when we make space off the mat, we do two important things: we let go of that which no longer serves us and we allow something new to come into our lives.
As we plan for fall, how do we make space for ourselves and our singers? What no longer serves us and how do we prepare for the new?
To be clear, like everyone else, I yearn for the day when we can safely reassemble our full choirs in person, singing joyously, our notes punctuated with laughter and tears, just as they were in that last rehearsal in March. I can see this future day clearly in my mind’s eye and while I don’t know when it will happen, I know it will be a moment like no other.
But for now, what no longer serves us is holding on to the belief that anything different from our traditional choral model is subpar and not worth doing. It will not serve our singers to stay stuck in our own disappointment, frustration, anger, or fear when we can be using our time, energy, and considerable teaching and artistic gifts to create something new, something which can be of value now and reap benefits for us after—and there will be an “after”—this global health crisis has passed.
I released that belief pretty early on. What took me longer was letting go of the idea that if I knew just a little more, watched one more webinar or video or had a few more conversations, then I would have it all figured out and have the perfect plan of action for my collegiate choirs in the fall. I realized that while I will continue to seek information and inspiration, clarity would not emerge for me until I had the courage to do the hard work, to venture down new paths and craft an operational plan that would keep my choral family singing, learning, and meaningfully connected. I am in the midst of this now and know that much will change in the coming weeks—but my commitment to doing the work, to adaptability, and to new ways of thinking must remain firm.
Let’s continue to hold space for ourselves and others (and refer to professional help where needed) as we also make space by letting go of that which cannot serve us right now. Let’s see new ideas with new eyes, not to replace or compete with our beloved history, but to grow in ways that will support us now and when our traditional practices return. Unless we make space in our lives by letting go of, or at least, putting on hold, our former way of doing things, we will never see the enormous opportunity that lies ahead for us all.
“We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insolvable problems.”
John. W. Gardner
This essay was shared with permission from Dr. Ramona Wis, the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher). She is the author of "The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium." Dr. Wis writes, "I will be teaching in a virtual model exclusively this year so 'the work' that I wrote about is quite full right now. I am counting on my students to help steer this ship! In the meantime, take care and be well." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch her conduct The North Central College Concert Choir in Ola Gjeilo's "The Ground."