Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 2000
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Among conducting students, respect for Gustav Meier borders on awe.
H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Zen Maestro
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Bill Denison

Ken Selden,
DMA student at Peabody Conservatory
Steep is the way to mastery. Often nothing keeps the pupil on the move but his faith in his teacher, whose mastery is now beginning to dawn on him. He is a living example of the inner work, and he convinces by his mere presence.
--Eugen Herrigel
Zen in the Art of Archery

Within East Hall of the Peabody Conservatory, it is always 4:36. The clock high on the south wall has been frozen for more than a year, and brick façades just outside the room's windows obscure the sun's hourly progress. Inside the hall, paint has peeled from the walls and ceiling in slabs. An obscene drawing adorns one of the room's pillars. East Hall does not seem a space for meditation or enlightenment.

Nevertheless, two days each week graduate students convene here to learn how to conduct from Gustav Meier. When they speak of him, and of what he teaches them about music, they say:

You have to let yourself go. You'll never achieve the musical ideas that are in your head unless you're completely centered in yourself.

He projects serenity. It is a feeling I have not experienced before.

He's like a Zen master.

So perhaps, in East Hall, 4:36 is all time and no time, and the light is all light and no light, the Buddha-time and the Buddha-light. Or maybe you just start thinking like that after spending many hours with Gustav Meier, Zen Maestro.

Meier is 70 years old and has been teaching orchestral conducting for more than 20 years. Now a distinguished visiting faculty member in Peabody's graduate conducting program, he flies from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to conduct two days of Peabody classes each week. He was born in Switzerland and learned his trade at the Zurich Conservatory, the Academia Chigian Siena, and with opera companies in Lucerne, Zurich, and Vienna. At Tanglewood, he was part of a class of student conductors that included Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, and David Zinman, all of whom have gone on to international stardom. Meier has taught at the Yale School of Music, where he was the youngest full professor in the school's history, at the Eastman School of Music, at the University of Michigan, and at Tanglewood, where he was director of the Conductors Seminar for 17 summers.

He joined Peabody in 1996, and musicians began to gravitate to Balti-more. Each year, 40 to 60 hopefuls send audition videotapes; Meier reviews them and invites 15 or so candidates for personal auditions before a full orchestra. He accepts the best three or four. He says, "What I'm looking for is someone who really feels the composer, gets touched by the music, and can show that. I have no use for someone for whom there's nothing here"--he taps his heart--"no compassion, no respect for the composer. For whom it's all ego."

He shrugs. "They come here and we give it a good try."

The pupil brings with him three things: good education, passionate love for his chosen art, and uncritical veneration of his teacher.
--Eugen Herrigel
Zen in the Art of Archery

The students, nine of them at the moment, range in age from mid-20s to early 40s. All are men; female conducting students are as rare as female conductors. They have earned multiple degrees from the country's best universities and conservatories and acquired years of experience in various orchestras and choruses. Many already have careers as music directors, conductors, coaches, and performers. And almost to a man they say that learning to conduct is the hardest thing they have ever done.

They are earnest, thoughtful, and literate. Some have waited years for the opportunity to study with Meier. Benjamin Loeb and Mark Shapiro commute weekly from New York and busy careers. Danail Ratchev came from Bulgaria. Eduardo Zuber resigned from two orchestras and moved his family to Baltimore from Mexico. Their respect for their teacher verges on awe.

"Gustav is best teacher," says French-born Julien Benichou. "I have had seven conducting teachers. Multiply the others by each other and they're still not Gustav."

Says Benjamin Loeb (pictured above) of Meier: "His approach is beyond the analytical. He says, "You know what the score is, but what do you feel the music is saying?"
English critic Norman Lebrecht, in his book The Maestro Myth, wrote, "Historically, what outstanding conductors have had in common is an acute ear, the charisma to inspire musicians on first acquaintance, the will to get their own way, high organizational ability, physical and mental fitness, relentless ambition, a powerful intelligence, and a natural sense of order which enables them to cut through thousands of scattered notes to the artistic core."

So...if you teach this complicated business, what do you teach?

How to read and analyze a score. How to search for the composer's intention and communicate that intention to the orchestra. How to persuade 25 or 50 or 100 accomplished professional musicians who have their own ideas about music and performance to follow your lead, and how to inspire them to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which they've performed 50 times, as if they've just discovered it.

How to make every gesture communicate exactly what the music requires, and beyond that, how to make your facial expression, your posture, even your initial step onto the podium express your deepest convictions about Haydn, Shostakovich, Mozart, or Stravinsky. How to breathe. To remember to breathe.

How to trust. How to trust the composer, and the players, and the mysterious process of musicality to create something sublime.

And if you are Gustav Meier, say his students, you teach how to be musical in the deepest sense.

The Eightfold Path to Enlightenment: Right View -- Right Thought -- Right Speech -- Right Action -- Right Livelihood -- Right Effort -- Right Mindfulness -- Right Contemplation.

Zen novitiates speak of following the eightfold path by labor: chop wood, carry water. Meier's novitiates labor as well. One by one they stand before a quintet of Peabody student string players plus a pianist, or before a complete student rehearsal orchestra, and conduct the Brahms Symphony No. 2, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich.

Meier observes from a chair to the left of the podium. As each student conducts, the Maestro sways, holds his head, smiles, taps his foot as his socks droop. As if seized by the music, he will suddenly and vigorously conduct several bars from where he sits, then run his fingers through his hair, reducing it to disarray. He may look up and cue a section of the orchestra himself, to get players back on track if the student-conductor has momentarily left them adrift and disoriented.

Toward the students he is patient, good-humored, meticulous, encouraging, and respectful. He may listen and observe as one of them leads the orchestra through an entire movement. Or he might clap his hands after just two measures, pointing out a mistake to the man on the podium. Sometimes, the student doesn't even get to the downbeat before Meier interrupts. The conducting of a piece, he tells him, begins not when the music starts, but when the conductor ascends the podium. How he stands, the expression on his face, where he directs his gaze...all should communicate to the players what the music is about.

Maestro: "Don't do what you just did."

Student: "What did I do?"

Maestro: "You looked at the musicians."

Student: "That's bad?"

Maestro: "That's bad."

Student: "But they're beautiful!"

Maestro: "Doesn't matter. Be self-contained. Don't look up. Sink totally into Brahms."

The Maestro demonstrates a preparatory gesture, to be executed with the left hand before the right delivers the downbeat. Observes a student, newly enlightened: "The music starts before the first beat."

Men are afraid to forget their own minds, fearing to fall through the void with nothing on to which they can cling.

Bryan Nies, at 25 the youngest member of Meier's current class, studied piano and psychology at Northwestern University, but he was always interested in conducting, even as an adolescent who played French horn. He was captivated by how each part of the orchestra and the composition fit together. "In middle school, we did a band arrangement of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony," he says. "I bought a recording, found out it was 35 minutes longer than our nine-minute band arrangement, and listened to it over and over again. My ear developed a sense of how everything fit together."

Understanding that became Nies's overriding interest. "I remember missing a horn cue with the Chicago Youth Symphony in Shostakovich Five because I was too busy listening to the violins. Conducting just became a natural progression." While at Northwestern, he began hanging around Stephen Alltop, director of the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, in suburban Chicago. "For a year I brought him orange juice and sat and watched. After a year, he said, 'I can see that you're really dedicated. Do you want to be assistant conductor?'" Nies took him up on the offer and affirmed that he'd found his calling. One day you conduct a piece, he says, and everything works. And then you just have to do it again. "I couldn't be happier doing anything else."

He aspires to be the principal conductor of an opera house, or a symphony. On the podium, he can blush with sudden intensity; if you could hear a blush, his would whoosh. His biggest problem as a conductor, he says, is self-consciousness, letting himself go: "It means in a weird sort of way not allowing thought to impede what you're trying to create, yet consciously being focused. It's a very hard thing to describe. You're deliberately not thinking about things, about how the notes should go or your gestures, but you're free to articulate the music. To get there means admitting your shortcomings as well as your strengths, and letting neither of them get in the way."

He concludes, "This art form describes to myself what I want to be." Then, "It is truly the hardest thing I have ever attempted to do."

It is necessary for the archer to become, in spite of himself, an unmoved center.
--Eugen Herrigel
Zen in the Art of Archery

Richard Strauss stood immobile on the podium with the barest flicks of his baton. If someone else was conducting, he would go into the green room during the interval and thrust his hand under the man's armpit. If he found it moist he would shout, "Amateur!" Sviatoslav Richter and Arthur Nikisch reportedly could stand on the podium and conduct with their eyes alone.

Meier says, "The most fundamental thing is to teach them how to communicate with their hands." But he often wants the students to keep their gestures small, in close to the body. Sometimes he tells them to do nothing at all, to simply stand and let the orchestra play.

One evening, Nies conducts the full student orchestra playing Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. At the conclusion of the piece, the orchestra sounds three soft, pizzicato chords. On the podium, Nies reaches this point, his arms drawn in, his gaze inward, his body immobile. Then all he does is nod his head three times. He is beaming as he recalls, "I wasn't actually thinking about what to do, but I just brought my arms closer and closer to me and nodded, and the entire orchestra responded. The focus and the connection were right there. I could have just blinked and I'd have gotten the sound I wanted."

As they wait their turns to conduct, the students observe, listen, smile or nod, and turn the pages of their individual scores in unison. Sometimes one will whip out an electronic metronome to check tempo. Several conduct from their chairs. During the Mendelssohn, one follows along as he eats a sliced apple. He pauses to give a strong downbeat with his free hand, then returns to his apple.

Everyone has a distinctive style, like handwriting with a baton. On the podium, Eduardo Zuber is dramatic, with broad sweeps of the baton and deep, audible intakes of breath. Mark Shapiro sometimes stands nearly immobile, his arms close to his body, his gestures minimal. He rarely uses a baton, and often seems to be grasping invisible strands, as if pulling the music from a knot that only he sees. Lance Friedel tends to smile; Ratchev is sober and intense, his lips pursed.

Meier watches each of them, sometimes walking around the room to view them from several angles.

"Don't forget the brasses. Don't forget the trumpets," he tells them.

"Don't push the orchestra. They will play for you."

"Bass line, bass line, bass line. In Mozart, everything is held together by the bass line."

"In that section, I'm glued to the cellos. I don't even listen to the woodwinds."

In class one afternoon, Nies conducts a section of Mozart with too much vigor.

Reminds the Maestro, "It's The Magic Flute, not The Magic Percussionist."

Danail Ratchev came all the way from Bulgaria to study with the Maestro.
Shapiro has degrees from Yale, in music, and l'Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, for conducting. He has led the Monmouth Civic Chorus in Red Bank, New Jersey, and the chamber chorus I Cantori di New York for nine years. He first encountered the Maestro at a workshop in Kiev in 1998: "The reason I'm here is him. The thing that distinguishes Gustav is that he speaks to the best and most intelligent side of the people he's instructing. And more than virtually any other teacher I have known, his approach is profoundly musical.

"It's very difficult to conduct. What I mean is, it's unbelievably difficult to do it really, really well, consistently. It's not all that hard to do it badly."

Shapiro says that he most wants to work on his concentration: "I think all of us, all people, strive for deeper, more intense concentration in our lives generally. Mental clarity and focus. The more of it one can mobilize, the deeper one can go into the music."

One day after class, he sits alone in a Baltimore outdoor cafe enjoying the late-afternoon sun. An open score lies before him on the table. He reads it intently, completely absorbed, and as he does, his hands rise from the pages and he conducts the orchestra in his mind.

Such is life --
Seven times down,
Eight times up!
--Alan W. Watts
The Way of Zen

Some days, the students crawl measure by measure, making one mistake after another. They fail to give cues. They're too emphatic with a beat, eliciting a staccato attack when the music calls for legato. They lose the pulse of the music and the orchestra begins to wander around the beat. They beat something in four when, to sound right, it needs to be in two. Shapiro, who admits he does not have a good spatial sense, sometimes loses the layout of the orchestra in his mind: "I glance up and it looks like Grand Central Station to me."

Meier watches, rapidly switching between the eyeglasses he wears to read the score and the pair he needs to see the students. Sometimes the students have problems with seemingly simple things. Several tend to bend forward at the waist as they get further into a piece of music. Meier tells them not to, that it diminishes their presence. Beating time, they swing too wide on three and now have to hurry the baton up for four, which rushes that beat. They have trouble controlling the rebound of a downbeat. One will bring the baton down, then let it bounce back up instead of remaining stationary. "When I see your arm come up like this, I expect something to happen," Meier says. But nothing is supposed to happen at that point in the score, so the gesture is wrong. The students listen, smile or frown, then exhale and try it again.

Now in doing zazen [meditation], it is desirable to have a quiet room.
The Soto master, Dogen

Meier occasionally leads the students in silent practice. They hear the music in their heads as they read the score, and follow him in conducting difficult passages. He stands before them, conducting the conductors.

Outside East Hall, the Baltimore civil defense siren begins to wail as part of its weekly test. As the piercing sound finally diminishes, Meier smiles, raises his hand, and conducts the siren's diminuendo.

Eduardo Zuber has studied violin at Juilliard and philosophy at Sarah Lawrence. He first took the podium in Spain, and had steady work with the baton in his native Mexico, but says, "I was conducting a lot without knowing how to conduct. I was not happy with that situation." He began periodic lessons with Meier in 1996, and two years later moved his wife and 9-year-old son to Baltimore to enroll at Peabody full time. "I think is best thing I have ever done," he says. "Is best teaching I have ever had, of any kind."

Meier's method, says Zuber, is "magical. He becomes a philosopher, a psychologist, and a conducting teacher all at once. He projects serenity, and a tremendous love for music. Is a feeling I have not experienced before."

Zuber cannot seem to avoid sounding philosophical when discussing the conductor's art: "You have to analyze your approach to life. Your convictions must be so firm in order to conduct. You must understand values, society, the societies of different times."

Becoming a conductor represents a fundamental change for him. "For many years I needed recognition. Career success was important, money, admiration of others. Now I have to relearn the basic values of life. I always wanted to be a famous violinist. I don't feel the need to be a famous conductor. I want to be with people who feel a love for making music."

The Master raised his whisk.
The monk shouted. The Master struck him.
Recorded Sayings of Lin-chi

The Maestro comes up behind a student who is busy conducting the practice orchestra in The Magic Flute. During a quiet section, he places his hands on the student's upper arms and holds him still. He releases him, listens for a moment, then slaps the student lightly on the shoulder.

Maestro: "You know the guillotine in France? They chop off heads?"

Student: "Not any more."

Maestro: "That's good, because they'd take you right to it."

Benjamin Loeb wryly notes that he's a fifth-generation Texan Jew, something not many can claim. He has a bachelor's degree cum laude from Harvard, a master's in accompaniment from Curtis, and a doctorate from Juilliard. He was admitted to Stanford Law School a few years ago but never went. In demand as an accompanist, he plays 40 to 50 recitals and concerts a year throughout the country. His sister is Lisa Loeb, who had considerable success some years ago as a pop singer. The photo of him on his web site is black and white, which doesn't tell you that his hair is blue. Really blue, like the feathers of an indigo bunting.

Loeb had studied piano with Leon Fleisher and Gilbert Kalish, and likes to perform, but says, "I wasn't happy on the stage alone. I wasn't happy in the practice room alone. I wasn't happy unless I was around people."

He met the Maestro in 1982, and studied with him at Tanglewood in 1990. "I loved him. He's instructive without being destructive. He was always on my mind after that, but Michigan was so far away. I didn't want to leave New York and give up my connections and friends and the life I had." In December 1998, Loeb was in Baltimore to be the accompanist at a Peabody recital when he saw a poster for a concert conducted by Meier. "I said, 'What's Gustav Meier doing here?' Someone said, 'Oh, he teaches here.' I said, 'No!' This was December 5. Applications were due December 8." He threw together a tape of himself, wrangled an audition, and was accepted.

"Most conducting teachers do two things," he says. "One, the most common, is tell you how to move your hands. Okay, you can move your hands, but that's not conducting. Rarer is the teacher who teaches you how to analyze a score. Then you have the even rarer teacher, and that's Meier. His approach is beyond the analytical. He says, 'You know what the score is, but what do you feel the music is saying? Trust your body to do it.'"

And have faith that the orchestra will play it. Meier often tells his students that they need do nothing in certain passages, or do much less, because the players know what to do. "He says to trust the orchestra," Loeb says. "Get out of the way. But conductors have fragile egos. From the moment you give the downbeat, your authority is challenged. You give the downbeat, they come in late, and you think, 'Goddam, it's 100 to 1.'

"The greatest problem is the music," Loeb adds. "Who am I to conduct a Haydn symphony? It's Haydn, for God's sake! Maybe someday I'll conduct a single phrase properly."

To return to the root is to find the meaning, to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
--Seng Tsang

The students work on The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. Meier recalls a school he attended at which Figaro was the final exam: "Four-year program, final exam. If you can conduct Figaro, you are a conductor."

On a Monday, he teaches without an orchestra, advising the students how to prepare to conduct an opera. First make a chart of the score, noting singers' participation, instrumentation, the timing of each aria and ensemble. "Watch where the singers double a pitch. That's an invitation to intonation problems." Learn the text first, then the music. Recite the text as you follow the score, "in rhythm, no pitch. It's amazing. After a little while you get comfortable."

The students must acquire a deep knowledge of the score. Harlan Parker, who teaches conducting to undergraduates at Peabody, tells his pupils to plan on one or two hours of study per minute of music. Meier has phenemonal recall of the scores used for the graduate class: every tempo, every word of the operas, how every measure has to be counted. Here the flutes have just had 120 measures of rest and must be cued. There the violas must be at a certain dynamic level to leave room for a crescendo to the forte that comes 24 bars later. It's all in his head. He stresses that it must be in the students' heads as well.

He has them stand before their classmates and conduct Flute, still without players. The eight not on the podium conduct from their chairs, and several sing the text, in German. At one point, six voices harmonize, the Peabody Conductors Choir.

Meier advises them on dealing with stage directors, who have usurped conductors as the primary shapers of an opera production: "Don't complain. Word will get back and you'll never get another engagement. Discretion is a great thing in a conductor."

There is a pause in Flute, a fermata, where Meier likes to go right into the next section. If you don't, he says, the audience will clap in the wrong place. He jokes: "After that happens, the wife is upset with her husband: How could he clap there? ...He knows nothing about music! ...And then the husband has a nervous breakdown. Is a big mess."

The opera conductor contends with much more than the conductor of a symphony or a concerto. He must simultaneously follow the singers but lead the orchestra. And he must deal with the psyches of singers. Unlike the players in the orchestra, singers are always exposing their instruments--their voices--to harm, and they live in constant fear of infections, polyps, and injury.

"What a burden that is!" says the Maestro: "The slightest discomfort and you think, What is this doing to my voice? You have a cold, my God! It's terrible! Be patient with singers. They are a great breed, very special. They're late starters, late bloomers, generally, and they're confronted with needs for different languages and acting and different styles of's unbelievable. They are fascinating people, but they're basket cases. All of them."

A monk once drew four lines in front of Ma-tsu. The top line was long and the remaining three were short. He then demanded of the Master, "Besides saying that one line is long and the other three are short, what else could you say?" Matsu drew one line on the ground and said, "This could be called either long or short. That is my answer."
--Chang Chung-yuan
Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism

Says Shapiro (with baton), of conducting: "It is unbelievably hard to do it realy, really well."
"I think conducting is still a very young art form," says Shapiro. "People are still figuring it out."

He has a point. People have played music for millennia. Instrumental technique has developed over centuries. But the conductor is a recent addition to the concert stage. During a 15th-century choral performance, someone would slap a roll of paper to keep time. In the time of Bach and Handel, the concertmaster or the composer at the keyboard would conduct the players. Were there a conductor on the podium, he was the composer: Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner. The professional conductor did not become common until the mid-19th century. Lebrecht, the critic and author, is bold enough to assign a date to the birth of modern conducting: June 10, 1865, the day that Hans Guido Freiherr von Bčlow, described by Lebrecht as "a born loser," took the podium in place of Richard Wagner to conduct a performance of Tristan und Isolde.

Ever since, everyone has done it differently. Meier is an encyclopedia of renowned conductors. When showing the students how to close down the sound, he demonstrates how George Szell used to do it, holding his hand open and then bringing the fingers in like a closing clam shell. Another time, he whips the baton around in a circular beat and says, "Toscanini." He shrugs a few cues--"the Bernstein shoulders." During Brahms: "Ozawa always gives two upbeats."

In this moment there is nothing which comes to be. In this moment there is nothing which ceases to be. Wherefore the absolute tranquility is this present moment. Though it is at the moment, there is no limit to this moment, and here is eternal delight.
The Sixth Patriarch

Within East Hall, the moment is always 4:36.

Conductors have been, historically, a collection of tyrants, egomaniacs, and solipsists. Arturo Toscanini, Georg Szell, and Fritz Reiner could be horrid toward their players, and regularly were. Leonard Bernstein once said, "I feel a bit responsible for Mahler. Before I came, they [the Vienna Philharmonic] couldn't play a page of his music." He managed to ignore that Mahler had been a staple of every Vienna Philharmonic season for 35 years prior to his arrival. Great conductors have seen themselves as irreplaceable, and indestructible. When Leopold Stokowski was 91, he signed a 10-year contract with RCA. Pierre Monteux was 80 when he sought from the London Symphony a 25-year contract, with an option to renew.

Meier acknowledges the need for ego, but preaches that the genius is in the music, not on the podium. His students must learn balance, a yin and yang of conducting: "You need the right combination of self-confidence and being humble, to keep the composer as really the most important person, and yet be able to tell the musicians, 'Do this! Do that!' without offending anybody. It's hard." He pauses. "But it's very satisfying when it works."

He watches a student conduct Haydn with a full orchestra."Let the players go," he says. "They can count it. They can play it. Let them do it. Trust the players."

The student begins again. The Maestro lets him complete the movement.

"Yeah," says the Maestro. "Is good."