The Exodus:5 Project
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile and set out. Exodus 17:5
I love the craziness of the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.” The complicated personal stories of musicians and others who make the music of a symphony orchestra illustrate for a listener like me that the beautiful end-product is refined from a cacophony that precedes it. There is a long process of sorting out bad notes and bad relationships before a group of people can collaborate harmoniously.
At the center of my fascination is the conductor. He’s a real character in the show, but conductors in general have fascinated me. I watched Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” as a kid, enjoyed Danny Kaye’s playful turns on the podium and learned a series of important lessons in leadership from Israeli conductor Itai Talgam. Itai is not only a maestro, he is a student of the art. He teaches army officers, corporate executives and rabbis about leadership by analyzing the styles of famous conductors – the aloof Muti, the authoritarian von Karajan, the formal Toscanini, the passive-aggressive Kleiber and, of course, the seductive Bernstein.
Here's what they all have in common: the baton. It’s a magic staff that seems to control the ebb and flow of the music as it is deployed by the conductor. That stick holds an incredible power which is, I don’t need to tell you, no power at all. The baton is an extension of the man, and the energy that is emitted by it is generated and, well, conducted from the wellsprings of the bearer.
Certainly, I have seen conductors use only their hands as well as a variety of objects for comic effect. But without a baton, the conductor is no conductor. But the baton in and of itself is not enough.
I know this because when I was five years old, my parents took me to Disneyland. I had the chance to conduct the band in the town square, waving around the white wand placed in my hand by the bandleader. The band did an expert rendition of the “Washington Post March,” a Sousa classic. When I later saw the 8mm film that my dad shot of the moment, even at that young age I recognized that I looked like I was trying to swat a fly, and the band leader, standing discretely behind me, was keeping the time and directing the musicians.
30 years later, I talked the bandleader in Disneyworld into letting me repeat the gig. I promised I would never ask again. He let me conduct the same song. I was, again, awful. He was, again, behind me.
What is the allure of the stick, the rod, the staff, the wand, the scepter, the baton? Harry Potter and lesser magicians use them to effect spells and enchantments. Tribes use them to confer authority to govern or merely to speak. Potentates of various kinds hold them as a symbol of dominance. Stage managers use them to clear the failing act from the vision of the audience.
I won’t deny that there is something phallic about a man waving a baton, but we would reduce the symbol to ridicule if we confused the referential with the functional. And the women who have stepped up to the podium to conduct are not engaged in an exercise of borrowing male power – they have the same magic in front of an orchestra as Hermione has at Hogwarts.
Our attention is misdirected when we attribute some sort of potency to the stick. The Bible may set us up by attributing all sorts of tricks to Moses’ rod – turning into a snake, changing the water of the Nile to blood, splitting the sea and bringing water out of a rock. But it’s not the stick.
I can’t tell you by what actual power Moses did (or did not?) identify the rock and bring forth a stream of water. But I can tell you that the fictional Rodrigo, the masterful Talgam and the anonymous bandleader are responsible from within for whatever power the baton holds. It is the person who graduates from believing in the power of the magic staff to harnessing the power of internal skills and capacities who is authorized by the stick…which is just a stick.
By the way, if you want to read ahead to Numbers 20:11-12, you’ll find what we lose when we believe otherwise.