For the Love of the Game

On December 31, 2020, Becky Hammon, one of the San Antonio Spurs’ assistant coaches, became the first woman to serve as a head coach in an NBA game after Gregg Popovich was ejected in the 2nd quarter.  The post-game interviews inevitably focused on this historic moment, and I found a lot of wisdom in the answers from the two coaches as well as opposing team member Lebron James that was universal and relatable to the issue of gender in orchestral conducting.   While I encourage everyone to listen to the full interviews by clicking on their names below, here are four excerpts that really resonated with me.

“It’s been business as usual from the beginning. We didn’t hire Becky to make history.  She earned it.  She’s qualified.  She’s wonderful at what she does. And I wanted her on my staff because of the work that she does.  And she happens to be a woman, which basically should be irrelevant, but it’s not in our world, as we’ve seen, since it’s been so difficult for women to attain certain positions. So, it was business as usual for us.”

 – Gregg “Pop” Popovich

It’s always business as usual for us in orchestras, too.  The primary consideration for engaging any conductor should be their artistic merit and chemistry with the orchestra, not gender.  To let history-making influence the decision would be a disservice to both the conductor and the orchestra.

By the same token, if you truly love orchestral music, you should be able to see past any external differences and value a conductor for what they bring to the art form.  The best people in any field do, like Coach Pop in the NBA, because his mind is on the game and nothing else.

“Honestly, in the moment, I was just trying to win the game.  I say this a lot, but I try not to think about the huge picture and the huge aspect of it because it can get overwhelming.  It’s my job to go in there and be focused for those guys and make sure I’m helping them do the things that help us win.”

Becky Hammon

Same for us conductors.  When we step onto that podium, our heads are filled with the music we are about to make with the orchestra.  When we conduct, our job is to live in the past (decisions made at home based on study), the present (what the orchestra is outputting in real time) and the future (steering the piece to its conclusion) all at once.  In order to make the best decision possible at any time, every cell and fiber of our body is on high alert.  And if we let anything else get inside our head, we create pressure of the wrong kind and distraction of the worst kind – thinking about ourselves, the ultimate sin on the podium.  Because when a conductor has anything other than the music at hand on their mind, the orchestra can smell it instantly. And that’s deadly.

“It’s a beautiful thing just to hear her barking out calls, barking out sets, and she’s very passionate about the game, so congrats to her and congrats to the league.”

Lebron James

When you witness someone doing their job with such focus and passion for their craft, all of our differences wash away, and we are reminded of our common love for the craft itself.  How beautiful that Mr. James observed this all the while trying to beat her team! 

It also didn’t escape me that he congratulated Coach Hammon separately from the league – a subtle move to differentiate the positive outcome of this moment for the league from her own achievement.

“I would have liked a different outcome.  Overall, I would have loved to get a win, more than anything.”

Becky Hammon

Although Coach Hammon acknowledged the situation as “a big deal” and “a substantial moment,” she came back to the fact that her team lost, and there was work to be done for the future.

While there is no equivalent of losing to another team for us, orchestras also play a high stakes game in terms of fulfilling the composers’ intent, satisfying the audience and meeting our own artistic standards. As the artistic leaders of this process, we, too, must always come back to this internal goal, even after sharing in external celebrations. 

Who knew that I — a life-long klutz who was always the slowest runner in P.E., the wimpiest player on a dodgeball court and that family member who would rather take off her skis and walk down the slope — would find so much parallel in sports? Believe me, you still don’t want me on your pickup basketball game team. But the three individuals above have clarified or confirmed great universal tenets that are sure to guide me in my own journey to be the best conductor that I can be.

Let your love of the game inform all of your decisions and actions.

Hire the best person for the job regardless of their external differences and empower them.

Be a good colleague to someone who is different. Celebrate their work so that others will also see their merit past external differences.

Be a good steward to your industry so you can recognize and celebrate its progress beyond your own bubble.

And if you are the one that’s different, keep working on your game. By doing so, your craft will evolve, and you’ll get that much closer to creating winning moments for your teams and fans. And that will remind everyone why they are there in the first place: for the love of the game. 

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Akiko Fujimoto

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