A Composer's Adventures

A Lion’s Intuition

lion land rover

Years ago I visited South Africa and went on a number of safaris. One day while riding in a Land Rover we saw a lion under a tree panting heavily with his tongue hanging out. I asked if he was suffering from the heat and the guide said no, the lion had just overeaten, because — like all lions — he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. Seeing my curiosity, the guide drove over to see the animal up close. I was surprised that the lion didn’t seem threatened at all. Our guide explained that when a female is pregnant they track her schedule, and when she has her babies, they always drive up to the litter. The pups smell the petrol and hear the motor and monitor the reaction of the mother. Because the mother is unafraid, the pups learn forever not to fear such machines or the people in them. Evidently this sated lion had undergone the same experience as a pup. In other words, lions pass on their emotional reactions from generation to generation and learn to trust human beings as long as they stay in their vehicles.

I saw this as a powerful metaphor. In raising children, parents can tell them all day what is right or wrong, but the message kids really pick up is how the parents react in various circumstances. As a parent, your influence may depend more on how you feel deep inside than what you say.

The same is the case with conductors and musicians.

Take Leonard Bernstein. His performances, at least as a young man, often exuded his rambunctious and flamboyant personality. Sometimes he’d come to first rehearsals not knowing the score and beat his way through to hear how it sounded. Being a quick read, he would learn from the musicians as they instinctively responded to his nature. One of the most secure conductors I’ve played for was Gunther Schuller. He always seemed to feel comfortable with new pieces and made you feel the same way, which gave his performances a warm feeling.

Then there was the time I played percussion under Igor Stravinsky on his ‘Rite of Spring.’ With its fast-changing meters, this piece requires a conductor with especially accurate baton work — and Stravinsky was anything but. He had also been self-medicating with Chivas Regal, his favorite scotch, and even offered some to musicians when he took the podium. Luckily, we had played the piece under him at Carnegie Hall two nights prior and Robert Craft had just taken us through it again with his expert baton, so we were ready for our historic recorded performance on Columbia Records.

What’s more, everyone on our A-team orchestra had a deep respect for Stravinsky and an affectionate feeling for his warm personality. When the recording started, Stravinsky was doing his usual house-painting motions with the baton and would stop beating time to lick his fingers and turn the score pages, so we were out of synch and on our own. Much of the orchestra was cued by the bobbing flute of lead flutist Sam Baron — others by the head-tipping and bow gestures of concert master Isidore Cohen and lead cellist Bernie Greenhouse. We charged through the piece with the seeming ease of a big jazz band roaring forth on its own. Stravinsky kind of followed us and we all finished together.

Just as the mother lion affected her cubs, Stravinsky inspired a trust and a loving bond in us that held the performance together.

Michael Colgrass


  1. I heartily agree. We respond to body language, character and ‘vibe’. Definitely our children turn out like us rather than the idealized notions that we try to plant in them. I like the zen saying: ‘If you want to understand a man watch his feet’.

    I love your insights Michael – keep them coming.

  2. yes I agree our children surprise us by what they pick up from our parenting-most of it intuitively. We worry about teaching them the proper way -while the kids themselves are picking up what they need from our actions. I have just received an email from my son who is raising his young family in Greece during this difficult financial time and I think doing it well in spite of it. I had to smile though when he wrote and admitted “parenting is a humbling experience” and so it is but I feel confidence in the outcome of these children for the parents manage to provide a stable secure childhood-as they with difficulty ,successfully negotiate the pitfalls of a country in crisis to do this. Like the little lions who learn what is safe and what is not from the reaction of their parents, so will my grandchidren learn and survive. The important thing for them is the feeling of confidence and security they pick up from the parent. And so it seems it is also with adults as you describe the feeling of confidence in Stravinsky even though he was indulging in scotch. thanks for the insight Michael

  3. Laurie,

    Yes, it seems that nature takes care of our nurturing more than all the rationalizing and reasoning we do about it, so we might as well sit back and watch our children grow and exercise their instincts as divined from us parents. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in teaching as well. You rarely know what your scribes have picked up from your words and actions and they sometimes surprise you with their insights, perhaps partly created by their imaginations—or instincts.

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