Talk about tough audiences. Ilana Rubenfeld once died in a coma ward.
As a therapist and a lifelong mistress of shtick, she was asked to help out with a humor project in a New York City hospital. “I think they might have heard me but no one laughed,” she says.
Sitting on her couch in Ashland recently, decades removed, the retired music conductor and founder of the Rubenfeld Synergy Method of holistic healing, wonders aloud about that day. Maybe, she says, it was “my timing.”
There are enough good reasons to write a column about Ilana. Her work in the body-mind field was groundbreaking. Hundreds of the synergists she trained over 40 or so years practice around the world; her book, The Listening Hand, was published by in 2000. Her career in music opens a window to a world of professional music when women need not apply.
What clinched my interest, though, was her sense of humor, a decidedly deadpan delivery and her sheer enthusiasm for making people smile. (The punch lines were familiar, but she still got me with the most ancient of light bulb jokes: “So how many New Yorkers does it take to change a lightbulb? F–k you and don’t ask. How many Californians does it take to change a lightbulb? Eleven. One to change the bulb and 10 to share the experience.”) It seems inconceivable that those comatose patients didn’t crack up.
Her sense of humor helped her survive the series of professional slights she suffered as an aspiring conductor. A promising graduate of Juilliard–she studied with such greats as Pablo Casals—Ilana expected nothing less than a full-fledged career at the podium guiding the world’s finest orchestras. After a stint as assistant conductor to Leopold Stokowski when he organized the American Symphony Orchestra, she was even more encouraged. That job, however, led nowhere.
She shouldn’t have been entirely surprised. While still a student, she found herself accepted to a prestigious summer music camp run by Pierre Monteux. “What was funny and not so funny was that he’d accepted me because he didn’t know Ilana was a female name.” A month after the first congratulatory letter, she received another. “He wrote, ‘I do not teach women to conduct.’”
While recording companies and management agencies would give her hope, they declined to offer her shots with touring choruses and orchestras. “They were afraid that a woman wouldn’t be accepted.”
While a conducting career continuing to elude her, Ilana found herself granted an interview for a job at the music school of Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.
“The conversation went like this: ‘I really want to hire you, to teach and to conduct, but there’s one problem.’
“‘What?’ I asked.
“‘You’re a woman.’
“I replied, ‘I am willing to do a lot of things to get this job, but changing my sex is not one of them. I’m going to remain a woman.’”
Ilana got that job and was later hired to direct the program, overseeing a $2 million budget, but it wasn’t enough. Conducting continued to be a dream
“Since I couldn’t be hired anywhere else, I created my own group,” she says, showcasing her talents with the baton, leading the New York Lyric Ensemble of two dozen singers and more than a dozen instrumentalists. The Ensemble debuted at Carnegie Hall.
“We got great reviews, rave reviews,” she says. “And you’d think that after that…but nothing helped.” For years, she pounded on it like a timpani, but the glass ceiling didn’t crack.
The catalyst for Ilana’s career change came when she began suffering debilitating back spasms during her time in Julliard. A teacher of the Alexander Technique, a means of eliminating tension in the body, showed her how to use her body more efficiently and avoid future injury. To process the intense emotions that the technique released in Ilana, she began seeing a psychoanalyst. While both therapies were effective by themselves, Ilana saw the two modalities—talk and touch—as complementary.
“One talked and wouldn’t touch; the other touched and wouldn’t talk,” she says.
Eventually, in the 1970s, after years studying and embracing gestalt therapy as well as the Feldenkrais Method, she formulated her own approach, the Rubenfeld Synergy Method that integrates the body, mind, emotions and spirit, and began a training program. (The word synergy had been suggested to her by Buckminster Fuller.)
Not surprisingly, Ilana’s sense of humor has proved critical to her success. She recalls a workshop where a young woman, volunteering as a subject, complained that she hated being female, tracing her feelings to childhood; once she developed, her older brothers wouldn’t let her play sports with them.
“I said, ‘I’ve got a joke for you: Mary and John are about three years old. After playing doctor, Mary runs to her mother in tears. Mommy, Mommy, John has a penis. It’s all right, darling. I want you to remember this. John has only one penis, but you will have many.
“The woman on the table cracked up. I thought she was levitating, she laughed so hard. She ended up appreciative that she was a woman.”
The joke, Ilana realized, was just as meaningful for herself. “Here I was trying to be a conductor and only conductors with penises need apply.”
Since moving to Ashland about a decade ago, Ilana has invested her energies in the local music scene, serving on the boards of both the Rogue Valley Symphony and the Youth Symphony. Not surprisingly, she’s begun “experimenting” with ways to apply her synergy methods to help musicians and performers develop their gifts.
“Coming full circle,” Ilana hopes to have a baton in her hand once more to conduct a short piece or two with a local group. When she does, don’t be surprised if the musicians can’t help from cracking up.
“How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to be willing.”
You can learn more about Ilana’s work and her book at her web site: www.ilanarubenfeld.com.