I love the process of teaching because of the way it marks time by virtue of accomplishment.
Yesterday, Saturday the 20th of January, 2018 marked such an accomplishment. The accomplishment was not mine. Rather, it was that of a bunch of students who made the decision some time ago to get up early on what should be a day to sleep in. Think about it for a moment once I give you the details.
The rehearsals for the Symphony Orchestra, one of four ensembles that makes up the Minnesota Youth Symphonies, begin promptly at 8:45… a.m…. on any one of thirty such Saturdays in the academic calendar. To those who are quick to judge an entire generation of young people as slackers… well, don’t be too harsh on them. They just don’t know any serious music students.
Serious music students (or students of serious music) are a very different breed from those characterized critically by one-panel cartoons or offhanded remarks in a comments section from those with “a little knowledge”. These students will wake at reasonable or absurd hours (depending where they live) on a traditional day off from school in order to play orchestral repertoire that is played only by professional orchestras world-wide. They subject themselves willingly to the rigors of a discipline for a result that is invisible to the eye. There’s no painting or sculpture to see when they finish. There are no growing, visible muscles that serve as evidence of physical maturation. What remains for them is a memory of what they just did. Only they and their conductor know whether it’s ready to present to a paying public who will also walk away with nothing more than a memory. They sweat on the inside.
It is that time spent on preparation that feeds the soul of the conductor in front of these young people of varying experience and knowledge. There are those students for whom the study of orchestral preparation is filled with information as yet undiscovered. There are some that feed the desire to learn on their own or they may have a private teacher who fills their heads with talks about the great composers of the music they play. They are the fruit and vegetable stand at your local supermarket: some more ripe than others, yet, unlike those delicacies, they all need to be taught to play with style equally. The ripe and unripe work together. The watchful eye and discerning ear of any conductor of youth group look for certain things that reveal maturation.
To the uninitiated, a conductor’s stick goes up, down, and sideways. To those that are more perceptive, they’ll notice the stick goes faster, slower. They’ll notice it glides and then beats with short jerks. They’ll notice the left hand indicating something completely different from what the right does.
It is a language.
It is a language that serious students learn to understand for they need to react like United Nations interpreters and instantly provide the aural feedback for what is a silent gesture from the alternately stern and pleased looks used by the mustachioed guy-with-the-stick. There is a tremendous amount for them to learn and they have ten rehearsals in which to do it.
Now, it’s one thing for them to respond to the stick and what it is doing but it is quite another to accomplish what the did yesterday.
They responded to each other.
Wait… what? How is that a big deal?
It is a big deal because you have musicians in a section that can number anywhere from 3 to 12 or more. What needs to be understood is that when one musician is playing an incidental solo in a piece of music and chooses to stray outside of the basic pulse it creates an opportunity. It will either be the culmination of a melody supported by harmonies that land with as satisfying “poof” from the lower strings or it will be a set of disorganized “booms” that make the moment meaningless.
Yesterday’s rehearsal provided me with the satisfying poofs of sound that, as I say to them often, help their conductor to sleep well at night. These small victories do not happen as a result of watching alone, however. They are a result of learning the axiom, “Watching the conductor intently does not relieve you of the task of listening.” I tell them it’s like fielding a ground ball at shortstop and not throwing to first because you’re so happy with how cleanly you fielded the short hop. You gotta finish the play. Notes are not enough.
You have to understand that when I initially saw the list of absences for that rehearsal yesterday my heart sank. It happens at certain times of the year. It makes the teaching of the music all the more difficult when voices are missing. Fortunately, they are trained over the course of the year to go to the librarian and get the music for the missing parts and read them at sight which is a risky venture. On any given day, the conductor may be more or less forgiving of a part that is not being read without the benefit of prior rehearsal. This happened to be a day when stepping up seemed to be connected to the phase of the moon , whatever it was.
It is those moments that make conductors of young orchestras proud. It is knowing that there are no excuses, that music must be played and played well even though it’s “just a rehearsal”. There is no such thing as just a rehearsal, as repetition is the mother of perfection. Repetition is what makes us musicians comfortable in our skin. Repetition is what makes it possible for us to expect the unexpected.
In teaching music to young people we do not create robots. We create a better human beings.