Watching shows like American Idol or America/England’s Got Talent we are privy to people with histories where they had to surmount obstacles in order to perform. So, we are trained to applaud and hoot and holler at the first high note. There certainly have been a number of people who have shown courage and attained notoriety for their God-given talents and they should be applauded for their sheer gumption if nothing else. However, this is not what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is the phenomenon of watching a young person or a group of them experience expression, true expression for either the first time or the time where it “clicks”.
Conductors of youth groups know that you can play it safe or you can also risk all for the sake of one moment. The conductor has to weigh the risk against the importance of the “moment” and what it means to the interpretation. Is it self-indulgent or does it truly make the music? Mind you, after all that work you still may have “critics” that don’t agree with what you did. You either care about that or you don’t. It’s up to you, as the teacher-cum-interpreter to decide whether you actually do care about anything other than what your students learn.
We were working on a piece of music that is often played badly from an interpretation standpoint and that is the 3rd movement of Scheherazade. Even the first two notes and what to do with them is a subject of debate as they are pickups to the melody. The melody itself is often played in a static manner with not nearly enough direction to make the valleys and hills in the phrases (musical sentences) plain to the ear. Students are attracted to the lush quality of playing on their lower strings and the sound becomes something to wallow in or an end unto itself and music disappears. Only sound, which is not necessarily music, remains.
I have recently laid the baton aside in order to help them by way of my hands only. I do that so that they start to look for what I’m indicating with even just a few fingers as well as the hand and arm. We worked and worked on finding the beauty of the phrases and have them mean something.
I said to them something that I hope they won’t soon forget: “I’m going to be very frank with you. When people come to a concert given by students your age they seldom expect very much. Your parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents will be moved just by the fact that their flesh and blood is doing something good and worthwhile. You have to transcend that. You have to move them with the actual music. You have to play in such a way that they are afraid to move a muscle for fear that they might miss something truly special.”
“You must hit their hearts because you are a great young orchestra doing something they didn’t expect. You must dig deep inside yourselves and risk just like telling a treasured friend an intimate thought. Use everything you know about dynamics and color in order to say something beautiful.”
They dug deep and made a couple of mistakes but the kind that comes from risking, from experimenting to see what they truly understood.
The result was lovely… for this week.
Did they really get it? We’ll find out next week and the subsequent weeks before they ascend the stage to cede risk to the assurance that comes from repetition. No matter the result, for this week I’m proud of them.
For the uninitiated, MYSers are students of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies. In this case, specifically Symphony Orchestra which I conduct and train.