On Being Moved

At rehearsal with the MYSers:
We have been working on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s magnum opus, Scheherazade. It can be argued that next to The Flight of the Bumblebee that it’s the most often-played piece he wrote.
In recent years I have taken to the idea of taking a larger, multi-movement piece and breaking it up over the trimester system we use so that they have a greater sense of a work, rather than what I used to do and program a movement here and a movement there. In other words, a whole symphony over a greater period of time, for example.
The last few weeks there have been the usual rash of Spring absences for any number of reasons. Yesterday, I had 18 students absent. When your orchestra normally numbers in mid-80s it makes for a profound effect in the orchestra’s sound.
But sometimes you get lucky and you have just the right numbers of people in the right chairs for the right pieces and are able to teach. It was a wonderful rehearsal where the accumulated knowledge of the season had time to percolate in young minds. There was less time spent on essential techniques (intonation, rhythm) and gobs of time spent on the art of making music.
As I’ve said before, youth music directors live for these rehearsals because of what the students potentially get out of them.
We worked on the problematic aspects of the end of the last movement which involves different rhythms crashing against each other. It’s that moment of awareness that we strive for, as teachers, when they finally understand the mission. It’s not unlike the “She knows!” moment in The Miracle Worker. That bit of success leads to others. It’s about learning to learn.
Later in the rehearsal we revisited something they did beautifully the prior when there were, again, many absences. This time it was the slow movement.
Now, any experienced music teacher will tell you that the hardest music to pull off in performance is slower music. Students tend, first of all, to underestimate the difficulty of slow music because the challenge of technique is not the same as playing a wicked-fast passage that requires hot fingers and increased coordination. The challenge of slow music is far more profound.
I have often said (only half-jokingly), “You can teach a monkey to play fast… but it won’t be music.” I’m just one of those rare people that is really not all that impressed by people who can play super-fast. I am impressed by players that can move me emotionally.
Since that term is, I believe, misunderstood, let me explain.


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.

So… yesterday.2018-03-11

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.



One thought on “On Being Moved

  1. Debbie Ingram

    Well written, Manny. You re-awakened some memories of music for me that I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. Thank you for that.


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