Musical Transitions: Whatever it Takes.

There are several components to being a youth symphony conductor whether you’re the director or a staff conductor. When auditions are all done the jobs of teaching music and ministering an art form begin. Since the audition doesn’t really give you much of a chance to see if a student  (or professional, for that matter) “plays well with others”, it is the job of the conductor of any ensemble of musicians to teach this critical skill during the course of a season.

You get to know the students a bit during the audition process but all you get to see is potential for this is a craft that is about playing in an ensemble. That is, you have to work together with others for a common goal. In a given phrase of music or a “lick”, as musicians call it, your line may be prominent or supportive.  One of the first skills you learn is to discern the difference and act accordingly. If you have have a melody, you bring it out. If you have a harmonic counter-line you show obeisance by stepping slightly out of the way without disappearing altogether. The next time it may be you that has the prominence we all wish for.

Social skill learned: wait your turn.

Throughout the course of a season a conductor has to come up with various methods to impress upon a developing musician the importance of playing together. Sometimes it’s a simple command using positive or negative grammatical statements which boil down to “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” In between, there are a lot of tricks we know. Some are standard, tried and true and others… well, they’re made up on the spot or improvised. It may be a story that turns a simple passage into a Gothic novel or pulling out very loud cláves that make it abundantly clear to people in the next county where the pulse is… but every music teacher everywhere will tell you that the common denominator is the command, “Listen!”

Social skill learned: it isn’t always about you.

I had a wonderful experience with students of the two top orchestras at MYS recently that were nothing short of a transformation and culminated in a brief discussion about musical maturity.

I was called upon to lead a sectional rehearsal for another of our orchestras . No, it’s not about waving a stick in front of furniture. A “sectional” is taking groups from within the orchestra and working with them separately in order to do more detailed work. In this case, I had all the woodwinds, brass, and percussion and worked on a few sections from Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory.

Since the work is a tone poem that portrays the defeat of Napoleon at the hands of the British, it begins with two national “anthems” of sorts. One is Rule Britannia and the other is the Marlborough Has Left for the War. When I heard the students play I was struck by the dearth of character in their playing. I complained to them that the phrases (musical sentences) were too static, the notes all rather plain and a bit sleepy. Thus began my real job, as all the notes and rhythms were solidly in place.

I had to explain that this was music intended to stir the blood to action, much like the pre-battle speeches from Henry V. By exaggerating each and every mark in the music and exhorting them to pretend they were young Brits playing with fierce national pride a new sound began to emerge. I encouraged them even further to play a role just as an actor would, enough to make anyone of English heritage in the audience rise to their feet, chest swelling with energy. Then we played the French song and adopted still a different character. They enjoyed this little game and the results were night and day. What’s more, when their conductor came in and I asked them to play for her, they retained what they had learned. That’s when you know you’ve got them: when time has elapsed from the original lesson and they still remembered how to make it sound spirited and full of character. There is nothing so wonderful as the look on young people’s faces when they know they have accomplished something with everyone doing their part. They recognized that they had, in about 15 minutes, matured.

Social Skill learned: imagination goes a long way in creating something new.

So it goes, week after week, month after month for those who live to teach music. Sometimes the battle is won quickly and other days you want to throw up your hands in defeat. Music is not for the weak, however, and those that are in it are in it to win a war for artistic expression  and its subsequent improvement. A student needs to know that a teacher will dance on their head if that’s what’s necessary to get a long-lasting point across. They need to understand it’s that important to us, their teachers, for them to learn.

Thus, does it become important to they, our students and your children.

Social skill learned: we’re all in this together.

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