Maestro Benjamin Zander has led world-class orchestras of all ages. He has recorded masterworks by Mahler and Bruckner on major record labels and has been on the faculty of New England Conservatory and now conducts the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, one of the finest youth orchestras in the world. He has hit a number of "right notes" in his career.
As I watched him rehearse a combined orchestra of our Dudamel ensemble of 3rd-5th graders playing alongside the BPYO 14-21 year olds, I could immediately see that one of his great gifts as a conductor is the ability to inspire an orchestra to play honestly and passionately. He says in rehearsal, "It isn't so much the notes I'm looking for as the shining eyes." And most of the time, he gets both.
When he doesn't, he does something very strange and wonderful. He throws up his hands, brightens his face, and says with a tuneful lilt, "How fascinating!" I understand from other that this is his response to any mistake, whether it is a ten-year-old horn player who flubs a note in the first rehearsal or an internationally renowned virtuoso who loses his place during the final dress rehearsal, and he teaches his ensemble to adopt the same response. In the serious world of classical musicians, who too often fear and hide from mistakes, Maestro Zander treats them as friends, here to teach us something new about ourselves. He reframes a tense moment into one of joy and discovery.
The nature of mistakes is that we make them, although they are contrary to what we may identify as our intention. Sometimes this is no big deal - we played F# instead of F-natural, but we'll fix it next time. Other times they are more serious, more confusing, or harder to fix. Whatever the size, we are well served to look at them as Zander does, "How fascinating!" It does not mean that we ignore our mistakes or deflect responsibility from them, but it does remind us to look to the cause, let go of unhelpful guilt, and be grateful for the opportunity to learn.
I introduced this gesture to my Bernstein Orchestra, and they immediately took to it. They enjoyed the theatrics of the gesture, and they articulated beautifully the spirit behind it: "Our mistakes are fascinating because we always have something new to learn," one of them explained. The next day, when one student uncharacteristically left her instrument on the schoolbus, she seemed near the point of tears. I looked at her with wide eyes, threw my hands up, and with a smile she beat me to the punchline.
Here is Bernstein Orchestra performing Hiawatha by Soon Hee Newbold at the winter concert on Dec 20.
On Thursday, December 20, at 3:30 pm at the Longy School of Music, Bernstein Orchestra will perform two pieces in the Winter Concert. Read the program notes,
featured on the Conservatory Lab website.
In my first year of teaching I wrote a lot about searching for mindfulness in the midst of a noisy and disorderly teaching environment. I struggled to create an atmosphere where children in my class could think about one thing at a time, free from distractions. Through the experience of team-teaching with Rebecca Levi in the 1st and 2nd grade Abreu Orchestra, I have discovered a new understanding of what "mindfulness" can feel like in an elementary music classroom when students learn to practice centering their thoughts and preparing their minds for rehearsal.
Every day in Abreu Orchestra begins the same way. The students enter the classroom silently and a leader is chosen to begin a series of improvised movements with a steady beat which the class follows in time. When all students are seated, the teacher gives the class a signal to unpack their instruments in silence, move to rest position, and begin twenty seconds of "Focus Time," during which they close their eyes and take note of the ambient noise in the room. At this point in the year the routine is swift and flows seamlessly into the first playing activity of the day. It sets the mood for the rest of class and creates a clean canvass of silence on which music can be painted.
Having worked with these students as kindergartners last year, I am extremely proud of the virtuosity with which they perform this opening routine. Multiple students in this ensemble have ADHD or something like it, but the practice of grounding themselves, bringing down their energy, and calming their minds is one which every child can learn. It sets them up to listen deeply, position their hands carefully, and respond to subtlety in the music.
This year, I conduct the Bernstein Orchestra of 37 2nd-5th grade students. We rehearse twice a day, between 1:15 and 2:20, then again between 3:20 and 4:10. With long days and long stretches of rehearsal, it can be challenging for the students to maintain their attention throughout rehearsal, and some days they are full of energy and excitement such that staying in a chair is a difficulty on its own. On days like these, we return to focus as often as we need to in order to keep our minds clear and make ourselves ready to be in orchestra.
As I have taught this practice to my students, I have come to value more and more it myself. Teaching can be stressful, and when we let that stress escalate it impares our ability to teach with nuance and finesse. I find that taking a moment to close my eyes and breathe deeply helps me to regain my perspective and return to a space where I can think musically. I hope that this skill is one my students take with them when they leave my class.
One of the proudest moments of this school year for me was watching the first grade class perform "Three Little Pigs, Inc.," a musical about the science of building materials. After weeks spent rehearsing lines, choreographing kick-lines, and spitting out consonants so the songs wouldn't be washed away in the boomy auditorium, these young thespians took the stage and turned our goofy play into something sincerely charming and funny.
The script, written especially for them by ART playwrite Brendan Shae, retells the classic fairy tale with a few charming twists and plenty of science vocabulary to show off what these little piggies have been studying in their classroom through their recent Learning Expedition on building materials. In their initial read-throughs, the class discussed the dialogue and the science and made some changes based on the way they imagined the characters and settings. I took my direction from them in composing songs to help set the tone and move the action along.
Possibly the most giddy moment of the whole experience for me was when I first taught the littlest pig her solo, "Bricks and Dreams." I was concerned that she would be overwhelmed by the pressure of singing by herself, and so I was careful to offer her a way out before I sang it for her. But my concern was misplaced, because as soon as she heard the word "solo" she began squealing and jumping up and down with unabashed glee. She learned it in minutes, and proceeded to belt it fearlessly in every subsequent rehearsal.
Here are the songs, excerpted from the performance:
When I first heard of John Cage's 4'33" I thought it was a joke. A performer walks on stage, sits down at the piano, and...
for four minutes.
and thirty three seconds.
...then stands up, takes a bow, and walks off.
The audience is left to make what they will out of the experience. Some laugh, some grow angry, some pray or meditate, and some spend the time rationalizing it into something profound.
I had always been in the first category, but I had never really given the piece its full four minutes and thirty three seconds. Having only heard the punch line, I had never bothered to experience the full journey of this piece until I performed it for a handful of students at the end of the day, as they were waiting for the busses to be called.
It happened very spontaneously. One child was at the piano, experimenting with dampening the strings and creating some very cool effects. I started talking to him about John Cage, and his works for prepared piano. Then I asked him if he had heard of 4'33". When I realized this was a learning opportunity, I called everyone over to listen, and without explanation or introduction I began the piece. They started smiling, then they started frowning. Some seemed to be praying, others thinking. Several times someone tried to say something like, "wait, has it started?" or "did he already play it?" but each question was answered by a gentle hushing gesture from a different child.
When it was over I didn't stand up and bow, I just told them that was the end. One student said it made her feel empty, another said it made him feel peaceful. They all agreed it was really cool. And so did I.
As a performer, I felt extremely vulnerable. There is only one way to perform this piece, but there are infinite ways to hear it. For the first time I could clearly see the illusion behind the whole idea of performance--the idea that the performer is in control of what the listener hears. In fact it is always a contract between the two; and the listener holds the last card every time.
If you have never performed this piece, I encourage you to try it. Gather some friends and sit down in front of an instrument. I would love to know what happens!
I have the coolest job ever. On Tuesday, I went to the House of the Blues with a class of fourth graders and watched them sing their hearts out in front of 250 strangers. They were singing songs they had written themselves, playing improvised solos, and backing each other up with chord changes. The best part was, they did it for history class.
The fourth graders have been studying The Great Migration,
that period in American History when 5 million people moved north to find economic opportunity and escape persecution. As is the custom at Conservatory Lab, they were asked to assemble for themselves an explanation of this period in history by examining primary source documents, including letters, poetry, art work, and music that came out of this era. This meant an in-depth study of the blues: where it came from, what it is, who sang it, and why.
Then, as is the custom at Conservatory Lab, they had to present their learning in many different ways by creating useful products. They wrote letters from the perspective of migrant workers, composed poetry in the style of Langsten Hughes, and they wrote their own blues songs, about things in their own lives that gave them the blues.
That's where we came in. Chris Schroeder (trumpet) and I team-taught a series of classes on improvisation and the blues, then we broke into small groups with help from Mike Moore (percussion) and Josue Gonzalez in which the students composed their own blues songs, using poems they had written with their classroom teacher.
Here are the end results:
The culture of music at our school has grown deeper this year. Where last year students approached their shiny new instruments with voracious appetites for new notes and faster tempos, this year their are beginning to hone their palates for the savory sounds of beautiful tone and matching intonation. The progress is gradual but unmistakable.
As the viola specialist, I have the opportunity to travel among the three levels of orchestra, helping to lead rehearsals, sectionals, and lessons with students in each group. Here are some highlights from the different groups I get to work with:
These are the beginner students in grades 1-2 who last year completed paper orchestra and performed open string pizzicato in the spring. I team-teach this orchestra with Rebecca Levi, who is one of our program directors and a specialist in early childhood music. Our cello teacher Josue Gonzalez and our violin teacher Jaya Varma also teach sectionals and private lessons in each of the groups, and often they participate in the rehearsals, playing side-by-side, demonstrating skills, and giving individual assistance. Erin Bollacker teaches them as a choir.
This is the intermediate ensemble of students in grades 2-5. The orchestra is led by Joshua Garver, and the choir is led by Erin Bollacker
These are the advanced students in grades 3-6, conducted by David Malek, one of our program directors. They also perform as a choir, conducted by Erin Bollacker.
I had my first official jazz viola lesson on Saturday. I have always been interested in improvisation, from the time I learned my first fiddle tune from my bluegrass-enthusiast mother, through the many late hours I spent with college orchestra friends jamming in echoing stairwells until the custodians kicked us out. But aside from a few brief introductions at ASTA workshops, I have never had a chance to study jazz formally. Analyzing improvisation and looking critically at the process is a mind-expanding exercise. It challenges the performer to think moment to moment, while keeping a big picture in mind. It requires simultaneously thinking and feeling in the language of music. To be articulate in this language, as in any language requires holding yourself in a paradox:
A performance of composed music should have the vitality and spontaneity of improvisation.
A performance of improvised music should have the organization and cohesion of composed music.
My biggest takeaway from this first lesson was that the skills of improvisation are no more mysterious than the skills of interpreting composed music. Their is a musical vocabulary that can be learned through scale exercises and warmups, there are rules to learn and break, and there are sounds that can only be absorbed by immersing yourself in a genre and playing back a
One of my jobs at Conservatory Lab is to supplement the orchestra program at Conservatory Lab with private lessons. Unlike the weekly scheduled half hour lessons of my studio, these lessons are not a self-contained teaching structure. They are too short and too irregular for me to develop any significant repertoire or concepts that are not being reinforced during the other twelve-plus hours of their weekly music instruction. Instead, these lessons are an opportunity to give individual attention to the skills and music a child is learning in orchestra.
In a typical private studio lesson, I will begin with a warmup exercise that applies to the repertoire of the day, review one or more pieces that uses a skill we are targeting in our new piece, then work on the newest piece the student is learning. I always end the lesson by asking the student to summarize what we worked on and helping them to create a practice plan for the week.
The “orchestra pull-out lesson” is a different creature. There is no repertoire outside of their orchestra parts, and while I often listen to them play these excerpts, I find that they are by and large able to learn the notes and rhythms with great efficiency in orchestra class. Instead, my focus in these lessons is on mechanics—how to make the instrument do what you are hearing in your head.
Nearly every lesson is focused on three things: setup, sound, and tuning. One of the hazards of ensemble-based music learning is that most of the time that a child is practicing, they are not hearing their own sound except in the context of a group. Without these lessons, students are less likely to refine skills like smooth bow changes, evenness of sound, and precision of tuning.
As I have come to understand and embrace this unique idiom, I have developed a number of strategies for improving the transfer of skills and knowledge between the individual lesson and the group rehearsal.
I try to narrow my focus to a 3-5 word learning target that is easy for the student to self-assess, such as “keep the instrument level” or “straight bow at the tip.” For more complicated concepts, I will condense them into a story or image, such as “thumb spy,” referring to the placement of the left thumb as a spy peaking over the side of the fingerboard. I use consistent language from lesson to lesson and share these ideas with the ensemble teachers so that they are able to reinforce the concepts in class.
In addition to a catch phrase, I will often work out a “secret signal” with a student as a reminder of their learning target. Students take pride in conquering these learning targets, and as I move throughout their rehearsals, I often trade winks with a child about an improved bow hold or a curved pinky.
Students often learn best from one another. I like to take stand partner pairs to lessons together and ask them to play parts of their repertoire, matching one another’s sound, intonation, and rhythm. In class, they begin to listen more closely to one another, to blend as a section, and to give each other constructive feedback.
-Unpacking class warm-ups
I work with the ensemble leaders to develop warm-ups that will target skills we all want students to work on. In lessons, I will do the same warm-ups they do in class, looking more closely at what they should be getting out of the exercise. Every so often, I will lead the whole class in the warm-up to reinforce what I have been working on with them individually.
As in studio lessons, the most important part of the lesson is setting students up for a week of productive practice. Given their age (6-12) and time constraints (many of them don’t get home before 6:15 due to our long school day), I expect the bulk of their practice time to take place during orchestra. The key to a successful orchestra pullout lesson is preparing them to get more out of rehearsal when they go back in.