Here at NCSSM, we just completed our annual "min-term." It is a 9 day, short session that permits students to focus on a single subject in an "in depth" manner. This year, I sponsored a course entitled "Eastern Regional Orchestra" The students that enrolled for the course were involved in the NCMEA Eastern Regional Orchesta, which I hosted at NCSSM this year. A few of the students were not able to perform in the group for various reasons and helped me with all of the administrative details throughout the weekend. For the first 2 days of mini-term, performing students were able to practice the literature to be performed and prepare for their seating auditions. The event itself, ran from Friday evening through Sunday evening. Then, for the remaining 5 days of the course, we attended a variety of concerts, watched numerous DVD's of famous symphonies, and studied the history behind the works that we were witnessing. The following are excerpts from the journals that students kept throughout the mini-term. I asked them to write thoughtful entries about the work they were doing and the music they were witnessing. I think you will agree that the expectations of the assignment were met with flying colors!
Today I began to appreciate our guest conductor more. Last night, I felt like it was harder to communicate with him in comparison to conductors in the past. I know that, especially after coming to NCSSM, I try to have good eye contact with conductors at Honors and ERO, but it wasn’t really happening. Sometimes, I didn’t even feel like watching him even helped. But today, things started to piece together. We actually started sounding better than yesterday. I particularly liked his method of “matching” our bows. We got a much better sound as a section this way, and it’s definitely something I’ll use in the future. I also really enjoyed how even when he talked to a certain section about one particular section, the whole orchestra could learn from what he was saying.
I also liked our lesson on sostenuto. I liked the idea of always having this strong tone, but just adjusting the bow speed according to the kind of note or sound we wanted (for example, just changing bow speed but maintaining that tone). I felt like our whole section sounded better after learning about this technique.
Tonight we went to hear Tuskegee University’s Golden Voices Choir at Duke Chapel. It was a wonderful concert! It had been a few months since I’d been in Duke Chapel, so I was once again blown away by how beautiful a place it is. And the choir further magnified that beauty. Every time the choir finished a piece, their voices lingered in the air, filling the room with the last remnants of the music. I feel as though I could have listened to that sound alone for hours.
In all honesty, one of my favorite parts of the concert was watching the director, Dr. Barr. It was so interesting to see him truly leading the choir. With his gestures, he was able to control dynamics, tempo, phrasing, etc. Every eye in the choir was directed toward Dr. Barr, and I could hear his motions directly translate into the sound being produced. I believe it was this unity, this attention to detail, that made the music so powerful.
Our concert was really, really fantastic. The Hanson was so moving, and the theme has been stuck in my head all day. And the audience apparently liked William Tell a lot. The cello soloist messed up a little in the beginning, I know I messed up on my English horn solo (even though we both had done better in rehearsal), and for some reason my tongue was feeling sluggish once the Allegro Vivace (after the English horn and flute solo ended) began…but at the end, even before the conductor had cut off our final note, the audience was cheering and standing up. It’s the first time at a concert like this one that I’ve seen such a great reaction. Usually, despite how good the performance is, the parents stand and clap mostly because they’re parents, but I felt like today, they were ordinary, enthralled audience members.
I remember playing the last page of the William Tell. It’s when we begin accelerating, and everyone is loud and exciting and teetering on the edge, but not quite falling. It’s moments like those that make me love symphony orchestra so much, and playing overtures like William Tell so much. The brass and percussion sounds just surround you, like a tsunami wave of boldness and brightness. The strings in front of you are doing something insanely fast, while the bass players to your left are rounding out the bottom with their strong, deep sound. And even though the piccolo is about to tear apart your eardrums, even though you can’t really hear yourself because your instrument is totally lost among the countless other instruments, you feel like you are part of something so much greater, something that thousands of musicians before you have experienced with that exact same piece of music. I’m waxing poetic, I know, but it was definitely a concert I won’t forget.
While listening, I got a strange impression of the performance. We sat towards the back of the concert hall, and the orchestra was on the small side. As a result, all of the pieces sounded small and relatively soft. In a way, I felt a bit of a distance between myself and the performers. I guess I am used to hearing orchestral concerts by large ensembles that fill the concert hall and surround the listeners with sound. That this performance gave an impression of smallness and didn’t fill the hall made me feel like I was a part of another world; I didn’t feel like I got into the music much. I think there are two types of listening – active listening and passive listening. The first is what happens when I am really engaged in what I am hearing and I feel like I am a part of what I am listening to. Passive listening is what happens when I feel like I am a disconnected observer in a different world. In all honesty, my experience at this concert was more passive listening than active listening.
Today started off with a messy rehearsal. I felt discouraged by the fact that I did not have a good audition, but I understood that it was my fault for not practicing all of the music. Our conductor put the most effort into the Steel City Strut. By the looks and reactions of everyone in the room, I could discern that I was not the only one who struggled with this particular piece. The orchestras rehearsed from 9 AM until lunch. When lunch time arrived, I met up with some of my old Governor’s School friends and had a wonderful meal at Bali Hai. We took advantage of every second together and got back just in time for sectionals. The person in charge of coaching the cello section did not come on time and we wasted almost half an hour. I was beginning to feel irritated, but she finally arrived, and we began rehearsing right away. When we got started, my opinion of her changed almost right away. She was very efficient and had great strategies planned out. We worked quickly and her way of coaching got our heads to click. The improvement we made in less than an hour was mind-boggling. I was amazed by how much we accomplished in the little time we were given. Another break was given and I stocked up on some snacks and refreshments. Rehearsal resumed at 3:30 and I thought the orchestra was a hundred times better than what we started with. Instead of working on just getting the note and rhythms, the conductor actually began to work on dynamics and details. She said that we played too loud, as if we were “smashing baby chicks”, and that made my day. Things were looking much better and I began to feel a little better about everything. After rehearsal was over, I took a nap to rejuvenate myself and went to the pizza dinner. The food was great and I met many new people. The final session of rehearsal for the day resumed at 7 PM and continued until 9 PM. By this time, everyone was exhausted and sick of the music. It was a long day of music from 9 AM to 9 PM, but it was worthwhile. I gained a lot today and also had a great time with friends. I went to bed feeling happy and excited for the next day.
Today was a very long day. I have participated in many other clinics such as All-District, All-State Jazz, and so on, but this clinic seemed to last all day (which it did). I guess what separated this clinic from all the rest was that there was a considerable amount of resting for the brass sections. When we were asked to play, we asked to play in a really unusual style that I had never played before. Always I had been told to properly attack the note and be in time, but what he asked us to do was really follow the sound and not so much to the beat. We were to have a “horizontal” style of playing in that our phrasing and rhythm would stretch over the sounds of the strings, which was necessary for us to be coinciding. After a few trials and error, I think the brass really adapted to this style of playing and made the sounds of the ensemble sound that much better. We were all watching the tips of the string player’s bow to visually watch the beat and play off that instead of counting in our heads. I think this was one of the most valuable things that I will take away from this experience, as I will be able to apply this style of playing to future works with the orchestra.
Today, we took our trip to the Ludwig drum factory!
I found it interesting how so much of the work was still done by individual people rather than automated robots. Like the guide said, they aren’t exactly mass producing many generic products, so that plays into it. Still, it was touching to see local people putting on the parts and working on each portion of process by hand.
Even though I don’t play drums, I felt like I got a real treat going to the factory. It was amazing to see how much detail and care was put into creating each part of the drums, from treating the veneers in the climate-controlled room to the gluing and painting process. Like Mr. Laird mentioned to us all, it was interesting to see how all sorts of sciences contributed to making these drums. Right now, my plans are to continue with a degree in either general chemistry or chemical engineering, depending on which school I end up attending. That said, the science behind the glue and paint was particularly interesting to me (I found it really interesting that they used UV light to activate photoreceptors in the paint to finish the painting process!). Chemistry appeals to me in that its involved in everything, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. All sorts of things you’d expect to be pretty simple involve lots of chemistry… and these drums have a lot of chemistry behind them too! It was awesome seeing the science involved in creating these drums.
The piece we studied today during our afternoon meeting was called Fantastic Symphony by Hector Berlioz. I really enjoyed this piece because it was interesting to imagine during the different movements what the conductor was thinking as he wrote it. The article definitely made the piece a lot more interesting because we knew the background story. I also noticed how in the beginning of the article it mentioned that Berlioz was “suffering from unrequited love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson” and then later in the article when describing the Shakespearean actress it said “by this time had become his wife.” I couldn’t help smiling at those details.
The concert we attended was a graduate recital of Yooju Han. Although I do not personally play the flute, I had a fantastic time listening to her performance. The first piece, Sonata in G minor “La Lumagne”, Op. 2, No. 4 by Michel Blavet was interesting because of the interaction between the flute and the harpsichord. I was looking forward to hearing Peter Schickele after hearing that he was an interesting composer and I was not disappointed. I loved the performance that they gave of having Yooju Han play off stage on the left and then off stage on the right and then in the dark in the middle of the stage during the piece Spring Serenade. She was very talented.