I had an experience yesterday that I want to share with my music educator friends out there.
Let me start by saying that it has been a fantastic start to the school year in my orchestra. My ensemble is a nice mix of seasoned seniors and talented juniors that are figuring out the NCSSM way of doing things. Most of my students are super-busy and have really made a big commitment to participate in orchestra. We are a busy community. We are primarily busy academically. Our students all take a rigorous schedule of science, math, and humanities courses and have very high expectations of themselves. A good way to describe it would be to take your top 5% of your students and put them together with about 600 more of them. That would be us.
Over the past term, we have been preparing for our October 31 concert, among other things. One of our planned pieces for the concert was to do the Carl Simpson adaptation of Pictures at an Exhibition. We were to do it with our Wind Ensemble and Orchestra combined. As many terms go, we could have used a bit more rehearsal and sort of came down to the wire on this one. Things were a bit ragged at our penultimate rehearsal and we decided to have one last extra rehearsal on Friday after school.
At this point, it is important to mention that there is plenty of other material for the program tomorrow. The orchestra has several numbers that they will do, along with a couple of accompaniment pieces to do with our Chorus. The Wind Ensemble has several pieces as well and will also welcome a local community group to their concert as a guest. All other pieces are very well prepared and will go really well.
Friday after school, after a long day of finishing up classes for the term, prepping for exams, and a variety of other details to finish, everyone showed up after school for our last rehearsal on Pictures. I couldn't have asked for anything more. Everyone was into it. They were on task, prepared to work, and very focused. There was only one problem. We were still under-prepared. These fine young musicians and scholars just needed some more time on this difficult and mature piece of music to fully pull it off in a concert setting. We were certainly getting closer, but we just were not there yet.
Decision time. As I sat and weighed our options, it occurred to me that we could go one of two ways. We could play the piece with a bit of an apology to our audience. "We really wanted to tackle this piece." Or, "It really is a hard piece, so please excuse the wrong notes." Or, we would do what I consider the right thing and hold off on the piece until it is fully prepared. So often, I hear orchestras perform music that is only partially prepared. Or, music that is simply too hard for the ensemble. It never really makes sense to me. Why try to play something that is not fully achievable?
So, as I sat, trying to decide what to do, I knew there was only one solid and appropriate decision; table the piece until our next concert. I touched base with our Wind Ensemble director and he agreed. As I told the kids, I could almost see and feel a collective sigh of relief. They knew it too. Their standards were and are the same as mine. If we can't do it to our standards, let's hold off and do it right later. I told them how much we respected them and never wanted to put them in a position of embarrassment. I thanked them for such a dedicated and focused rehearsal. Rehearsal ended. Everyone headed off to dinner. As my colleague that leads our Wind Ensemble and I talked it over, we knew we had done the right thing. We respect the musicians under our baton too much to put them in an awkward position. We fully agreed. Decision made. Suddenly I felt a real "peace" about the decision.
We will still give a concert tomorrow. It will be fantastic. Every piece will be fully prepared and musically fulfilling for the audience AND the musicians. After all, isn't that our role - to teach solid musicianship and decision-making skills. I feel like we did a good thing yesterday.
For you young teachers out there, I encourage you to give this a bit of thought. I can't tell you how many orchestra festivals that I have adjudicated where an orchestra played a piece that was either under-prepared or simply too hard for the ensemble. I really don't know what could possibly be accomplished by this. In fact, some of my more seasoned colleagues could probably benefit from hearing this too, come to think of it. I am reminded of a festival that I adjudicated a few years ago, where a long-time string educator who really knows their stuff, simply butchered a well known piece. All in the name of, I imagine, "at least we can say that we did it." I can't imagine that it was worth it.
We will do "Pictures." Probably in February. And, it will be something that all in the orchestra can be proud of. I promise. I can't wait for the concert tomorrow.