Last weekend, I was privileged to conduct for the El Sistema USA East Coast Seminario. This was a gathering of students and teachers from El Sistema USA programs up and down the East Coast of the United States and featured students from Miami, North Palm Beach, Atlanta, Newport News, Durham, Raleigh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley PA, and Connecticut. Kidznotes in Durham served as the host and I did a bit of conducting and rehearsing with the large group as part of the weekend.
At one point, I was speaking with a couple of the instructors and was asked about my priorities in rehearsal when working with a group of students that are just coming together for the first time in a festival setting like this. I thought it was a great question and it provided me the challenge of distilling my thoughts into a brief conversation. I thought I would share my thoughts here as well.
My first priority, in any short term festival setting, it to establish the necessity for young musicians to visually communicate with me. What I am saying, in a nutshell, is that I want them to watch the conductor! This in turn, provides me the opportunity to visually communicate with them throughout the festival and, hopefully, for them to go home with a new found appreciation for the skill of visual communication in the ensemble. It might sound surprising, but most young musicians need to more fully develop this skill. Our human nature is to look at the written page. In orchestral music, that is just the first step. Players must know the music well enough to lift their eyes and attention to the conductor in order to receive valuable, imperative information. They also need to know when to look to the conductor. It is not always during difficult passages or changes in tempo. I ask students to establish visual contact during static moments in the music as well; to look to the conductor for pulse during repeated rhythmic sections, for style and phrasing during sustained passages, for information during rests. And, when a conductor knows that his musicians are looking for information, he/she will usually give more information in turn.
I must also add that for me, it goes a bit deeper than this. If students are looking to me for information, I can also establish a visual relationship with them. I can smile at them. I can acknowledge their active participation. I can "make friends" without ever saying a word. This, to me, is so important as a vital part of music-making. It is so relational in every way and in a festival setting I can't always speak with every student before or between rehearsals. So, those smiles, affirmations, and acknowledgements go a long way.
My other priority that must be established is the need for a complete understanding and commitment to the various roles of each voice of the ensemble throughout every moment of music to be performed. In other words, students much have a strong understanding of who has melodic material, rhythmic material, harmonic material, obbligato lines. I often refer to this as the teacher/student relationship. In other words, in any passage, some voice has to play the role of teacher. That voice is the one that is giving information that the others need in order to play accurately, musically, or expressively. That may include rhythmic material or melodic material. Regardless, the others are learning something vital from that voice. The others, then, are the students. They are learning from the teacher voice. And, they are, in turn, responding to that information appropriately. It is essentially a chamber music concept in large ensemble performance. Too many conductors simply instruct young musicians to "watch the stick." That directive, in my opinion, falls way short. Do they need to watch the stick? For that answer, refer to the previous paragraph. But, in addition, real music-making involves listening to all of the voices and reacting to not only the visual information that the conductor is giving, but also the sonic information that the musicians are continually receiving from each other.
For me, both of these values must be established early in the rehearsal process in order to develop a musical and expressive ensemble. I believe that students of all ages and playing levels can be instructed in these concepts.
In the end, it boils down to communication. Music making is communication at many levels: conductor to player, player to conductor, player to player, voice to voice, ensemble to audience, audience to ensemble. If we establish and affirm clear tools of communication for our ensembles early in the rehearsals process, everything works at a much higher level.
I hope that these thoughts are helpful. It has been interesting for me to consider and articulate my thoughts on this topic.
As we move into the spring concert season and summer, I wish you all the best.