In the summer of 1981, I attended a week-long church camp that was simply a blast. It was called “MAD” Camp and focused all week on music, art, and drama. It was part of the summer program at Westminster Highlands, a Presbyterian Church Camp facility in Western PA, where I usually spent a couple of weeks each summer. My time at Westminster Highlands and the relationships that I established there had a profound impact on my development as a young man in many ways. I had just finished 10th grade and was beginning to realize that I had a little something to offer in the area of music and peer leadership. I wasn’t particularly interested in the visual arts, but I was open to working in drama as well as music. That summer, we created a musical out of the book, The Singer Trilogy, by Calvin Miller. We wrote original songs and music to accompany the text and I ended up playing the lead role in the production at the end of camp. I wrote and performed much of the music as part of that experience.
It was truly a “mountain-top” experience. I had never invested so much of myself into a project. I had never been part of such a close-knit community of artists. I had never been part of such an impassioned performance. I certainly had never garnered that type of attention from my peers and friends for my talents and accomplishments. It was intoxicating and I wanted more!!
I remember talking with my Dad on the 3 hour ride home and telling him all that I had learned and accomplished. I also expressed concern that things at home could never be as exciting as the past week had been. Things at home were so mundane. I didn’t relate to the people in the same way. How could I ever re-create that experience again? I will never forget my Dad, response. First he acknowledged what a great thing I had experienced. But then he told me that we couldn’t sustain that mountaintop experience all the time. If we were always on the mountaintop, how can we appreciate it when we get there again? There have to be peaks and valleys. He encouraged me to use the experience that I had as motivation to get there again. And, to use the ideas that I had developed to make the ensembles and communities that I lived with on a daily basis better. He reminded me that the folks that expect the mountaintop all the time are rarely satisfied. He encouraged me to keep seeking the mountaintop, but to also embrace every day. Even the ones that aren’t mountaintop experiences.
What amazing advice!! It is advice that I have used over and over again in my lifetime.
I feel like I am constantly chasing that mountaintop experience as a musician all the time too. I love that “emotional high” that I experience after an amazing performance. Those goosebumps on your arms or the warmth of an amazing ovation in completely intoxicating. That knowledge that you just moved the emotions of an audience is what we strive for. I want it as a conductor. I want it as a violinist. I want it as a teacher. I want it as a student.
I am keenly aware that much of my work as a conductor is done in the festival setting. I am fortunate to work with kids at Interlochen summer arts camp in the summer. We are chasing that mountaintop musical experience with every rehearsal, practice session, and performance. I am fortunate to conduct numerous local, regional, and all state festivals as part of my work and we are doing the same thing in that setting. We are looking for that amazing musical experience – not just technically, but emotionally as well. Even my work at NCSSM is similar to this. Our time together is limited and then the students go back to something else. In the two years and limited rehearsal that I get them, I want to bring them together for a mountaintop, special, emotional musical experience. And I think in some ways they expect that from me.
So, what is it that leads us to that end. What gets us from the mundane to the extraordinary? What moves us from “physics” to “metaphysics?” (I love that phrase and concept!!) I will throw out a couple of thoughts here. I am sure there are more and I would love to hear from you with your ideas.
When I look back to what I wrote at the top of this post about my MAD Camp experience it was the following: personal investment, a close knit community, impassioned performance, positive feedback. Let’s explore each of these briefly.
I have written before about the power of community. I firmly believe that strong communities are the foundation of strong ensembles. I have been in musical ensembles that weren’t strong communities, but, for me, it always better when they are. We have to want to work together. We have to trust each other. Form me, smiles and friendship works better than fear and intimidation. Personal investment is a key as well. When we give freely and passionately of ourselves, we are more likely to get more in return. Sometimes it hurts to be fully personally invested, but it is usually (always) worth it. I find this in relationships. I find this in my daily work. I find this in musical ensembles. I also believe that as a leader, I have to set the tone of personal investment if I want my ensemble members to give in the same way. It doesn’t seem to work in reverse. Positive feedback is also key. There is nothing like an “atta-boy” to keep us going when the going gets tough. And it will get tough at some point. (See “personal investment.”) That “atta-boy” for musicians can be the applause. But, it can also be the feeling you get when the ensemble really hits that passage in rehearsal. It can be the relationship between a musician and their stand partner. It can be the conductor’s comments. It can be the personal knowledge of a job well done after a long rehearsal. It comes in many forms. Finally, an impassioned performance can really be the key to the mountaintop experience for the musician. That only comes with great rehearsals, a well prepared and in-sync ensemble, and active mental and creative investment and preparation from all involved. This category is really a sub-category of “personal investment,” isn’t it?
Before wrapping up this post, I would like to offer up a few thoughts about the nuts and bolts of the “impassioned performance” idea here. What does this entail from a technical and musical perspective? I have been thinking about this and I believe the key is that notion of a well prepared and in-sync ensemble. Orchestrally, each musician must have a common concept of the priorities, direction, and goals of each note, phrase, section, and piece. So, as conductors, we have to be heading in that direction in every minute of every rehearsal. We should be striving for that idea of unification and common notion within and between sections. This is a bit tough to articulate, but here goes. We are seeking precision that is driven by the goal of a passionate performance and, ultimately, an emotional response. My friend Eugene Friesen says that once you have done the rigor, you are free to emote and express. That makes sense to me. Rigor leads to freedom, which leads to that “emotional high.” We should be seeking precision in rhythm and rhythmic concepts, intonation and tonal concepts, phrasing and musical concepts, a common vision of dynamic variation within the piece, tone quality and concepts in color, and finally conceptual precision and common vision.
On another note, it is also vital that we remind students in the midst of a mountain top performance that it is their responsibility to take that experience back home to their daily lives. They must bring their newfound enthusiasm and passion back to the daily routine so that it might be infused with new energy for the folks that don't have the same opportunities. We really need to stress the "Pay It Forward" concept to our top students who get awesome opportunities. Take the elements of that mountain top experience back home with you and share it.
So, there are some of my thoughts on seeking that “emotional high.” As I look back over that post, I just finished a great rehearsal on the work Aspire: A Dream Fulfilled, by Bob Phillips. It occurs to me that I am definitely seeking that “high” with this work. We are working on all of those concepts outlined in the previous couple of paragraphs. I want that mountaintop experience for myself and my students on this one. It is in reach. I will let you know how it goes.