Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Don't Miss The Forest For The Trees

Today was the first official day for instructors at NCSSM.  It was a great day of meeting our new colleagues, renewing friendships with others, and catching up on each others' adventures from the summer.  The first day back at school can be very inspiring as we prepare for the upcoming academic year.

And,

it can be totally overwhelming.

There is a huge amount of information to process.  We have received mountains of e-mails and correspondence. We received calendar information. We received information on updates to the school  facility and summer programs. We received details today outlining professional development obligations, academic advisor training, details on class schedules, details on student schedule conflicts,  budget details, details on planning for the new NCSSM Morganton campus, training videos, getting our teaching schedule into Google Calendar, and much more.  There is just so much.

Sadly, even those of us who can't wait to get back to our work and start the year can get overwhelmed by all of  these details.  

On top of all of this, the music wing at NCSSM just had new flooring installed and my colleague and I have to move all of the equipment, music, and others stuff from our offices and classrooms back from storage. It  is a huge job looming in front of us!

So, today I made a resolution.  I decided to only do what I can.  I am not going to get so overwhelmed by all of the administrative details of life at NCSSM that I miss the joy of teaching music.  I am going to enjoy greeting all of the returning seniors as they return to campus.  I am going to enjoy meeting the new juniors.  I will think creatively about my curriculum.  I will embrace the opportunity to facilitate student learning at every level.  I will seek to be a positive force in the lives of my students and colleagues.  I will strive to inspire and support my students every day and every class period.  

We are so privileged to teach.  We are privileged to participate in the lives and development of our students.  And, for goodness sake, I make my living as a musician!  I am living the dream.

So, while I respect the administrative necessities of life at NCSSM, I can't let them overwhelm me.  We have much bigger responsibilities.  We have lives to change.  Humans to support.  People to inspire.

Don't miss the forest for the tress this year as you begin the school year.  Our work is too important.  

Peace.
Scott

Friday, August 4, 2017

An Accounting of Ideas

As we get ready to wrap up the 2nd session of Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen for 2017, I thought it would be cool to take and accounting of the ideas or perspectives that I shared with students over the course of the summer.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you a quick idea of my thoughts while in front of an ensemble for an extended period of time.

  • My tuning procedure
  • Concepts in orchestral playing position
  • Moving with the phrase
  • The concept of inner rhythm
  • Listening for "the engine"
  • Elements of a moving performance: Technical,  Artistic,  Purpose, Perspective 
  • Breathing into entrances and phrases
  • "Bumping" the pulse
  • Look at conductor during static passages
  • Teacher/student: what is your role at any time?
  • Harmonic Underpinning
  • Deeper dynamic meaning, role, and contrast
  • Shifting for color and ease of fingering, not high pitch
  • "Chocolate Milk"
  • Finding all that is embedded in the music: phrase, push/pull
  • The concept of Dynamic vs. Static
  • Meeting 3 composers of performed works
  • 2 world premiers (Ancient Light, by Peter Terry and Sunset Colors, Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou)
  • Lead from any chair
  • Extended visual communication
  • The conductor's role in a variety of situations
  • Good = good, Hard does not necessarily = good
  • No 3rd or higher positions does not = easy repertoire
  • Artistic performances can move audiences.  Bad performances of hard repertoire doesn't move audiences


Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive.  But, it will give you an idea of the things that I am trying to teach and communicate during rehearsal. There are previous posts on many of these ideas, so I encourage you to check out the blog for my extended thoughts on these concepts.

It has been a great summer!  Thanks to all who have supported me and ICO this summer.  I appreciate you all so much!

Peace.
Scott






Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Harmonic Underpinning

Those of you that know me and my pedagogy, are aware that I'm a firm believer in utilizing harmonic underpinning while teaching melodic instruments and concepts. That is, providing some context for melodic line when teaching parts in the orchestra or in private lessons. I really believe that everything makes more sense when there is a chord progression behind or underneath the melodic line.

This week in Interlochen's Intermediate Concert Orchestra, we do not have the privilege of having a student bass player.  We will have a faculty and staff bassist for the concert, but not until the dress rehearsal.  So, we are working with an incomplete voicing in the orchestra and I have noticed that there has been a great deal of difficulty in truly tuning from bottom to top in all of our repertoire. So, today I asked my stage services staff member to set up a piano in the front of the orchestra. Throughout today's rehearsal I played bass lines and chord progressions as best I could, accompanying all of the pieces that we are working on.

Wow! What a transformation in the orchestra. I was reminded yet again that harmonic underpinning is so important for true musical understanding and learning. Quickly, everyone in the orchestra was tuning in a much more meaningful, informed manner. I had to step back and asked myself, "Would we be better off having this harmonic reference right from the beginning of the rehearsal process?" I am sure that many orchestras use an accompanist throughout a concert cycle to help with this very issue. That is not something that I typically do, but today I am really convinced that it paid huge dividends in this orchestra.

This can be done either by realizing chord progressions on the piano or on another chord playing instrument like guitar, mandolin, and others. I realize that this isn't rocket science. But, it is always good to be reminded. I'm reminded of when my children were younger and studying violin repertoire. I would frequently play piano or pick up my guitar and play along with them. Or, other days I would pick up the bass and create a bass line while they were playing the melodies of the pieces . I have particularly fond memories of performing the Monti Czardas with my oldest son, Matt. I played guitar and he played violin. We did something similar with both of the Vivaldi A minor Concerto movements that are found in the Suzuki Book 4.

All of this goes to encouraging the student to hear the function of every note of a melody. Is the note a chord tone? Is the note a passing tone? Is the cord a tonic? Is it a dominant? Or is it something else? When a student hears a secondary dominant progression on the guitar or piano common, suddenly those accidentals make a lot more sense.

I know this is a quick one but I just had to get this off my chest tonight. It was a great rehearsal and I can't wait for tomorrow!

Peace.

Scott

Monday, July 31, 2017

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Repertoire: 2017 Concert #4

We are winding down the summer here at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and the Intermediate Concert Orchestra is deep in preparation for their final performance of the season. We have a wonderful program planned for this concert. As is my tradition, I will give you some information all on all of the works that we are doing.

First, we are preparing Highlights from An American in Paris, by George Gershwin, arranged by Jerry Brubaker. This is a Belwin publication and is listed as a Grade IV. I first heard this arrangement at a new music reading session that was sponsored by JW Pepper at an American String Teachers Association conference. I have never done anything by arranger Jerry Brubaker before. But, I really like this medley from An American in Paris. I will certainly keep my eyes open for more of his arrangements in the future. This is scored for string orchestra with percussion. I think the percussion will add a really nice touch to this piece.  It includes bicycle horns.  I spent a couple of hours today, shopping for bike horns at two different pitches!! The students will be exposed to George Gershwin's interesting harmonies and magnificent melodies. The piece features 4 distinct sections that all provide wonderful opportunities for each voice. The arrangement is also very clearly edited with fingerings and good bowings, saving a great deal of rehearsal time for me. The students really like this arrangement and I think it will be a wonderful addition to our concert.

Next we are doing Smooth Sailing by Tom Sharp . This is listed as a Grade Three and is published by Ludwig Masters Music. It features opportunities for melody in all of the voices of the orchestra and a simple and lovely melody that is passed between all of the sections throughout the piece.  It is full of beauty and grace and contains an abundance of lush romantic quality to please the most discriminating ear.  I always love Thom Sharp's stuff and this is no exception.

Next, we have been spending a great deal of time preparing Mars from the Planets by Gustav Holst, arranged by Robert McCashin. This is a Tempo Press publication and is listed as a grade IV. This one is tough! We have spent a great deal of time on the 5-4 time signature and the intricate interplay between 5/2 and 5/2 feel. There are many divisi parts in this arrangement and a few 16th note passages that are really tough. The group has worked hard on this piece. And they love it. I'm not a hundred percent sure that we will perform it for our concert but I have challenged the students to prepare it well enough that it will be easy to make the decision. This one is a real challenge!

Finally, my dear friend Alejandro Bernard Papachrysanthou has written a brand new piece for intermediate concert Orchestra to perform this session.  It is entitled Sunset Colors and is a magnificent piece that we will premiere on Saturday. Please see the separate post about this composition.

It has been another great summer at Interlochen and I'm sad to see it winding down. That said, I am ready to get home and begin my work at NCSSM. I'm also very ready to see my family. Thanks to all who have been reading these posts throughout the summer. I hope that you will stick with me as we move into the fall and the new academic year. Thanks to all of my friends here at Interlochen who have supported me this summer. Let's do it again next year!

Peace.

Scott


Sunset Colors, by Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou

This summer, the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra has had several unbelievable opportunities to meet composers and perform their works. It has been a particularly strong learning experience for students to hear the words of the composers themselves and to learn the motivation behind the works which they are performing. This is one of the great benefits of coming to and  performing at Interlochen. We have such a wonderful community of musicians that do so many things. And, for one group to be involved in two world premieres in the same 3-week session is simply unheard of. But, that is what is happening this session. The Intermediate Concert Orchestra will be performing another world premiere at our Saturday concert in Kresge Auditorium, 4 p.m.

Last summer I became friends with Alejandro Bernard-Papachryssanthou over lunch down at the waterfront.  We were both eating alone and struck up a conversation. We hit it off as friends right away and it was truly my pleasure to feature him on the last piece of the summer in of 2016, Bossa Rojo, by Bert Ligon, as a keyboard soloist with ICO. This summer, we met up again and following the first ICO concert, he asked me if I might be willing to play a piece that he was interested in composing. He has been working on Sunset Colors throughout the summer and it is our pleasure to perform it this week.

He came to class today and spent about an hour with the orchestra, discussing the motivation behind the piece and several specific performance practices. It was a thrill for us to have him at the rehearsal and a great deal of work was done.

He began by explaining the motivation for the piece. It is intended to conjure up the image of the beautiful sunsets that we experience here in Northern Michigan, particularly those that are seen over a lake where mountains do not encumber the view. The sunsets in this region are absolutely beautiful and it is a perfect inspirational vehicle for a piece of orchestral music.

Sunset Colors begins with a quiet Andate section. It is in a major but really travels between a number of keys throughout the work. The opening features the viola section right out of the gate. There is a beautiful melody and tight, jazz inspired harmonies throughout the work. The opening eventually gives way to a beautiful piu mosso so that features moving 16th notes in the first and second violins and a syncopated rhythmic pattern in the viola, cello, and bass. This section certainly presents the image of the brightest, most glorious sunset. This moving passage eventually gives way to a heroic section which culminates on a beautiful, sustained C sharp major chord. We spent a good deal of time in rehearsal today dialing in that chord and even discussed what color it sounds like. We had some students say orange, others felt it was pink, and I felt like it was a deep purple.  (All were correct!!) Following a grand pause, it returns to the "A" section and winds down to a beautiful ending which conjures up the image of the last little bit of color in the sky as the sun finally goes down for the night.

This  work is a perfect challenge for the Intermediate Concert Orchestra. I would say that it is probably a Grade 4. There is a little something for everyone and every section must be rhythmically and tonally independent. The kids are really committed to this work and have rehearse with great maturity. Their work today was admirable. Mondays are always tricky for ICO because Monday afternoon is usually "beach day" for the kids. They were certainly ready to look ahead to the fun of the afternoon during rehearsal today. Instead, they gave their full attention and had a wonderful rehearsal.

We are really excited to give the world premiere of this piece and I look forward to performing it many more times both here at Interlochen and in my various travels around the United States. I'm pretty sure that I will program it at NCSSM this fall!

We hope to see you at the concert on Saturday afternoon. I believe it will be live streamed as well.

Peace.

Scott


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Repertoire: 2017 Concert #3

Last night, the Intermediate Concert Orchestra performed its first program of the second session for the summer of 2017. They gave a wonderful performance and all three ensembles on the program were exceptional. As is usually the case, the program order began with Intermediate Concert Orchestra, followed by Intermediate Wind Symphony, directed by  Dr Mary Land, and finished up with the Intermediate Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oriol Sans .


ICO's program was:


Symphony No 104 "London" First Movement, Haydn, Arr. McCashin
Impromptu for String Orchestra, Sibelius
Ancient Light, Peter Terry (World Premier)
Samba Me This! Thom Sharp


I have already written extensively about Ancient Light and Samba Me This. So, I will focus these brief remarks on the Haydn and Sibelius works that were performed.


Symphony No 104 "London" First Movement, Haydn, Arr. McCashin is a challenging adaptation of Haydn's original symphony movement for full Orchestra. This piece, published by the FJH Music Company, is listed as a grade 4.5. I believe that grading is accurate. This piece provides numerous opportunities for teaching a variety of techniques. The opening is best done in a subdivided four and is a great way to introduce subdivision to students. It is all so wonderful for teaching accurate double dotted 8th notes/ 32nd notes. Moving into the Allegro, there are numerous techniques that must be covered. I worked with my ensemble a great deal on listening for the inner rhythm or the "engine" that drives the piece This engine is provided by 8th notes which move from section to section. This movement also requires broad dynamic swings and the students must be focused on dynamics throughout. This is also a wonderful opportunity to teach spiccato bowing and to encourage your students to play in the lower half of the bow. This is a wonderful teaching peace and when performed appropriately, comes off very well.


The Sibelius Impromptu No. 5 for String Orchestra is a beautiful work which begins with a lovely con sord Andantino in E minor. There is ample opportunity for lush string playing and technique in this work. Students must adapt to the push-pull of the tempo and follow each other and the conductor. I particularly worked with my students to breathe on beat 4 and to never rush to the downbeat. The middle section is a brisk Andantino in 6/4. It begins in E Major, eventually moving to E minor. This section features the Violin I and Viola sections with a beautiful melody supported by the the Violin II and celli providing the rhythmic and harmonic underpinning. The piece ends with a reprise to the A section that is absolutely beautiful. There are opportunities in this work for teaching phrasing, bow distribution, tone color, and as always, watching the conductor.


On to a new concert cycle! Rehearsal today at 2:00 will include lots of sight-reading.


Peace.


Scott



Monday, July 24, 2017

Samba Me This! by Thom Sharp



One of the pieces that will be on our program Wednesday, July 24th at 6:30 p.m. is a wonderful Latin piece by Thom Sharp entitled Samba Me This! For this performance, we will be featuring Interlochen Faculty members, David Kay on soprano saxophone, Alejandro Bernard on keyboard,  and Aaron Tenney on bass, along with Intermediate camper, Daqi on drums.

Samba Me This! by Thom Sharp is a wonderful original tune for String Orchestra and Drum kit that features dancy Latin rhythms and a wonderful chord progression.  The piece is listed as a grade 3.5. It is definitely a hard 3.5.  Audiences will need to hold on to their hats for a fast ride on the samba machine! This piece is rhythmically challenging and chromatic but has a singable main theme. All sections are featured and everyone in the orchestra has shifting challenges in their part.  It is published by Latham Music.



Today was our first opportunity to put this piece together with our guests. It was a pleasure to welcome them to our Monday rehearsal and start really putting things together. The first concept that we really focused on was maintaining tempo throughout the piece. I had a wonderful opportunity to discuss the similarities between this piece and the Haydn Allegro that we are preparing. The concept of "inner rhythm" and keeping the subdivision going through audiation (inside your head) throughout the piece is a common theme with both works.

We also had a wonderful discussion about improvisation and how we go about adding the improvised saxophone and keyboard parts to the string orchestra framework. The students got a chance to hear both David Kay and Alejandro Bernard improvising over the fantastic string sounds that Tom Sharp has created. It is always a pleasure to do Thom's compositions as they have such a representative string/jazz orchestra sound.



The students also got to participate in and witness the kind of interaction that happens between music professionals within the context of rehearsal. We discussed the arrangement, the "roadmap," opportunities for improvisation, dynamic nuances, rhythmic nuances, and other musical factors in the piece. I find that it is a great learning opportunity for students to simply be part of those discussions along with the professionals that are in the room.

Finally, when there are guests in the room , there is always a sense of urgency and a need to be efficient with the time that we are given. The students of Intermediate Concert Orchestra certainly succeeded with that today. It was a wonderful, successful rehearsal. I am sure that the audience will love this piece when it is performed on Wednesday.

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to my colleagues David Kay, Alejandro Bernard, and Aaron Tenney for giving ICO this great opportunity!



That's it for now. It is a beautiful Monday afternoon at Interlochen. I am looking forward to welcoming some friends from North Carolina to the area today and giving them a grand tour of our campus.

We hope to see you on Wednesday through the live stream.

Peace.

Scott

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ancient Light

One of the great privileges of working in Interlochen in the summer is rubbing elbows with wonderful musicians from many different areas of the music world. One of those privileges is preparing and performing new music that our composition faculty has created for ensembles here at Interlochen. Over the last couple of years I've developed a deep friendship with Dr. Peter Terry, a wonderful composer and musician who teaches Electronic Music Composition here.  This summer, the Intermediate Concert Orchestra is privileged to perform the world premiere of his new work for string orchestra, Ancient Light. Dr. Terry came to our rehearsal yesterday to give us some insights into the work after we had spent a number of days framing the piece and getting ready for his input.

We began our time with Dr. Terry by asking him to respond to an incredibly light question that I had asked all the students earlier in the rehearsal. What exactly is your favorite dessert and why?  I have found over the years that simple conversations like this are often wonderful ice breakers and yesterday was no different. I think the question threw him for a little bit of a curve-ball and he took a moment to consider the answer. After a few moments of thought, he let us know that tiramisu is his favorite and that it was because his family had a number of traditions around this dessert. This provided a wonderful segue into our work for the day on his composition.  Immediately, he had a connection with kids and they were now ready to hear what he had to say about the new work.

I then asked him to tell us just a little bit about the title and the ideas behind the work. He explained that Ancient Light refers to the to a common interest that he and his father shared in astronomy and looking at the night sky. He was always aware when engaged in this activity that the lights that he was seeing in the stars were generated millions of years ago. The things that we see in the night sky may not even exist anymore. The magnitude of that idea is reflected in this piece. He also explained that the piece is inspired by thoughts and feelings related to family (especially his father)  and the depth of that relationship and related experiences like the time they spent studying the stars.

We continued by playing the piece for him and asking for his input. The composition features 4 sections and is in A-B-A-B form.  It floats between E minor and G Major and I would call it about a Grade IV.

The A section is a bold Allegro in 3 with a driving rhythmic underpinning. He explained that the rhythmic underpinning must have a heroic feel. It is actually a "bravura" section and he wanted the students to give it an almost march-like, military drive. This resonated with the kids and they immediately made the adjustment. Additionally, there is a rhythmic, syncopated , marked melodic figure in the other voices. He asked for very short releases at the end of these short phrases and it provided a greater sense of urgency in this rhythmic passage. I always find that having a new voice in a rehearsal yields great results and this was certainly the case. The way Dr. Terry made his points resonated with the kids and they seemed to internalize the idea behind these passages.

Next, we dug a little deeper into the primary melodies of the piece and the way they interact with each other. He noted that each time the primary motive enters in a new voice, it should be somewhat intrusive to the other voices. Again, that word intrusive really resonated with the kids. They were able to execute this almost immediately and it transformed the impact of the piece in those places .

Next we spent some time in the more lyrical B sections of the piece. Each of these sections is very chorale-like and requires a totally different approach. We looked at the greater dynamic scheme of each of these sections and noted that they grow continuously through two statements of the entire chorale. They reach an apex on the final stanza which is then followed by a hushed, brief reprise. As we looked closely at this dynamics scheme, the musical line of this section became so much more perceptible.

As we moved through the rehearsal, you could feel the energy grow and the excitement for the piece intensify. By the end of the rehearsal there was incredible life in the work and the students were quite engaged and committed. The rehearsal ended with Dr. Terry giving a wonderful charge to the students regarding the privilege of performing a world premiere. He sent them into our last few rehearsals with an inspired challenge to truly own the work and to realize that there is only ever one World Premiere of a work. Intermediate Concert Orchestra gets to experience that and no one else will ever have that experience. What a wonderful challenge! I have no doubt that this will be one of the most meaningful musical experiences of these young musicians' lives.

I want to extend my deepest thanks to Peter. I value our friendship so much and truly enjoy out all of our musical collaboration. This is the third world premiere that I have conducted for one of his compositions.  (Blindsighted and Beneath the Irish Sky, Carl Fischer Publications) I consider it one of the great honors of my musical life and my work at Interlochen.

This concert will take place on Wednesday, July 26th at 6:30 p.m. in Corson Auditorium on the Interlochen campus. It will be available via live stream as well.

Peace .

Scott

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday in ICO

We had a super-productive rehearsal to in Intermediate Concert Orchestra.  The students had sectional rehearsals today after my rehearsal.  So, my goal was to cover as much of our repertoire as possible and challenge the kids to articulate which sections needed work in sectionals and why.  I had my ensemble manager take notes and when they left for sectionals, we gave the principal players the list to take to their faculty section leader.   We got though almost everything and had a very productive rehearsal today!


Cello Section

Viola Section

2nd Violin Section

First Violin Section

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thursday ICO Conversation


Today in Intermediate Concert Orchestra we welcomed our faculty section leaders for a second time. I decided that today would be a good day to have a group conversation about ensemble playing and the role of the individual within the ensemble. I asked my faculty colleagues to join in on the conversation. I have found over the years that sometimes faculty interaction with and in front of students is a wonderful learning vehicle. So, today, that was the beginning of our class conversation.

I started the class by asking the students to talk a little bit about what they love to see and hear when they go to a great orchestra performance. I received responses that included: bows moving in unison, physically invested performers, great repertoire, a look of purpose, and others.  I was quite impressed with the student responses right out of the gate.

Next, I asked my colleagues to talk a little bit about what they need to do to create the  performances that the students were discussing. What did they need to do to generate a performance that was exciting to watch and hear ? What is the role of the performer?


Listen
Watch
Uniformity
Size of Group
Equal Importance
Passion

One faculty member expanded on the importance of listening and watching from the first rehearsal to the last. Listening for the style and intonation of the other people in their section and the sections around them. Watching for technique consistency, bow placement, and other subtleties as the repertoire developed from sight-read to performance.  Another spoke of the importance of uniformity from throughout the rehearsal process until a performance. They mentioned the need for working for this uniformity from beginning to end.  Still another mentioned the equal importance of knowing the role of each voice in the ensemble. They mentioned that in rehearsals, they are always trying to figure out the role of their voice and how it fits in with the others. Finally, another mentioned the importance of a passionate pursuit of musical excellence from the first rehearsal to the end of any performance.



Personality
Role
Active 
Extemporaneous
Self Challenge
Emulate

We then discuss what they bring to the table musically in each of these goals. One mentioned that simply allowing his personality to be part of the rehearsal process enhanced the process a great deal for him. This could be as subtle as offering smiles or salutations to his colleagues as he arrived at rehearsal. Those friendly offerings lead to wonderful musical relationships. This is a great way to approach rehearsal and the rehearsal process. Another mentioned the concept of understanding their role in the orchestra at all times. Sometimes their voice is a melody. Sometimes their voice is harmony. Other times it is a rhythmic underpinning. Knowing the role is vital. Another mentioned that it is important to be prepared for active listening and reacting throughout a rehearsal process. One never really knows what is going to happen. The brain must be turned on and ready to act and react at a moment's notice.  Still another mentioned that subtleties in rehearsal can be quite extemporaneous. Things can be different every single time a piece is played. There can be subtle changes in tempo,  phrasing, dynamics , and musical interaction at any given moment. The performer must be in tune with them at all times.  Also, a section player must be willing to challenge themselves on many of these issues.  They are not always visible to the conductor, but are integral to the success of the ensemble. Finally, another colleague emphasized the importance of emulating those around them. Looking to the section leader or other sections for bow placement, style, articulation, and other technical aspects of her performance and emulating them in order to provide a uniform product.


This was a wonderful conversation and certainly timely today. As we are now three rehearsals into this concert cycle, I thought it was important that students had a good handle on their role in the orchestra. I wanted them to know that sometimes they had to be they have to be self-motivated in terms of what the next step is. There was mention of the fact that in any rehearsal process one must move from focusing on the technical -  to the artistic - to process and, finally - to perspective. If you are interested in knowing more about my thoughts on this, please refer to my recent article, "What and How?"

Tomorrow we have sectional rehearsals!  Onward.

Peace

Scott

Blue Collar Education

Those of you that see my Twitter or Facebook feed on a regular basis know that I've been posting quotes from a book I am reading this summer,  Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni. This book is required reading for all incoming and current students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math where I teach during the regular academic school year. I have truly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it for parents and students alike. This book is full of stories and data that suggest there are many public and small, lesser known institutions across the United States which provide deep, challenging, meaningful opportunities for undergraduate education.  I know from experience teaching at NCSSM, an academically elite high school, that many of our students aspire primarily to Ivy League and other elite schools. I also see the incredible hit to their ego and feeling of self-worth when some are rejected from these institutions. The book makes the point that application numbers are elevated and rejection rates are at an all-time high from schools like Ivies, MIT, Sanford, Duke and many others.

So, as I have been reading the book, it has been easy to reflect on my education and subsequent opportunities in the world of music and music education. I did not come from a conservatory background. My parents were not professional musicians or even significantly music educated. Nor, was I ever sent to private schools, arts magnet schools, or elite summer music opportunities.  In fact, some of this is quite ironic, because, as I write this, I am on the faculty at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, one of the nation's most highly regarded summer arts training facilities. I teach during the Academic Year at NCSSM, one of our nation's most elite STEM high schools. And, I frequently guest conduct elite high school honors orchestras throughout the United States. So, I thought that many of my readers would enjoy hearing about my educational background and musical experience, as well as my path to my current place in professional life.

I'm the son of educators. My father began his career as an elementary teacher and eventually worked his way to principal and, finally, superintendent of schools in my hometown of Indiana, PA. My mom was an English teacher for her entire career in a small rural community outside the college town I was raised in.  My parents had a HiFi stereo in the living room and I can remember listening to records that ranged from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Glen Miller to classical recordings. I can remember being particularly interested in a recording of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, primarily because of the picture on the cover of the record album. I remember that it was a pirate with a sword and it inspired my imagination. I actually remember pulling a stick from a tree outside the front of our home and pretending I was a conductor.  I have early memories of attending orchestra concerts at the local high school and university.   At the age of six I expressed interest in learning to play the violin . And after a great deal of pestering and prodding, my father reluctantly agreed to buy a small violin for me and find a private teacher. I was fortunate to have a neighbor who lived a short distance from our home who was a graduate violin student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Formerly Heidi Peterson, now Heidi Trevor Itashiki) and she was a fantastic violinist.

I began taking private violin lessons and excelled quickly. My sisters both followed suit and begin studying violin and cello within a short period of the time that I began. By the time I was eight years old I had begun taking piano lessons (in which I never invested too much thought or time) and music became a priority in our home.  Soon after, when my teacher finished her degree, I moved on to another teacher in my town, Gloria Johnson, who taught most of the top violin students. Her husband, Hugh Johnson, happened to be the conductor of the IUP Orchestra.  I studied with her throughout the rest of my junior high and high school years.  I played in school orchestra every year. I took private violin lessons. I played in numerous recitals in my town each year. I participated in performances for service organizations, church, and other community organizations throughout elementary middle and high school. I (with my parents support and guidance), invested in the music community of my hometown and they invested in me. Somewhere around age 12, I picked up the electric bass and started playing in rock bands in my community as well. Music was becoming a huge part of my life .

I attended summer music camp every year.  Interlochen was not within my family's budget, so I attended music camp at Edinboro State University.  I played under the baton of noted conductor, Walter Hendle and developed a lifelong friendship with Camp Director and Edinboro University Orchestra Conductor, Cliff Cox.  He became, in many ways, my model for what an orchestra conductor/pedagogue should look and act like on the podium.  I had experiences as concertmaster and as principal second violin in orchestra on various summers, played chamber music, played in pit orchestras for operas, had fun and learned so much while at camp.  I also attended Music Art and Drama Camp at Westminster Highlands each summer, a Presbyterian Church Camp in North Western PA, where we would create multi-art performances from scratch.  These camp experiences were incredibly formative in my music and leadership education.

I played in District, Regional, All-State, and even All Eastern Division Orchestras. When I was 16, I was invited to become a member of the IUP Orchestra and was thrilled to be part of a college performing ensemble at such a young age.  I also began taking music theory lessons with another local music student who was doing graduate studies at the University of Michigan. I remember learning about the circle of fifths and playing chords on the piano. This completely changed my life. I began writing music and found that I could move people with my art.  I was becoming a solid well-rounded functional musician.  I was also a top academic student. I was in all of the advanced classes in my high school, had a very high GPA, and graduated among the top students in my class. I was class president, had a wonderful social life, and enjoyed a fantastic high school education. I participated in clubs, music theater, weight-lifting, raquetball, and many other activities.  My senior year of high school was filled with music classes because I had finished most of the other academic offerings at my high school and I knew that I wanted to pursue music as a career.

When it came time for college, I had options. I was accepted to a private school in New York, a state university in Ohio, and my local state university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania . I initially made a decision to attend a school outside of my hometown. I was fortunate that the Music Department Chair from IUP knew me and my parents well and took some time to come to our home, sit in our kitchen, and explain to me that IUP had everything that the other schools could offer and more. I was convinced. Why drive 7 hours to college when I can simply go across town? I decided to attend IUP and would pursue a degree in music education even though at that time I really wanted to be a songwriter. (Actually I had no idea what I wanted to be! I just knew that I was good at music.)

IUP afforded me incredible opportunities. My violin instructor, Delight Malitsky, a former concertmaster of the Honolulu Symphony, was a world-class violinist and pianist. She nurtured me unconditionally through my four years of undergraduate education.  She truly provided me with conservatory-class private instruction.  I played in an orchestra that regularly prepared and performed the masterworks. I learned to love Beethoven Symphonies, Aaron Copland's orchestral works, Stravinsky, and many others. We performed classic repertoire as well as new music regularly. I had numerous solo opportunities in college and performed both a junior and senior solo violin recital.  My recitals included solo repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Kreisler, Bolling, Lalo, Sarsate and many others.  I played bass in the university big band, loved touring, and developed wonderful relationships with many of the jazz students. I excelled in music theory and the many other academic opportunities in the music department at IUP. I also loved my general education courses and I'm fairly certain that I had A's in all of my non-music courses.

One music education professor, Dr. John Kuehn, took a particular interest in my education and invited me to participate in the University Lab School music program even when I wasn't registered for his class. I jumped at the opportunity and quickly became interested in teaching and all that he could offer me in terms of training. By my junior year, he offered me an opportunity to teach the strings class (under his guidance) at the school. This was an unprecedented opportunity for an undergraduate at IUP and I jumped at the chance. By the time I student-taught a year later, I had already managed my own classroom for a full year in an elementary setting.  I knew that I wanted to be a teacher and that I could be good at it. I graduated Summa Cum Laude.

I student-taught at Williamsport Area School District in North Central Pennsylvania with well-known string educator and conductor, Walter Straiton. Walt was a wonderful mentor to me and continues to be to this day. I was given so many opportunities while at Williamsport. They seemed to sense that I had what it take took to be a master teacher down the road. I was green, but I was enthusiastic, and I had the training and tools to develop into a fine teacher.

I landed my first job at Palmyra School District near Hershey, Pennsylvania. I taught there for 6 years and had a wonderful experience learning to become a teacher in the elementary, middle and high schools. During my time at Palmyra, I pursued summer pedagogical workshops and was particularly enriched by a workshop at Central Connecticut State University which was taught by Dorothy Straub, Marvin Rabin, and Jim Kjelland. That workshop changed my life and gave me real tools to use in the classroom. I also knew that I wanted to continue to deepen my violin skills with Delight Malitsky, my collegiate violin instructor. So I went back to IUP and finished a master's degree in violin performance.  While at Palmyra, I played in the Lebanon Valley College Orchestra under the baton of Klement Hambourg, played numerous solo recitals, and took gigs at all of the local colleges and universities.

Soon, other teaching opportunities began to materialize. I moved to the Washington DC suburbs and began teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, a Science and Technology Magnet School in Prince George's County and an MENC School of Distinction with a huge music program and lofty orchestral reputation. While there, I began to pursue post-masters studies at the University of Maryland. Most notably, I studied conducting with Professor William Hudson. I always took my conducting seriously and worked very hard to develop that art.  I never finished that degree, primarily because my first son was born and life simply took over. I also was beginning to receive numerous conducting opportunities outside of my school and began developing my reputation as a pedagogue, teacher trainer, and conductor of honors orchestras. The opportunities became plentiful very quickly.

Obviously, that's not the end of my education. Everyday is a learning experience. Other educational highlights include my National Board Certification and subsequent re-certification, numerous conferences and summer workshops, hundreds of books and articles, and probably most importantly, my broad experience.  But, that was the end of my formal education in a collegiate setting. None of it was at a conservatory. None of it was at a private school. None of the schools I attended were considered "elite." But all of them afforded me amazing opportunities, wonderful instruction, and met me where I was as a musician and a student.

So, how does someone experience such a blue collar music education and end up teaching at Interlochen and NCSSM? For me I think it comes down to a couple of factors. First, I believe in "active learning." I honestly believe that in every course I've ever taken, every lesson, every rehearsal, every gig, and every book I've read, I have been actively learning.  I try not to be passive about anything when it comes to learning. I try to engage my brain, think through process, and find connections in everything that I read, do, and experience.  I'm reminded of my experience while playing second violin Annapolis Symphony Orchestra back in the 1990's under the Baton of Gisele Ben-Dor , thinking that every rehearsal was a conducting lesson. She was a master. I learned so much playing second violin in that orchestra simply by watching her, taking mental notes, and incorporating many of her techniques into my own school orchestra conducting.  Another key, in my mind, is quite similar. It is to always "move with a purpose." My 3 sons get tired of hearing me say this on a regular basis. But, I believe it. In everything we do, it never hurts to hustle. The more we move with purpose, the more the people around us understand that we are serious about our tasks. I believe this has been an integral part of my development as a musician and as a professional. Opportunities don't just fall out of the sky. Someone has to think that you're worth the investment. Hustle and purpose is free and goes an awful long way!  Finally, I believe that my passionate pursuit of excellence has served me well. I have never been interested in being second-best. I have always been interested in being the best that I can possibly be. And, I believe that I have a palpable passion for the work that I do. Again, this can be a little bit abstract. But, when one is passionate about their goals and activities, combined with intellect and hard work, anything can be accomplished.

So, in wrapping up, I've been so fortunate. In attending public universities and schools, I have received some of the finest instruction that a music student could desire. I have never felt like my music education was lacking because I didn't attend an elite institution. I certainly received all of the necessary tools for musical and professional success as part of my education. I believe strongly that it is what you do with those tools that determine future success. I will continue to try to be a good steward of that education. I truly desire to pass all that I received through my education on to my students on a daily basis.

That is my goal today and every day.

Peace.

Scott

(And, by the way, my oldest son is pursuing a degree in Music Education at UNC Greensboro, an absolutely amazing public institution.  He is getting a world-class music education!  Full circle.)




Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Interlochen ICO, First Day of 2nd Session

Today, Tuesday, July 18th, 2017, marked the first day of the second session of Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra.  I was pleased for have a few days off following our concert on Friday and was very ready to get back to work  today!  It was a great pleasure to meet all of my new students today and we had a wonderful rehearsal. We rehearse most days in Grunow Hall which is located along the shores of Green Lake at Interlochen Arts Camp. Today was a warm day. While there are fans in the room, they blow our music all over the place. So, most days we go without major ventilation in the room other than open windows.  So, it can get a bit steamy in there.  But, what is a day of camp without a little discomfort, right? (We did keep the windows open today.)

We started today's rehearsal by introducing ourselves to the people on both sides of us and then got right to work. The first hour of rehearsal included faculty section leaders sitting at the front of the section, while everyone sight-read the new repertoire. I will post extensively on the repertoire that we prepare over the next three weeks in coming days. Today, during the first hour, we actually got through just about all of the repertoire that I have planned for the first program. This includes a Robert McCashin arrangement of Haydn's Symphony 104, Movement 1, a Sibelius Impromptu, a brand new piece by Peter Terry, entitled Ancient Light, for which we will perform the world premiere next Wednesday, and a wonderful Latin tune called Samba Me This by Tom Sharpe, which will feature Interlochen faculty members David Kay on sax and Alejandro Bernard on piano.

To begin the second hour, I had students get to know their stand partner a little better. I had each member of the orchestra introduce their stand partner, tell us where they are from, and tell us something interesting about them other than the instrument that they play. This is a great way to break the ice with a group of young musicians and is always great fun. Today we learned that we have athletes, scholars, bakers, readers, and folks who love to sleep. We also learned that we have a large contingent from New York City, Chicago, Indiana, and numerous other places within and outside of the United States.

We then began our work on the Haydn Symphony and Ancient Light. I feel like we have a good start on both pieces and asked the kids to spend a bit of time in the practice room tomorrow on each of them. We will hit the ground running tomorrow and look forward to our first performance next Wednesday. It is a great group of new students. There were lots of smiles today. I know the next 3 weeks will be a blast - full of great music-making, learning, and fun!

Peace.
Scott

Friday, July 14, 2017

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Repertoire: 2017 Concert #2


Today I would like to take a few minutes to outline the repertoire that the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen will be performing on our second concert , Friday, July 14th , at 7 p.m. in Corson Auditorium on the Interlochen campus.  We have selected four pieces for this program and it is a total of just about 20 minutes of music. The pieces include the following:
  • Lacrymosa from Requiem in D Minor, Mozart, arranged Loreta Fin
  • Allegro con Brio from Symphony Number 8, First Movement, Dvorak, arranged Robert McCashin
  • Praelude and Gavotte from the Holberg Suite for String Orchestra, Grieg 
  • Reels and Reverie, Alan Lee Silva
We will open the program with Lacrymosa from Requiem in D Minor, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arranged by Loreta Fin. This work is published by Wilfin Music. It is listed as a grade 3.5 and I think it will be a very interesting, if not unusual concert opener. It is an instrumental arrangement of the famous movement from Mozart's Requiem. It is in 12/8 time and provides an excellent opportunity to teach compound time to these fine young musicians. The primary pedagogical goals of this piece are include ensemble subdivision, dynamic contrast, and appropriate bow placement and style for the work. We have spent a great deal of time working on subdivision by 3 for the 12/8 time signature and maintaining the musical movement of the work. The tendency here is for young students to slow it down. A great deal of responsibility is laid on the string bass section. They have to be subdividing in their mind the entire time in order to drive the ensemble.  We have given a great deal of attention to the need for an exceptionally light and "wispy" bow stroke on the piano (quiet) sections. Students have been encouraged to consider the length and style of every notation in their part. The piece will have maximum impact if the dynamic contrasts are huge. This piece only lasts about 3 minutes . But, I think it'll be a wonderful and surprising opener for our program.

Next, we will brighten the mood with Robert McCashin's arrangement of Allegro con Brio from Symphony Number 8, first movement, by Antonin Dvorak. I frequently program arrangements by Robert McCashin because of his tendency to toward keeping much of the integrity and spirit of the original work. This one is certainly no exception. This is listed as a grade 4 and is published by the FJH Music Company. This arrangement starts with the beautiful cello section feature that is found in the original. It moves quickly to a section that features solo violin playing the famous flute solo from the original. The arrangement features wonderful and exciting allegro passages and most of the primary themes of the work. Some of the pedagogical challenges in this piece include phrasing, hooked bowing , maintaining dotted 8th/16th rhythmic integrity, and changes in tempo throughout the work. I have found that it was much easier to teach the style after having the entire ensemble listen to the original work. There are a number of bowings in the arrangement that I have changed. I have found that a hooked bow on many of the dotted 8th/16th passages works better than some of the editors choices.  This was a great opportunity to drive home the notion that these passages may not become triplets! In the end, this is a very exciting adaptation of Dvorak's original work and I think it will bring the house down this evening.

I originally planned to only program the Gavotte from the Holberg Suite for this ensemble. We put that movement together and I felt like it would be appropriate to challenge my students with an opportunity to perform another movement. I offered them a challenge to learn the Prelude and they rose to that challenge. So, I am pleased to do both of these movements. I won't spend a lot of time talking about the pedagogical challenges of Grieg's work , primarily because it is so well-known. The Gavotte offers many of opportunities to deal with antecedent/consequent melodic relationships, stark dynamic contrasts, and the Gavotte/Musette form (Minuet/Trio). This movement features each section of the orchestra and works very well for my current ensemble. The Prelude, of course, has many technical challenges and our students have worked hard to overcome all of them. Among those challenges , I would include the difficult viola passage following repeat,  the rhythmic underpinning of the entire work, and maintaining tempo. It is been a pleasure to watch these students rise to the occasion of this important staple of string orchestra repertoire.

We will finish our program with Reels and Reverie by Alan Lee Silva. This work is a grade 3.5 and is published by Carl Fischer. This is another work that features 12/8 time, albeit in a completely different style than the Mozart. This has an Irish feel to it and is a wonderful up-tempo, spirited closer for the program. There are two lyrical sections in the in the middle of the piece, giving it an A-B-A-C-A form . This is one of those works that just feels good to play. String players sense the inherent string-centric style and gravitate toward the fast moving, marked, rhythmic ideas. The two choral sections in the middle are lovely and the piece finishes syncopated ending that is reminiscent of Riverdance. This, like many of Alan Lee Silva's original compositions, is sure to be favorite of performers and audience alike.


So, this will give you a good feel for the program that we will be presenting this evening. I would recommend any in all of these works for other conductors and ensembles. It's been a pleasure to put them all together. You can watch our program this evening at 7 on the Interlochen live stream

Enjoy!

Peace.

Scott

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Repertoire: 2017 Concert #1

Each year, while it Interlochen, I try to post some thoughts without the repertoire that we are preparing. I am a little late in posting notes about our repertoire from our first concert. But, I will make up for it in this post. Look for a second post about our upcoming concert within the next day or so. 

For first concert we did three pieces: 
  • Mendelssohn's Sinfonia Number 2 in D Major, Mvt. 1
  • Water Reflections by Yukiko Nishimura.
  • Heart of Fire by Lauren Bernofsky  

Felix Mendelssohn wrote his String Sinfonias between the years of 1821 through 1823. He was only in his early teens when he wrote these works for string orchestra as part of a music composition assignment. This year, I selected the first movement of Sinfonia number 2. It is an Allegro in D Major and features a wonderful rhythmic verve and strong independence in each of the voices. I have done a number of String Symfonias by Mendelssohn over the years, but this was the first time I have conducted this movement of this piece. It was perfect for the Intermediate Concert Orchestra.  The real challenge in this piece, after learning the notes and general style that is appropriate for the work, is to have the students find and sense the role of their voice within the context of the greater work. Sometimes the students are in the lead and are playing the primary motive. Other times they are providing background harmonic or rhythmic information. (Or both!) The other great challenge in this piece is to have the students demonstrate the more subtle musical lines within the overall dynamic scheme of the piece. Rise and fall of melodic line means everything to the overall impact that the piece can have. It all, I am very pleased with the way the students prepared and performed this lovely work.

Next, we did Water Reflections, by Yukiko Nishimura. This is listed as a grade 3.5 and is published by Carl Fischer. When I first heard this piece, I knew that I had to perform it at Interlochen Kresge Hall. One of the most amazing experiences I've ever had as a conductor is conducting at Kresge. As I am looking at the ensemble in every concert, I can look past them, through huge plate glass windows, to the beautiful Green Lake behind the hall with boats, water skiers, sails, birds , and a generally beautiful setting while conducting. So, this gorgeous piece with a title of Water Reflections was absolutely appropriate for this setting and ensemble. This piece begins with an Andante section that is lush and beautiful . It provides ample opportunity to teach expression, bow use, and advanced ensemble technique. It then moves to a happy-go-lucky Piu Mosso that includes interesting syncopated rhythmic drive and a light moving violin part. It then returns to Tempo 1 and finishes out after a very interesting transitional section. The work ends with some well-placed pizzicato notes that remind the listener of drops of water falling into a pond or puddle at the end of the day. This piece will become a staple of my repertoire. I absolutely love the sounds and opportunities for teaching that are found within this work.

We rounded out our first concert with Heart of Fire by Interlochen composition faculty member Lauren Bernofsky. I wrote about this work extensively in a previous post, Composer Visit . So, I won't repeat myself here. This is listed as a Grade 3 work and is published by FJH Publishing. The work features a Vivaldi like opening and closing with a more lyrical middle section with a wonderful cello solo feature. Please see my previous post for more on this wonderful work. It, too, will become a staple of my repertoire.

I will be writing about our current repertoire within the next day or so. Our second concert of the season is tomorrow, July 14, 6:30 p.m. Please refer to the Interlochen live stream link to see the program. 

Peace.

Scott



Amazing Staff

Makenzie Wade, Stage Services; Saralyn Klepaczyk, Orchestra Manager; Annie Swigart, Librarian



Today I want to take some time to recognize our amazing Intermediate Concert Orchestra staff.
For those of you that are teachers in public schools or of school orchestra programs, you know that we spend a great deal of time buying, organizing, and filing music, organizing our music library, setting up chairs, creating programs, and doing all kinds of other administrative work. Here at Interlochen, one of the great joys of conducting an orchestra is working with a wonderful staff of young professionals who are charged with doing all of the administrative and set up work for my orchestra.

Truly, I feel like a king each day when I am asked, "What else do you need, Mr. Laird?" These wonderful staff members truly desire to serve the orchestra and my needs as the conductor and I appreciate all of their hard work and dedication.   I have three staff members each summer. This year I have been blessed with wonderful folks every year that I've been at Interlochen. This year is certainly no exception and my staff truly stands out as exceptional.

They include Saralyn Klepaczyk, Orchestra Manager; Annie Swigart, Librarian; and Makenzie Wade, Stage Services. Each one of these young professionals serves an integral role in our orchestra's mission on a daily basis.

Saralyn, our Orchestra manager, is wonderful. She is responsible for all of the daily details of the Ensemble. She takes attendance, makes daily announcements, deals with students who need extra attention, rounds the kids up after breaks in rehearsal, and serves as a liaison between the music department and the Student Life division of the camp. Sarah essentially handles all of the nitty-gritty details of the day-to-day work of the orchestra so that I don't have to. If we need to contact a student's counselor, she takes care of it. Just this week we have been trying to find a percussionist for one of our pieces and it has been her job to take care of that. I couldn't ask for a more dedicated, sensitive and caring person to fill this role.  I have quickly learned that I can count on Saralyn to be sensitive to student needs, articulate in every way, and interested in real conversation when it comes to what is best for both students and for the ensemble.

Our librarian, Annie, is responsible for everything related to the printed music that the students are using every day. She organized all of the repertoire before camp began. She makes sure that the parts are bowed and accurate. She distributes the music at the beginning of the concert cycle and collects the music immediately following each concert. She also handles any small details regarding the music such as providing extra pages to avoid page turns and other details. Annie also is on hand and  available for just about any need throughout each rehearsal. One day last week we had a sick student and I needed her to walk with them to the camp medical office. It is so great to have her on hand during every rehearsal.  And, the printed music is always exactly as it should be!

Makenzie is a member of our Stage Services division and has been assigned to our primary rehearsal space, Grunow Hall. So, she has quickly become an integral part of the Intermediate Concert Orchestra staff. Makenzie is wonderful! She has such a wonderful disposition and is a pleasure to interact with every day. She is responsible for making sure that the ensemble chairs and stands are set up properly for each rehearsal. She's also responsible for any auxiliary instruments that we may be using including piano, percussion, or other instruments. Orchestra setup may seem like a small thing, but it is so wonderful to walk into the room each day with the right number of chairs and stands all placed beautifully in the right position. I frequently joke that 75% the orchestra directors job is moving furniture. At Interlochen, that 75% falls on Makenzie's shoulders! Makenzie is incredibly dedicated and makes sure that everything is ready to go.

These three wonderful young professionals make my job easy everyday. As a result of their work, I can truly focus on the task of teaching the students in the orchestra and making music each day. Thanks to each of these three and to Interlochen for providing such wonderful staff members for me and all of the conductors at this amazing place!

Concert tomorrow!

Peace.

Scott

Friday, July 7, 2017

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Section Faculty

Intermediate Concert Orchestra Section Faculty
Left to Right: Aaron Tenney, David Carter, Jane Schranze, Brittni Brown, 
Scott Laird, Graham Emberton

Today I want to highlight our awesome Intermediate Concert Orchestra Section Faculty.  We are fortunate at Interlochen to have a magnificent faculty of some of the finest musicians and teachers in the country. In every orchestra there is a faculty member assigned to each section. That faculty member runs sectional rehearsals and frequently comes to orchestra rehearsals to take note of the work that is being done and give instructions specific to that instrument or voice. Every year we have wonderful folks and I wanted to take a minute to thank and highlight this year's section faculty.  

In ICO, we welcome our Section Faculty to the first hour of rehearsal on Tuesday and Thursday.  We call these "side-by-side" rehearsals.  During this time the faculty member sits in the section and plays along with the orchestra. They hear what the orchestra is doing, how their section is responding musically, and have opportunities to offer suggestions and insights into the repertoire and technical aspects of the works. These are wonderful collaborative rehearsals and I value their input very much. I believe that our students find this time to be fun and exciting. There is nothing like sitting beside your teacher while in a rehearsal. I believe I learned more about orchestral playing sitting beside my college violin instructor than in any other class. I do my best to rotate our students so that as many as possible have the opportunity to sit beside their teacher.

Additionally, on Fridays, the orchestra students have a one-hour sectional rehearsal with their section faculty member. At this time the section focuses on their specific part and the faculty member offers specific suggestions on bowing, fingering, specific techniques, and other aspects of the music. Sectional rehearsals are absolutely vital to the life of an orchestra. That is certainly the case here. A great deal of progress gets made individually and corporately in these rehearsals.

For more information on each of these fine musicians:


This will give you some insights into the folks that are working with our students this summer.  They are a wonderful group and we certainly have some magnificent teaching going on here.  I want to personally thank each of these folks for their investment in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra.

Peace.
Scott

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Essence

Last week in rehearsal we began talking about the concept of finding the essence of difficult passages in the repertoire. This is a rehearsal technique that I have been developing over the past several years and wanted to introduce to this fine ensemble. This technique is by no means uniquely mine. But, I believe I have created some wrinkles in the technique that allow for greater learning by each member of the ensemble, regardless of their technical proficiency.   (If you heard the Mendelssohn Sinfonia last night, you heard this without knowing it.)

In virtually every ensemble there is some range of technical ability exhibited by the members of the group. There will almost always be some who grasp the most difficult technical passages quickly and others who take longer to learn the passages or, perhaps even find those passages to be above their technical capabilities. This is the case this week and virtually every summer here in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra. Again, I would stress that this is the case in most youth and community orchestras.

So, as music directors, we have one of two choices. We can either program all music in which everyone in the ensemble can play every technical passage. Or, we can give the musicians tools for seeing the deeper meaning in passages and finding ways to adapt technically so that they are enhancing the orchestral performance, not detracting from it. In several of the conducting situations in which I find myself, the latter is the better choice. (Let me stress to young teachers that sometimes the former is the better choice. It depends on your particular situation and requires great thought in reference to the goals of the ensemble and the type of musician that you are reaching.)

My friend, conductor Scott Speck, put it this way: think of a meter in front of the orchestra. For every right note you play the meter goes to the right. That is good! For every wrong note you play, the meter goes to the left.  That is bad. If you don't play anything the meter stays straight up and down. No harm done. The goal for each musician is to make the meter go to the right constantly. That said, by not playing a wrong note, the meter is not impacted. I am trying to get young musicians to make that meter go to the right. If they play in correct rhythms or incorrect pitches, that meter goes in the wrong direction. It is hard to convince young musicians that they are helping The Ensemble by leaving stuff out. So, in response to this I created this rehearsal technique. If done correctly, the musicians that ought the for playing the essence not only serve a benign role of not hurting the ensemble. They also help the ensemble by stabilizing rhythmic and pitch information for the other players.

I called my technique finding the ESSENCE of a passage.  It works like this:

Many times in the repertoire there will be very fast passages of 16th notes, difficult fingerings or shifts or, perhaps, very high notes that are technically challenging. I can always tell from the podium when there are students who are struggling to keep up with the ensemble.  It is at this point that I invite the ensemble to step back, listen to the passage, think about the passage, and ascertain the essence of the passage. Sometimes when we are simply seeing a difficult fast passage or technical requirements that are above our level, it's easy to get lost in the forest and missed the trees. Many times in a sixteenth note passage the essence is the first note of the 16th . Or, perhaps if the passage is very high and require shifting on the part of the string player, simply taking note of the name of the note can be an enlightening activity. I always say that correct pitches are way more important than high notes. A pitch that is difficult to find up high on the fingerboard is better off being played an octave lower in a position that is accessible to a less-experienced string player.

In addition to finding these essence passages when left hand is in focus, I will also look for rhythmic essence at times. If an ensemble is struggling with a rhythmic passage, I try to look for the fundamental rhythms and break the difficulties down into manageable pieces. Sometimes this means adding sixteenth notes to a tricky eighth note passage that may be rushing or slowing down. Sometimes it means just finding the accented notes in a fast passage. Other times, it means clarifying who is providing the rhythmic information in the passage.  Really, it is the same process: find the technically difficult passage and break it down into manageable parts that still fit into the greater work.  After a while, musicians get quite good at doing this!

Please bear in mind that these are my values as a conductor and ensemble leader.  My thinking might be different if I was working as a private instructor on solo repertoire.  As a conductor, my ultimate goal is an accurate and moving performance.

Once I have established exactly what the essence of a passage includes, we go to work on using it meaningfully.

  • We play the essence passage by itself. 
  • We add the rest of the ensemble playing the actual part while the section in question is playing the essence. 
  • Sometimes I will have the outside player play the written part and the inside player do the essence. 
  • I will then reverse that. 
  • Sometimes I will have the front three stands play the written part and the rest of the section play the essence. 
I typically give musicians the choice as to what they will play in a concert. In other words, a student might play The essence in rehearsal for several weeks while they are perfecting the difficult passage. I always make it clear that I would prefer essence in performance over a sloppy technically difficult passage. Essence always makes the ensemble stronger. Wrong notes make the ensemble weaker.  And, I always remind students that no one in the audience will have any idea that they are playing something other than what is written in the part.  At the core is the notion that each players' responsibility is to make the ensemble better!  Sometimes that means playing the essence.

So, this is a brief description of my thoughts on finding Essence in Ensemble repertoire. Sometimes it is absolutely imperative that this be defined and that students know that they can use it as a purposeful tool as part of the rehearsal process and perhaps even part of the performance . I welcome your comments and thoughts on the subject.

Until next time.

Peace.

Scott




Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What? and How?

This week in Intermediate Concert Orchestra, in the days prior to our performance, I asked my students to consider what inspires them when they see and hear a great orchestra and how can we work to emulate that in our performances.

Response: I can see Passion and Emotion in the performance.

The response that I received from my students was primarily that they can see and hear passion in a great performance and that they could see and hear emotion in a great performance. This interested me a great deal because neither of these words have anything to do with the difficulty of the repertoire being performed or the technical prowess or capabilities of the players.  My students (and all music consumers) want to be moved by a performance.  The want the performers to feel something and they want to in turn feel something.

How do we show or achieve passion in performance?

The larger question, of course, is what do we need to do to give that same experience to our audience. When I asked that question, the answer was significantly less clear. The students know what they want to see and here, but were certainly not sure how to get to the point of giving that to their audiences. They definitely knew that the first step was to play the right notes. They also had a good sense of the importance of finding the inner dynamic motion of a piece of music. So, I knew that I had begun to do my job as their conductor. These, of course, are the first steps in developing a fine ensemble. Students must know and demonstrate correct notes and rhythms, they must play with the appropriate technique, and the must know and demonstrate the shaping of phrases and dynamic contrasts . This, however, is still not the end of the process. There is so much more that an ensemble can achieve in order to truly demonstrate passion and emotion inner performance.

I have been reflecting on these same questions throughout the week. I want to be able to articulate a model to my students which they can fall back on in their process of preparing music . They are all at various stages of working towards a goal of artistry and greater proficiency on their instrument . But, if they don't have a sense of the path to giving passionate, emotional performances , it is possible that they will be less than purposeful in their practice and rehearsals. So, I have come up with a simple model that can begin to tell the story of this process.

I believe that an artistic, moving performance requires the following:
  • Technique
  • Artistry
  • Purpose
  • Perspective
Obviously, the technique aspect goes without saying. Many music students never get past this. The musician must focus on so many aspects of technique in their practice time. They must isolate various techniques in their practice. For a string player, this includes intonation, fingering, vibrato, bow hand and arm, bow technique, tone production, posture, intonation, shifting and many many more. As I said, it's easy to get stuck right here and never get past it. Technique is the first key to giving a moving performance.

Next, I would include all of the aspects of artistry. This includes shaping phrases, adjustments and variations of tone quality, dynamic contrast , fluency, and many more.  This is where the young musician begins to find a voice as a an artist. Their music begins to take on a personality and the process of true communication with the audience begins.

Now we get into the nitty-gritty . I list purpose next. Purpose, from an ensemble perspective, is having a clear understanding of the role of each instrument at every given time in the context of the piece. Everyone must know when they have the melody or a supporting role. They must know the purpose of each line , motive, and passage in the repertoire. Sometimes their voice must be the lead. Sometimes their voice is a response to a question. Sometimes their voice provides rhythmic underpinning. Sometimes a voice provides harmonic underpinning. Sometimes they are plaing the role of another instrument.  They must know when the tempo stretches and when it pushes. And, they must know how to demonstrate these variations within the piece.These larger questions in the preparation of ensemble and solo repertoire are vital. If a musician performs an ensemble piece in a vacuum, without regard to their role and the role of others, they really can't be part of a moving performance which requires that they interact with the other voices.

I would consider perspective to be a greater understanding of the history of a composition, the artistic possibilities of the composition, and a desire to emote all of the possible responses to the listener in both a sonic and physical way. I believe that listeners of live music take cues not only from the aural information that they are receiving, but also from the physiological information that they are receiving. We must look the part in order to convey the message. We must know the message before we can look the part. This, of course is not a fully objective task. This is where a great deal of subjective concepts and decisions come into play. It gets a little abstract. And, thus, can be a roadblock for a young artist.I was talking with a friend last night who was a jazz musician. He was telling me that in order for a jazz musician to perform a great ballad well, they must know the lyrics to the song. This, is perspective.  In order to perform an instrumental piece as a soloist, or as an ensemble, everyone must have a unified perspective on exactly what they are saying.

Almost 10 years ago, I gave a session to the American String Teachers Association and many other state organizations entitled "The Art of Developing Passionate Ensembles."  For that presentation, I developed the following model. It stated that in order to develop a passionate ensemble, the teacher/director had to provide and model the following criteria:
  • The importance of the experience and the relationships between the members of the ensemble
  • A safe artistic chemistry and environment in the rehearsal
  • A clear understanding of the importance and value of the experience
  • A clear demonstration of the human value and overall humanity of the process.
  • The importance of the investment of self in the process
I feel like, after a decade, I still adhere to this model as an instructor.  I find it interesting that I don't list the technical aspects of the whole musician in this model at all.  I think that I believed it was understood. And, I find the variation in the models to be interesting especially as one is directed particularly at the person in the ensemble and the other is directed at the one leading the ensemble.  It is, I believe, an important distinction.

I will continue to consider these models as I move through the summer with ICO. I will continue to challenge the ICO musicians with these concepts. I will also bring them to my work in the fall at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. I welcome your input and thoughts on these and look forward to possibly hearing from some of you.

Here's to many passionate, emotional performances as we all move forward.

Peace.

Scott