Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Was Once a Violinist

The following is an essay that was written by a former student. He posted this on his Facebook page and I asked his permission to share it with you all. In it, he outlines so many of the hopes that I have for each of my students. Generally, his is a life that has been enriched by his participation in strings and orchestra. I am proud to have been both the "dancing conductor" and "Scott" to whom he refers! He got it. He received all that orchestra was intended to give. That is, a life enriched.

Tonight I walked alone into a concert hall in LaGrange, Ga. A friend from my Tuesday and Thursday night trivia team is also in the local symphony, and she got me free tickets.

I brought a book with me to keep the boredom away before the show started, during the intermission, and if they started to suck.

Mind you, since I left the stage for the last time in April of 2002 (the last time I was in an orchestra), I have played at different churches for worship choruses. I have played the violin for myself at very random and sporadic times in praising God, using an old red hymnal from my childhood church. I have even seen professional symphonies from coast to coast, whether in Jacksonville, Denver, LA, or DC. This was not the first time I had been to see music performed.

The first piece, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus was decent enough and kept my attention. The second was a rather challenging arrangement by Tchaikovsky (Var. Rococo Theme OP33), a solo for cello. I came quickly to find that this young man, while not notorious enough to brighten the halls of the Kennedy Center or other infamous venues, was more than enough to take my breath away.

I found myself sitting on the edge of my chair, leaning into the high notes of this prodigy’s tune, and melting into a puddle as the depths of his lower range shook the foundations of the building. I was enthralled. The ending came too soon.

I was delightfully surprised to find that the conductor then allowed this young man the stage alone. While the rest of the orchestra sat as part of the audience, this young man played a soul rendering Bach piece that was short, non-technical, but lyrical throughout.

Intermission came and went, as well as a chapter or two from my book. The lights went down, and memory lane commenced. Within seconds of the opening of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Russian Festival, I was lost in time.

Having played this piece numerous times, my mind wandered to yesteryear. Definitely not planned and definitely not organized, memories started to dislodge themselves from the recesses of my mind. With the quickening beat of the conductor’s baton, I sat back in amazement as I recalled…

…the smells of Eleanor Roosevelt high schools’ orchestra room, rosin filling my nose, while I ate there during lunch both junior and senior year.

…the stickiness of bow rosin if you wipe it off with your fingers.

…the crazy athleticism of my high school Orchestra director from the conductor’s stand and his never ending drives and swells to make the music come alive. In many ways, his dance became the rhythm that set the tone for the evening.

…various stand partners and all my crazy antics from all those years (5th grade thru the end of college.) Besides Josh Raskin, my only male stand partner, I spent countless hours vibing, laughing with, and fiddling around with Annette, Doris, Hannah, Maria, etc. For one Christmas, Doris gave me an Animal key chain (the drummer from the Muppets). She said it fit my personality. (Some things don’t change; all puns intended.)

…the sweat that lingered on my uniform after concerts until dry cleaned by my Mom.

…JB and all of our crazy escapades from Day One. Whether it was in wrestling practice, Bible Club, Prom, camping, overnights, “princesses,” or whatever we filled our time with, Scott and God were never far from our minds.

…from 6th grade through the end of my Senior year of ERHS, Allan Chui and I were friends from first sight. Through the wars of acne, youth orchestras and the Kennedy Center, the trials of junior high boys, the competition of awards, endless Friday afternoons at the movies, or the stage fright of “macking,” we always had our strings to keep us looking forwards and upwards.

…the hand lotion of my junior high orchestra director. There were times that I think I wished my violin would go out of tune, just so that she would have to come and retune it, filling my nose with her delightful smells once again. (Okay, yeah, I had a crush.)

Back to the present…Korsakov had to finish at some point. But just in case my trip was not over, Sir Edward Elgar’s (and now all the band and orchestra geeks are shaking their heads at me) Pomp and Circumstance March finished the program. If I had been alone when I walked in, the memories were coming full blast at me now, sitting down next to me, making me lose all sense of time and space.

Again, I was reminded of…

…tossing the tassel at my graduation from high school and college from right to left.

…my close friends, Jeffrey, Philip, and Rosemary Walters. To say that I was a part of their family growing up would be an understatement; I had dinner at their house weekly, if not monthly. Never having brothers, these men filled those roles, whether it was the older brother that I idolized, or the little brother that we ganged up against. “Mom,” to the great disapproval of my biological, was my first choral director, my churches’ organist (which was a coveted position in my life), my substitute teacher, and one of the most influential women of my musical and spiritual upbringing. We love you. We miss you.

…my angry organist-turned-orchestra-director from college. He really had no idea what he was doing up there; the orchestra from his tapes that were playing in his mind never reflected the sound that we cacophon-ized. I missed every other conductor I had sat under, every time.

…all the girls that I had crushes on. Whether it was redheads, blondes, or brunettes, whether in church or school, whether in practice and sweats or performance day and black skirts, I had the privilege to play with some gorgeous women. I still don’t think I would have the cahounas to ask most of them out, even today.

…the fact that I still carry my violin with me on the road. In 1992 or ’93, my mother bought me my own violin, which I still carry in its old, beat up, plastic case. Usually it sits in my closet, collecting dust.

Tonight, I was lost to the moment. I was no longer 29, but 13, 18, and 21 again. I thought about the cliques of my high school and longed to be a part of them. I sat there thinking of how proud I was for every time my sisters had crossed the stage, and how I am looking forward to all future stage crossings from them, myself, and our kids. I sat there wondering how I had gotten here, in Podunkville, GA, while dreaming about Beltsville, Hyattsville, Greenbelt, Baltimore, and Grove City.

Completely, wholly, I started to think back about all the things I had looked forward to, things that I had already accomplished. So many moments that had passed me by. So many times I had failed at taking the risks I had dreamed of, jumping off the ledge into. So many achievements that I never ever imagined I would have done by now, even in my wilder moments, that I look back on now with pride.

I sat there thinking “Am I where that kid dreamed I would be? If I could say something to that kid now, what would it be? If I am not where I want to be, from then or now, what is truly holding me back? Why am I not bold enough to dream, and then pursue, if the course of my life has not matched my fantasies?”

I sat there conducting the Orchestra myself, and as I tapped my feet, nodded my head, and even once or twice was so entranced that my hands were moving as well, I was lost in the music. And then it was finished.

And when I walked out, the sun was down.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NCSSM Orchestra Beethoven V, Blacknall Performance

This is the video of another performance of the same work, Beethoven's Symphony No V. It is also from February, 2009. This is the NC School of Science and Math Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy!!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Beethoven V, Mvt s 1 and 2, NCSSM Orchestra

Enjoy these videos of Beethoven's Symphony No 5, Mvts 1 and 2. This performance is at the NC School of Science and Math in February, 2009. I am the conductor.

It has been a couple of very busy weeks at NCSSM. We had spring break 2 weeks ago and last week were very busy getting back into the swing of things in preparation for the last month of school.

Monday, April 6, 2009

NCSSM Fine Arts Weekend and Funding

Here at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, we are just finishing up our annual Fine Arts Weekend that is made possible by generous grants from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, The Embarq Corporation, and others. The event was a marvelous success on many levels.

On Saturday, renown jazz vibist, Jon Metzger ( presented a masterclass to area jazz students that was really enlightening and fun. Separk Music of Winston Salem was on hand with Jon's new method book and a variety of other jazz materials for the student to peruse while hey were there. Jon then gave a magnificent performance at NCSSM that evening along with his quartet which included Ed Paolantonio of UNC Jazz on keys, John Brown of Duke University on Bass, and Thomas Taylor of NC Central University on drums. They were simply magnificent. All that attended really had a wonderful musical treat on Saturday night. Jon's musical virtuosity and generous spirit shown through and everyone felt so good about the day. As part of the performance, the NCSSM Dance Ensemble, under the direction of Kathy Berberian performed with the quartet on two of the numbers. The results were really stunning and beautiful. The kids that participated in the master-class were invited on stage as well to perform with the band. It was a great night all around.

On Sunday, there were two wonderful performances at the school. First, the Dance Ensemble hosted a Community Dance Concert where dance groups from around the Triangle were invited to perform as part of a larger concert. It was really great. The artistry that was demonstrated was simply stunning. Kathy Berberian has really brought the NCSSM program to a new level and the dance community is certainly thriving at NCSSM as a result.

After the Dance Recital, the NCSSM Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Phillip Riggs, performed at nearby restaurant, The Broad Street Cafe. The place was jammed on a Sunday afternoon for this performance and, again, the kids were terrific! All that attended had a great time, heard great music, and had a great meal. What more could you ask for?

On Monday evening, the Western Carolina Catamount Singers and Electronic Music Ensemble will be performed at the school and that performance was wonderful as well. The group did a variety of Motown classics and the audience really had a great time. Both the singers and instrumentalists were outstanding. It truly was a wonderful weekend of the Fine Arts at NCSSM.

All of these wonderful events are an important part of the overall Fine Arts Program at NCSSM and provide a wonderful opportunity for the school to open its doors to the greater Durham community. All of these events are presented free of change and we encourage families to bring their kids to these events to get them interested in the fine arts at a young age. This wonderful weekend is what arts education is all about. It isn't about ticket sales. It isn't about snobbery. It's not about knowing more than the next guy. Arts education is all about expression. We learn how to feel when we participate in the arts. The performers are able to express and feel regardless of their experience or age. The audience is given the opportunity to express and feel as well, again, regardless of their knowledge, background or age. The arts unifies us. The arts express our humanity. What better place to learn this than at the School of Science and Math?

We, at NCSSM, are deeply indebted to the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, the Embarq Corporation, Kiwanis of Durham, Conn-Selmer Corperation, Musser Mallets, and Separk Music of Winston Salem for their contributions to this event. In these unstable economic times, no one can take financial contributions lightly. These organizations understand the importance of the arts in the lives of students and the community and have stepped up financially to allow us to bring these events to the public for free. We so appreciate their contribution and support.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend of the arts at NCSSM and so many folks contributed to the success of the event. All that participated, from performers, to audience members, tech workers, choreographers, support staff, and others, come away from the weekend a little bit richer. Many thanks to all.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Music Quickens Time

Today I am thinking about some ideas that I picked up in the book, Music Quickens Time, by Daniel Barenboim. This is a really thought-provoking book and is not an easy read, by any means. It is a philosophical exercise in many ways and Barenboim challenges the reader to deal with the why and how of their engagement with music.

Here is what I am thinking about today. Barenboim states that "music-making requires, inevitably, a point of view." Not a willful, subjective point of view, but one based on total respect for the information received from the printed page. He goes on to say that "a musician must always ask himself the following permanent questions: why, how, and for what purpose. The inability or unwillingness to ask these questions is symptomatic of a thoughtless faithfulness to the letter and an inevitable unfaithfulness to the spirit."

This is so true. Regardless of the difficulty of the music at hand, the style of music, or the age or playing level of musician, one must always ask each of these questions. Teachers must always encourage their students to ask each of these questions. For each without the other is fairly hollow. As a teacher, it is fairly standard to encourage kids to ask how to play a passage or technique. How is the easy part. But the how without the why and for what purpose is fairly hollow.

Similarly, if we focus on the why and for what purpose without a strong foundation in the how, we miss the beauty of true technique and accomplishment.

I think there is also a distinction between the why and for what purpose. Why can be "why do we use a particular technique," or "why does the composer use this harmony." But, for what purpose goes much farther in to the philosophy behind the music. It asks, "what should the music do to me and to you?"

I love all of these questions. I want my students to be thoughtful musicians. I want them to ask questions. I want them to ask how to make a passage work, both as an individual and as a group. I want them to ask why one bowing is better than another, why a particular sound or instrumentation is utilized in a piece, why a piece is in one key rather than another. And, of course, I want them to ask for what purpose we are playing and experiencing music. For, without this question, the others really don't matter. Do they?

I am really enjoying this book. I am taking it in small portions. It really requires thought and digestion. But, I highly recommend it. Something tells me, there will be more posts that reference this one in the future.

Until then.