Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Orchestras and Adjudicated Festivals

Hi all.
I know it has been a while since my last post. It has been pretty busy here at NCSSM and my family life has been filled with a variety of spring sports leagues. It has not been uncommon for my wife and me to take 3 kids to 3 different sporting events or practices in one evening this spring. So, I apologize for my recent silence.

Today, I want to just give a few thoughts about school orchestras and adjudicated festivals. I recently served as an adjudicator for the North Carolina Eastern Regional Music Performance Adjudication Festival. It was such a pleasure and honor to observe my North Carolina colleagues with their kids. I know so many of them from NCMEA meetings and other events. It is always great to see master-teachers interacting with their daily students.

My role in this festival was to judge in the sight-reading room. This is hard duty as a judge. I heard around 40 orchestras sight-reading one of 4 different pieces, depending on their performance level. Believe me, there is only so much that one can say about a grade 1 or 2 piece that is being played for the first time by a group of nervous middle schoolers. The plan for me as a judge is always to find lots of positive things to say to the group and affirm the work that they have done. Then, I try to isolate on area where they can improve. I try to offer constructive suggestions for a more musical performance, stronger technique, or a more cohesive ensemble.

Following this adjudication festival, I had a couple of overriding thoughts. The first is a technique issue. It is now, quite common for orchestras to "shadow-bow" before sight-reading a piece. This is when the student holds the bow and moves it to the rhythm without touching the strings, simulating playing the piece. In and of itself, it is a great idea. But, I noticed that lots of students did REALLY odd things with their bow hold and I can't believe that this has a positive impact on their bow hold in the long run. As I make my way in to a variety of teaching situations throughout the area, one constant that I have noticed is an inconsistency of functional bow holds. (For a primer in teaching or establishing a good bow hold, follow this link.) My suggestion here is to simply not hold the bow during the "shadow bow" portion of the sight reading experience. Have the kids put the bow on the music stand and do the exercise exactly the same way. I don't even know if this is necessary for the violins and violas, but it definitely is for the celli and basses. I would have everyone put the bow down. The students can still focus on the kinesthetic experience of bowing and the associated rhythms. Instructors can still see the rhythmic motion of the bow arms. And, the potential bad habits of bow hold can be avoided.

The other over-riding thought that I have involves listening. Now, I know that it seems like a silly thing to say that listening is an important part of performance and sight-reading. But, in two complete days of adjudicating sight-reading, I only heard a handful of instructors remind their musicians to listen. Furthermore, it was very easy for me to identify the ensembles that had practiced the art of listening in the ensemble. We, as instructors, can get fixated on the nuts and bolts of notes and rhythms and simply forget to teach listening. I believe that many ensemble intonation problems are not so much a function of individual playing and technique issues, but are more a function of listening issues. We must know how to listen across the ensemble and build a chord from the bass, up. That, of course, also accentuates the importance of the role of the bass and cello section. I recently had the pleasure of working with our Physics Department at NCSSM on a unit on Sound and Frequency and, believe me, the physics doesn't lie. The fundamental tone has to be in tune (bass) and the 2nd harmonic does, too (cello). If they are out, the orchestra doesn't have a prayer of creating a beautiful sound. And, the upper strings must listen and adjust to the others around them in order to create that special string sound that we all know and love.

So, there are a few thoughts. I hope someone out there finds them to be helpful. I certainly welcome your thoughts and remarks on the issues of shadow bowing and listening across the orchestra.

It was definitely ah honor to work with all of you at the Eastern Regional Music Performance Adjudication.