Thursday, December 14, 2006

education and emphasis

So much of performing is a matter of emphasis - how to distinguish one note from another, which voice to bring out of the texture, where to culminate a phrase. One of the very wise observations Robert Levin made in his Mozart wind concerto class last week was that 97% of phrasing is renunciation - it's deciding what can be said without emphasis, so that every syllable is not accented, and each note isn't smothered with excess meaning. And the really important moments have the weight and impact to capture our attention.

The past couple of days we have been performing education concerts to large crowds of elementary school students. Each performance lasted about an hour, and our conducting fellow Steven Jarvi tried to squeeze a lot into that time: from the names of all the instruments and their means of sound production, to principles of orchestration; the transformation of Pictures at an Exhibition from piano solo to orchestral piece; how a concerto works; and how much instrumentalists need to practice(!) Of course you never want to bore kids, but I've been wondering about what these kids will be left with, after the sounds of the orchestra have faded and they've forgotten the titles of all the pieces we played.

I think focusing on mechanical principles can be a very nice approach, but it has to get to something deeper to really resonate. It would be like going to the art museum and being shown a bunch of paint and blank canvas. You get an understanding of the materials and the challenges of putting them to use, but then you're left with so many questions. How were all those decisions made? Are these composers gifted with some kind of amazing intuition, or was there a process of experimenting and rejection involved? And if these things are all so difficult to play, why bother?

Hopefully the sound of the orchestra and the brilliance of the music we played will answer that last question, since it's very hard to explain satisfactorily in words! Steve Jarvi handled a lot of these questions very well. He asked the kids to listen for some specific things, connect the sounds and colors of several pieces and predict how instruments might be used. Even though his talk began on a very basic level, the basic wood and metal that makes up the instruments we play, he got onto some fairly sophisticated ideas. Still, I found myself frustrated by how much was not explained.

I think my own tendency in talking to audiences is to offer all the facts, ideas, and speculation I can manage to recall, sort of like those essay tests I used to take in college. I would squeeze as much from my memory into the little blue book as I could within the time limit, and hope that most of it was correct and relevant! I'm realizing that the much more sophisticated way, the Robert Levin way, is to have a few deeply held ideas and points, and express those with the utmost passion. The rest you let the audience figure out for themselves, or maybe just wonder and be curious until the next concert.

Perhaps that's not just the more sophisticated way, but also the more respectful way. You trust the audience to create their own thoughts, ideas, and impressions, and not just absorb the facts you've prepared to recite to them. And you trust your own musicianship, so that you don't need to be that know-it-all.

I think if I could have added something to these education concerts, I would have asked the kids to notice and think about how an orchestra uses silence. While we were playing the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, almost every pause and cadence seemed to trigger a burst of applause, which makes me think they not only didn't know what to expect but felt uncomfortable in their role as appreciative audience. Maybe some of these kids have never heard a work of music in which the sound stops for several seconds and didn't know how to react. I don't want to be the classical music ogre who glares at every misplaced clap, but to me it seems worthwhile to recognize that sometimes part of the canvas is intentionally left blank, and think about how that empty moment can affect us.

Of course, in music as in life, as in blogging and so much else, you have to pick the right battles. Maybe my silence idea would work well with a Bruckner symphony, though I'm not sure a bunch of 2nd graders could sit through much of that. Lately I feel like I have so much to write about, and so much to think and read and meditate about, and so little time to accomplish it all! I think maybe if I write every day, and use my time well, I'll eventually catch up with all my good intentions - but then I just seem to open up more possibilities I can never follow up. I guess at times like these, I should take Robert Levin's advice and renounce all the excess clutter!

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