We need more music in schools, argues Christopher Seaman, and conductors have a duty to help.
Music is becoming more accessible but there is not enough happening in schools, and I lament the lack of encouragement of classical music. If you don’t develop a love for great music as a child, it’s more difficult to get it later. Some schools do it very well, but most don’t have the funding and that’s a problem.
When I was Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, New York, I went around all the local schools, conducting the wind bands and orchestras. I didn’t know any of the music – it was all written for people who had played the clarinet for five minutes. I once went to conduct a string ensemble at the Indian Landing Elementary School. The children were tiny, and when I walked in, they looked at me as if I’d landed from space. I asked the teacher what she wanted me to conduct and she said, ‘We play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,’ so we went through the Ode to Joy at an eighth of the speed. I said to the children: ‘Tell me something. Here is Beethoven, who is deaf, ill, broke and in trouble, and he writes a tune like that. Why do you think he did that?’ A little boy at the back of the violins piped up, ‘Sir, to cheer himself up!’ It was profound.
I did a lot of that sort of educational work. Any chief conductor of an orchestra owes it to the community to do that. I always said to the children, ‘Do you love music? Well get your mum or dad to bring you to a concert.’ You’ve got to use your influence in any way you possibly can.
When you talk to children, talk to them as equals – just don’t use complicated language. You begin with the known and move to the unknown. For example, ‘We all know Beethoven lived a long time ago. Anyone know how long ago? Well I’ll tell you what it was like then. They didn’t have many orchestras.’ Start with what they know and lead them to what they don’t know, otherwise they feel patronised, or that it’s above them in some way. It’s the same with adults at pre-concert talks – it’s a basic principle of teaching.
With youth orchestras, the players know a little less than a professional orchestra, so you have to explain a little more. You have to understand string playing and get them in the right part of the bow at the right speed of bow. A lot of it will come right first time, but you have to be able to address the bits that don’t. You can also give a little more background and emotional context to the music.
Many youth orchestras never play the classics – they play the blockbuster Mahler symphonies. It’s important to have a balance of repertoire from different periods, though. The challenge is that if you do Mozart and Haydn there’s nothing for the brass and percussion, so it’s a balancing act to get the right diet so they don’t only play 19th and 20th century music.
In a youth orchestra, players may need more coaxing in certain places. In a big wind solo, for example, you might need to put out positive encouraging vibes, whereas with the greatest oboe player in the world, you step back respectfully as an accompanist. But if you’ve done your job and the rehearsals are good, you’ll be surprised how similar to a professional orchestra a youth orchestra feels in performance.
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