spooktacular

The Bone-anza Concert at Arlington High School continues to be a highlight of the orchestra program, and it certainly was for me as a student musician. It featured all the string ensembles and full orchestras — fully costumed — performing spooky music and all things aurally macabre. A staple in the repertoire of Bone-anza was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, which many first-time concertgoers might’ve recognized from the original Disney Fantasia movie. Night on Bald Mountain was a work that I remember as much too difficult for our high school orchestra, and I vaguely recall it as being a crash course in cut time and alternative instruments (we didn’t have a harpist, so the harp part was played on synthesizer; we had an abundance of clarinetists, but few — if any — who could navigate the part on an A clarinet). Still, it was exciting and something that everyone looked forward to each year.

One of my goals for the Brewster High School Music Department was to establish a similar tradition in this school district, and my determination was only strengthened by all the unfortunate weather incidents that plagued this area during my first two years as music director. In late October 2011, we were slammed with a snowstorm that knocked out power across the region and canceled school. Hurricane Sandy hit the evening of October 28, 2013, and school was cancelled — day by day — through November 2nd. That the students of Brewster only had one Halloween — my favorite holiday —  in those first three years was disconcerting!

Luckily for me, I had a great mentor (who continues to be a fantastic colleague) who agreed to perform a Spooktacular Concert with me this year! The student-hosted haunted carnival prior to the concert and ticket sales raised record funds for the BHS Music Parent Boosters, and it was great so share this experience with Patty. I hope that it continues year after year because my students in all grade levels were really excited to perform.

Lauren @ Spooktacular

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Podcast Review: American Orchestra Forum Chapter 2

American Orchestra Forum

Chapter Two: Personal Stories

This chapter is about the personal stories that exist in the field of music. It has been proven time and again that the most valuable learning tool for a student is to feel a connection to their teacher, a connection that may have begun with circumstances but thrives because of mutual respect and similar interests. Every musician has felt this type of connection at some point in their musical lives, often with a teacher, but sometimes with the music itself.

Steven Winn describes the subject of this podcast:

“Intimate connections between a student and a teacher that, like a pebble in a pond, send waves radiating outward. Those waves, expanding and intersecting with many others, create an ocean of musical connections around the world. None of this happens without the right environment whether it’s the nurturing atmosphere of music school, the horizon-expanding realm of a youth orchestra, or a globe-spanning program like the celebrated El Sistema.”

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, describes what makes these connections meaningful in the South American countries where El Sistema fuses youth orchestras with social programs for disadvantaged youth:

“At the beginning, what you love is to play…this way really works for the children because it is an opportunity for the children to have access to beauty, and we don’t talk about that because maybe that is romantic, but to have access to beauty is something really important. This is what El Sistema does: it is bringing beauty to the children…People ask me if this works in Venezuela because it is a very special social condition, but it is not like that. Every community has their own needs of how to build a better future for children.”

El Sistema is a growing social movement in the United States as well. Though not funded by government in the way that the original El Sistema branches were, these newer programs have taken root in cities across the United States. One branch, directed by my friend and Curtis graduate Stanford Thompson, began in 2010 as a part of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, but has since expanded and taken on a life of its own as POP! – Play on Philly!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrTewmJrzxE

Stanford Thompson:

“Successful adults set goals. They have an understanding of what it takes to be patient and to take an overwhelming task and break it up into so many different pieces so they can accomplish it…You can’t teach it without putting together lots of little successes in life.”

What is hard, especially for students who have never experienced classical music or been given the opportunity to play an instrument, is setting a goal. Even more challenging is this process for a child who has never experienced beauty in their communities, their family dynamics, or their lives in general. Access to beauty should not be a romantic idea, but rather, it should be a concept developed by each community that centers around what behaviors, skills, and ideas make a person an asset and a role model in that community.

Stanford talks about the curiosity gap: “There are two points: the moment anyone becomes curious in something and then that second point when they realize what it takes to accomplish that goal.”

Ken Robinson talks about this gap in his book The Element by describing an experience he had meeting a drummer in a band. He described the conversation with the drummer saying that he told this drummer how impressed he was with his talent and that someday he, Ken, would like to be a drummer just like this performer. The musician said that, no, Ken really wouldn’t want to be a drummer, and Ken didn’t initially understand. It wasn’t until the musician explained to him that people who wanted to spend hours upon hours practicing in their rooms alone with only themselves and their instrument, choosing to do so instead of socializing with friends, enjoying leisure time, or experiencing countless other events in life would choose to do just that. However, many people just want that success without knowing the very hard work that is behind each successful musician. And what does possess a child to devote this time and both mental and physical effort toward the study of an instrument? Often, a personal connection.

Though I can’t completely remember the details, my personal connection had to do with my beloved PBS programming. I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street daily, and a particular episode featuring Itzhak Perlman playing the violin stood out to me. As a four year old, my desires and perceived needs weren’t always taken seriously by my parents, but after a year of nagging – that special type of whining that four year old girls perfect quickly in life – they found me a private teacher.

Amos Yang, assistant principal cellist San Francisco Symphony, said that he was supposed to study violin, but ran into a friend on the way to his first lesson at the San Francisco Conservatory’s youth division who asked if he wanted to play the cello. “I would not have become a musician had I not started on the cello,” he said because his personal connection to the cello was far greater, even as a young child, than that to the violin. Talk to any musician, no matter how accomplished, and they will have a story of being drawn to an instrument. I remember a pair of 6th grade students I taught during my first year as a public school educator — best friends — who played violin and viola. The violinist could not mask her disgust at the sound of the open C string of the viola, and the violist tried very hard not to show her displeasure when hearing any note played on her friend’s E string. For them, range and timbre attracted them to their instruments (which they both still play as high school students). Another friend of mine felt tortured by her weekly violin lessons, not because her older sister was also studying violin, but because she desperately wanted to sit down. As it turned out, fatigue brought her to her career as a professional cellist.

Winn:

“Not all budding musicians are fortunate enough to have a teacher such as Irene Sharp or ready access to institutions like the San Francisco Conservatory or the San Francisco Youth Orchestra to nourish them…The Detroit-based Sphinx organization is trying to create currents in communities that have been traditionally underserved and underrepresented in classical music. While the numbers have increased, still only 4.2% of American orchestras are comprised of black and Latino players. Dedicated to increasing the participation of these groups in music schools, as professional musicians, and as classical music audiences, Sphinx has been active in some 200 schools nationwide, granted nearly $2 million in scholarships, and mounted hundreds of orchestra and chamber music performances heard life and on PBS. “
Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, Vice President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization:

“The vast majority of the young people who we encounter and work with directly through our educational programming really come from a situation where music is not a commodity – it is not really a value – so in many cases…we work with communities where survival skills are perhaps more key to the development of these young people. Music is definitely considered a luxury and a foreign value…It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking: how to speak to the family, how to convince them that staying in music is worth it. It does NOT necessarily guarantee you are going to become a concert violinist, but it does make you exposed to a discipline that is really essential to your personal development.”

Dworkin says that the common sentiment they find is that children came in and recognized that there are people like them that look like them that are their age and have common values, and what they have in common – regardless of background – is really music.

“I think developing that peer network and sense of community is probably one of the most essential, long-lasting values and factors for these young people getting involved.”

Jesse Rosen:

“While the idea of music and social justice working together is a relatively new one, more and more ensembles are embracing the idea… You saw a shift in the role that the orchestra was playing from that as primarily a deliverer of symphony concerts to a catalyst to bring the community together around a shared set of community goals.”

Dudamel described arriving at YOLA and seeing the children full of hope:

“They had these types of questions: ‘What is this about?’ ‘Why do I have this instrument here?’ ‘What will I do with this?’ ‘Can I build a life through this?’ ‘Can this give me something important for my future?’”

Winn:

“None of this is magic, of course. It requires the long-term commitment and hard work of orchestras, community organizations, schools, parents, and children at a time when the arts remain under steady pressure.”

Mark Clague is an associate professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan School of Music where he serves as director of research and co-director of the American Music Institute. His current research project is to recover the expansive history of the United States’ national anthem:

“One of the fears I have is that now, with NCLB, so much of the effort about education is ‘are our schools getting the test scores that justify our funding?’ and with the arts it is really hard to test…Because it is difficult to measure this impact it is also easy that we can lose track of it, and that is the real danger.”

MISO and other disappointments

I hate to be doing this, but it needs to be done (more often). Last year, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald, but it never received publication.  I sent the following in June, again with no success or response:

Hello,

I wrote this letter last year when I was hearing more and more stories from close friends and colleagues about MISO’s failure to fulfill their payment obligations to substitute and other freelance musicians filling in for core members of the Symphony. Most of these musicians had been waiting almost 12 months for their paycheck (though the contract they signed said they would be paid within 30 days of service), and some were waiting for closer to two years for complete payment. The American Federation of Musicians tried to intervene in this situation with MISO, but they were unsuccessful. As of this month, the South Florida Musicians Association (in affiliation with the AFM) is encouraging members of the community to boycott the Miami Symphony because of MISO’s wage delinquencies (they claim that some musicians are owed as much as an entire season’s wages). Luckily, I do not rely on my freelancing gigs to pay my rent or buy groceries, but many highly skilled and well-trained musicians do.

Ultimately, I did not send you what I had written because I am a supporter of classical music and because I am both worried and saddened by the difficulties that even this country’s best orchestras are suffering I did not want to contribute to any negative feelings towards these arts organizations. By March 2013 my friends had been paid for the services completed in May 2012, and their troubles seemed small in comparison to the lockouts and calamities that musicians in other cities were facing.

I read an article today that has begun to circulate on Facebook and other social media which reminded me of this issue in Florida. This is the article I read:

http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/chicago-the-deafening-silence-of-the-beethoven-festival-musicians/

though none was really news to me or any of the other musicians posting and commenting. It is a great luxury for a musician to be paid at the conclusion of a service/concert or within the normal two-week paycheck period, and freelancing musicians are constantly being placed in situations where they feel like must justify payment after performing even if they have a signed contract from their client. It is certainly true that most musicians enjoy their work and take pleasure in performing and creating music for and with others, but this does not mean that they deserve any less than any other laborer in a career that is best suited for them.

As a public school music teacher I don’t get to play my violin all that often. I spend what lunch periods I get each week practicing and stay up much too late at night trying to maintain my professional skills. The gigs I get are mediocre at best, partially because I live in an area of upstate New York devoid of quality instrumental ensembles, but I play a fair share of weddings, parties, and musicals. The comment I get most often from audiences who come to chat after a performance is that I am lucky to have such a “nice hobby.” I am certainly lucky to have such a nice hobby, but there is a danger in agreeing with such a statement. I am lucky to get gigs when others don’t, and I am lucky that I am able-bodied and can climb my way into a pit for a stage production or balance a music stand against a windy wedding ceremony. I am lucky to really enjoy what I do in my time outside of teaching, and I am lucky to meet other adults in my area with common interests. Am I lucky that to get to participate in this “hobby” I must also lock myself in a practice room for hours each week away from my friends, family, and coworkers? Am I lucky that I must fight my way onto airplanes and pay extra money to insure my property in order to take gigs outside of my home? Am I lucky that I have trained for this hobby since before entering Kindergarten so that I could someday have a fighting chance as a freelancer? Yes, of course I am lucky. I, and every musician who had the priviledge of being given an instrument at some early age by a caring adult, will always consider myself lucky. Luck aside, we work hard and deserve the same respect in our career choice as anyone else who is trying to make ends meet.

I apologize for the rant that this intro turned into. I tried to be more concise in my original letter:

To the Editor:

I am a public school teacher from New York who had the great pleasure of traveling to Miami last year to attend concerts and workshops of the New World Symphony. Founded in the late 1980s, the New World Symphony is the only training orchestra in the United States and offers remarkable opportunities to its young fellowship recipients. The New World Symphony offers an array of concerts each season that appeal to every age of concert-goer, and their intimate performance hall delivers acoustically and visually outstanding experiences. However, what is important to know is that this highly competitive career-training program which has launched the careers of hundreds of musicians is not a career in itself. Musicians are accepted on 3-year contracts after which they must find their place in the ever-challenging American orchestra scene.

Miami serves as a microcosm of our country’s performing artistry through its fantastic NWS program but also of our country’s poor management, faulty business sense, and increasing ignorance about the arts. The latter qualities are increasingly evident in Miami’s other classical performing ensemble, the Miami Symphony Orchestra. Orchestras around the United States have fallen upon hard times in recent years with various musician lockouts and bankruptcies, cancelled seasons and fewer concerts, and their problems are widely publicized. But perhaps more frightening is the situation at MISO, an organization that continues to function despite its inability to pay its musicians. I do not speak about core members, those musicians who secured themselves a chair in the orchestra through formal auditions, but rather those freelancing musicians who serve as substitutes. During my time visiting the New World Symphony, I heard many accounts of high level musicians who substituted in the Miami Symphony Orchestra and, almost a year later, have not been paid for their services.

Can you imagine telling your mechanic that you’ll pay him for your new transmission next month? How would your child’s daycare provider feel if you said you’d pay them next year? Freelance musicians typically wait up to 30 days for payment for the gigs that comprise the better part of their annual income, and so it is not unusual for a working musician to walk away from a completed service with only a contract promising future compensation. Yet, the MISO fails to honor their own contracts and continues to hire unsuspecting players. The American Federation of Musicians, the national union for all types of working professionals in the performing arts, is aware of this problem but has no power to hold MISO accountable because the symphony is not a member of this important organization for musicians’ rights.

It is through musical and artistic expression that our society nurtures our children and teaches compassion. Please continue to support classical music and perpetuate the arts in meaningful ways. But the next time you go to enjoy an evening of world-class musical performances, please go to the Beach. It is there that you will find the ensemble that is the real heart and soul of Miami’s classical music scene, not one one that continuously exploits the newest members of their profession.

Sincerely,

Lauren

I found a similar blog post just the other day: http://www.erinapaul.com/2014/09/30/miami-symphony-orchestra-is-worse-than-atlanta/

The American Federation of Musicians has tried repeatedly to address this problem, but has also been unsuccessful. Now, they are urging musicians in South Florida chapters to avoid accepting contracts with MISO: http://www.afm655.org/item/2014/06/south-florida-musicians-association-urges-boycott-of-miami-symphony-over-unpaid-wages

http://internationalmusician.org/local-655-urges-boycott-south-florida-symphony/

Unfortunately, the Miami Herald continues to sing the praises of their “professional” orchestra.