Last night was the Spring Orchestra Concert at Charles F. Patton Middle School, an hour-long celebration of music with solo and string orchestra performances.
Almost one-third of the string students at Patton are now enrolled in private lessons outside of school — 4 of which just found a private teacher this year! — and I thought it might be a nice opportunity to highlight their individual accomplishments. Any student who studies privately was given the opportunity to perform a solo of their choice, and many took me up on the offer! We had ten students across grades 6, 7, and 8 perform solo works of their choice, and repertoire ranged from pop music (Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen) to movie themes (Dhoom, a Bollywood Thriller) to serious classical pieces (Symphonie Espagnole and concerti by Bach and Bruch).
The idea to add solo performances was sparked, not by someone asking for a performance opportunity, but from a student who just recently began studying privately. She came to me after her first lesson to tell me how much she had enjoyed it even though her new teacher had assigned “babyish” material (Suzuki’s Twinkle Variations and 1-octave scales). She apologized to me a number of times throughout her description, worried that her enthusiasm would offend me, the “other” teacher. She told me that private lessons were very different than what she expected and that skills she once thought were easy (such as holding her bow) are now being critiqued so closely that she feels challenged. She told me that she thinks she likes private lessons better than orchestra because she thinks that she does more in her private lessons than in orchestra rehearsal. It was hard for me to contain my own excitement, and I explained that yes, private lessons should challenge her in ways that are different from orchestra.
In orchestra, we take our personal achievements — position/posture, reading ability, tone production, our ability to self-correct things like intonation and articulation — and we offer them for the good of the whole ensemble. Now, your good posture keeps you from encroaching on your stand partner’s space, your tone production allows you to make meaningful contributions to your section’s sound, your ability to identify notes and rhythms is tested for accuracy, and demand for visual and aural skills is higher. Rehearsing in orchestra should look and feel different than working with a teacher one-on-one. It should stretch your mind in different ways. Rehearsing as part of an ensemble is like reading sentences in a book, whereas the first years of private lessons are often more akin to copying letters of the alphabet or learning how to spell simple words. Even the word “lessons” in a public school setting takes on a different meaning. Lessons in school are, ideally, taught with a group of similar instruments (all cellos, all violas, etc), but more likely there will be a mix of instruments, clefs, parts, and/or abilities in a school lesson group. In reality, school lessons are what we call “group class” in Suzuki or “sectionals” at the youth symphony, college, or community orchestra level. Perhaps using the same word for group learning and private study does more harm than we think.
The Sixth Grade Orchestra performed four selections before heading into the audience to watch the rest of the concert. They began with Air for the Dutchess, a piece by Julliard-trained violinist Conni Ellisor that was composed for the Prelude Orchestra of Stringendo in 2015. Next came two of the Three Scenes from a Green Valley by William G. Harbinson: The Winds on Big Hill and Chapel on Nettle Knob. Larger musical works — such as suites, symphonies, concertos, and sonatas — can be thought of as musical novels because their movements are intended to be performed in succession to create a complete musical idea. Though we only performed two of the three scenes, we can already recognize their musical relationship: The Winds on Big Hill blow in e minor, the relative minor to G Major, the key in which the Chapel on Nettle Knob’s melody flows. Additionally, their tempos are related by a ratio of 1:2 — Each quarter note pulse in The Winds on Big Hill‘s Presto tempo is equivalent to the eighth note pulse in Chapel on Nettle Knob.
Most of us recognize Pachelbel’s Canon as soon as it starts because that particular pattern of 8 notes has so successfully infiltrated our culture. In music, we call a continuously repeated pattern an “ostinato,” but in rock music, this type of pattern is called a riff. Composer Soon Hee Newbold was inspired by these bass guitar riffs when writing this next piece, and she even gave a little nod to Pachelbel by letting the bass clef instruments start as the first violins wait their turn.
We listened to more soloists as the Sixth Grade Orchestra left stage and was replaced by the combined Seventh and Eighth Grade Orchestra. One of the soloists performed the Suzuki Violin School arrangement of The Two Grenadiers by Robert Schumann. I can remember my first violin teacher, Mrs. West, saying “The man is running very quickly” in rhythms specific to the più mosso section as I studied this piece as a child, and I enjoy teaching this particular solo for a number of reasons. Younger students can wrap their heads around an image of a soldier more quickly than they can understand what a Waltz or Bourree is, and older students can finally have a concrete example of a composer’s use of relative and parallel key signatures (d minor’s relative major is F Major — as indicated by the Bb in the key signature– but its parallel minor is that very familiar key of D Major!). Even parents can partake in the learning process a little more actively when they realize that the fanfare in the new key of D Major is familiar because they’ve heard it each year on the Fourth of July (Schumann quotes from the French national anthem, a melody made famous by Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture). Here’s the poem that inspired Schumann to write this work.
The first piece for the Seventh and Eighth Grade Orchestra was Iowa Spring by Paul Seitz. Technically, this isn’t a challenging work — it is composed in D Major and consists primarily of eighth-, quarter-, half-, and whole notes without any syncopation — but I absolutely love programming it for a middle school ensemble! Each section has moments of independence, there are hints of canon, dynamic contrast abounds, and there are parts with full, loud sounds that are exciting to play. More importantly, Iowa Spring is a fantastic introduction to half-string harmonics. Harmonics on a bowed string instrument are glassy, silvery sounds produced by lightly touching the string at the node located, in this case, at 1/2 the length of the string. In order to get these notes to “speak” (to sound clearly), the musician must be able to release any tension in the left hand which might’ve been used to hold the instrument (a common crutch of string players who neglected attention to posture when they were beginners and a nearly impossible task for upper string players who don’t use shoulder rests as kids) and they must be able to bow quickly and broadly across the string. I think Seitz uses these harmonics to give the sense of wide open spaces, but they also give a loneliness to the sound that it seems like American composers really embraced during the mid-20th century. This piece might be trying to capture a misty spring morning in Iowa, or perhaps it was more about stargazing (students are usually quick to pick up on the similarities between Iowa Spring and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). My camera got knocked out of place for this one in our concert, but here’s some footage of this piece from our dress rehearsal onstage at the end of last month.
Concerto “alla Rustica” was our challenge piece this quarter due to the unfamiliar time signature (9/8), half and extended positions for violists, cellists, and bassists, and just a ton of notes for the violinists! Vivaldi used this triple meter to make the concerto sound like a folk dance and give it a “rustic style.” We only played the first movement for our concert, but I may dig out the other movements for us to sight-read before the end of the year.
Jupiter from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst went exceptionally well in concert considering meter changes, dotted rhythms, ties over barlines, and frequent fermatas. You can hear their performance using this link. The concert concluded on a mellow note — another type of harmonic, actually! — with Moodscape by Susan H. Day. Since PSSA testing and other disruptions meant I didn’t have enough time to fairly assess potential first violin soloists, I took the composer’s suggestion to have the beginning and ending sections played as soli — or, a solo for a section or part of a section (in this case, the outside players on each stand). I found Moodscape while hunting down another piece by Susan H. Day — King’s Court — that my students in Guilderland begged to play practically every day. Since then, I’ve programmed more than a few works of hers because I like her use of harmony. You can listen to the 7th & 8th Grade Orchestra perform Moodscape using this link.
All things considered, it was a great night for middle school music!