On young musicians

I wonder if the percentage of bloggers who are insomniacs is higher than the general population.

It had been my goal at this hour to be having a nap between my four school concerts with the OES Preparatory Orchestra, and the formal concert this evening, but, exhausted though I am, I’m not managing to wind down. If I could sleep now, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Exhausted, I am, from three very long, very intense days with our preparatory orchestra. It’s still a young ensemble (the youngest I work with any more)- we started this program completely from scratch a few years ago- but they’re a very special bunch. They rehearse weekly throughout the year for a number of programs, and each spring, when I’m in for the final OES subscription week, we take them to a dude ranch in the Blue Mountains for a weekend rehearsal retreat. It’s always productive, and fun, but this year was the best so far, mostly because at the heart of the group is such a lovely bunch of young people. They approach rehearsals with the most professional attitude you can imagine, and are a delight to be around.My philosophy in working with young musicians is pretty simple- I want to give them an opportunity to experience great music, proper core repertoire, and to work at a high level. Building a band from scratch, this can make things hard, because the standard of the group is so much higher than most of the school music ensembles that it’s hard for many kids to make that transition into the orchestra from other groups, especially the wind players. They might be stars at school, but they’ve never played in a proper orchestra before.  Still, for those kids who have the bug, they need something that challenges them. In school their job is to lead and mentor- the music they play there doesn’t stretch them. Youth orchestra does that.

This year, I made a slight exception to my programming philosophy- I decide to do Star Wars after many years of requests to do something along those lines. Don’t get me wrong- I had all the action figures when I was 10, I love Star Wars.  

When word went out that I’d picked it, the majority of students in the orchestra went berserk with excitement. They were playing the tune FFF even before we’d handed out parts.

Still, we ended up with a pretty nice program- last movement of Beethoven 5 (normally we only do complete works, but it was a short rehearsal period), Brahms Academic Festival Overture and Mozart G Major Piano Concerto (No. 17). All good, meat-and-potatoes, stuff.

I knew it was a special group in late Feb when I went through the program with them for the second time before handing them off to our rehearsal conductor. We’d been working on Brahms all day and had about 20 minutes left. I told the orchestra it was up to them- they could vote on what we rehearsed for the rest of the day, Beethoven or Star wars.  

Bethoven won, almost unanimously.

One of the younger kids, first year in the group (12, I think) said it best.

”I mean, Star Wars is fun and all, but once you’ve played through it a few times, it gets kind of boring. Beethoven gets more fun the more you work on it.”

What more can you say?

Anyway, everyone was looking a little grey after the fourth concert this afternoon. Hope someone’s napping before tonight, even if it isn’t me.  Is a five concert day child abuse? I hope not….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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