Reader response: Getting back to our roots

I’ve received a great deal of communication about this topic but one reader points out an omission on my part. A member of the Cleveland Orchestra wrote in to say:

“Don’t forget parents of young students. I see my students’ (and my wife’s students’) parents at concerts all the time. In many cases their interest was developed or rekindled by their kids’ burgeoning interest in orchestral music.”

Our reader is absolutely correct, and the industry would be unwise to underestimate the potential impact of his point. My mother in law, a writer, wrote an essay a few years back about this very effect on her own life. As the parent of two professional musicians, she knows what she’s writing about. Although it’s a little long for a blog, it’s well worth your time since by the end you’re going to want to enroll your kids in music lessons and start buying orchestra subscription tickets.

Learn with Your Child!
By: Betty Mulcahy

In jazz, you don’t count the beat on one and three, you count it on two and four. “Mom! You didn’t know that?” my son asked as if this were something learned before the alphabet.

Well, I know it now. And I know much more about music in general than I did before our children took up their instruments.

Piano was my instrument as a child and I learned to play it well enough to please myself, but never well enough to satisfy my teacher or to render melodies considered listenable by others. I was sheltered from knowing how many other instruments existed or even from knowing how the music surrounding me was constructed. Taking a cue from my parents, I considered music merely a pastime, an amusement to round out my education – certainly not worth serious study. Orchestra music bordered on sissy stuff, I thought, and jazz may as well have been from an alien planet.

So it was just as well I never attended a live symphony until we decided to introduce our children, Holly and Craig, to culture one winter Sunday in 1983 at a free downtown concert.

It was here I learned my first musical tidbit since my apathetic struggles through Hanon scales as a child. We arrived early so we could direct the kids to the front row where we assumed they would have the best view. In reality, all they could see was the conductor and a few of violins and cellos. By the time we figured this out, the auditorium had filled and the music had begun.

When the orchestra stopped playing, we clapped. Only a few others joined us in feeble applause, and we finally observed that the conductor remained facing the musicians. As quiet resumed, she raised her baton, and the orchestra continued.

Twice more we applauded at what we thought was the end of the piece. And twice more, we shrank in our seats when it became apparent that the music would continue. The next time the music stopped, we decided not to clap, but now the entire audience burst into rousing applause.

This was our introduction to “movements,” as we later discovered when Holly began violin lessons and joined the school orchestra and Craig took up trombone to become part of the band. We could now sit through a symphony, program in hand, counting movements, applauding only at the proper time.

And over years of paying for lessons, selecting instruments, sending kids to music camps, enrolling them in private bands and orchestras, attending their performances and other concerts, and finally footing the bill for college, we have reaped knowledge and sophistication beyond that. A byproduct of our children’s education was our own enlightenment and enjoyment.

Identifying instruments was the first lesson. I’d never before heard of a viola, but this big sister to the violin came home with Holly one day in seventh grade. “Mr. Gallant wants me to learn to play this,” she said, and I was astonished. Having played only one instrument in my entire life, I hadn’t ever considered switching.

“You’re going to play that instead of the violin?” I asked.

‘No – as well as the violin. And I have to learn a new clef.”

Lesson number two. There are more than the two clefs you find in piano music. This revelation unnerved me and weakened my confidence in my own knowledge.

Eventually I could identify most of the instruments in the band and orchestra by sight and by sound. This feat began when Holly entered fourth grade orchestra, and the director described each instrument during concerts and then required each to play alone. It continued into middle school where the French horn and the oboe were added and the director introduced them to parents.

Later, when friends accompanied us to concerts, I could intelligently compare and identify the instruments. Almost. “Which one is an English Horn?” a friend once asked. I still had a lot to learn.

The next lesson was recognition of excerpts. Some of the first pieces a child learns are taken from well-known classical or jazz compositions. Once while driving with the radio blaring a thunderous overture, I recognized a familiar passage. “Yes!” I thought. “I’ve heard that thousands of times in my living room!” “The Thieving Magpie Overture” contains a trombone phrase well known by every child learning that instrument, as well as his parents. The thrill for me was hearing it threaded into an entire symphony. I felt I owned that particular passage because I could hum through it flawlessly.

And then a shocking fact revealed itself to me. During a middle school concert, the theme of my favorite childhood hero resounded through a classical work. Written long before I was born, long before television was invented, “The William Tell Overture” introduced the Lone Ranger weekly throughout years of my childhood, the very years I’d denounced classical music and disdained jazz. What I had rejected as a child now proved to have been woven through my life without my being aware of its impact or its origin.

Fueled by this discovery, I listened to music with more attention. And as notes played by Holly and Craig progressed from noise to melody, I began to appreciate not only the music, but the musicians – the soloist at the symphony who had perfected a difficult phrase I’d heard butchered repeatedly at home, the accompaniment of low brass or second violins as they harmonized with the main melody, the stories behind the composition as told by the conductor or one of our children before a performance. I was actually enjoying my new-found listening skills.

But I still did not do my homework as instructed. “You should listen to a recording of the piece before you go to the concert,” Holly told me before an All State Orchestra concert her senior year. “The more you hear it, the more you appreciate it.”

Not only did I not believe this coming from a mere teenager, I felt I didn’t have time to pander to her petitions. I would hear the piece in good time. No sense in ruining its initial impact.

As the day arrived for us to attend All State Orchestra in which both Holly and Craig participated, we reached Macky Auditorium on the University of Colorado campus early to choose the best seats. The climax of the program was Saint-Saens Symphony No.3, the Organ Symphony. Huge organ pipes lined the walls, surrounding the young musicians like enormous bars on a cage. Never a fan of organ music, I was not anticipating this performance with my usual enthusiasm.

With no suggestion of an organ, the composition began softly, building intrigue as the first movement proceeded. I listened for violin and trombone phrases that I’d heard practiced at home. The melody escaped me this initial exposure. Had I listened to recordings of the symphony before the concert, I might have anticipated and relished the progressing passages.

Instead, I found myself wondering where the organ fit into this work.

Unobtrusively, without my realizing it, the organ melded into the violins about the time I stopped picking out individual instruments and became absorbed in the entire orchestral work. I still hadn’t noticed its subtle entry by the end of the third movement. Where was it, anyway?

Suddenly the building exploded in vibrations as the organ dominated the beginning of the final movement. It sucked the breath from its audience as goosebumps tingled down the backs of our necks and our eyes widened in awe. It enveloped us in rapture and drew us into an experience that left us choked with emotion at its booming conclusion when the entire audience stood in unison for a resounding ovation.

Good God! Holly had been right! What I missed by having ignored her advice. My one chance to experience this piece with a live symphony and enormous pipe organ could have been greatly enhanced by knowing the work, having listened to it before the concert so I could anticipate and savor each passage. I vowed never to make that mistake again.

Years ago, we exposed our children to music for their own cultural enlightenment. In return, we gained music appreciation for ourselves and the chance to be involved with the evolution of young musicians maturing into professionals. The effort and expense we encountered will soon be forgotten, but the advantages will linger and grow the rest of our lives.

You can send any comments to Betty via my contact email.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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