Friday, March 20, 2009

One Month Later

This post is part of a blog project on student teaching hosted at So You Want to Teach.

It's done. 

It's done, and both my students and I came out the other side feeling a sense of accomplishment. I was able to rehearse a grade four piece (I Am, by Andrew Boysen Jr.) to festival readiness with a non-auditioned high school ensemble in four weeks. 

Performing arts programs are really a special learning experience. There's an immediate sense of accomplishment gained from performances. In high school, my parents never once cared about my english assignments or my history papers, much less my Trigonometry homework, but they made it to every orchestra concert. MENC sanctioned competitions are even better, with groups earning rankings and a sense of prestige amongst their peers; improving themselves with each performance and clinic. What's more, this builds a sense of group cohesion I found lacking in my other classes, due to the individual responsibility of each student to the ensemble.

Tonight was our "Adjudication Concert" which is a tradition that has arisen out of a compromise between budget concerns and the need for validation of the band program. DJUSD doesn't have school busses. They rely on the City and the University bus system to get kids to and from school. There are special lines just for the kids, the district pays the city, the city pays the university, and everyone's happy. Except when it comes to field trips. 

Chartering a couple of Unitrans busses to Sacramento costs several hundred dollars, which when added to festival fees tops $1000 - more than double the band program's annual budget. So instead of heading to the CMEA Golden Empire Festival, we invite one of their judges to come to us. Instead of 15 minutes in front of three judges, some scribbled notes and barely decipherable taped recordings, we have one esteemed director come work with all three bands for the entire day, and return to see the concert that evening, giving comments in front of parents on everything that we worked on and improved.

It's an awesome arrangement, and it's really helpful. It's also a tad nerve-wracking - especially when on Tuesday during my last rehearsal with my students, my bari soloist was having problems subdividing and missing his entrances, and all the brass couldn't figure out phrasing and breath. Even though we'd worked these problem sections four weeks running. 

I've watched my role as a conductor change over the past month. This piece wasn't difficult by the standards that the kids were used to, but it required a lot of difficult entrances and some serious counting issues (rhythms in four against my beat pattern of three for example) and I realized as much as I strive to bring intensity and artistry to the music, what's increasingly important is that I don't just give abrupt gestures to cue my students, but provide them with confidence, welcoming them in to their entrances. They can count, they know they're right, but still, I look up from my score and see eyes pleading me to confirm that they're right. Most of the time all I have to do is smile at them and they play beautiful music, but I have to cue them.

However, to cue them, I have to be absolutely certain that we're all on the same page. 

This afternoon I couldn't have asked for a better performance from my students, we did a mock concert for our adjudicator (my teacher never once called him a "judge") and he had comments a-plenty but what stuck most were those about air stream and intonation. My trombones were trying too hard to play softly and were a wee bit flat. 

This evening, they did just as well, but I almost fell apart. We were well into the piece and approaching an important juncture in the music. There's a canonic fast section that gives way to a series of metrical changes punctuated with a syncopated bass line. That probably doesn't mean a whole lot, but it's at 2:45 on an 8 minute recording, so about a third of the way on this recording

My score is like a security blanket, it makes me feel safe. As long as I have the music in front of me, I don't need it. I went to turn the page, and I knew what was supposed to be on the next one, except it wasn't there - I had turned too many pages. I felt the bottom of my stomach fall away and part of my brain started screaming a stream of expletives. 

Another part of my brain however, just counted: [...&4&] [12-12-123] [1.2.] [1.2.3.] My hands cuing half the band to come in on the "and of 3" beating a bar of 7/8 followed by 2/4 and then 3/4. It was like something out of an exercise from a conducting class but the rest of me was frozen in terror. My parents noticed it, my teacher noticed it, my conducting lost all expression for about a minute but the kids somehow didn't notice, or rather, care. It was their confidence in my ability to lead them that kept me in the game. I was a little shaken for the rest of the piece, I missed some cues, but they all got their entrances, even the Bari Sax soloist that had trouble earlier this week. 

I've mentioned before my terrible performance anxiety, and the thought of choking as a conductor - with all my students counting on me - is terrifying. At that moment I was paralyzed with fear, but I had cultivated enough trust with the band that they assumed I knew exactly what I was doing  - the same expectation I have of them when they head onto the stage. It's that interdependency on each other, and on me - that sort of trust that really brings the ensemble together and makes it more than another class. 

Just another experience confirming that the one place I know where I belong is at the podium in front of my students.

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