musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, March 4, 2013

Judging young students

The Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra Program is one of the best in the nation.  There are no fewer than 6 youth ensembles, ranging from the Junior Strings for students in grades 3-6 to the ultimate ensemble, the Youth Orchestra, which has performed in Europe, in China, and in Banff for the International Youth Orchestra Festival.  The Columbus Symphony's Associate Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson explains the program in this video:

Last week I was asked to judge the woodwind seating auditions for the Cadet Orchestra (for students in grades 7-10). I enjoyed meeting the young musicians and hearing them perform excerpts from their current orchestral repertoire.

My job was to assess the tone, setup/posture, rhythmic accuracy, note accuracy, intonation, articulation, and style/expression for each excerpt.  It was really difficult to focus on so many issues during each 5-minute audition!  What ended up happening was this: I focused on whatever stood out.

And for most of the students, even the ones who obviously were practicing a lot, it was the rhythm. 

Are we, the teachers, spending enough time teaching the importance of rhythm?  I remember being taught by Ryohei Nakagawa how to sight read: he said that the rhythm is top priority, and that if you just make sure the rhythm is right, you'll be on the right track.  His advice served me well during my audition for the Columbus Symphony.  I was asked to sight read Strauss' Death and Transfiguration.  I was rather young at the time, and had never even heard the piece.  I studied the rhythm for a few moments, asked the proctor in a whisper what the tempo should be (fortunately, he told me!), took a deep breath, and gave it my best.

Even more basic than rhythm is pulse.  I try to impress upon my students that the rhythmic pulse is the heartbeat of the music.  The heatbeat metaphor seems to work well, because they know what happens when the human heart's pulse is not steady........

Sometimes I tell my students that for the time being, the only thing that matters is the pulse.  Each measure must have the proper number of beats at a steady pulse, and nothing else matters.  It's OK to play wrong notes, out of tune, with lousy tone quality, and even wrong rhythms - all of that is OK.  Only the pulse matters, until I tell you otherwise.  I recommend the use of a metronome, and if the student doesn't have one, I ask the parent if they can download a free metronome phone app. (My favorite free metronome app is "My Metronome".)

Once that is mastered, then I add rhythm, so that only the pulse and its overlaying rhythm matter.  I think it's worth going through this rather dramatic exercise, which may take a few weeks.

The other categories I was asked to evaluate during the auditions seemed to pose fewer problems for the young musicians.  I was thrilled to see that posture was one of the categories, because I spend a great deal of time with young students on playing position, and from time to time I wonder if  I'm overdoing it.  Apparently not!  And I do believe that playing position and posture are very difficult to correct later, after habits have set in.  I was rather impressed with the postures of each of the students.  (I think a few of them of them wondered why I was looking at them so intently.....)

So......the moral of this post is that rhythm and its underlying pulse are not to be underestimated by students, by teachers, or by professional musicians. Thank you, woodwind players of the Cadet Orchestra, for that important reminder, and don't worry - steadiness of pulse is a lifelong pursuit, as evidenced by the fact that even the top professional musicians still use metronomes!

2011-2012 Youth Orchestra
Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestras


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