Saturday, November 3, 2012
Exciting Moments in Teaching Orchestra 101
This week has been one of those "ad nauseam" weeks where I'm so weary and worn out that I just don't really want to get out of bed, but know that my students need me, so I drag myself to school anyway. But despite these draggy mornings, God has been gracious. There were several days where I had to ask Him for strength to just get through the drive to school, and He give it. Needless to say, these nasty mornings were capped off by two awesome moments this week. (It's what we teachers live for... the little awesome moments of the week. We're weird that way.)
First awesome moment:
My honors class, period 3 right after lunch, one day this week was eager to watch the video recording I'd made of them during the class before. This particular day they were going to watch the recording of a piece that they'd really taken a liking to and had tried to pull together on their own while I was out sick for a day recently. They had taken to heart what I had been trying to teach them and had tried starting and ending together, breathing together through out and counting like fiends. When I came back from my days' absence, they insisted on playing it for me without me conducting, so when it came time for me to record them it seemed like the best idea all around. They were all for it.
Now we were about to watch the recording of them playing this movement of the piece all by themselves. I asked them to watch their music as they played and watch the video at the same time. As we were watching at times they giggled because they were startled by seeing themselves on camera, other times they grimaced because of something they hadn't heard while playing as a group. One thing is true. The camera doesn't lie. If they played a wrong note, chord, or passage, the camera picked it up and played it right back to them. As we finished the recording and I turned the lights on, they all kind of grimaced at each other and when I asked them what their thoughts were, they shook their heads.
"That was awful!" One girl exploded.
"Our dynamics were sucky, and we were NOT together!" another said, exasperated.
I let them explain one by one their thoughts on the recording and how they could improve and then mentioned a couple thoughts myself (i.e. the camera was built to pick up voice, so it picks up the frequencies of the viola better, and that's why it sounded so loud, etc.). When I was certain we'd covered as much as we could with their recording, the giggling having reached a level that told me that they were out of ideas, I silenced them and told them that we would now listen to a professional recording of the same piece. A couple of them thanked me profusely before I shushed them again and pulled up the recording.
What I saw from that point on was different than anything I'd seen previously. Instead of commenting on things from the recording and having to be shushed for talking, they intently looked at the music and read along, listening like I'd never seen before. Noticing this, I decided like any good teacher to take advantage of the bout of reflectiveness they seemed to be taking and while the music was playing, I grabbed a pack of 3x5 cards and handed one card to each student.
As soon as the music was over, I said quietly, "Now, without talking to anyone else, or discussing this in anyway, I want you to write five descriptive words on the 3x5 card, like 'rich', 'deep', and so on. Five descriptive words about the emotion in this piece. You have about three minutes to do that." After two minutes, "And now, I want you to fold that card in half and put it away. Tuck it in your music, put it on your person, but don't show it to anyone unless you absolutely want to. It's just for you and for you only. I would like you to go home and practice these descriptive words into your music. Then I want you to think about the whole piece we're playing and dedicate each movement to one person. Say I'd dedicate this movement to my grandma, the first movement to my little sister, and so on. I think it would be really cool to share in the concert."
Every single one of the students nodded. Up to this point not one of them had made a sound, which meant that they were unusually focused. I then informed them that we wouldn't be playing the movement we'd just heard today, but that we would be playing another movement from the same piece. For the rest of the period, my beautiful, wonderful students put their heads down and worked their butts off. We didn't get sidetracked, there was no talking between pauses, and at the end of the class period, two of the comments were, "Man, we really worked hard today!" and "I have an adrenaline rush like you wouldn't believe!" It was gorgeous. I was stunned. In a good way of course.
Awesome moment number two:
Orchestra club meets on fridays from 2:30 to 3:30. It meets in my orchestra room, obviously, but the glorious thing about orchestra club is that all I have to do really is be in the room and help them sort out difficult problems if they need me. Other then that it's all the students. Any student, whether or not they're in an orchestra class can participate, if they have an instrument and musical experience. Now, 90% of the kids in orchestra are actually in orchestra class, so they have me every day, so they hear my teaching and my rants every day ("Breathe and move together!" "Count! Count like a fiend!" "That note was.... .....interesting...." "I'll make you brilliant musicians with just one thing: ...do what's written on the page!!" "I'm not here to teach you to learn to play an instrument, but how to love something and do it well.").
During orchestra club this past friday they decided to sight-read some Christmas music to play for the concert in December and later for a nursing home. It was awesome to hear them putting into practice (and using well) things that I have been asking them to do in my classes since school started. For example:
The music they were trying to sight-read was sounding awful.
"I can't get the key right!" One of the cellos explodes.
"Well, what key are we in?" the violin sitting across from him asks.
"Well, three flats, so that's... E flat major, or C minor..."
"Right, so let's all play the E flat major scale!"
"I don't know how to play the E flat major scale!"
"Well we've been learning how to build a scale in class right? The pattern's Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half!"
And sitting at my desk I got to hear my string-player students very carefully build an E flat major scale and then get the harmony in the song right because of it.
Then at another point, possibly in the very same song, the students had stopped to figure something out, and someone looking at the score said, "Well, cellos have to start us here because they have the downbeat and no one else does."
The lead cellist sighed (no one LIKES starting, to many stares!) and said, "Okay.... One, two, three, go."
Two notes into a poor start, the violinist across from him bursts out, "No! That's not how you start! You have to BREATHE!"
"Fine! One, two, three, *loud inhale*."
"No! Like this!" And two of my seniors demonstrate proper breathing technique to start an ensemble, and suddenly the small orchestra starts together beautifully, all without my help.
All I could do was sit at my desk and hope my cheeks didn't fall off because I was grinning so hard. It's a beautiful day when I can hear my students applying what I've taught them, and succeeding even better because of it.
This is why I teach orchestra.