Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Training is Expensive

A friend of mine who happens to be a seasoned orchestral string player and I attended a concert by our local youth orchestra on Sunday. The concert began with two isolated movements from different Mozart symphonies and continued with a movement from a Haydn symphony. At that point we left. Yes, we were horrible people, not giving these young musicians and their conductor a chance. But, believe me, the aesthetic pain was considerable!

So we should talk about how young musicians become capable performers. The short answer is: a great deal of painstaking work. This is also expensive work because students need a great deal of supervision by highly-capable teachers. I recently ran across a video clip that is a very good articulation of how this works. Over to Jordan Peterson, who explains how to teach people how to think:

As he says, marking a good essay is easy: check, A. Marking a bad essay is unbelievably difficult because everything is wrong. Well, that's the way it is with young music students. With very, very, very few exceptions everything they do is wrong: they hold the instrument incorrectly, they don't play in tune, their rhythms are shaky or soggy or just wrong, they miscount the rests, they play with an unpleasant grating tone, sometimes they play the wrong notes. What every one of the players in a youth orchestra needs is intensive private instruction from highly-capable teachers who have spent many years being trained themselves.

Some youth orchestras have gotten this kind of attention and one example is likely the students that have come out of El Systema in Venezuela and other places. I am not sure of the details of how they managed it--I suspect that if you have some pretty good devoted teachers and a very broad intake of thousands and thousands of candidates you can likely filter them down to a core of pretty darn good student players.

But the problem with our youth orchestra is that they are just getting started and I suspect that there is little quality private instruction available. There is probably limited rehearsal time as well. A very important intermediate step between weekly private lessons and orchestral performance is the sectional rehearsal where, for example, all the first violins get together and rehearse their part, ironing out differences in tuning and bowing so that they come together as a group. Every section in the orchestra needs this same attention and the leader of each section, the concertmaster in the case of the first violins and the principal players in each section needs to have the capacity and authority to lead and rehearse the section.

When we get to the full rehearsal it is the concertmaster and the conductor who need to be unambiguously in charge. The problem is that hiring capable concertmasters and conductors is very expensive and this youth orchestra, at least, simply can't afford it. My friend rather unkindly described our local conductor as someone who does not actually conduct, but rather does a kind of "interpretive dance" expressing what he feels about the rhythms. Amusing to watch, but not very helpful to the players.

My friend and I attended the first concert by this youth orchestra a few months ago, in the fall. Unfortunately they have not improved to any great extent. What they need to do is rigorous, disciplined work and they have to remove the less-capable players and seek out better ones to replace them. Or they can continue on as they have, which is more likely. I'm sure they will receive support from the local community.

As we were leaving the concert I said to my friend, that, you know, we really cannot beef about the performance because we, who are capable of helping them improve, are not actually doing so. We should probably be making a contribution. Unfortunately, there are turf issues here. The conductor, who has been growing this orchestra from scratch, likely does not want to hear our critique, nor accept our assistance because the first thing we would do is demand a much higher commitment to precision and accuracy as the sine qua non of any real progress.

I am reminded of a student I had when I taught at university who had come to us after a couple of years at a community college: he was an intelligent and motivated student, but, alas, he had a very sloppy technique that had not been well grounded. So for the first four months he studied with me I insisted he do nothing but play simple scales, slurs and arpeggios very slowly and only work on the very simplest of pieces. He had to take several steps back to go forward. This is what needs to be done with the youth orchestra. They need to understand that, no they really can't play a Mozart symphony. Not yet. They need to spend months or years learning how to play the very basic components that down the road would make up the elements of a Mozart symphony. If you can't play four notes in tune then you certainly should not be trying to play one hundred notes.

Unfortunately, every hour you spend playing with bad technique will take several hours to undo. There is no getting around this very hard truth. I would like to help the orchestra, but somehow, I suspect they would not welcome my help.

But, if you work hard for perhaps thirty years with a great deal of support from the surrounding society, you can get to some amazing results. As proof, here is a performance from the 2007 Proms by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel in a remarkable performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich:


Will Wilkin said...

Ouch! This one hurt. Over two and a half years teaching myself violin, and I've had only 3 lessons. That teacher is highly accomplished and owes me a lesson for a solar site analysis I did for him last month. I called him 6 weeks ago and said let's do "occasional" lessons --and he agreed, to start sometime in Feb....

I never practice scales or arpeggios, though recently I dug out the scale books I bought and placed them in sight of my violin so I might start the dreaded exercises. I do think I've got pretty good intonation, at least I'm hitting the right notes even if not always with the sweetest tone. No doubt my rhythms are off, and I absolutely cannot (yet) count, though I have been instinctively getting better at doubling the speed for every flag and plausibly getting dotted rhythms at least sometimes. But I'm not a youth, I am a single father very attentive to my son, I work full time at sometimes strenuous manual labor that can make me tired, I sing in 2 choirs (with my son!) that each practice one evening a week....and I do play some violin every day.

I would love to someday play good enough to join a local community orchestra, and I do hope to fins another adult learner or two so we can put together a baroque consort good enough for local taverns and nursing homes. In rock music every town can have a dozen garage bands but in classical music it's a lot harder to find locals unless they are professional and in a league I'll never be able to join.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, this is NOT directed at people like you. Not at all! I have nothing negative to say to anyone who is teaching themselves violin or any other instrument. More power to you!

But you can help your progress by doing some basic technical exercises like scales and arpeggios. Think of it as a necessary warmup. Also, by taking some private lessons you might be able to fix some things that might be holding you back. These two things, technical exercises and private instruction, can save you time and energy.

The requirements for orchestral musicians are pretty tough, if they want to sound good together, and don't really apply to amateur musicians at home.

Al MacDonald said...

The most important time for lessons with a good teacher is at the very beginning. All too often students play for years before being deemed "good enough" for a private teacher. I started playing trombone at 15, but from the beginning studied with an excellent teacher. The first several months were basic tone production -- breathing, embouchure, jaw position, posture. As a result I find it impossible to do those things badly. At one point I didn't play for almost 20 years, but was able to come back well and was soon welcomed into good ensembles in the area. If I had been allowed to just play along and teach myself that would have been impossible, and playing would never have been really enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

You might be actually surprised to be very welcome should you decide to offer your help. You never know

Will Wilkin said...

At least during the Yale academic year, I go to high quality classical recitals and concerts once or twice a week, plus all the concerts of the New Haven Symphony, so I understand and agree with everything you've said about orchestral music and, implicitly, chamber music too. For me right now it seems impossible to find other adult learners in classical music --not to mention early baroque as my special interest-- but at least I'm finally recruiting a few solar electricians who play (or are about to start playing) guitar, so I can work on songs by Simon & Garfunkel, Eric Clapton and Kansas, at leat until I can get better and find some early baroque players ready to hit the local taverns and hospitals.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Al: yes, you are absolutely correct. It is very important to have a good teacher in the early stages when your basic technique is being formed. Alas, for many players this is just not available.

@Anonymous: perhaps you are right!

@Will: Hang in there, I'm sure that you will find people for a small Baroque ensemble sooner or later.