Fearsome Foursome

Fearsome Foursome

. . .  and other random recollections of Kenosha’s 2009 Solo and Ensemble competition. . .

  1. *The four young men pictured above are four of Polly’s guys from Tremper High School’s top choir,  and I snapped this picture just as they were about to begin singing a snappy arrangement of “Amazing Grace” – a performance which earned them a one-star rating, which means that they get to take it from here to state competition later in the spring.  This was an especially exciting performance because there was the very real potential for some things to go significantly wrong, partly because this arrangement was brand new to two of the four guys – I won’t divulge just how little time the four of them had to learn this together – and there were some moments that looked very Iffy. . . but in the end they pulled off a really fine performance- and while I would not advise anyone to deliberately skirt the edge of the cliff like this,  I must admit that there is nothing quite as exciting as witnessing this kind of a triumph – a one-star rating that was by no means a foregone conclusion.

  2. * . . . a poignant moment came with a musical theater performance in which the young woman in question forgot some words and otherwise got a bit confused, although she managed to make it to the end relatively intact.  As people applauded,  this gentle young girl essentially turned her back to the audience (towards me) and started to sob-  but somehow managed to limit her crying to maybe three or four seconds,  and then took a deep breath, turned around,  and made her way to the judge’s table to receive his oral comments.   I was so touched by that moment.  First of all, it was a reminder that for many of these competitors,  this really matters a lot – and that when things don’t go well,  it can seem heartbreaking in the immediate wake of it.  (Of course, once you’ve lived a bit longer and seen a bit more of life,  you realize that nothing bad that happens at solo and ensemble is important enough to be truly heartbreaking.)   And in such a moment,  you often find yourself in front of an audience which consists of family members, friends, and strangers – plus a judge who’s responsibility it is to critique you.  That adds up to quite a burden for young shoulders.  .  .  and I was so impressed with how this young lady managed to pull herself together after those few seconds of crying.  (There was time for more tears later on.)

  3. * . . .  a scary moment came at one point in the morning when I suddenly noticed that one of the performers I was playing for – a high school voice student of mine from Racine who had made special arrangements to compete in Kenosha –  was listed only once on the master list that Polly had given me, when she should have been listed twice.  I’m sitting in one of the classrooms, waiting to play for a flutist (the young man mentioned  in yesterday’s blog, as a matter of fact)  when this realization hit me like a ton of bricks and I jumped to my feet and told the flutist that I would be back as fast as I could.  At that point,  I did the only thing I could think of to do – heading off to the hallway where most of the vocal competition was taking place, and just started looking at the list of performances posted on each door,  hoping to spot my student’s name. . . and hoping that I wasn’t horribly late.  I made my way down the hall,  checking the lists on all five doors and not seeing the name I was looking for and suddenly getting a very sick feeling in my stomach when suddenly this student’s mom tapped me on the shoulder.  I wasn’t late at all- I was exactly on time, in fact-  and I tried my best to walk into that room as though I didn’t have a care in the world. . . a little like that moment in the Pee Wee Herman movie when he’s riding his beloved bike, hits something and goes flying over his handle bars and into a crumpled heap on the ground, jumps to his feet and mutters to the school kids around him “I meant to do that.”

  4. * . . . I started my long day of twenty-two performances at 8 in the morning by playing for a fantastic young brass player – and essentially the judge said afterwards that he had never heard a sophomore play like this piece like that- which is almost a carbon copy of what this student’s judge said last year (but substitute ‘freshman’ for ‘sophomore’ in the sentence.)  I told someone that this student is a machine in the best sense of the word- you just have this sense that not a single note will be the slightest bit out of line.  But what it truly exciting is that this dazzling technician is starting to become a real musician,  which means that by the time this student is a senior,  the principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic should start looking over his shoulder with concern.

  5. *. . .  Lack of tact is most unbecoming in a music contest judge.   One of the judges in whose room I played a lot today asked many of her contestants after they were done if they were fighting a cold.   If you do have a cold, the question is fine –  but if you don’t have a cold,  the question is likely to inspire a few tears ( and did exactly that. )

  6. *. . .  One of the most gratifying moments of the day was when a senior from Tremper earned their first one-star rating for a solo.   This was their last chance to grab the top honors after three years of frustration and disappointment,  and if I could have hired a brass band for a special ticker tape parade to celebrate the moment,  I would have.

  7. *. . .Two private students of mine gave performances today that were – for them –  just about perfect.  One of them sang an exquisite song by Samuel Barber called “The Crucifixion” and gave a performance which left the room completely hushed.  Another sang Figaro’s big act one aria “Non piu andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro and it was far and away the best performance of that aria which he had ever given.  What is sweeter than to give your best when it matters most rather than leaving your best back in the practice room or teacher’s studio where no one else gets to enjoy it?   And another private student of mine sang quite well and elicited from Polly (his choir director) a compliment which thoroughly warmed my heart.  She said to this young man – and she was absolutely right to say it – that he is not the singer he was a year ago.   And isn’t that what all of this is about?  Growing and improving – moving from point A to point B and ever onward and upward?   I have a few students at Carthage with all kinds of talent but either little interest in improving or lack of ability to focus their efforts on that goal.   And the next time I have studio class,  I am going to pose that question to them:  are you a different singer now than you were one year ago, or two years ago?  Honestly?   Some of them can say a most emphatic YES.  And others, if they are honest with themselves,  will have to answer No,  because they have allowed all kinds of other things to take precedence over the practice room.   And what a shame.  Anyway,  I am so glad to have heard Polly pay that compliment to my student,  because it gives me a new way to encourage my students to make the most of their talents and the opportunity they’ve been given to nurture those talents.

  8. *. . . I heard some incredibly soft singing today from two young women (probably middle school age) who sang a lovely duet arrangement of “Shenandoah.”  A lot of times when you hear young girls sing  who are shy,  physically immature, musically uncertain,  and not yet well-versed in matters related to good technique,  the performance is rough in every single way and you find yourself almost grateful that it’s as inaudible as it is!   But this performance was different because they knew the notes,  blended together nicely, had some good musical instincts, etc.   But it was SO quiet – I swear that the sound of grass growing is louder than these two girls!   My hat went off to the judge who was firm without being stern-  and my hope is that they will return next year with one more weapon in their artistic arsenal:  audibility.

  9. *I was tremendously impressed today by the good work being done by a number of Carthage music students who were helping out.  I’m pretty sure they were all members of Lambda Kappa, the music fraternity – and they performed their duties with such assurance and grace and class.  It made me wish that they had all been wearing Carthage sweatshirts or something else which would have let the world know that these fine young men and women, doing such a great job,  hail from Carthage College.

  10. * . . .  My favorite compliment of the day was not paid to me or to any of my private students- but rather was paid to Polly by the judge who heard the Tremper High School Madrigal Singers perform the French classic “il est belle et bon.”  After working with them and being quite impressed at how quickly they took up his suggestions,  he told them that they had obviously been under the tutelage of a very special teacher – and that Monday when they’re back in that rehearsal room, each and every one of them needs to do something to say Thank You – whether in words or a gift or just with an added twinkle in their eye. .  .  because not everyone is so blessed.    I’m pretty sure Polly was not in the room to hear that compliment,  but I really hope that most of those singers will take those words to heart. Because I am more and more convinced that we are happiest when we are most grateful.  And one of the thing for which these young singers should be profoundly grateful is that they have as wonderful a director and teacher as Polly.