Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Mezzo-Forte

This week, I helped lead a field trip for my new school district’s middle-school musicians. During May and June in southern New England, many middle- and high-school ensembles travel to host schools to perform for a panel of adjudicators; and then spend the rest of the day at a local amusement park. As my father used to say, “work first; play after.” Or in this case, play first, and ride roller coasters after.

This event, and similar ones all over the country, are organized and run by companies whose primary business is providing performance and recreation opportunities for school musicians; to stay in business, they need to turn a profit. Some companies are more focused on the dollar than they are on the student; but some actually do try to create situations from which genuine music education might be derived. Caveat emptor is one word to the wise … but the particular company with which my new school district (and my old one, too) opts to do business seems reasonably interested in providing, you know, a learning experience for our students.

I have a bit of experience being one of those music festival adjudicators. While I was in graduate school, I was invited to do this at a couple of local festivals. For one, I judged indoor percussion. As much as I know about that subject area from having observed a few Thom Hannum rehearsals and clinics, I was pleased not to be the only judge at the top of the stands that day. For another festival, I was judging what were labeled “auxiliary performing units” – and as it turned out, I was providing feedback and scores for teams of twirlers. Well … as much as I know about twirling a drum major mace, I still kinda fell back on my ability to observe and comment upon uniformity and precision. I’ll be honest: I was not exactly working in my ultimate comfort zone on that day.

Before each of those experiences, the organizers told me one unnerving thing: in general, barring any real extremes of performance one way or another, the very lowest score I was expected to present to any ensemble was 70 points out of a hundred. I figured out in short order that the goal was not so much to provide gentle but firm constructive criticism to an ensemble that was just not in the same league as anyone else. Rather, nobody gets lower than a C-minus … or, as the recent saying goes, everybody gets a trophy.

Sort of a mezzo-forte attitude.

At a leadership clinic that I observed a number of summers ago, Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser described the enthusiasm and intensity of any performance (or lack of) in terms of musical dynamics. The upshot of a wonderful five-minute segment of Tim’s talk was this: we owe it to ourselves to operate at pianissimo, very quietly (he nearly whispered), or FORTE!!! (he suddenly shouted, and emphasized it with a sharp hand clap) … but NEVER live your life just mezzo-forte. Mezzo-forte, in Italian, literally means medium strong; to musicians it means medium-loud, or not quite as loud as forte, which means firm, strong, loud! … and to Tim it meant all of that, as he’s a music educator, but in this case it meant average. Just average. Vanilla. Bland. Uninteresting. Uninspired. Not gonna learn much from it.

As our middle-school band finished its three-tune festival program, I thought that they had taken their concert performance from the week prior … and upped their game by at least a little bit. Certainly, they stacked up very well in comparison to the band that had performed just before they did – yes, they had more varied instrumentation, and yes, they seemed to have more kids who might have been studying privately, or at least had the benefit of weekly in-school small-group lessons. This is certainly not to dump on the previously-performing band, as for all I knew they might have no small-group lesson program, and not as much rehearsal time per week, and not-adequate funding, et cetera. But our kids done good.

This particular company includes a brief clinic after an ensemble’s festival performance. Shortly after the ensemble’s last selection, the judges tally up their scores and finish writing and recording their comments; then one judge spends about ten minutes chatting with the ensemble about things that went well and things that could be worked on for the next rehearsal, or concert, or school year. The gentleman who worked with our middle-school band spent quite a lot of time talking about dynamics – about taking the dynamic markings on the written page seriously, and perhaps extra-seriously. If it says piano, be intentionally quiet – so that when it says FORTE!, you can make that much more of an impact without necessarily having to “turn it up to eleven” to do it.

Good thoughts. Too often, whether it’s a school ensemble full of third- or fourth-year players, or a church choir full of adults with lots of life experience, or a summer drum corps that rehearses fourteen hours a day, every day, June through August … the pitches and rhythms can be played correctly, but the expression, the creative part of the music, is the last element that gets any attention. If it does at all.

And then our kids piled back onto the buses, took a ten-minute drive to the Six Flags theme park, and spent the next seven hours in an environment that featured nothing but piped-in music turned up to eleven.

 

Yes, roller coasters make lots of noise. Yes, the barkers who try to entice passersby to shoot baskets, or knock bottles off shelves, or bang a mallet hard enough to send a little weight rocketing up toward a ringable bell … so that they can win stuffed pandas … all have to be loud so that they’ll be noticed, and so that people will come make them a little money. But all the recorded music in the park, whether at entrance gates to thrill rides, or in snack bar areas, or in gift shops, or accompanying street performers, was uniformly LOUD.

After being in the park for awhile, I stopped noticing.

But I only noticed that I’d stopped noticing this … when my music teacher colleague pointed it out, as we strolled through the park, keeping an eye out for our green-shirted kids. Boy, everything in here is just loud, he said, –and this, after we’d had a clinician talk to the kids about varying the dynamics in their own performance.

I looked at my colleague and prepared to make a joke … and as I made it, I realized I was actually somewhat serious.

Boy, are we important people.”

Because outside of our school music classrooms and auditoriums … the only message that our music students get, in fact the only message that almost anyone in our society gets … is this:

Everything is loud. Loud is good. Therefore everything that is loud is good.

As a music educator, I know this for sure, at least: not everything is loud. Loud isn’t always good. And not everything that is loud is, therefore, good. And if we music teachers don’t teach our students (not just our kids, but our audiences) this, … who’s going to?

The mighty 1812 Overture is good … but not just because of the admittedly gloriously loud ending. It’s also because it starts out slow and quiet, ends up fast and loud, and goes almost everywhere, from folk tunes to military brass, from delicate to bombastic, from minor and sad to major and triumphant, in between those two moments.

Music … can not be just one volume. And while we’re at it, let’s not assume that we humans are only good and right and proper if we’re of one characteristic only. In biology class, while we were studying genetics and chromosomes and heredity and evolution and such, I remember learning that a species is far more likely to survive if there are lots and lots of different characteristics being supported.

Vive la difference. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations. And let’s try to preserve our hearing in the bargain, eh?

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June 1, 2013 - Posted by | band, education, entertainment, music, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Loved this post! Now, tell my son, who loves to bang a drum!!

    Comment by Kristin | June 26, 2013 | Reply


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