The sound of pure joy

In the mid 90s I was performing in a special project at Eastman. It was a small woodwind quintet plus trumpet, piano, percussion and a couple of singers. The piece was a musical version of Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, composed by one of my heroes, Robert Kapilow. To give him the due respect, here is his piece. (I think it was rewritten since our performance):

At the time of this project, I had already been performing with a wind quintet as part of the Young Audiences of America program. We visited many elementary schools in the greater Rochester area performing a quintet version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It was a pretty decent arrangement. All the winds played their traditional solos, and the string parts were adapted into the quintet. We also wore hats. Well, the other four members wore hats. I had to string on a furry beard because the bassoon plays the part of the Grandfather. It wasn’t easy sticking the reed in my mouth quickly. Let’s just say I ate a lot of fur.

At one particular performance, we were performing for the Kindergarten, first and second grade students of one suburban elementary school. The children were all sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor of the cafetorium. The teachers were sitting in chairs lined around the walls. We were on a stage.

After our performance, the children politely applauded. Then our spokesperson, the flute player (Julie), stood up to handle the short presentation and Q&A. Julie was in the midst of studying for her doctoral comprehensive exams. Her head was full of details about music theory and 500+ years of western music history. She also had a four year old daughter. (You’ll need to know this in a bit. Bear with me.) This was her opening statement, delivered in a most patronizing way. Imagine Mr. Roger’s neighborhood with a sugary coating:

“Wow! Thanks so much for your applause. We really loved playing that piece for you. That piece was written by a man named Sergi Prokofiev. Can you say ‘Sergi Prokofiev?'”

(mumbled/confused response) “sargie proKOfief.”

“Great job! Did you know that Sergi Prokovief wrote communist propaganda?”

Dead Silence. Teachers looked dumbfounded. Kids were starting to wiggle. Any seasoned children’s performer would recognize this moment as “about to lose the audience.” When young kids turn on a performance, things can get ugly. So I stood up quickly and said,

“Julie, that’s so interesting. Hey kids, how many of you watch cartoons?”

Hands shoot up in the air.

“Can someone raise their hand and show me what sound is made when the something falls off a really tall building?”

I got them participating with me by also making other sound effects with their voices. [If you haven’t seen a cartoon and can’t make this sound, there is no hope for you.] Then I turned to the clarinet player and asked her to imitate the sound of something falling off a tall building.

“This is kind of what Prokofiev did in his piece. He made tunes that helped up see the story in our imagination. Each character has their own tune.”

Then we went through the list of characters and demonstrated our instruments.

10 minutes of interactive Listening ID, a couple of questions, and the kids had fun.

At the end of the show, Julie was upset with me for interrupting her. “Why did you jump in like that? I was in the middle of a story.”

“Julie, you really think that these kids know what a communist is?”

“Well, what do you know about kids? You don’t have one. I do.”

I don’t remember much of the conversation after that. I was pretty stunned. But it was in that moment that I started to sense that some of the musicians I was performing with were a bit…. isolated from the audience. There was a gap of understanding.

Back to the Kapilow performance.

At the end of the piece, we were asked to individually talk about what we liked about our instruments. We went in score order; flute first, then oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, percussion, and me. The student performers who went before me all said generic stuff;

“I like the flute because it plays fast and high notes.”

“I like the oboe because it sounds like a duck.

By the time we got to me, I sensed the Eastman Hall (filled with 5th graders – that’s more than 2,000 kids) was getting wiggly. I know fifth grade. I remember fifth grade. I told them,

“I like the bassoon because it plays the lower notes of the quintet [demo]. It also play high notes [demo], and it can bounce around [demo]. But the best thing my instrument can do….. is fart!” [blast a low B-flat into the mic]

I had them in the palm of my hands.

Backstage left, the director of the Eastman School of Music was stunned. Robert was at the piano, and nearly fell off the bench laughing. Of all the coverage of the performance, every newspaper quoted me. It wasn’t that I was seeking attention so much as I was trying to have a little fun with an age where bathroom humor is appropriate.

It was these moments that started my shift towards arts integration and administration. I wanted to work more on connecting with audiences. It was also where I realized that the best audiences are kids audiences. They give the sound of pure joy.

At the Magmanus school show today, I heard it again. Here it is.

 

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