Dan Whisler is currently Director of Orchestras at the Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. Prior to moving to Kentucky, he was the Director of Orchestras at Center Grove Community School Corporation in Greenwood, Indiana, Founding and Principal Conductor with Intimate Opera of Indianapolis, Indiana, and served on the faculty of the String Quartet Program of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. Mr. Whisler has conducted over 300 works with over 50 ensembles, including professional orchestras in the USA, England, Spain, Lithuania, and Romania. His awards as a conductor include the 2011 Downbeat Award for Best U.S. College Classical Ensemble and the Bel Canto Award for Excellence in Conducting.
After leaving a particularly electric clinic session with Larry Livingston at the 2015 Music for All Orchestra America National Festival, I caught up with my kids at the hotel. Many were sitting in the hallway after an intense day of early-morning traveling and all-day music making. I asked them, “Okay, tell the truth: what did you think of the rehearsal?” Thinking I was going to hear gripes and groans, I was taken aback by some of the candid answers I received: “That was the most emotional rehearsal I've ever been a part of.” “It was life-changing.” “I was reminded of why I like music.” The question we as educators often ask ourselves is, “Why bother traveling?” Traveling means more work, money, time, and energy. What are the benefits, and why should our groups take part? Here are three benefits to taking the plunge and taking your orchestra on the road:
1. A Fresh Approach
The orchestra world is small, and it is often easy for students to know exactly where they stand, especially compared to other programs in the region. With repeated exposure to the same small pool of ensembles, it's understandably easy for students to gain a “big fish in a small pond” mentality to their performances. Touring drops your fishy students into a nation-sized pond to see and hear groups they have never heard before. Hearing the best ensembles in the country can help give a great boost to a students' drive to practice, to improve, and to hear new music performed at a high level.
Rehearsals can be repetitive—we've all been there: you tell the students every day, “more bow here,” “use more bow,” “use the opposite of less bow,” “free the elbow,” “imagine the upbow is like lifting dead souls by their hair out of the River Styx, and the souls are all tall spartan warriors, so you have to really pull,” etc. Nothing seems to work. Then, a guest clinician says to the students, “Hey, you should probably use more bow here,” and suddenly the students act as if they've never before heard such divine words. Something often clicks by hearing a fresh voice, and it gets results. The MFA Festival team of clinicians—some of the best professionals in the country—works with your group and gets results, and the students often get feedback from peers at meals or student socials.
2. Helping Grow the “Orchestra Nerds”
Think back to your own middle school, high school, and college music experiences. What do you remember more clearly: the detailed process of your teacher tuning an important chord in a piece's climax, or So-and-So's wacky bus antics on a trip? Or do you remember bonding with a friend, or laughing at a joke in rehearsal? Hopefully we all have some fondness of our orchestra experience, and hopefully it was a combination of both musical and social enjoyment. To help students gain a positive musical experience, we use many tools and tricks of the trade everyday in the pieces we select, our rehearsal pacing, and the way we repeatedly make sure the kids sit up straight or hold their bows correctly. What are we doing that helps kids' social needs while building orchestral musicians? How are we helping grow “orchestra nerds”—kids that are so in love with orchestra that they don't want to leave our rehearsals? We can build memories that last a lifetime and provide social experiences that gel with a top-notch performing experience by traveling—not just a “field trip,” but a play-hard, work-hard performance tour.
3. Keeping Up with Other Areas
Orchestra programs historically have had smaller numbers than other music ensembles in schools. Part of our role in educating the next generation of musicians is to reach out and recruit as many personality types as we can. Marching bands and show choirs regularly travel and compete in festivals—it's part of their culture. Their activities make them visible. We have to work harder in this regard, since traveling is often not naturally built into our programs. We typically don't have a “pep orchestra” to send out during basketball tournaments. We probably won't flaunt matching sequin dresses for our choreographed dance numbers. With visibility brings recognition; with recognition, support, and with better support usually comes more funding, more students, and better music making. So feel free to siphon that sequin budget into your travel funds and take your concert group on the road!
– Dan Whisler, Director of Orchestras, Youth Performing Arts School, Louisville, KY