Collaboration — beginners, audience, and professionals

What follows came today as a comment on my post about pieces a whole community can play, from my friend John Steinmetz. It’s well worth sharing with everyone. And it’s another solutions post.

I especially like John’s descriptions of the pieces he’s written, where professionals collaborate with the rest of the world. I’d love to hear them — and watch them on YouTube.

John ends, by the way, by saying he’d like to see more examples of these collaborations. So would I! Send them in, via email or blog comments, and I’ll post them here.

Since James Conlon became Music Director, L.A. Opera has been doing Noye’s Fludde every couple of years in the Los Angeles Cathedral, and it’s been a huge success. In alternate years they do other community projects: the Play of Daniel, or a staged Handel oratorio. Church choirs, high school string players, children’s choirs, and community performers join in. The audiences are huge and enthusiastic. Oddly, performances like this may not get much press coverage, because critics don’t usually cover events involving non-professionals. This is another aspect of the classical music world that needs to change.

As a composer, I’ve been collaborating with pianist/conductor Eric Stumacher on projects to combine professionals and non-professionals. None is as ambitious as the Britten, but I have been astonished at how much positive energy is released by collaboration across skill levels.

One recent project is “Together,” for orchestra and beginning string players. The student players play an 8-bar first-position melody in unison, in canon, pizzicato, in different tempos. The orchestra plays an introduction and then accompanies that melody in different ways, so the piece is like a set of variations. At one point a drone can be extended into an optional section, with local traditional music played over the drone. Near the end the melody is sung, and at the very end the audience joins in the singing.

In Amman, Jordan, the Amman Symphony Orchestra invited beginners from a local private high school, the National Music Conservatory, and a refugee camp; and Conservatory faculty members played the optional section as an improvisation on oud and qanun. In Keene, NH, the Keene Chamber Orchestra was joined by students from the local elementary school strings program; the optional section was played by a fiddler and keyboard player prominent in the area’s contradance tradition. Both performances drew large audiences (everyone wants to see their children play with the orchestra) and ended with a wonderful feeling of connectedness in the room. (Both concerts started with standard classical works.)

On a much simpler level, Eric has been performing my Etude for piano and audience. It’s a short piece; the audience claps simple rhythms along with the piano, a little bit like an audience clapping along at a folk or pop show. This very basic participation has evoked so much enthusiasm that we’re talking about more kinds of Etudes.

I’ve heard about projects in England that have schoolchildren compose music that they later will perform with professionals from an orchestra as part of a larger piece. In imitation of this I wrote “One and Many” for the Apple Hill Chamber Players, and I tried out lots of kinds of participation, too. Two of the five movements were composed and performed by children using found objects. Local musicians–professionals or advanced students or amateurs–joined in for the last movement. Community members played small bells (no music training needed). A drone instrument with super-large vibraphone bars, could be played by anyone: once the group’s taxi driver played, and once, at a concert in Israel, an Israeli student, a Palestinian student, and an American diplomat played the drone instrument together.

This kind of piece can create a lot of good will in the community. Why doesn’t it happen more? Probably because most classical music organizations don’t think of it, because it’s outside their usual role. It’s unfamiliar turf. But there’s a chance here to unleash a lot of enthusiasm. I’m with Greg; I’d like to see lots more examples.

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  1. says

    Totally agree. We identified this problem in London about 2 years ago and started ‘Music and the City’

    It’s been a big success and I think part of that is because of how the relationship between professional and amateur musicians develops, and what a fine line there can be sometimes when music making is at its purest – at best, boundaries drop away and there is nothing but technical ability/experience-level that differentiates an individual’s experience. A glass of wine helps too :)

    Therefore, it follows that such pro-am experiences are as valuable for the pro as for the amateur, and vice versa.

    Perhaps this fits with the idea of a journalist becoming an ideas/opinion-aggregator or a community-leader … so pro musicians are now community-leaders in the same way, from a cultural perspective…?

    Seth Godin’s ‘Tribes’ is an interesting book in this respect.