It was fortuitous that only a week after leading a workshop in Atlanta on work place coaching – in which I mentioned the peer coaching of the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra*, (pictured above) - I was able to attend a rehearsal by a student orchestra (minus a conductor) coached by a musician from Orpheus!
Martha Caplin, Orpheus violinist, would coach an evening rehearsal of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, "Scottish," by the Manhattan School of Music student orchestra.
While still early, I was one of the last to get to the John C. Borden Auditorium, the School’s main performance space with its over 800 seats. The 25-30 musicians for the Bach piece were already there, either in the seats just below the elevated stage or up on the stage, tuning their instruments. All the energetic droning and sawing suggested to me that the group was wound up and ready to go.
Liz Mahler, the Orpheus coordinator (and a Juilliard graduate violinist), introduced me to Martha. Martha was in a pink bolero jacket – a half smock style and emanated an immediate friendliness, a kindliness approaching what I would call at evening’s end a motherly-ness or the loving ambiance of a favorite aunt.
Liz let me know the orchestra is zeroing in on its Friday performance, three days away! Instead of working a full semester at learning how to select the music, take responsibility for rehearsal and for performance, this student orchestra started at full speed, two weeks ago!
With only two more rehearsals after tonight for their three-piece performance, Liz cautioned me that Martha would intervene more than might be expected in a self managed rehearsal. I wondered how much she would revert to the conductor/leader model.
Unusually, as they began the Bach piece, all the violins were standing, 6 or 8 players in all. When I asked Liz why, she said the standing was unique to this piece, kind of like having multiple soloists.
(As the first bars of Bach’s music filled the hall, I made a note in my journal: “How nice to be here!” My relief probably was in large part due to the bother of getting to NYC; the first few notes of the music were indeed exhilarating and made it all worthwhile.)
To my untrained ear, the students seem to hurry their way through the Bach piece. And, there was no eye contact, each player focused on his or her paper score.
As promised, Martha steps in – in a gentle way. “OK”, says Martha, her violin in hand. “Your tempo is OK; remember this is an overture; you want to let the audience hear what is coming, but your playing should not have a feeling of anxiety." Use “bigger beats”. “Big, big beats”, she demonstrates with her arms, gesturing from her toes up. “(It’s) different from rushing through, rushing ahead. You are right about the enthusiasm (in the music) Yes! BUT, Ahh. Wait for it, the ahhhh for the audience.”
She demonstrates with her violin, light, advises, “listen to the brass”, be in touch all the time." “Already better.”
Martha uses both “adjusting" and "reinforcing" statements” – the ones I talked about in my workshop – to good effect. Her criticism is well balanced, with more pats on the back than asking the players to modify a sound or tempo. Students respond to her, engage with her. There’s a growing comfort, an easy willingness to try stuff, to adjust toward what Martha is telling them she is hearing.
Martha’s now up on stage, alongside the second violin in the middle, playing. Then, back in the center aisle out front of the stage, keeping time, swaying with hands and arms.
She cautions a second time about the anxiety. Then, “Way better”. I can see a concurrent agreement among the players. Now the clarinetist's eyes are in contact with others.
Martha is back on stage, walking in their midst.
She further sets them at ease, describes that their rushing, even running, through the piece, may result in missing, forgetting a nuance, An, “Oh, shit”…moment (Much laughter) of what might have been had we taken it slower. She asks them for “more air, more delighted-ness” in the playing.
Martha moves with the music, displays her fondness for it. Now, a high thumbs up for the group.
A cellist player is out in auditorium, listening. He stops the group and gives feedback to the group.
Another student violinist goes into the auditorium to hear, encourages them to play “like with the knees” to simulate the movement in the playing, the feeling in the music.
“OK”, even I can pick up the added richness to the music by the students' slowing down. More violinist feedback from out front. Martha: “Really good, sounds great.”
There are now six 6 players out listening to the collective sound, “lovely.”
Lots of discussion now, peer coaching going on in every direction.
Martha talks a bit about different ways of playing this piece, two styles; she prefers them to make a “commitment to magic” Martha demonstrates on her violin what THAT sounds like.
I’m picking up layers of sound, as the students fine-tune their instrumental groups. A coming together.
A touch of anxiety reasserts. “Bach, trust him”, encourages Martha. “Listen to the trumpet”. It's silvery smooth sound, glides above the orchestra.
More discussion among the players, only a few do not say anything. In general, highly participatory. “Just try it a bit,” Martha promotes experimentation.
The timpanist speaks up. (A first in my observing rehearsals for several years!) Martha tells whom to listen to for the sound in a particular segment. “Listen to the cello.” “Getting better, just trust it.”
The extra players for the Mendelssohn piece are coming in now. Different students coming in – checking their cell phones instead of talking to each other.
This is a larger musical piece; the winds and brass will be on risers. Tuning up again. There’s a new concertmaster and the person who was the 1st violin in the Bach is now a second fiddle. Martha is side by side with them. Her mannerisms, her gestures, are always encouraging the students, welcoming them to try out something different, to push themselves, Martha’s coaching is more about showing, suggesting, than about telling, directing.
These students want to be coached by someone like Martha. By someone who knows what she is doing. And, they listen to each other!
The orchestra is now double. It starts to play, Martha is gesturing, more up, be involved. (Now it’s slow, draggy). A “dreamy” sequence someone calls it. Soporific, too, I note.
“More subtle” asks Martha. In her feedback, Martha alludes to the sensation of a “heart warming up”.
She asks for more listeners in audience, promoting and prompting their individual roles in giving feedback, being proactive – after all there is no musical director, no conductor to tell them. The winds speak up. There are as many as 4-6 listeners in audience.
The concertmaster acknowledges the 3rd violin, out on the wing of the orchestra. Martha plays alongside the concertmaster, walks over to the winds, side by side. and plays alongside the satellite player on the wing.
Martha models the tempo, tone, and gives them all a reminder about the time – they have until 9:30PM.
She asks, “What do you want to do?” They decide.
Martha tells the brass when to kick in. She stands next to them. “Let’s see what happens. Try it out.” She is a coach/leader, very much in the middle, alongside other leaders. She inspires conversations with her and among other musicians. She demonstrates - quickly always with minimum airtime – no speeches or historical lectures about the music. There’s time and space for peer coaching to take place.
*In chapter 17: “Peer Coaching for the New Library”
of LfM, I elaborate on my “take-aways” from observing several student orchestras learning to play without a conductor. In summary, I saw these as essential elements for the orchestra’s success, and by extension, for the success of any self-managing group:
Delegation of responsibility
Communication – talking - giving feedback