Although there is well over a month left of summer for me, I've already had so many memorable experiences. In June, I had a fantastic vacation to Europe for two weeks that was a great way to forget about the trombone briefly and unload some of the tension from a long season. Following that was a little time to get back in shape before heading back to South Africa for the 9th annual Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival.
Just as last year, this year's festival was very special for me. I had the opportunity to further some really important relationships with students that I had begun last year. It was a real pleasure to see how much some of them have progressed since last year and how much enthusiasm they have for making music and learning more about the trombone. Furthermore, as a teacher, it was great to be in a place where so many people understand that although we are in the business of making music, we are even more in the business of helping people.
Being a teacher at a festival for only ten days out of the year is a touchy thing. You want to help, but you don't want to change too much and not be around to see someone through to the conclusion of developing a particular skill. On the other hand, you know that your time is limited, so you want to give everything you can while you can. At the end of the day, there are only so many tools you can provide in such a limited amount of time, and sometimes a few of those gains may come unraveled in the following months because you are not there to watch over the student until the changes become permanent.
However, there IS something you can give that has true staying power. Inspiration. As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime." Is it important that we talk about pitch, rhythm, phrasing, and technique? Absolutely. Nobody in our business makes it far without those things, but they also don't make it very far without a burning desire to deepen their knowledge base. In my opinion, that desire stems from first having a belief that you are capable and worthy of success.
I was very fortunate as a student to have three important teachers push the "you can do it" button inside of me. We have all seen inspirational speeches and self-help books, but for there to be real lasting effect, there needs to be a personal relationship that is defined by respect for the messenger and compassion for the recipient. There is responsibility on both ends. Once that relationship is established, the teacher's first goal should be to push that button. After all, it's nearly impossible for a person to accomplish more than they actually believe they can. There is no need for long winded sermons or mass pomp and circumstance. It's simple. Let someone know that you believe in them, and if they will believe in themselves and make every effort, the rest is history.
Frederick Douglass said, "Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation." It can't be said any better than that, and it's something we should all think about whether our position as an inspirational figure is as a teacher, a parent, a big brother or sister, or just someone's friend. Long story short, everybody wants to do something great. If you have someone's ear, remind them that they can. The joy of seeing someone take the good news and run with it is incredibly rewarding. If they take a tuner and metronome with them, even better.
On another note, the festival was filled with great concerts. All of the faculty performances were exceptional. I was introduced to some fantastic string repertoire that I previously didn't know, and it was played marvelously. As great as all those performances were, I have to say that Anthony McGill's performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet stood out to me as one of the most beautiful things I've EVER heard. It really had everything. That's one of those performances that no one in attendance will soon forget.
The student concerts were exceptional. I was particularly proud of the trombone sextet that put in a lot of hard work to present a really great concert. The student orchestra concerts were fantastic as well. As I listened to the student concerts, I found myself in a very joyful emotional place. There were some wrong notes and pitch inconsistencies, maybe a missed entrance here or there, but there was always a commitment to the phrase and the emotional intent of the music. The technical inconsistencies are often times the things that professional groups freak out about. It occurred to me and some of my colleagues in attendance that what some professional groups should be freaking out about is what these students have that they don't. Perhaps it's a result of only playing a few concerts a year or maybe it's that they are amongst friends or they want to impress their teachers and parents.... Most likely it's all of the above and a few other things I'm forgetting to point out. One way or another, they've managed to put joy in the sound. The joy in the sound is unmistakeable and it moves everyone that listens. The audience explodes with a raucous ovation not because everything was in tune, in time and with a good sound. That all helps of course (and it IS important, don't get me wrong), but what matters most is that it was played from a place of love for the music and that feeling is so overwhelming that it bleeds into the audience. People cant help but be moved by watching a group of young people so wholly committed to a cause. It's a powerful and exciting thing to witness. One of my colleagues commented, "If we played in smaller halls and had the energy of a youth orchestra, we wouldn't have a problem selling tickets." I agree.
In closing, there are two stories that are definitely worth noting. First, a student of mine at SICMF, Angus Petersen, was awarded a scholarship to attend a summer music festival in Linz, Austria next year. Also, another student of mine at the festival, Ash-Lee Louwskieter was given a Bach 42 trombone as a gift/donation from Ken Thompkins, Principal Trombonist of the Detroit Symphony. In a conversation a few months back, I mentioned to Ken how much I enjoyed the festival last year and how there are so many hard working students that are in need of any help they can get. Ken offered to donate a trombone to a deserving student, and I gladly agreed to take the horn and find a worthy recipient. Thanks to Ken's great generosity, Ash-Lee, at age 27, is now the owner of his own instrument for the first time in his life. Angus, as a result of his industriousness, will now have a great opportunity to travel to Europe for studies. Ash-Lee spoke about how he wants to use music to minister to people in the many impoverished communities in South Africa and Angus was so moved that he couldn't speak at all... Well, not for twenty minutes or so. The genuine gratitude for these blessings displayed by these two men was something to behold. It's a beautiful thing to see hard-working, deserving individuals without any sense of entitlement have their efforts rewarded. I'm not often enough exposed to people who have had enough lows to truly relish the highs. Just another example of how the more you give, the more you receive. My heart was warmed for sure, and although some people swear they saw tears from me, I'll stick with the line one my best friends used after we both saw the great movie Antwone Fisher years ago and left the theater sobbing like little girls.... "Nah man. I wasn't crying. I just got some popcorn grease in my eye." Heaven forbid we get too soft. We brass players have an image to maintain! :-)