Sunday, July 27, 2008

Summer Strings and Sesame Sauce

We just finished our fourth summer of Summer Strings in our small Midwestern town (a town that doesn't have a string program in its school system or in any school system within an hour's drive). We had around 40 string players take part in a program that my partner in string "crime," who teaches most of the young violinists and violists in the area (three of my students played this year) offer as a service to our community.

One of my father's "laws" (having a scientific mind helps him to map out the ways of the world, musical and otherwise) is that no matter how little rehearsal time you have for a given performance, it is always enough. He's right. If a group of musicians have a month or two to put something together, they will use all of the time, and a group has two days to put together a whole program, its members will use the allotted time to get the job done. It just takes a lot more concentration to do so, as well as a lot of personal practice time outside of rehearsal.

Our Summer Strings group put together an hour-long program of pieces in a variety of styles and from a variety of eras without a conductor in eight two-hour-long rehearsals (with breaks for cookies), four of which were used to read through music. It took a lot of work to get the six and seven-year-old children to remain focused and physically alert for two hours, and it took even more work to get them to count, remember where they were in their music, and listen to what was going on around them (it was my job to sit in the beginner section and corral them in--my bow acting like a lasso much of the time). Our final "product" was a concert that sounded really good. The whole was far more, in this case, than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps that is what I like most about ensemble music. Young people, especially string players, tend to be quite competitive when it comes to playing music. There is always someone who can play something that you are unable to play. There is always someone younger than you who can play something faster and cleaner. There is always someone who gets more attention and praise for what s/he does than you do. String players also tend to evaluate themselves by where they are seated in orchestras. It is a fact of life, even if it has no bearing in reality. Ideally members of an ensemble, particularly a string ensemble where there are several people playing the same part, should let down the walls of their individual egos and realize that what they contribute to their section is more valuable when they act as musical emulsifiers, allowing the oil and water of each person's sound to blend into a paste that can become a delicious musical sauce.

Now I have to insert a recipe that proves my point:
Take a tablespoonful or two of sesame tahini and add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice (always use more sesame than lemon). Mix them together for a while, and you will eventually get a very thick paste. Add some soy sauce or tamari (just a little bit) and mix it in. Then slowly add water, bit by bit. You will notice that the sauce will turn white and will remain thick (unless you add too much water--so be careful). You will find it delicious with just about anything.

The same magical thing happens with mustard and oil:
Mince some garlic, and put it and some olive oil in a glass. Add about an equal part of Dijon mustard to the oil, and put in a little salt. Mix it for a while, and you will notice that it will eventually form a jelly-like paste. Add vinegar and spices, and then add some water, a little at a time. The oil and water components of the salad dressing will magically remain mixed together.

So I hope that the musical sauce we made this year at Summer Strings will make our corner of the musical world a bit warmer. I am encouraged by the experience and am excited to spend time on more arrangements for next year.

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