In the past few weeks, I have been traveling around, conducting these special all county and all city orchestras. I love these events so much. What great power we have as the conductor of an ensemble such as this. Students remember what they learned and did at these events for years to come. My husband still talks about some of his past conductors and their performances. He even still listens to the recordings from time to time! For me, it was seeing female conductors of events like this that made me realize that yes, females could be conductors too. Not that I ever aspired to be a professional conductor, but only that I wanted to be like them in some capacity, touching the lives of young musicians. The teachers who run these events are often incredibly dedicated and they truly want to accept as many students as possible, to affect as many students as they can. So, the ensembles are quite large. As the guest conductor, I understand what a big deal it is to every single student that they made it past the audition. Many of them have been looking forward to this for months, practicing the music, listening to it, and sometimes, looking up my bio. I do everything I can to ensure the best possible experience for EVERY student. The students in the front, and the students in the back. The students in the middle, the ones with special needs, and the ones without documented special needs but still with other kinds of special needs (you know what I mean…). During each of these events (some of which only last one day), I play a little game with myself. I try to see if I can say out loud the name of every single student in the ensemble at some point. This can be quite a challenge considering that I only have about 8 hours to prepare a program of 3 – 4 pieces of music and I have a good 50 + names to get through. But I think it is incredibly important. Whether I am giving out a compliment, asking them about their lives during the break, or calling them out for being goofy… I make sure that I say their name. Sometimes, the students look amazed that I know their name (even though there is a name tag on the front of their stand). They are especially amazed if I can say their name during a break when they are without their name tag. While it may seem like a silly game, I think it is a powerful exercise. I am showing every student that I see them, I am glad they are there at this special event, that they are worthy of some individual attention. Last week, there was a student in the very back of the ensemble. We will just call her “Laila.” Laila was definitely struggling to perform and perhaps she was getting embarrassed that she didn’t know the music like the other students. And she never really did catch up. But, she must have worked awfully hard to make it into the ensemble. Because she really knew that excerpt from the audition. Perhaps it was her own personal challenge to get in to this honors orchestra. But, her ability at that point in her life just wasn’t there yet and it showed. She became so frustrated that at one point, during the rehearsal, she pulled together three chairs from the stage and just laid down… During the rehearsal! My instinct was to SCREAM at her!!! But I thought, “maybe there’s more than just disrespect… maybe something terrible happened… ” I didn’t know why she did this, but she did. So I had the ensemble play and I walked back to her while they were playing. I said “Laila, what’s wrong?” With as much concern as my angry self could give. She said “I don’t know. It’s just really hot in here, and the lights are really bright, and I just don’t want to play right now.” I asked her if she was ill, should I get her teacher? She said no, she would try harder. During the break, I shared this story with her director. She said “Okay, let me talk to her and maybe I’ll move her to a different seat so she’s not all alone.” Immediately before the start of rehearsal, I went to Laila in her new seat and said “Laila, I am so glad you are still going to play! And now that you are here, I can see you even better!” She gave me a half smile and just shrugged. One of the pieces on the program was a compilation of songs from Les Miserables. I talked to the students about the power of music to change a people. We talked about the privilege to make music and how many of my own students could not play an instrument in their home country, that is, until they came to our country. There are places where females are not allowed to play. Some of these students were not aware of that and seemed surprised that that were even a possibility. During “Red-Black” song, we had students speaking some of the lyrics “do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again… When the beating of our hearts matches the beating of a drum, it is the music that will start when tomorrow comes” (Something like that…) As the rehearsal went on, I noticed such a change in Laila. She was focused and was really trying. She still struggled, absolutely, but the effort was finally there. At one point, the students were not listening when I told them where to pick up. Laila stood up, with determination and a surprising amount of purpose, and said to the entire ensemble… “Ya’ll better listen to her. I will HAVE you if you don’t listen to her… She is nice.” Glaring at the students who weren’t paying attention and with the most serious face you’ve ever seen on an eighth grader. I looked back at her teacher who was watching with a knowing smile. This student had just displayed an incredibly public statement of loyalty to me, someone she had just met that day… The rest of the day, she would do little things like this, watching like a hawk when students would talk to me, approaching me during the break with musical questions, and pushing herself throughout the rest of the day. I know it wasn’t just my utterance of her name that made this difference. I know that her teacher worked some powerful magic on this student to get her to work like this. I know that there was a combination of factors, but I cannot help but think that by noticing her in that last chair, by expressing concern rather than frustration, by using her name to address her, that all of these things together changed her experience. From one that might have discouraged any future participation in honors events like this, to one that proves that she CAN do it. That she IS good enough. And that when she puts effort forth, she will gain success.
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