No musician matures by herself, or by himself. From the beginnings, child musicians search for ways to express themselves from their own hearts and minds. Even if drawn toward music from within, they usually seek to emulate someone older, though. Eventually, they gain craft and intricate skills through guidance from teachers, mentors, siblings or parents, and from occasionally hearing or seeing prominent or famous performers.
When I was a kid, my initial inspirations to explore music came from my older sister, who was a serious piano student, and from playing in school bands and orchestras. Beyond that, it was through being helped by adult musicians who recognized my deep love of music, and helped nurture it, that made a huge difference. Even though my parents payed for private lessons on brass instruments, I got many hours of free help from adults, assisting me in finding my way as a beginning composer and conductor.
That was over fifty years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to repay the gifts of curiosity, knowledge and technique they bestowed upon me. Although I get paid to teach young people about the intricacies and simplicities of musical art, I long ago silently promised those who helped me, to always find the time to help young artists who want or need help, no matter what our professional relationship.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to watch young musicians advance from grade school, through conservatory, and on to professional life, where they, in turn, now teach young people to fulfill their intense love of art.
The biggest challenge for young performers is preparing major solos for performance, or competition. Whether the kids are eager to dive into the work, or reluctant, there is something there for them to learn. Helping them assess what those lessons were after their performance can be almost as important as helping them prepare the piece in the first place. Sometimes it is easier for them to learn lessons from a performance that enhance what they do next, if the performance wasn’t up to their or others’ expectations.
One of the most exciting things for me is to accompany, either on keyboard or as conductor, a young soloist in a performance that sees that person through to another level of understanding, musicianship, or personal satisfaction. My favorite of all time was perhaps back in 1998.
A fifth grade trumpet player had heard me direct an adult performer in Johann Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto. The kid came to me a week later, and said “I want to do that!” I asked if he was sure, and he was affirmative.
A week later, he played it for me. From memory.
Two months later, when this 11-year-old performed the concerto flawlessly, the audience jumped out of their seats in awe. I stepped down from the podium and picked him up, holding him up high enough so everyone could see him beaming with pride (and a bit of shock).
Last fall, I directed the same young man, now a college graduate and best young jazz trumpeter in Alaska, in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Once again, the audience jumped out of their seats. This time, however, I didn’t pick him up. He’s six feet four inches. It’d be easier for him to pick me up.
Since September, I’ve been the conductor and music director of the Anchorage Civic Orchestra. All three of our soloists so far have been high school performers or young adults. We have more planned, including a new work for Japanese Taiko drum ensemble and orchestra. Our winter high school concerto competition had two soloists so outstanding, we couldn’t decide which one deserved to win. Rather than toss a coin, we decided to feature them both.
Here is the younger of the two, Dane Breitung, a junior, performing Claude T. Smith‘s Fantasia for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra a week ago:
Musical performance, like much of art and life, is a continuity of young people learning to render something inanimate into a breathing, vibrant reality. All around the world, hundreds of thousands of kids, teens and young adults are struggling to conquer a tricky passage, a new concept, a unique approach to sound. As much joy as I get from helping such talent and dedication, I do love learning from them that there is such good as this in a terrible world.