A Very Different Conducting Workshop

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Last weekend the members of Me2/Boston held a very different kind of Conducting Workshop. When most musicians think of a conducting workshop they imagine young, highly-trained conductors stepping onto the podium and then receiving stern feedback from the Maestro in charge of the event. What transpired at Boston’s Engagement Center was quite the opposite in every way: we invited people in the audience, most of whom are homeless and some struggling with addiction, to give conducting a try in a fun and supportive environment.

We had no idea what to expect when we sent our musicians and Music Director, Ronald Braunstein, into the Engagement Center that day. Would anyone even want to conduct? What if nobody volunteered to try? 

Five people at the Engagement Center tried conducting for the very first time that day. The faces of the Me2/ musicians lit up into bright smiles as each new conductor found their groove and began relaxing on the podium. For just a few minutes, these new conductors were in charge of the orchestra, receiving gentle suggestions from Maestro Braunstein.

The gentleman pictured above was encouraged by a female friend to try conducting. “C’mon… you can do it!” she said repeatedly. He said that he couldn’t even stand on the podium so there was no way he could conduct. One of the musicians quickly pulled a chair over and two people took him by the hands and assisted him onto the podium. He sat and listened as Ronald Braunstein told him how to start the piece. He began conducting and, several times as he waved his arms gently to the music, he closed his eyes and seemed to let the music rush over him.

Later his female friend told us that she was surprised he did so well on the podium. She shared that he is in the early stages of dementia.


 

Feedback from two of the Me2/Boston musicians:

“Initially it was a little unsettling because we didn’t know exactly what would happen, however everyone stepped up to the plate, most importantly, the clients of the Engagement Center. At first I was surprised at the choice of music.  [ Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 ].  I thought the stops and starts would be difficult to manage, however it was amazing how quickly our guest conductors figured out what was going on. Many of them seemed to have a natural talent for understanding the emotions behind the music and how to convey them with their hands and arms.

A conductor is by definition the one in control and for the clients of Engagement Center, who probably don’t get many opportunities to exercise control in their lives, this opportunity was particularly rich. I especially appreciated the fact that Ronald (Braunstein, conductor) was not satisfied with merely having them stand up and wave their arms around. He gave them real instruction and, without applying pressure, show that he expected that they could do well. What a great compliment! By expecting something, he conveyed the message that they are capable and worthy.”

– Jan, cellist

“It was a beautiful new turn in the work we do as an orchestra to break through the boundaries between players and audience members and to lift all of our lives, players and listeners alike, above the chilling stigmas that divide us, one from another. Labels and conditions meant nothing as we, the players, responded to each of those who volunteered to try their hand at conducting a Brahms Hungarian Dance. When they moved with the alternating drama of the tempos and temperament of the piece, we moved with them, and we responded as much to the pleasure and surprise in their faces as to the notes on the page.  Even when a conductor’s movements were slight and hesitant, the orchestra fully responded to the spirit of those gestures, and we could see the conductor’s eyes light up with the power and simple human connection of the moment. 

I saw some of our musicians for whom this was their first Me2/ gig with looks of pure joy on their faces, matching the looks we saw among the audience members and the applause and laughter with which they supported their mates at the podium. This was another testament to the healing power of music, especially when it is offered freely and with love in an environment like the Engagement Center.” 

– Bob, clarinetist

 

Me2/’s residency at Boston’s Engagement Center is generously supported by Sunovion.

sunovion logo refreshed March 2017

Blog Post No. 3

Submitted by cellist and intern Nick Sterner, in response to Me2/’s dress rehearsal and performance for First Night Burlington on New Year’s Eve.

Following a stint of spring-like weather, the air quickly resumed its frigid squall as New Year’s Eve approached. Me2/ met for one last rehearsal before the annual First Night celebration that brings musicians of all genres, performing troupes and festive merriment to Burlington for one last hurrah.

As Me2/ ran through the program of Strauss dances and other Viennese New Year’s fare a final time, the orchestra was restless. Coming in late myself, the environment seemed to show the true colors of the musicians’ personalities. We all seemed to resonate with each other, and most of all with the anticipation that we had a program to play the following evening. Mixed as the mood was, the rehearsal went brilliantly as Ronald reminded us that he would conduct spontaneously the following night. In any other group, Ronald’s vow of spontaneity would usually cause greater anxiety among the musicians, but the members of Me2 seemed excited and unphased by a potential ‘curve ball.’

The following evening, the musicians started to arrive for the 5 o’clock call. As the small green room inside of the Baptist Church became alive with friendly chatter, laughter and the tones of tuning instruments, there was no anxiety in sight. Whatever anticipatory mood that was prevalent the previous evening had disappeared and was replaced not with overt confidence, but rather a content joy. It was one of those unique moments that seem to arise when a group of people gather for an in-the-moment experience, together.

FNB2Calmly content, the group filtered into the sanctuary where we began with the rolls of a snare drum that harkened in the Radetzsky March and our conductor to the podium. As the concert proceeded, time seemed to stand still as Ronald led us through the program with the spontaneity he had promised us, leaving us to play without him during one instance as he walked through the aisles greeting the audience with an outstretched hand, only to come back to us to conclude the piece.

After we ran through the bulk of the program, Caroline Whiddon stood up from her seat amongst the horn section where she spoke about Me2/ and its message of inclusion in a stigma-free environment. After answering questions and comments from the audience, the string section played Jingle Bells with the audience ringing the strategically placed bells intended for this moment along to the beat of the music.

Ronald then emerged from the back of the orchestra without applause as he lifted his arms for the opening sparkles of the Blue Danube Waltz. As we traveled through the suave melodies of the lush dance, we took the time he wanted us to take as the group pushed and pulled the rubato together, creating the classic Viennese schwung.

In the final crescendo that marked the end of the dance, the audience rose immediately to their feet greeting us with their smiles and applause. As the concert came and went, the musicians were again in the green room, packing up their instruments and entangling themselves in their mass of warm coats. It seemed as if it was all in a day’s work for the members of Me2/, to play as they did with great feeling and playfulness, only to leave the church with a job well done.

Playing with Me2/ is a pleasure. This group of musicians comes together to play with music, not to make music. They come to each other as they are, with a vivaciousness that comes from a love of life, and left their performance humbly content. On New Year’s Eve, Me2/ played with music as if they had been the Vienna Philharmonic enclosed within the Musikverein. They dared to ask the music for a chance to dance, and that they did.

“Music in the Prisons”: Reflections from the Performers


[The Me2/ cello trio toured the state of Vermont from August 6-10, 2012, giving hour-long performances in all of Vermont’s correctional facilities. After their successful performance tour, I asked the cello trio members to answer a few questions about their experiences. Their thoughts are shared below. — Caroline Whiddon, Me2/ Executive DIrector]
 

Why did you agree to give up a week of your summer vacation to go on a musical tour of Vermont’s prisons?

Will: Getting an offer to tour prisons is not an everyday opportunity. My summer is very busy with work and various other activities, but I was excited to expand my musical horizons with this unique experience.

Patrick: I’ve always wanted to play in a cello ensemble and I’ve always been interested in the more “activist” side of music. This was the best of both worlds.

What did you learn by performing for prisoners? How was this different from other performances?

Will: I’ve never had such an interactive audience. Usually, when playing classical repertoire, the show is very regimented with little to no conversation. On this tour there was dialogue between almost every piece of music. We had great conversations with our audience members. It was powerful listening to the inmates’ perspectives on music.

Patrick: Playing for the inmates gave us the unique experience of audience interaction and participation, something that really enhances the sense of community we can achieve from making music together. Every performance yielded new and thought-provoking questions and commentary, ranging from how the cello is constructed to how to “jam” to what kinds of music we love to how a composer even begins to make music.

I was also surprised by how many fellow musicians we encountered. Our performances did not feel like “charity”, nor did they feel like an elementary school “show and tell”. They created real dialogue and a connection between everyone in the room.

Liam: We had some of the best audiences I have ever played for. Inmates were extremely engaged and attentive during performance. I felt an energy that connected us (the musicians) to the audience unlike any other concert I have played.

We noticed that each prison had a unique atmosphere. As musicians, we can gauge our audience by their body language and the general feeling of the venue. As we played, many individuals leaned forward in their chairs, training their eyes and ears on us. After we finished, the energy in the room relaxed and the audience sat back, appreciative and reflective, digesting what just occurred.

As it turns out, prison is a real place with real walls, real bars, and with real people just like you and me.

Tell me about some of your interactions with the inmates that made an impression on you. How did they respond to you?

Patrick: We were all nervous for our first performance. And being locked behind solid metal bars just to get to our venue certainly didn’t help with that. But after our first experience we never felt nervous again. The inmates really valued our performances and many of them took the time afterward to thank us. At every facility, they asked us when we would come back.

Liam: My preconceived notions about prisoners were dissolved. Hands were raised when they had questions, and everyone listened respectfully while someone spoke. Looking back on the tour, I probably enjoyed our discussions with audience members even more than the actual performances.

Will: I didn’t realize how much of an impact an hour of classical music would really have, but hearing an inmate say “this is the best experience I’ve had in all five years of being here” was simply jaw dropping.

How would you respond if another artist came to you tomorrow and said, “I’m thinking about performing/teaching in prison. Do you think I should I do it?” 

Patrick: ABSOLUTELY.

Liam: Yes, you should definitely do it. Inmates have little to no access to music. Live music does wonders for people. One individual told the trio, “Outside of prison, I would never have gone to a classical music performance,” and he added that a live performance of classical music is “a very special thing to get”.

Do people who have committed crimes deserve to have access to performances?

Liam: Yes, of course they do. Prisoners have almost no access to music other than the radio. Bringing classical music into prisons allows inmates time and space for reflection. Classical music has the power to heal.

Patrick: Yes, without question. Music has incredible healing and nurturing abilities. Many of the men and women we met with had very limited or no consistent access to music or musical instruments at all. One man told us that in 5 years he had never seen a musical performance group come to the facility. If these people are incarcerated for the purpose of rehabilitation and to understand what it means to be better citizens, then they need access to the most universal language of humanity: music. Many people we met told us that they listen to their radios whenever they can, and that music has given them a new perspective on life. Music is transformative.

If you were to perform in the prisons again, what might you do differently, and why?

Will: Not IF, simply WHEN. I’ll be back with a team of Berklee [School of Music] friends. You’d better believe there will be an electric cello with me as well!

Patrick: I would do what the audiences asked us to do: bring more instruments!

Liam: I would prepare a piece of music that was requested in St Albans during our final performance of the tour: “Amazing Grace”.

Special thanks to the individual donors who contributed specifically in support of the “Music in the Prisons” tour. This project was made possible through the Small and Inspiring Grant Program from the Vermont Community Foundation