Thursday, May 18, 2006

Making music with the instruments you have, not the instruments you want

Over the past few years, and not only out of a parent's sense of duty, I've had the opportunity to hear quite a few school music concerts, at the elementary and Gymnasium levels both in Hungary and in Germany. Instrumental ensembles in schools do not have the traditions or standardization found in US schools, they don't have rooms built for ensembles, they don't have stocks of loaner instruments, and, as ensembles as not taught as courses, teachers usually can expect one rehearsal per week. Given those constraints, they do a valliant job. Not having to have bands march certainly helps (in Germany, marching appears to be reserved for the military (which, in past-war Germany has little public presence), for Carnival-season drum and bugle corps, and the Schalmei bands associated with organized labor (increasingly rare)). But music teachers are usually stuck with the instruments that students happen to be learning privately, and without loaners for the less popular and more expensive instruments, the teachers have limited abilities to steer violinists toward violas, or wind players away from flutes and saxophones. That means that the teacher has to go into concerts with odd doublings or substitutions and either going on stage with two dozen flutes or forcing the two dozen flautists to rotate.

So, in the face of a fit of flutes, we've either got to start playing up the advantages of learning oboe or viola or horn (you'll never be lonely if you take up the bassoon!), or start composing and arranging interesting music for flute choirs, or silver-heavy orchestras. A few years back, I made a piece -- a kind of concerto -- for the Swiss pianist Hildegard Kleeb and a Spanish student orchestra. I had to take the instruments they had, which meant too many flutes. But, in retrospect, having five flute parts and a piccolo and a full set of saxophones turned out to be one of the key elements in the piece. It's certainly not a well-behaved orchestration, but it is an orchestration you'll never forget.

Being given an unusual instrumentation to work with is certainly a major constraint on the composer, but maybe composers ought to think more like escape artists, and figure out ways to convince the audience that nothing can hold us down. Figuring out what to do with two dozen flutes is surely the least of our worries.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

As one who's totally ignorant of what goes on on the other side of the Atlantic, I'm rather shocked to hear that ensembles are not taught as courses and meet only once a week. Keeping The Arts® in the public school curriculum is always such a major focus in the USA, and besides all the usual pronouncements about music and art making kids smarter, there's also a fair amount of handwringing over where "the audiences of tomorrow" will come from if kids are not exposed to music in school. Yet there's also the assumption by people like me who don't know any better that "things are better in Europe" on just about every level when it comes to music. Is it that music making is enough a part of the culture that schools don't necessarily need to be the conduit? This makes me think of John Taylor Gatto's assertion that literacy rates were higher before public schooling was established; when it comes to music, could we in the USA be putting too much emphasis on the curricular rather than the extra-curricular lives of our children?