Find a Story, Tell a Story in Music

  • Posted on: 18 October 2017
  • By: Friends of Music

It was 8:30 a.m. in June—pretty early for a gig for any professional chamber ensemble. But the Zorá String Quartet, the graduate quartet in residence at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, was excited, wide-eyed, and ready to meet Brittney Trenczer’s string-instrument students from Sleepy Hollow High School and Middle School.

The kids slowly drifted into the auditorium, and while attendance was taken I watched the students check out the young musicians on stage: Dechopol Kowintaweewat and Seula Lee, violinists, Pablo Muñoz, viola, and Zizai Ning, cello, all twentysomethings, and part of a four-year-old group. The students had been well-prepared by Ms. Trenczer, Sleepy Hollow’s orchestra director, to expect a great performance. But they had no idea what to anticipate after that.

That’s the beauty of the Partnership in Education, offered to students of Westchester County public schools since 1990 by the Friends of Music. FoM has been giving out grants to these schools since 2004, usually two each year, that enable kids to hear outstanding performances and participate in workshops with highly-talented, award-winning young professionals.

The Zorá began by performing Mozart’s “Spring Quartet” in G major k.387. Their sound filled the high school auditorium and captured the interest of the students. Since this was to be “directed listening,” the musicians took turns giving biographical information on the then-26 year old composer and, more importantly, focused on the interplay of musical themes. The students were asked to listen for the lyricism, humor, unexpected accents, dynamics, contrapuntal effects, and so on.

All this was part of the overriding theme of the day: “how to find a story and tell a story” in music, as violist Muñoz put it. It was a different approach, a new beginning, to music appreciation. How appropriate for this quartet: In Bulgarian, zorá means “sunrise.” The kids really enjoyed learning to discern who was playing what theme—and when. The quartet also instructed them to pay attention to the eye contact between the musicians, the constant communication with one another, as well as the fun they were having while performing.

After Mozart came a surprise—an extraordinarily unusual piece completely different in style and character: “Whims for String Quartet” by Atar Arad, the Israeli-American violinist, composer, and professor of music at Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music. He has also mentored various members of the Zorá, whose 2015 performance of this work was the New York premier.

Arad’s contemporary sounds and effects, such as rhythmic foot stomping, amazed and amused the kids.

After questions from the audience about how the musicians met, how long they practice, where they’ve performed, and so forth, the most essential part of the workshop began.

Ms. Trenczer had organized seven Master classes, each one of the 45-minute sessions devoted to private study with the Zorá. The Sleepy Hollow groups: the High School Honors Quartet, the High School Elite Quartet, the High School Chamber Orchestra, the High School Select Quartet, the High School Advanced Quintet, the Middle School Clefftastrophe ,and the Middle School Chamber Ensemble. You could hear Ms. Trenczer’s seriousness of purpose and the exhuberance reflected in her students.

It was now time for the students to perform for the Zorá and perform they did—hesitantly at first. But with the musicians’ friendly encouragement, excellent communication, and a sense of humor, the kids began to relax…and learn. Each group played the pieces it had selected to perform in the schoo’s year-end concert. It was absolutely amazing to hear the difference in performance quality at the beginning and end of each private session.

Of course, the Zorá made technical suggestions—bowing techniques, position, and so on. But the greatest gains in musicianship were harder to quantify: learning to listento each other, actually looking at one another, “talking” to each other through the music, listening closely to the music, finding the themes—especially those that were passed along from one instrument or one section of the string ensemble to the other. These were crucial to making music.

The Quartet also emphasized attention to dynamics. “Is this a forceful section?” “Should this be loud? angry? funny?” “Are you communicating the joy of this section?” “Can you hear the melody that is passed along from one to the other?” “Are you telling a story through your music?”

As every performer (and listener) eventually comes to know, great music is a never-ending journey of discovery.

In just one day, the Zorá did much to send these music students along the first steps of a wonderful journey.

Music: Hear it, love it, live it.

Friends of Music is now offering grant applications to schools for next year’s Partnership in Education program. Be sure to visit that section of our website to learn more and download the application.