It was my first teaching job, at the illustrious Savannah Country Day School. As most first teaching jobs are, it was certainly a learning experience. My classes included choir and drama grades sixth through twelve, plus advising, carpool, and directing (musical and theatrical), producing, accompanying, set-designing and building, and even teaching choreography for the high school and middle school musicals. In my first year, I lost my voice and had to go on vocal rest for two weeks (the best thing to ever happen to my teaching, but that’s another post). I got scolded by parents for requiring their children to actually memorize their dramatic monologues. I got yelled at by students for removing their favorite (i.e. disgusting) sofa from the classroom. And, I had what was supposed to be a serious conversation with 40 sixth graders dissolve into a giggly discussion of farts (to date my biggest, and funniest, teaching failure).
Feeling dejected and unsuccessful, I continued into my second year pondering how I would teach these kids to love music. And then, like a knight in shining armor, the answer came (as it probably does for many) in the form of Yo Yo Ma. Yo Yo Ma was coming to perform with the Savannah Symphony, and I was determined to take my students. If I couldn’t teach them to love music as it SHOULD be loved, then surely Yo Yo Ma could!
My colleagues thought I was crazy, not because of Yo Yo Ma – they all wanted hear him, too, but because the piece was Strauss’ Don Quixote, not your standard cello concerto, and definitely NOT something the kids would get. I mean, it’s a tone poem after all! These kids will eat you, the Savannah Symphony, and Strauss alive, my fellow teachers warned.
Undeterred, I started early. Months in advance, I started taking time out of rehearsal to read abridged vignettes from the Cervantes. For each scene, I explained all of the relevant music, from the solo cello, viola, euphonium, and bass clarinet to the smallest details, such as the clarinet and brass flutter tonguing that represents the sheep. When we got to the open rehearsal, they were transfixed! And, when it came to questions, the students overcame their usual inclination to ask questions about practice time, age, and, yes, bodily functions, and they actually asked about the MUSIC. What was it like to play a character on the cello? Do you play this differently than a concerto where you aren’t playing a person? From gas to Strauss – these kids and I had come a long way!
But the story doesn’t end there.
Months later, I had to miss work and hired a sub. I grabbed a trusty Leonard Bernstein Young Peoples Concert video, left it on the desk, and headed out of town. The report back from the very confused sub was priceless.
When the video gets to about 12:45, Leonard Bernstein tells the children in the audience that he was going to relay a story about Superman, a kazoo-playing character, and some prisoners, and he warns them that this is not the correct story for the music that will follow. Of course, being middle schoolers, my students didn’t pay attention to the heads up about the story switch. Instead, when the music started, they about caused a riot. “Who is this guy?”, they asked the sub. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”, they argued. “That’s not Superman!”, they ranted. The sub prodded further. They made her stop the video and told her that this man in the black and white video was completely wrong about the story, and he must not be very smart. You see, they told the sub, this was actually a scene from Strauss’ Don Quixote. That main theme is not Superman’s at all, but rather that of the adventurous and slightly clueless Don Quixote himself. And the prisoners’ snoring was actually the bleating of sheep that Don Quixote imagined to be an approaching army. AND, this guy didn’t even mention the coolest part, that the clarinets and brass are playing flutter tongue!
Luckily, they resumed the video and soon realized that Bernstein was in on the trick, and he actually DID know that this was Strauss. If the sub had stopped there, I would have brought 40 middle schoolers from flatulence to flutter-tonguing in less than a year, but they would have grown up thinking Leonard Bernstein was a failure. Although I’m proud of the former, I don’t know if I could have lived with the latter.
The rest of the Strauss segment is at the beginning of this video.