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.
On January 19, 2014, Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY will be filled with music of celebration, reflection, and remembrance as Erin Freeman leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, and a community-wide chorus organized by Bessie Patterson in a celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Repertoire includes works by Still, Verdi, Mozart, Coleridge-Taylor, and more.
An obituary alternative – written with the bias, admiration, and love that only a granddaughter could hold.
(However, I’m pretty sure that many folks would agree that Cornelia Freeman holds a unique position in the history of grand dames.)
Cornelia Rickenbacker Freeman, known variously as Mrs. Robert E. Lee Freeman the Third, Mother, “Corny,” Aunt Cornelia, Great Grandmother, and to me, Grandmother, passed away peacefully on Thursday, November 7, 2013. She is survived by three smart, fair, and caring sons, three daughters-in-law whom she treated just as if they were her own children, 6 grandchildren (7 counting Eliza), 7 great- grandchildren (8 including Eliza’s child, who is on the way), and countless more distant relatives whom she made feel like immediate family. Several family members, including her witty daughter and her serious but kind husband, were fortunate to experience her presence before they passed. In addition, in the wake of her indomitable spirit, she leaves countless musicians for whom her support made the difference between a life without and a life with music.
“She lived a full life and touched many people” is a common sentiment heard at the loss of most centenarians. And, certainly this phrase rings true for Grandmother. But, the same would have been said of her as a teenager, when she won awards in music and writing and rode her horse King Tut to school. Or, as a piano student at Columbia College, where her experience was so positive that she continued to support the women at that school with scholarships and encouragement until her final days. As a young wife, during the depression, she learned to “reuse and recycle,” employing skills that could turn her into the official icon of the current day environmental movement. Unfortunately, she never embraced the “reduce” concept, keeping everything from straw wrappers to potato chip bags, from Vienna sausage containers to crushed up eggshells. (Yes – she had a purpose for all of these items, but that’s for a later and much longer writing project.) As a mother, she taught her children to work hard, save money and give, give, give. And, as a grandmother, she babysat, gave cooking lessons, taught us which fork to use and how to pass the salt and pepper (always together), and encouraged us to be ourselves.
Grandmother’s full time job was to uplift – her family, her friends, her musicians, and her community. She helped to found the South Carolina Philharmonic and gleefully attended concerts well into her hundreds. She sponsored a chamber music series at the University of South Carolina that allowed faculty to be adventurous music makers while raising money for student scholarships. She spent several years visiting the Brevard Music Center, and there’s even a practice cabin bearing the Freeman name. She was Vice President of the National Federation of Music Clubs, and joyfully administered their scholarship programs for several years. She attended as many classical music concerts as she could, reveling in the excitement and refinement of live performances. A few of the hundreds of musicians that benefitted from her generosity of spirit include concert cellist Zuill Bailey, Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim, and me.
For this she asked nothing in return. Although she seemed to enjoy being the belle of the ball (must be genetic), she did not want people beholden to her. When she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia College, her speech was short and elegant, completely outclassing the longwinded and self-aggrandizing thank you words one might hear from similar honorees. Her sponsorship of the USC chamber music concerts had no strings attached when it came to repertoire. And, for this particular musician, all she asked of me was to try not to burn my candle at both ends. Most of our conversations in the last ten years ended that way. I’m afraid I’m failing her on that point.
Grandmother traveled the world, watched Lawrence Welk, served canned Mandarin oranges, had a vivid imagination, and loved pretty shoes. She remembered every detail of every object and person in her life, and would gladly recount those details in her lilting southern voice to anyone who would listen. She read books, from the Bible to historical accounts of her hometown of Cameron, SC, took notes on scrap paper, and used as bookmarks any relevant news items that she cut out from the South Carolina State. In one person, she embodied the characters of Southern Belle, Farm Girl, Politician’s Wife, Strict Mother, Arts Patron, and Doting Grandmother. She encouraged me to wear pants to “the club;” she took me to see Rostropovich; she taught me how to make grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron; she warned me to clean between my toes; and she served Breyer’s ice cream and lemon pound cake on precious china that had a story attached. She flew out to California for my birth, attended my graduations, and read the Irish Blessing at my wedding.
When thinking of her passing, I am drawn to the final movement of the Brahms Requiem that has the following text: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” (Yes, it’s from Revelations, but I always think music first.) In Grandmother’s case, this couldn’t be more true. She lived her life on earth over the past 101 years in such a way that her work will live on in those she uplifted.
On October 19 and 20, 2013, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed Verdi’s Requiem. The chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman and standing in double choir formation, received stellar press. In Letter V, Virginia’s Classical Music Blog, Clarke Bustard said: “Intense quiet was one of the most effective tones of voice in this choral performance. From the opening “Requiem” through the conclusion of the Mass, the Symphony Chorus created striking effects of shadowed tone and distance in its sotto voce singing. In louder and more turbulent passages, notably the recurrent Dies Irae, the choristers projected energy and passion, and demonstrated gratifying attending to detail in more complex sections.” Anne Timberlake, in the Richmond Times Dispatch, wrote “Perhaps most satisfying were the crisp consonants and dynamic contrasts of the perennially fine Richmond Symphony Chorus. Like that sizzling bacon, the chorus, a community institution for many decades now, seldom fails to sate.” Read the full reviews here: Letter V and Richmond Times Dispatch.
The Richmond Symphony, under the direction of Erin Freeman, welcomed the Classical Mystery Tour to a completely sold out house on September 28th. Audience members sang, clapped, and waved their lighters (smartphones) in the air to famous tunes such as Eleanor Rigby, Let it Be, and Hey Jude.
Erin will work with the Fab Four again on March 1, when the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates the British Invasion at Kleinhans Music Hall.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, now entering its 77th historic year of bringing excellent choral performances to Western New York, has announced the appointed of Erin Freeman as Music Director.
In this position, Freeman will conduct the chorus in several performances throughout the season, including Handel’s Messiah and the Buffalo premiere of Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man, and prepare the ensemble for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, music director JoAnn Falletta. In addition, she will conduct the BPO in multiple concerts throughout the season.
Sample Press Coverage:
…or Dynamic Music, or Organic Music, or Art Music, or Retro Music, or…
I’ve sat in countless meetings and forums with the ominous title “THE FUTURE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC.” (Cue dramatic tremelos in the low strings). Usually, these gatherings consist of folks like me who have been in the industry for a while trying to figure out the key to making sure our beloved “Classical Music” (quotes intentional, see below) survives, or even better, thrives. We throw around phrases such as “broadening our audience,” “serving our community,” “expanding our repertoire,” “embracing diversity” and “discovering our relevance.” We discuss these as ways to make sure our organizations have good ticket sales, hefty audiences, and growing endowments. We often discuss the term “Classical Music” itself as an old-fashioned and out-of-date label, and ponder what term will instantly turn our localized obsession into a world-wide commercial phenomenon.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely agree with the need to discuss these phrases, and those of you who know me probably also know that I strive to practice the concepts of inclusion and relevance, among others, in my work. Whether it’s creating a video about Mozart Requiem, developing a concert program that connects to third graders, or giving a lecture (now a blog post) called “Why,” I am the first to do whatever I can to get the message out about this soul-nourishing art I love so much.
But, what always seems odd to me is the personnel present at these discussions. Usually it consists of conductors, musicians, board members, and staff members – folks who have been doing this a long time and have already invested several years in the art form. Often, these folks talk about pop music as The Beatles, Queen, or the Rolling Stones, whereas the audiences we are after don’t even have these bands on their iPods. (Can you imagine?) Beethoven, for us, is a given, but several college students don’t even know he was deaf. (I learned this the hard way while teaching a music appreciation class). Often, we have to spend hours in the Apple store being taught how to use a device that seems like a natural extension of most 20 year olds’ arms.
What do we REALLY know about our potential audiences, our community, and our relevance? How can we be sure that the image we are portraying will connect to that massive audience we so wish to attract? To find that out, we have to ask the right people.
Last month, I had the great fortune of teaching/conducting at the Richmond Symphony/Virginia Commonwealth University Orchestra Project Summer Camp. It was a week long program comprised of: 1 – teenagers who want to be professional musicians and wanted to learn what it takes; 2 – teenagers who like playing music and wanted to have some fun; and 3 – teenagers who (as much as I hate to admit it) were forced to play music and go to summer camp because it was good for them.
During one of our elective classes, Susanna Klein (my co-instructor) and I decided to have the typical “FUTURE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC” discussion with these students. We thought: Let’s ask the right people. Imagine: a serious discussion, asking the hard questions of relevance, diversity, image, and repertoire, with kids of various levels of interest and ability ages 12-18. The outcome far exceeded our expectation. Here are just a few of the brilliant and honest ideas that came out of these two hours.
When it came up that many folks are intimidated by “Classical Music”, here were some of the responses:
To the question “Is ‘Classical Music’ relevant?” we received several thoughtful answers:
We asked if and how we should change the name “Classical Music” to help folks get over their fear of the complexity or boredom that is associated with it – and also to reflect the fact that “Classical Music” now embraces so many difference musical traditions? Here are just a few responses:
Granted, these students have some experience playing a musical instrument, so they aren’t total newbies, but these aren’t students who spend hours a day thinking about these kinds of questions. In fact, many were surprised that people thought ‘Classical Music’ was dying or had a diversity problem at all.
For me, it was refreshing to get out of the typical overly analytical mindset of an obsessed conductor and compare orchestral music to organic food, an orchestra to a cover band, and harmony to Shakespeare. And, it was heartening to know that if these kids are any indication, ‘Classical Music,’ er…I mean Dynamic Music, is here to stay.
Once again, the Richmond Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement department (artistically led by Erin Freeman) has made the news for making a difference. The Chesterfield Monthly published this informative and exciting article about the RSO’s thriving education initiatives, including a longstanding relationship with Monacan High School.
After two successive years of selling out its Discovery Concert Series, under the direction of Erin Freeman, the Richmond Symphony has committed to expanding its offerings in the 13-14 season. Now, schools will be able to offer teachers high quality symphony performances for their students in Pre-K through grade 3, grade 3 through middle school, and high school.