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Motifs - A Midwest Adventure To Remember

by Ginger Wolfe, Director, Clements High School Chamber Strings

When we were invited to perform for The 2010 Midwest Clinic and the sugar rush from our impromptu celebration wore off, I had three major goals in mind- exemplify the Midwest tenet of highlighting new works, get my entire orchestra program and the community involved in our journey, and have the students truly participate in the Midwest conference experience.

I knew how I would achieve the first two goals long before the conference began. Of the eleven pieces on our final program, only the Dvorak “Serenade” is a well-known work. For me, starting with a “clean-slate” really allowed for diversity of our programming selections, and made the programming process very fresh and exciting. In order to involve all five performing ensembles of the Clements orchestra program and the community, we chose to commission a work to celebrate the history of our community. All of the students participated in fundraising for the commission, and several students researched the history of Sugar Land and created ideas for the commission. We premiered the work entitled “The Mill and the Train” by Fred J. Allen at a community concert in November with several of the past mayors in attendance, and we received proclamations from the state, county, and city officials declaring it Clements Orchestra Day.

As for my third goal of having the students participate in the Midwest conference experience, I decided early on that the students would keep a journal throughout the semester describing our journey. I felt this was important because in my previous experience the length of the process and the frenetic excitement of the trip and performance often left me with the “big memories,” but I often lost the little things that were so special in the moment and along the way. The journals had weekly entries with observations about our preparation, guest clinician memories, photos from clinics, rehearsals and concerts, newspaper and online articles about our journey, copies of performance programs, and finally daily entries during the actual trip based on our itinerary.

Additionally, I told the students from the start that we would plan to spend an entire day at the Clinic aside from our performance. A couple of weeks before our trip, the plans were made, but I really had not decided how to give them direction for their day at The Midwest Clinic. I knew they would be required to attend a concert in our venue, so they could hear and feel our performance venue, as well as attend a clinic because that is what one does at a convention. Apart from that, I wasn’t sure how to give them a combination of structure and freedom that would keep them on task for six hours as conventioneers.

Having attended this event with students on three previous occasions, I found that they would wander aimlessly through the exhibits for awhile, and then go hang out and wait for the bus. In the middle of the night about a week before we left I thought of the scavenger hunt. It seemed like a great solution – the students would have direction, and they could help me thank the many folks who made this journey possible.

Creating the scavenger list was pure fun! The first priority was to thank the publishers who so graciously provided the music, the company who generously loaned us instruments for our rehearsal and performance, and the fantastic folks at Midwest. Then there were the “just for fun” items… a couple of my college professors were on the list since I certainly would not be there without their influence, and finally, it wouldn’t be a convention without the give-a-ways or “swag”! There were two important rules about swag: 1) make sure it is free stuff and 2) don’t take anything you are not going to take all the way home.

The next trick was to get the kids excited about the scavenger hunt. My associate, Sabrina Behrens, and I agreed to buy the official Midwest hoodie, T-shirt, and pin for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes. We also purchased Midwest pins for most swag, best swag, and best potential fundraiser since like everyone else we are always on the lookout for fundraisers that the students are excited about.

When I presented this project to the ensemble, the initial responses from the students ranged from Orchestra President Jennifer Chen’s reaction, “Aw, we have to do another assignment” to the concern, “It would definitely be very awkward to have to talk to random strangers at the convention” as voiced by sophomore violist Victoria Vuong. But they all agreed to humor me and participate – the prospect of prizes did help a bit.

Their convention experience began immediately following our rehearsal. The first item on the list was to attend the Mountain View High School Chamber Orchestra concert, and then they were free to “roam” until the required clinic on bow technique in the late afternoon. Since being on time is one of our major expectations, all point ties in the scavenger hunt were broken based on the order of arrival for the clinic. They were allowed to work in groups, but were also encouraged to go for max points. Points for signatures were generally scaled… 1 = any company representative; 2 = a named representative who helped us; 5 = the composer; 10 = a photo with the composer.

When asked how people responded to their “mission,” sophomore violinist Stacy Tunggadjaja said, “They were extremely delighted and grateful that students directly appreciated their work.” This sentiment was echoed by Marina Terteryan of Alfred Music Publishing. In a letter received after the Clinic, she said of the scavenger hunt, “…several Alfred staff members commented that it made us feel really happy to be serving the music community in this way, and directly see the effect it has on the students. We work out of a corporate office and don’t always see the result of our work, so these experiences really give our jobs meaning….”

Sophomore bassist Ricky Contreras “thought it was interesting to see the composers in real life; it’s funny how you imagine them all to look like Bach.” The composers were equally enthusiastic, and they all agreed that it was a great idea and enjoyed the opportunity to meet the students performing their works. For the students, it was a unique experience to actually visit with the composer. For example, even though they knew that Ralph Hultgren was from Australia, the students went crazy over his accent – some of the girls thought it was “adorable.” Several students commented that it was “really cool” that they also got to visit with his wife and son at the Brolga Publishers booth.

Victoria Vuong described meeting Jeremy Woolstenhulme as her favorite scavenger hunt story. She said, “…when all of us took a picture with [him] and literally attacked him like we were an Asian mob seeing Brad Pitt or something.”

It wasn’t just the students collecting photos either. Lauren Bernofsky and Susan H. Day sent us copies of the photos they took with the students, and we were all thrilled when Bernofsky said she has one of the photos as the background on her Blackberry!!

In addition to meeting composers, a number of the students found Midwest Board Member Mark Kelly at the registration area; several found Dr. Steve Peterson, one of my college professors at SFA, at the Ithaca College booth; and many tried out the fabulous instruments by W.H. Lee and other fine instrument makers.

Although initiated with various degrees of trepidation, when the scavenger hunt was completed, most of the students enjoyed the experience – as evidenced by the clamoring to tell their favorite tales during our “bus stories” time on the way to dinner. Senior bassist Anastasia Wright’s observation was, “I was impressed that so many people went into putting our program together. I was thankful for their work and was happy to see their faces in the crowd when we performed.”

I believe this level of personal interaction really made the magnitude and uniqueness of the Midwest experience real for the students. They knew there was an enormous amount of planning and preparation involved, but they really never saw the “behind the scenes” things that go into this journey. This random idea of a scavenger hunt helped them to not only appreciate the effort that goes into it, but gave them a real sense of ownership.

In our performance preparation, we talked repeatedly about how we would be representing the composers by playing their works, but when the students met the composers, and knew they would be in the audience, “It was a huge honor knowing they would see us play the music because they were the creative minds that had inspired us,” sophomore bassist Nick Allinson observed.

I had the chance to share this idea with Brett Nelson, a 2010 performing director, just before we left for Chicago, and he used it with his Cinco Ranch students. I hope more directors will offer this opportunity to their ensembles. I believe it is a great way for the students to create special memories while showing appreciation for the amazing people who make this Midwest experience possible.

Senior violinist Grace Weng summed this activity up well when she said, “I initially thought the scavenger hunt would hinder me from being able to enjoy the convention, but I ended up meeting fascinating people and learning cool things because of it.”

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