Compiled by Scott Robertson
I’d like to share with you a moment from last year’s holiday season that surprised me as being one of my favorites. Because my daughter plays cello in the school orchestra, I’ve been listening to arrangements of holiday classics for bass, cello, viola and violin for some time.
Last year, a few days before the regular Christmas concert, I saw something completely different. Instead of seated children somberly bowing, intently plucking, and dutifully watching the conductor, these students were moving with the music, smiling and giggling, and obviously having a great time.
The electricity on the stage wasn’t just in the chemistry between performers. It was in some of the instruments themselves. The city school orchestra was hosting a professional musician from the Electrify Your Strings organization. Her name was Bridgid Bibbens, and she was playing an electric violin, as were some of the students. The energy on that stage was exciting to witness as Bibbens and the students played together.
I must admit, I’m always skeptical when an adult steps onstage during a concert being put on by students. I’ve seen too many frustrated Nashville-wannabes trying to call attention to themselves by standing in front of the children we were there to see (and if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen too many).
But Bibbens instead called attention to the skills of the individual soloists, and gave the rest of the orchestra the freedom to call attention to themselves in ways they normally could not.
Children were dressed not in the traditional blacks and whites of the orchestra wardrobe, but in a chaotic rainbow of color, pattern and style. They had been encouraged to express themselves freely in their attire, and to let that joy extend to their playing.
Don’t get me wrong. The joy of playing I’m talking about doesn’t mean the students lacked discipline in their playing. The students had been visited in the classroom by, and held extra practices with Bibbens. They played their songs and played them well. But she taught them basic improvisational skills to add to their performance repertoire. And the students clearly enjoyed the rock star mentality that so rarely presents itself to cellists and their classical music colleagues.
This year the orchestra is stepping it up a notch. The founder of Electrify Your Strings is returning to Johnson City to work with the orchestra. Emmy Award-winner Mark Wood, who has played Johnson City before and whom you may remember as a founding member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, will conduct a workshop with the students before leading them in concert Dec. 5 at the Science Hill auditorium.
Woods is both performer and teacher, having worked with Celine Dion, Billy Joel and Lenny Kravitz as a session player, and having taught more than 100,000 students throughout North America. He studied under Leonard Bernstein and is a Juilliard-trained violinist, but his focus is always on the students.
With Wood leading the show, the school’s orchestra director, Susan Lambert, will step aside for the evening. I’ve been a fan of Lambert since I met her. She has always understood that what she does is about the children she teaches, first, last and always. That comes through when she talks about bringing in Wood’s Electrify Your Strings program. “It is a unique opportunity for our students to learn from a master musician who has a passion for helping youth around the world find themselves,” she says. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with a musician and educator the caliber of Mark Wood.”
If you would like to enjoy an evening of good music, accompanied by the smiles of dozens of young people whose passion and potential are being inspired and ignited before your eyes, you can call (423) 833-8155 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
The city schools’ orchestras will perform songs by the Beatles, the Police and more. Good seats, as they say in the concert business, are still available.
And if you prefer a traditional Christmas show, Lambert will conduct the winter concerts of the Indian Trail, Liberty Bell and Science Hill Orchestras Dec. 10, 11 and 12.
I recommend them all. There’s no better way to warm to the holiday season than by seeing children combine learning, talent and joy – and by encouraging them to continue.