|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
(continued from yesterday's Part 1)
After the difficulties of the previous year, things were looking up for the Interlake High School band as the 1996-1997 school year began. As band director and music department chair (and newly starting that year for the school, International Baccalaureate Music teacher) I was organizing and spearheading the plans to take the entire music department to Los Angeles that spring break and unlike the failure of a planned East Coast tour the previous school year, this trip had wide support and was something almost everyone was looking forward to. With the jazz ensemble, we were planning to record our third CD that spring and of course, knowing that Maria Schneider was coming that May for a three-day residency and concert, everyone seemed to have renewed drive and effort. Even the monumental details associated with Maria's visit, which were looking bleak at the end of the 1995-1996 school year, were starting to coalesce into something that seemed possible.
As I mentioned in Part 1, I wrote MANY letters to local businesses looking for sponsorship for Maria's visit and the initial response was underwhelming to say the least. Well now that the residency and concert were mere months away, things were starting to look up. While still not getting many positive responses to my requests, I was starting to get some help: the Bellevue Sheraton donated a room for Maria's stay; the local media were slowly opening up (I was able to go on KOMO TV Channel 4's Northwest Afternoon to record a spot promoting the concert and the Seattle Times was planning to send out a reporter and photographer for a story discussing the residency); the music parents were doing a good job of getting volunteers to work during and after the concert. Luckily the lobbying I did the previous school year helped to strengthen our band budget so that I was able to use some of it to pay for the design and production of the posters, for the parts and scores for the concert, as well as Maria's appearance fee and plane ticket (because I wanted Maria to fly first-class, since I thought that would be something she would enjoy (and something in my naiveté I thought she'd expect-we had a good laugh later about that one) one band parent donated airline miles so that I could upgrade her ticket so she could).
So as the year progressed, things were shaping up nicely for the residency. I had chosen an ambitious, difficult but achievable program for the concert: a number of Maria's pieces from her two albums at the time, Evanescence and Coming About, along with works by Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Miles and Gil, among others. And the band was working extra hard to make the music sound fantastic. Unlike the previous year, the jazz ensemble (as was every ensemble that year, as a matter of fact) was extremely focused and dedicated. A number of years before, I had set-up a sectional system by which every section leader in every ensemble (jazz, wind ensemble, concert band) was required to hold a certain amount of sectionals per quarter. Almost all of them were held during the student's lunch time (by choice) and while I was always available to help (I didn't really eat during my lunch time as students were all over my office and practice rooms sectionalizing and I was all over the place helping), this was strictly lead and run by the students. They decided what needed work, they decided how much time to give to what, they decided how much to hold accountable their section mates. And for the jazz ensemble leading up to the residency, people were doing extra sectionals on their own. Now I was never a Vince Lombardi-type, yelling and instilling fear in the students in order to get them to perform (although I did have my moments, as any of them could tell you), but rather a John Wooden-type motivator: encouraging the students but also not afraid to say when they were honestly disappointing me (and themselves) by not working as hard as they could. I cajoled and impressed upon them that they needed a certain amount of pride within themselves to give their best in order to achieve their best. I was working hard and I expected them too as well. And for this concert, I stressed that there would be no excuses come May 20th when Maria came through those band room doors for the first rehearsal. And you know what? Because I expected high standards, they expected high standards for themselves and rose to the challenge! Here's a story to show you how hard those students worked: when in those final few weeks before the residency I wanted to schedule an extra rehearsal beyond our usual 6:30 a.m. class and no time seemed to work because the students were so busy after school with sports or studying or work, we all settled on an extra rehearsal from 5:00 a.m. (!) to 7:30 a.m. one morning! Yes, 5:00 a.m.!!! And EVERYONE was there...on time! All of this hard work was ultimately rewarded, as throughout the year the jazz ensemble won, or were finalists in, every festival we entered. Although winning festivals was always secondary in my mind to how the students performed relative to their potential and effort, having concrete results certainly helped validate for themselves that their sacrifices and hard work were leading them on the right path for success.
So that spring after we went into the studio to record the third Interlake Jazz CD during my tenure as well as a fun successful music department trip to Los Angeles, we were just weeks before Maria's visit and all of the last minute details were set: Maria and I were faxing and/or calling back and forth, making sure of her schedule while she was in Seattle; the students were sounding great and were excited and anxious about Maria's visit (as was I); the music parents, as was the school, were all mobilized; the posters and advertising were all done; all of the financial aspects were taken care of; I had delivered to Maria's hotel room, the gift basket filled with typically Pacific Northwest-ness from the music parents; the gift we were going to give her at the concert was ordered and ready; my car was washed and cleaned for my "Driving Miss Schneider" chauffeur's role of shuttling her to and from her hotel to the rehearsals at the school and the concert in Seattle. So we were ready! The afternoon of May 20th, 1997 I went to Sea-Tac Airport to pick Maria up from her flight. Since you could go to the gate to wait for someone back then, I was there as she came off the plane and at that moment the theoreticalness of her visit, of that seemly long-ago letter I wrote to her and our conversation about coming to Seattle, was brought to life.
When she arrived at Interlake that evening for the first rehearsal, the students were so thrilled. They had welcomed her with a giant banner across the front of the band room. I could also tell they were nervous about what Maria would be like, but from the moment she stepped in front of the band, from the first sounds they made in front of her, from the great smile of approval she gave them, they were at ease. Of course it helped that Maria was so welcoming and easy going, yet firm and confident in what she wanted from them. They were prepared at a high level before Maria came, but having her there, she was able to offer them a level of guidance, insight, and experience into her music that I did not possess. This led the students to go beyond what they had already achieved with the music before she came. Often the difference was subtle, but the result was not. Even small suggestions about how to play a certain phrase or what the feeling of a particular section should convey, would led to a real understanding of the music. It was a masterclass (and a pleasure) for me to watch her work up so close with the students and to see what they gained by having her in front of them. And she wasn't just a passive participant; during the breaks, she was in the trenches helping to make the students successful: she would talk with a student about how to make something they were doing a bit better; she would demonstrate a particular voicing on the piano; she would offer advice on a way to approach a technical issue. At the end of the evening everyone was exhausted but also exhilarated about the rehearsal. Not wanting to subject Maria to our usual 6:30 a.m. class time, the next day's rehearsal was scheduled for the afternoon, starting during the time I usually had Wind Ensemble and extending almost until the end of school. By doing this, it was effectively an open rehearsal since all of the Wind Ensemble students and anyone else that wanted to attend was there. Again, Maria and students were working at such a high level, and while it wasn't all serious (some of my more gregarious boys were obviously flirting with her during some of the downtime), by the end of the rehearsal, I could see that it was shaping up to be an influential experience-of-a-lifetime for the students of Interlake and that the concert the next evening might be something incredible.
Tomorrow's post: The concert and its legacy...
(photo credits, top to bottom: Interlake High School 1996-97 CD "'aight" cover; SOME notes and letters in preparation of Maria Schneider residency; first-class plane ticket receipt for Maria's flight; Seattle Times-Eastside edition May 22, 1997, photo by Ron Wurzer of the Seattle Times)
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To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.