TEACHING IN A TIME OF ISOLATION: A Virtual Journey with The Juilliard School Conducting Students
On March 12, 2020, cultural institutions of every description shut down to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The Juilliard School quickly transformed its many programs into online studies – and the now ubiquitous Zoom class became the only available forum for the highly physical, emotional, intellectual and sensory process of learning conducting. What would that mean for my Juilliard conducting students? These are their lessons from the Spring 2020 semester – try this at home!
As a conductor, we work by definition with others in a space for music. So, while the COVID-19 situation might seem to stop anything that we do as conductors, the truth is that conductors spend almost as much solo, alone-time work as do composers. Communing with the score, studying, deeply learning and pondering why composers may have made certain choices requires a great deal of discipline, what Zubin Mehta has referred to as “Sitzfleisch!”
Given that this is a part of the conductor’s life often seen only by family and close friends (and even then, it can look like we are not doing much as there is little handwaving), I thought it might be interesting to reveal the kind of journey that my graduate conducting students at The Juilliard School have done with me in this time of separation.
The irony of this is that, for each of them, it resembles something I remember only too well: the time between engagements as a young conductor where you can easily get discouraged, due to the sparse nature of your conducting calendar. On the good side, this unencumbered time allows you to look much more thoroughly into the interconnected nature of each musical work. The individual composition is a point of departure for exploration into the infinite paths you can take to understanding the work in greater richness: the unique place and significance it has in a composer’s life and time period, its historical, social, and philosophical resonances, and what it can mean to us today.
I frequently quote to my students, Robert Schumann’s wonderful aphoristic reminder: “Es ist des Lernens kein Ende.” (There is no end to learning.) As a child I remember how difficult it was for me to wait for signs of life from the seeds my Grandfather (with his most amazing green thumb) taught me to sow. The wondrous miracle that sprouts always takes time to grow.
Pick a Symphony written in a country where French is the dominant language. Study it in as much detail as you can, e.g. you would be able to conduct it with one day’s notice. Be prepared to give an analysis of it to the class and describe what aspects of it you find unusual and/or indicating some quality that seems “French” to you. Within this same week we will look at the Franck Symphony in d minor while contrasting it with the work you pick. As far as time period is concerned, please look within the time period of 1800 – 1905. Do not use the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (although you can look into his other compositions), nor should you use Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. We should all think about the place of symphonic music within the French speaking world.
Begin listening to and familiarizing yourself with the following works by Debussy: Nocturnes, Prelude to the afternoon of the faun, Pelléas et Mélisande, Printemps, Jeux, La damoiselle élue, Préludes Books 1 and 2, Douze Études. Pick a work of Debussy, not from this list, to present (in whatever way you wish). This is for you to do during the week in preparation for the Third Assignment.
Prepare to conduct Debussy’s La mer and Jeux, as much by heart as you can (La mer is the one most rewarded by this, but I have found Jeux is most annoying in terms of page turning while conducting…). Prepare an analysis of La mer (whatever this might mean to you and be prepared to explain why you think it is important). Take one of the works from the Second Assignment (as stated above) and present it. If you decide on a multi-movement work choose a suitable chunk – say 15 – 30 minutes – so that the overview is worthwhile in pointing out aspects of the style.
Please choose any two works of Ravel (one orchestral and one instrumental/vocal) and be prepared to present it. This should be ideally a work that you have not done before (i.e. not Mother Goose or Le Tombeau de Couperin). Explain how you would contrast the idea of “French Impressionism” in visual arts with the concept in the musical arts. Does it even work as more than a glib analogy? How do your ideas square with the notion of describing Debussy and Ravel as “impressionist” composers? How might you contrast their approaches and what is similar enough about both of their works to identify them as “French composers” at all?
The four previous assignments were substantial and should have your brains very full – however, as you are all keen and hardworking (I did make you read After Babel, after all!), please explore why some of the pre-1950 French composers sound so different from Debussy and Ravel, or not (e.g. Guy Ropartz, Albert Roussel, Charles Koechlin, Arthur Honegger, Florent Schmitt, Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Jacques Ibert, Messiaen, to name but a few).
(End of Semester)