Facing the Music: Why Bang on a Can “Junior” Makes Complete Sense

Facing the Music: Why Bang on a Can “Junior” Makes Complete Sense

Most days of the week, when I’m not losing my mind organizing throngs of young people, I think I might have discovered the greatest untapped secret in the classical music business: teenagers love new music. No, I mean they love playing new music.

Jenny Undercoffer conducting
Jenny Undercofler conducting. Photo by Meg Goldman

How do I know this? Because I run a contemporary chamber orchestra for teens, Face the Music, which in its sixth season can hardly keep up with the enthusiasm of its members. Liza Grossman, whose 115-member Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland is in its sixteenth season, tells a similar story.

But other than CYO in Cleveland and Face the Music in New York, there appear to be no other American ensembles for young people that are solely devoted to contemporary concert music. (Two other ensembles, Formerly Known As Classical in San Francisco and the Santa Fe New Music Youth Ensemble, are currently dormant). This is somewhat astonishing to consider when you compare it with the number of “traditional” youth orchestras currently available to talented youth.

If you saw the players from Face the Music in action, you, too would wonder why we don’t have ensembles like this springing up in every urban center. Adolescents are opinionated—they have to really like the music they are playing—and they will put in the hours practicing and practicing and practicing the music they like. The long hours of rehearsals have enormous benefits not only for the teens themselves, but also for the music they play. It’s not just that the music receives many hours of preparation. It’s also that for these new music ensemble “kids,” the music they study and perform becomes a significant reference point beyond a single concert—Yo Shakespeare ends up sitting right up there with the Beethoven 5th in their personal musical atlas.

Face The Music Quartet
Photo by Meg Goldman

It even gets better, though, because when you see a teen new music ensemble performing for other young people, you realize the power that peer-to-peer relationships have to “spread the good word” about contemporary composition. Matthew Cmiel, whose group Formerly Known As Classical featured new music played by teens in concerts organized by the players, talks about performances where they drew hundreds of similarly aged audience members. After the concert, twenty or thirty of them would come up to him and ask for recommendations of further music for listening.

Another argument for the expansion of teen new music activity is that it is reflective of the current profession, much as the traditional youth orchestra was reflective of the profession fifty years ago. Many youth orchestras sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s for reasons that presumably included inspiring students to pursue careers as professional orchestra players, preparing them for that goal through exploration of the standard repertoire. Students in traditional youth orchestras learned—and still learn—essential skills such as following a conductor/section leader, balancing within a section for intonation and volume, and playing one line while listening to another.

Violin Section
Photo by Meg Goldman

It could be surmised that the overall rise in the level of traditional orchestra playing over the past few decades is at least partially due to the number of young professionals who set their eyes on works like Mahler’s Second Symphony or even Rite of Spring, prior to entering college. Imagine the benefits to the music profession, then, if we started more uniformly providing an intense new music ensemble experience for teens. “It cements their seriousness,” says John Kennedy, artistic director of Santa Fe New Music, of the students who participated in the SFNM Youth Ensemble, many of whom are now at top universities and conservatories.

Truth be told, from a pedagogical standpoint, many of the skills students acquire in a new music ensemble are similar to those acquired in a traditional youth orchestra. Students learn to listen to each other and, depending on the size of the piece, follow a conductor. They learn to blend into a section by matching sound, intonation, and breathing; they learn how to play their part well while understanding how it fits into a greater whole.

The Benefits of a New Music Education

Photo by Meg Goldman

However, there are some significant pedagogical advantages that are unique to the new music ensemble, and these are worth noting for their implications for the future of the profession. Above all, teen new music ensemble players learn to solve problems. Whether getting a music stand down to the level of a toy piano player sitting on the floor or keeping the tempo absolutely steady while playing a piece with electronics, the students in a new music ensemble are involved in the process of figuring out how to do it. Sometimes they come up with a solution by themselves, and sometimes not, but they are unquestionably more involved with the outcome.

Students in new music ensembles also learn to be more independent thinkers. The players in Face the Music are much freer to disagree with me than they would be in a traditional setting, and this makes sense: there is a process of coming to terms with a new piece that requires greater questioning and commitment on the part of the players, no matter what their age. Liza Grossman, founder and conductor of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, describes a typical scenario in which she gives the violins in her orchestra ten minutes to discuss her bowings in a particular section, to decide if they have a better suggestion. Such independent thinking becomes part of a young person’s “toolbox.”

In addition, young new music ensemble players learn to be more open-minded than their peers. I’m not saying that every Face the Music student approaches each piece with an initial willingness to embrace it (I wish!), but I have noticed that the longer they play with the ensemble, the more sophisticated their judgment becomes (or the longer they can suspend it, before arriving at an opinion). Partly this is because each contemporary piece they play forms a new locus in their musical atlas, and a place that can be referred back to in processing the next new work.

Photo by Meg Goldman

In addition to the development of these leadership skills (problem solving, independent thinking, and open-mindedness), there are also some “purely musical” benefits to new music ensemble playing for teens. Students develop the rhythmic chops demanded by the repertoire, by coping not just with rhythms that are difficult mathematically (poly-rhythms, etc.), but also with rapidly changing meters and with long passages that include multiple repetitions. There are also rhythmic difficulties to be mastered in the relationship between parts, whether it is three groups of instruments playing totally unrelated rhythms or a melody emerging from multiple instruments playing within “time blocks.”

Teen new music players also develop a greater command of extreme ranges of their instruments than their traditional counterparts and, on occasion, become familiar with “extended techniques” such as playing inside the piano. Students also learn to access a wider range of sounds when they switch from one piece to another (and sometimes within the same piece), because the diversity of contemporary “classical” literature is so wide.

Overall, then, I would characterize the new music ensemble experience as a completely new “frame” for the education of teenaged musicians. More than the traditional youth orchestra or chamber music setting, the new music ensemble puts the student in the driver’s seat. Students are working with a living, breathing score, and they have more responsibility to the music and to the composer. (There’s nothing like a premiere—in two hours—to make obvious the value of getting a particular passage in tune.)

Teen new music ensembles bring together, in one lively package, benefits to both the current profession and the future one. In premiering and carefully rehearsing new and recent music, teens bring works of living composers to a wide audience. In learning the many skills associated with new music ensemble playing, teens acquire leadership qualities that will serve them well as professional musicians, and an open-mindedness that will make them ideal board members, twenty years from now. Following this logic, it seems that every urban center should have its own teen new music ensemble to stand alongside its youth orchestra. What stands in the way?

Reality Check

Unsurprisingly: funding. Like any ensemble, there are costs associated with running a contemporary group, and some of them are a little more complex than the needs of regular youth orchestras. Outside of a well-stocked college environment, such items as percussion (ranging from crash cymbals to crotales) and electronic equipment can be very expensive to acquire or rent. Furthermore, from season to season, these needs may change. Sound equipment really requires a trained person to run it, and sound engineers with a good ear for new classical music are hard to come by, even on the professional level. There are also costs associated with the music itself, particularly if it is a rental; most rentals are designed for professional groups who learn quickly. Try getting a group of 12 to 18 year olds to master Tehillim on twelve once-a-week rehearsals and you’ll see why this is an issue; consequently most performances actually require multiple rental fees.

With Face the Music, I have been fortunate to have support from the Kaufman Center, where I work in another capacity as music director of the Special Music School. Because of this relationship, FTM has free access to rehearsal space, and to some equipment owned by the schools in the building or by Merkin Hall. We have been able to purchase some needed items out of the KC general operating budget and others we have borrowed. And like any group, we have a long list of “angels”—people and organizations who have donated time, equipment, and money.

Liza Grossman put her own start-up money into the Contemporary Youth Orchestra for its first four years, but states that it wasn’t until the fifth year that she was able to take home any salary at all, and not until the eighth year that the group received significant outside funding. The group is its own non-profit, with a board that supports her artistic vision, and they apply for dozens of grants each year. The CYO receives a mix of corporate, government, and foundation support, and they also receive donations from individuals, including alumni. Before there were monetary donations, though, according to Grossman, there were in-kind donations. “We are very much a community organization,” she says, with support from all corners.

Like Grossman, Matthew Cmiel, the founder and conductor of Formerly Known As Classical, also spent his own money while looking for ways to run the group on almost no budget. For the first two years, for instance, he programmed no pieces that used percussion, and then after that, borrowed the equipment, making sure that his percussionists had their own access to an equipped rehearsal space. SFNM kept the Youth Ensemble expenses to a minimum by using borrowed rehearsal space, first at a church and then at the College of Santa Fe.

The Barriers of Tradition

The other big obstacle to the proliferation of youth new music ensembles is the traditional attitude towards pre-collegiate education that prevails in many top music schools. For most pre-college instrumental teachers, new music is the “dessert” after the more substantive older repertoire has been mastered. There is a good reason to take this approach. The freshman audition requirements for all the major music schools require an almost exclusive focus on repertoire written prior to World War II. However, this reality has a definite negative impact: it discourages from entering the music profession precisely the open-minded, independent thinking, creative young people who might enrich (and ultimately save?) it.

Photo by Meg Goldman

Countering this message is the degree to which the actual professional world is welcoming to teen new music players. For Face the Music, the opportunities have been breathtaking, and the professional musicians they have met along the way have been uniformly enthusiastic and supportive. I sometimes have to remind the students that this is not “normal”—as when I found three of them backstage at WNYC, gathered around Mark Stewart, jaws dropping, as he demonstrated the sonic properties of PVC pipe. Liza Grossman talks with enthusiasm of the collaborations the students have had with composers such as Ryan Gallagher and Paul Leary, whose works they have premiered and recorded, and also with rock musicians such as Jon Anderson and Billy Jonas, with whom they have performed and recorded. These direct professional collaborations give students the empowering message that if they play the relevant music of now, then they have a place on the stage no matter what their age.

Future Plans

My belief is that if we want to reap the longer-term benefits of teen new music ensembles—more graduates entering adulthood with a deep appreciation of contemporary classical music—we simply need to create more of them. Just as jazz ensembles have started to become an “accepted” option for teen musicians, contemporary music ensembles need to be embraced as a separate, valid, and necessary experience. Every pre-college, large community music school, and large youth orchestra should consider starting one. Currently there are two working models: the full youth orchestra (like Contemporary Youth Orchestra) and the chamber orchestra/chamber music society (like Face the Music), which allows for more flexible instrumentation depending on the repertoire choices (or available players) during a given season.

And to answer the inevitable “threat” question—that creating a new music ensemble merely siphons players away from the existing traditional groups—I would say simply that it is possible to schedule rehearsals so they do not conflict. Liza Grossman does this in Cleveland, and I do this in New York, and we have both found that students with an appetite for new music will play for multiple groups.

Finally, composers themselves can help plant the seeds for further teen new music ensembles. For instance, in recent years it has seemed increasingly common in New York for composers to write challenging works that combine children’s chorus with adult ensembles. This is possibly because New York is home to two excellent youth choruses that focus on contemporary music, Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Young People’s Chorus. But in any case it is a wonderful development, and I have to wonder whether a similar situation might evolve with student instrumentalists. Of course the artistic motivation for using youth choruses is a certain sound that can’t be made by adults, but I think it also might be worth experimenting with works that explicitly call for youth players alongside older players, at least in their “premiere” versions.

It would also help if the composers who serve on music faculties, both at the collegiate and pre-collegiate level, would act as purposeful gadflies. Short of starting a teen new music ensemble yourself (which would be great), you could act as “gentle but constant” pressure on the instrumental faculty to start loosening the entrance requirements to include more contemporary repertoire.

Creating and supporting more teen new music ensembles will go a long way in creating a “new normal” in serious music education, which will ultimately create a healthier, happier music profession.

Ensemble listening
Photo by Meg Goldman

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