For over 60 years the Hyde Park Youth Symphony has served the South Side of Chicago by offering an orchestral experience for kids. Saturday afternoon at the Logan Center a good-sized audience was on hand for the HPYS’s spring concert that featured three different ensembles: the Preparatory Strings, the String Orchestra, and the Youth Symphony.
The concert was aptly entitled “Between the Lines,” and the commentary of the two conductors, Matthew Sheppard and Lindsay Wright, not only helped to explain the music, but also directly connected the audience to what the kids have learned and the ways they have learned it.
It is always important for the audience to understand the music but what was so wonderful about this concert was that it was clear that the bulk of the audience was made up of family and friends of the players on the stage. This made for a strong motivation to understand and connect.
Both Sheppard and Wright are amiable, patient extroverts who clearly have a rapport with kids, and that would be enough to value them highly as teachers. But they have something more that emerges clearly during conversation with them. They have deep knowledge of music—from teaching techniques to musical history to methods for encouraging creativity—that enables them to come at the music from different perspectives and provide their students with a well-rounded approach to the music. Sheppard and Wright are comfortable teaching very young beginners but also, in their busy lives as music professionals, teach and work with adults (such as University of Chicago students) as well.
This pair of teachers sees music education as far more than merely playing the right notes (not that this isn’t important). They offer their students the tools to understand music they haven’t yet seen or heard and the enthusiasm to dive right in.
One thing I loved about the “Between the Lines” concert was that the back of the stage was used as a kind of Power Point presentation. Photos, diagrams, snippets of music, small outlines and more were projected to the audience to enhance the remarks of the two conductors. The conductors spoke in terms that the kids understood, but without talking down to them. I loved how Lindsay Wright had some of her young charges speak the words “pianissimo, piano, mezzo-piano,” and so forth going from very soft to very loud. It was a simple but very clear exercise in dynamics but one that connected the young musicians to the audience. I expect that more than one parent will employ this knowledge in interesting ways. (“Tell me more about that, but how about in a mezzo-piano voice so your little brother can sleep.”)
That was one of the great elements of this concert: an ability to connect the young players to their families and friends via music and letting the families know the kind of things the kids worked on in order to create the music we heard on Saturday. I did not know a single child on stage but I was utterly charmed by it and delighted that this generation of music students have such dedicated and imaginative teachers.
Three groups performed on Saturday. The Preparatory Strings, lead by Wright, were the youngest players and they were adorable even before the music began. They played with earnest and little sign of nervousness.
The next-oldest group was the String Orchestra, also lead by Wright. This was a larger ensemble of older kids who displayed bounce and vim in works by Rimsky-Korsakov and Respighi.
The senior ensemble is the Youth Symphony and they performed a full set of wide-ranging music, opening with the ever-popular theme from “The Pink Panther,” Henry Mancini’s joyful and jazzy romp. After playing through it once, Sheppard discussed some of the musical elements and then we heard it all again, primed to hear the ideas Sheppard had just explained.
The biggest piece of the afternoon was by Biber, and Sheppard was delightfully cute to juxtapose today’s mania for Justin Bieber with the 17th century’s mania for H.F. Biber. “Battalia” is a piece about a battle, with each of the eight movements a little vignette. Some of the movements have markings such as “presto” which alone tells you little about the story. But Sheppard explained each element, from the dancing and singing the night before the battle to the concluding lament of the wounded. The music was splendid on its own, but having the full story pulled the audience in and it seemed clear that the playing by the orchestra was also informed by the story.
From time to time the two conductors took the microphone to individual students who would answer brief questions put to them, again in an effort to connect the students to the wider context of the music as well as connect the players to the audience. This worked quite well most of the time. When the expression “non-robotic” appeared several times when students spoke of how to play with expression, it was unintentionally rather funny.
If there was a single lesson to this concert (and it would probably be a mistake to try and reduce the afternoon this way), it would be that anyone — student or listener, youngster or oldster — can get more out of music by learning even a few basic elements. This kind of learning, which permits continuous building, is laudable. It was a great pleasure to share the afternoon with the Hyde Park Youth Symphony and the families that support it. Long may they thrive.