This Month: Finding your "people"
One of my favorite ASTA memories is meeting Dr. Gail Barnes when the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2015. I was working at the University of Oregon at the time, building a string music education program at a school where I was originally hired for other purposes. As a multi-instrumentalist that did not take the “traditional” route into string education, I was always a bit insecure about talking to people who were well-established in the field. Would they accept me as their own? Would they think it was weird that I also played wind instruments and guitar, and that my entry into the string world was through jazz and electric bass? Despite the fact I had studied with Michael Allen, a wonderful and respected string pedagogue, and had many years of success as a public-school orchestra teacher and conductor, I had experienced snide remarks from otherwise well-meaning people … “Well, you are not a real string player.”
Now back to Gail … I saw Gail at a Starbucks on my way back to the conference hotel. She was ahead of me in line and was kind enough to introduce herself, so we began a conversation. She asked me where I taught and how I got into string teaching as well as what I played. I remember feeling very uncomfortable because although I could certainly point to a lot of successes as a string and orchestra teacher, the “what do you play” question always made me feel a little weird. I remember telling Gail that I played a lot of different instruments, but that I had adopted “bass” much later as my primary string instrument. I remember saying, “I don’t know if that makes a string player or not.” Gail immediately responded that of course I was a string player and continued to ask me questions about the program at Oregon, never hesitating to make me feel valued, welcomed, and respected.
I had already felt a great deal of kinship and camaraderie with the educator-musicians at ASTA that year and was learning and enjoying myself more than at any conference I had ever attended. However, Gail, who was someone I admired and who could have very easily been standoffish or dismissive of me as an “odd fit” for the string crowd, really sealed the deal. I mean, Dr. Barnes was and is a big deal, and that she would be that nice to me as a relative newcomer was impactful and, sadly, not as common as you would think among so-called “prominent” figures in music education.
I remember calling my dear friend Rebecca MacLeod a few weeks after the conference and saying, “I have found my people, Rebecca. These are my people.” How nice it is when we find our “people.”
One week after my family immigrated as refugees from war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina to Orange County, California, our sponsors invited us to a concert of their daughter’s middle school music program. For the first time in my life, I heard a performance of choir, band, and orchestra students who were not schooled to become professional musicians, but who played with a purpose of collective and inclusive music makings that I learned is known as “teaching music through performance.” Although the playing of these young musicians was interspersed with occasional missed pitches and developing tone quality, their enthusiasm for music and singing/playing made this performance a very pleasant and memorable experience.
As I progressed through my graduate studies and learned more about underlying principles of music education in the United States of America (USA), I began viewing “teaching music through performance” as one of the symbols of American democracy because it makes music-making available to all students and not only those who go into music as a profession. I became very interested in learning methods and approaches that support quality teaching of strings in schools and I began attending every training/workshop/seminar on string education available and joined several professional organizations. However, it was not until my first ASTA National Conference in 2002 where I had an opportunity to hear some of the best school orchestras, to attend sessions of some of the leading string educators/pedagogues, and to hear research presentations of several eminent scholars, that I understood the full potential of the string teaching profession. Since then, I have attended almost every ASTA National Conference and never ceased being amazed by the wealth of knowledge that one can gain in four short days and by the passion for teaching and playing that ASTA members share.
As my English language skills developed and I became more comfortable with the USA system of teaching/learning, I began to present at ASTA Conferences. More importantly, I began serving the ASTA organization first at the state level as its president and now as an ASTA National Board Member-at-Large. This year, ASTA is celebrating its 75th year and as I am reading about its beginnings and developments, I am understanding even more that ASTA is an organization of visionary, creative, incredibly dedicated individuals who selflessly share their time, energy, knowledge, skills, and creative potentials for the purpose of making quality string learning and playing available to students and people of all ages, stages of development, and backgrounds. I am inspired and humbled to be a part of ASTA’s noble mission, and I rejoice in congratulating ASTA on its Diamond Jubilee!
Josef Gingold was invited to headline a master class of student violinists chosen from a broad area of the country at an ASTA conference in Chicago in the late 80s. It took place in a large venue because a large crowd was expected and, indeed, did materialize. The first student to play was a young girl, who was from Texas. She was very nervous—there were, after all, several hundred string teachers in the audience and she was playing for the legendary Gingold! As she played the first movement of a Brahms sonata, it was obvious from her very confined and “tight” sound that she was extremely tense and ill-at-ease. When she finished, there was polite applause, and then Gingold got out of his seat and steadied the girl with that famous gravelly voice: “My dear,” he said warmly, “that was very nice, and you are a wonderful player. Have you ever been to France?” The girl was taken off guard by the question, and replied timidly, “No sir.” “Well, in France the language is very specific and means exactly what it says. In fact, it is the diplomatic language that is used around the world and between countries. So my dear, do you know what the French word is for down bow?” “No sir.” “It is tirez,
which means to pull, and the French word for up bow is poussez,
which means to push. Now I want you to play this movement again and all I want you to think about when you’re playing is pulling and pushing the bow instead of upping and downing it.” The student played again, but it was now a totally different sound—fluid, entirely free from tension. It was astoundingly beautiful! The effect was so electrifying, that as the last note sounded, the audience, as one, rose with thunderous ovation. The applause was not only for the student performer, but for the master teacher who so convincingly demonstrated what the right word at the right time can do.