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BETTY ANN BOWSER: D.J. Nelson is one of the best swimmers to ever attend Flathead High school in Kalispell, Montana. Jack Nickerson is a talented young actor and director currently featured in a school production of a Tom Stoppard play. Twice a week, Ryan Fenner practices with his intramural soccer team. His buddy, Seth Schmauss is also a player on the same team.
And Sadie Swenson is an outstanding science student who one day hopes to be a biologist. These five teenagers seemingly lead separate lives in this tiny mountain town of 12,000 people.
But they come together every day during the school year in Allen Slater’s classroom. It isn’t Mr. Slater’s opus but the music coming from his classroom later is sounding more focused, some even say inspired. That could be because they’ve recently been visited by one of the nation’s major symphony orchestras.
The National Symphony Orchestra’s usual home is the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Its audiences frequently include VIP’s. But members of the symphony want to make classical music more accessible to more Americans, so each year, its musicians hit the road and take their talents to the people, to local musicians and local audiences in the American residency program which is co-sponsored by the Kennedy Center. It is so popular that states compete with each other to get it.
This spring, the musicians spent a week in Montana. On the first day of the residency, they took part in a cultural exchange with members of the Seilish Kutinay tribe in Pablo.
Then that evening, the sounds of a symphony trio filled a 19th century church in another remote area of the state. Some of these people had never heard live classical music before. But the core of the residency program is music education, so at stops along the way, some of the top musicians, like Luis Haza, coach the more serious students in master classes.
LUIS HAZA: Okay. When you play the triplet, when you do–(playing)–enjoy.
MS. BOWSER: Sadie Swenson has no plans to become a professional violinist, yet music plays a big role in her life. It seems to run in her family. Her great grandfather was a Montana fiddler back in the 1930′s.
LUIS HAZA: And don’t hurry, because there is plenty of time–(singing)–gorgeous–you know, this is very much–it’s like Montana–this huge, expansive sky and beautiful big mountains.
MS. BOWSER: What did you learn?
SADIE SWENSON: Oh, I think it was mostly things that we would in the back of our heads that we don’t really put our hearts into it because we’re just playing in our high school orchestra and we’re playing the Dvorjak edited for high school orchestra, and he just says, you know, this is music, someone, someone took this from their heart and created something for you to play, and you can’t be sloppy with it, that’s just rude.
MS. BOWSER: Meanwhile, down the hall, in the Flathead High Auditorium, Ryan, Seth, Josh, and D.J. got some pointers from Milton Stevens, the symphony’s principal trombonist. The four have been playing together for months. They say this Beethoven quartet is one of their best numbers, but Stevens, with a doctorate in music from Boston University, heard room for improvement in the series of sharp staccato notes near the top.
MILTON STEVENS, Trombonist, NSO: You just divide that air current into little segments. It sounds like this. (playing trombone)
MILTON STEVENS: All right. Now yours probably could get a little shorter. Listen to this. (playing) Try it like that.
MILTON STEVENS: Hmm-hmm. Let me simulate what I’m hearing. (playing)
See, I’ve made the notes a little longer. They’re not stopping quite as soon. Can you get it more like–(playing)–
MILTON STEVENS: Uh-huh. Maybe, try a little bit more air behind the sound. It’s a little weak.
MILTON STEVENS: Okay. For the most part, that’s on track now. All right. You give it a try.
MS. BOWSER: Stevens worked a bit more with Seth to keep his jaw from moving and with Josh to loosen his lips. When it was D.J.’s turn, he let the kids in the audience be the critics.
MILTON STEVENS: You be the judge. Shorter.
MILTON STEVENS: I developed a couple of ideas along the way as I was listening to them. And I thought, well, now here would be one feature that would be obvious to the audience as well.
MS. BOWSER: By the final run-through, it was a case of lesson learned.
(STUDENTS PLAYING TOGETHER)
RYAN FENNER: I think at the beginning, I don’t know, we–each of us tended to look basically at our music at the whole big picture, and they were looking at, you know, this is just a song and all, but then he just basically, I think he really broke it down for us and he made us look at every single note and how every single note we played with somebody else, and how it all fits together.
JOSH NICKERSON: Working in a group like this, I think he showed us the importance of maybe tuning and, and listening to each other more, instead of just listening to ourselves.
ALLEN SLATER, Band Director, Flathead High School: They transfer that information and know that when they leave here and go to a business, that their business is successful if everyone in the business is working to the same goal. If they’re into a corporation and they oversee it, they understand that I need to use some skills to build everyone working towards a common team understanding, because that’s where our strength is.
MS. BOWSER: The National Symphony’s associate director agrees that music education goes beyond the classroom.
BARRY JEKOWSKY, Associate Conductor, NSO: Basically, what we want to do is build new audiences, education, outreach, and cultural exchange. Music is the first thing to go in the schools when they cut the budgets, and we all understand the importance of music in people’s lives.
There are studies that have proven how just music appreciation classes improve the SAT scores and how a little bit of Mozart improves your IQ. I mean, we could go through all the studies that have been done, but the National Symphony believes in music education and is trying to do their part.
MS. BOWSER: But the place it all came together was that night in the Flathead High School gymnasium. The kids were exposed to a new, more demanding level of playing than they’d ever seen before, and ordinary Montanans got to see a full 100-piece symphony play live.
MS. BOWSER: It was just a high school gym, with less than perfect acoustics, but somebody said it was the biggest thing to happen here since the night the Harlem Globe Trotters came to town. But for Ryan and Seth, D.J., Josh, and Sadie, it was a chance to consider what they can do with their music in ways they’d never thought about before.
SETH SCHMAUSS: Music translates to every part of my life, like even when I’m running on the soccer field, like breathe in two steps, breathe out two steps, that kind of thing, and it’s just–it’s something about being able to hear professional musicians play, you know, some of the hardest pieces ever written and being able to, you know, it seems like it’s, you know, they do it so easily and it’s something that you have to be able to feel. It’s not something you can really talk about.
D.J. NELSON: I’m a long distance swimmer. I have to be able to hold a rhythm, a pace, and being able to know all forms of music allows me to, umm, have something running through my head at this time. Music just totally sets your mind somewhere else and allows you to get done what you need to get done.
MS. BOWSER: Early the next morning, the symphony moved on to another town. And Mr. Slater’s movie class moved back to reality. But he thinks the whole experience has left a lasting impression.
ALLEN SLATER: Those kids that were there at the concert, they came in with a new sense of what they wanted to achieve. We all love beauty, but all of us being human beings, we want someone to help get us there, and whether that be a role model from a teacher or whether that be the National Symphony Orchestra coming here, that helps spark that wanting, that desire.
SADIE SWENSON: We saw something that we don’t usually get to see in such precision and such beauty, and people that really care about what they’re doing.
SADIE SWENSON: It’s not just high society. It’s people, human beings, playing music, and we got to see that. Wow!