By Nancy Schmalz
Other than sharing the same birthday, Abby, Ellie, and James Webb are like any other siblings: three unique individuals who share many experiences but also have their own preferences and opinions. All three of the Webbs, for example, play in the Mineral Point seventh-grade band, but they chose to play different instruments: James plays horn, Ellie is a tuba player, and Abby is a flutist.
The idea of playing together came from Abby during a rehearsal last year. “Could the three of us,” she asked, “play together in the festival?” There is very little music written for flute, horn, and tuba, but with some searching a collection of Renaissance dances for various sizes of recorders was found and two of the dances were arranged for the Webbs’ trio.
The young musicians practiced separately to learn their parts, and then together to coordinate the tricky rhythms of Renaissance style. Just as each of their personalities has a unique flavor, their instruments, too, have different voices. Asked to identify their favorite parts of the dances they played, Ellie spoke up: “Any part where I have the melody. The tuba always gets the low repetitive rhythms.” On the other hand, observed Abby to her sister, “You’re the glue, you’re the foundation.”
When a group like the Webb Trio performs, there is no conductor. So how do they know when to start playing? James, whose horn melody begins the first dance, said, “We chose the tempo together—it just fit the piece.” And Abby, who as a flutist has the most visible means of providing cues to her colleagues, added, “We all have to be completely sure when to start.” Visual communication and agreement on tempo and style are equally important.
What did the group learn from their performance in the solo-ensemble festival? “Good breaths!” said Ellie, with a tubist’s awareness of how much air it takes to fill a large instrument. Even flutists need good breaths, as Abby pointed out. “Breathing is important for all wind instruments!”
The district solo-ensemble festival, organized and run by the Wisconsin School Music Association, is an opportunity for middle and high school students to prepare solos and ensembles from a list which is graded by difficulty, to perform their music for music teachers who are certified adjudicators, and then to receive suggestions to improve their playing. Students who play music chosen from the most difficult list, Class A, may also receive a rating allowing them to participate in the state solo-ensemble festival several weeks later.
Many of the teachers who serve as adjudicators have been helping students at solo-ensemble festivals every spring for many years. They know how to listen and watch as each student performs, to distill their observations about the playing into a few nuggets of advice and encouragement, and then to explain these suggestions in a manner that is both honest and supportive. It’s a demanding, soul-searching responsibility to dispense advice to impressionable young musicians every 12 minutes from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and it is our good fortune as parents and community members that most of these teachers take their responsibility very seriously.
When asked about their own judge’s response to their playing, the Trio answered that, in addition to his insistence on good breathing, retired UW-Platteville music professor Dan Fairchild observed that he had never heard this combination of instruments play together before and hoped that the Webbs would continue their collaboration. “Miscellaneous Ensemble” is the official designation for non-traditional combinations like the Webbs’. Their band director, Matt Nevers, submitted the score of the arrangement to the WSMA office and requested permission for the Trio to perform this music, which is not on the official festival list. When permission was granted, Ellie, Abby, and James tackled the challenge of following a new path. The success of such a collaboration among three individuals, each contributing their own talents and ideas, is a tribute to the imagination and energy of seventh-graders.
Sometimes finding a time and place for just one person to practice at home can be difficult. Finding a rehearsal time for three siblings, each of whom has many other interests, must be a real challenge. Yes, agreed the Webbs, “especially if I’m in the middle of a good book!” Ellie pointed out. But this group managed to put other responsibilities and pleasures aside long enough, and frequently enough, to produce a respectable performance of difficult music. Was there grumbling? Yes, they admitted, but no lasting animosity. This is the art of compromise, observed Abby: meeting in the middle to accomplish a shared goal which requires the simultaneous presence and attention of three individuals.
“Music is a universal language,” is a familiar but under-explored idea. We discussed it with James, Ellie, and Abby, pointing out that if the parts and score from which they played were sent to a flutist, horn player and tubist in France, or in Korea, the rendition of the music by those non-English speakers would be easily recognizable as the same music the Webbs have learned. The notation of the music is itself a language understandable by all musicians, and the sounds produced represent ideas and means of expression that are not translatable into any language and yet can be communicated by musicians from other language traditions.
The skills that Ellie, Abby and James learned as they rehearsed their Renaissance dances will be useful to them as they mature into adults responsible for making decisions with far-reaching consequences, or for mediating among individuals with deep differences and disagreements. Learning to compromise, to pay attention to the needs of others, to sacrifice some personal wish for the success of a shared goal — these are valuable skills which, sadly, are often missing among our adult leaders. Finding a mutually agreeable tempo, a workable practice time, a new path to try — these are all important. And it never hurts to take a good breath.
Nancy Schmalz is a musician, gardener, teacher and knitter living in a historic home in Mineral Point with her husband, Peter. Her collection of poetry, “Breath to Music, Air to Sound,” was published in 2017 by Mineral Point’s Little Creek Press.