Backstage with Matthew December 11, 2017

Backstage with Matthew: Sitting Side by Side

It is something of a truism that participation in the arts leads to a deeper connection to the arts. That is a central philosophy behind our education programs, opening opportunities to learn through creation and participation. 

This fall we were very proud to pilot a new participatory program with visionary support from our friends at the Koret Foundation: our Music Performance Residency. It is a program that connects young students to inspiring professional resources at the Opera.

We partnered with two San Francisco Unified School District schools: Francisco Middle School (FMS), and the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (RASOTA), both of which have pre-existing orchestras. We invited their orchestras to come and work literally side-by-side with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, participating first-hand with one of the world’s great orchestras, learning what it means to be a professional musician, and rehearsing and performing together. After initial preparatory visits to the schools by our conductors and teaching artists Sven Olbash and Nick Benavides, the orchestras joined us for a week of rehearsals at the Wilsey Center for Opera, followed by a performance for parents and friends.

There are few things as inspiring as seeing the intergenerational exchange of knowledge and ideas: the eagerness of young musicians seeking to learn from professionals who are equally as eager to share.

SF Opera Orchestra's Steven D'Amico (Bass) with Atticus Simmons
San Francisco Opera Orchestra's Steven D'Amico (Bass) works with Atticus Simmons. Photo: Scott Wall

Trumpet player of the Opera Orchestra John Pearson worked alongside Shanzhi Yu from RASOTA. Shanzhi is new to orchestras, and this was the first time playing in such a professional environment. He’s used to being asked to play quieter at school, but here in the beautiful expanse of the Wilsey Center, conductor Ming Luke was asking for more sound, encouraging the students to listen to other sections more and ensure that each entrance was exact.

sitting in the principal trumpet’s chair
Trumpet student Shanzhi Yu sitting in the principal trumpet’s chair in the Opera House pit.

John Pearson also had opportunities to engage with professional musicians when he was a student. He grew up feeling that music was a noble pursuit—a calling that he needed to follow to satisfy something deep within himself. That passion propelled him to play a few jobs with a professional band and that professional connection was an important inspiration to him.

SF Opera Orchestra's John Pearson rehearses with students
San Francisco Opera Orchestra's John Pearson rehearses with students from RASOTA. Photo: Scott Wall.

One of the pieces that the students took on was a series of excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. There are only a limited number of trumpet passages in Flute: the big choruses and some of the more Masonic-related music. Beyond those, there are lots of periods of waiting, and for John it was important to teach the trumpet students what not to do as much as what to do. How to wait in a professional orchestra, how to listen, how to prepare, how to ensure that an entrance is exact after a long wait.

It was also the first time that Shanzhi had played a trumpet in C (trumpets can come in different keys providing different timbres). John also taught the students about other kinds of trumpets including the rotary trumpet which we use from time to time in the pit.

John spoke to the ‘cauldron of possibilities’ that he found with these young students. Some are interested in going into music; others are just enjoying playing; and others are still deciding. But he noted a curiosity, a sophistication and a hunger to learn. John loved spending time with the students: being on a break and talking about music; experiencing those moments where he felt the ‘light go on’ as they realized something new about the music, about the instrument, about the creative process.

Lucy Nelligan is a violinist with RASOTA and has been playing for 10 years. When her orchestra teacher told them that they had been selected to work with the Opera Orchestra she was thrilled: this was an opportunity to see people doing what she loved and who had dedicated their whole careers to it. Lucy is hoping to go into a professional music career, maybe on the Celtic/Irish music side, and she was so happy to have this opportunity to experience a professional orchestra.

Sitting in the Concertmaster’s chair
Violin student Lucy Nelligan sitting in the Concertmaster’s chair in the Opera House pit.

Lucy worked with a number of violinists in the orchestra, including Jennifer Cho. Jennifer has played since a young age and remembers a moment in 4th grade when she was inspired by a concert violinist who came to her school. It gave her a feeling of what it meant to be a professional musician, a learning she was able to pass along in this program. Jennifer also worked to help the students understand how to add nuance and character to an orchestral line, thinking about the character of the piece and thinking how to transform a line. She impressed upon the violinists working with her that even professionals still have to work on technique (practice is important!).

Members of the SF Opera Orchestra
Members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra: John Pearson (trumpet) and Jennifer Cho (violin).

For Lucy, the big take-away was how much like a chamber group the orchestra felt—she learned about connecting to her colleagues within the orchestra and listening and reacting as though a chamber music. Orchestral playing is, as she notes, about “keeping your ego in check”, particularly in an opera orchestra where you are collaborating not only with other players but also singers (the RASOTA orchestra collaboration also worked with singers from the high school).

final showcase
San Francisco Opera Orchestra's Jennifer Cho with RASOTA students in their showcase performance. Photo: Avi Glibicky.

Jennifer remembers the night of the performance at the Wilsey Center. She entered the building bracing for the noise and chaos of a group of children preparing for a concert. As she got off the elevator, she was amazed to find a group of young people, focused, engaged and thoughtfully preparing. It was a wonderful example of how dedicated these students already are to their craft, and how impactful their time with the Opera Orchestra had been.

final bows
Conductor Ming Luke leads a final bow. Photo: Avi Glibicky.

We’re excited to keep this new program growing and developing, providing opportunities for more students to engage with the amazing talents of San Francisco Opera, not only in the Orchestra, but also other groups within the Company. There are so many windows of possibility that we can open at the Opera for young people interested in delving deeper, and we’re thrilled to develop these side-by-side opportunities to connect students first-hand with the thrilling skills embodied within San Francisco Opera.

As we come to a close of a fall season that has provided extraordinary adventures on stage, it is so impactful to also see these more intimate expressions of artistic possibility. Whatever pathway these students take, the chance to participate will resonate for lifetimes.


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