The assignment was simple….find an orchestra and conduct it. That’s how it started. I was part of a conducting apprenticeship program for high school students in the world of classical music. We had been meeting for a few weeks now and it ended up in this final assignment…supposedly a culmination of all that we had learned and should now be able to employ.
I stumbled around a bit thinking of where in the world one could “find” an orchestra that would let a teenage student actually lead it for 45 minutes. After much thought about this dilemma, I went back to where I had begun…..to a training orchestra I had joined for a year until there was an opening and I moved up into the youth symphony. The conductor that had been with the training orchestra when I was there was retired now, but some of the other leaders there still remembered me. I wrote them a note with my request and held my breath. The response finally came about a week later. I opened the envelope and was thrilled to find out that they would allow me to conduct them for one hour on a given date to music they were currently working on – one problem solved. However, problem two quickly arose…..I was not familiar with the music they had chosen and had only 2 weeks to get ready. There was much to do so I got busy!
Two weeks later, the day had come. I was back where I started awaiting the end of the usual 15-minute break when my time would be at hand. I had asked my uncle to videotape the session so I could provide the tape to the apprenticeship program for critique as asked. He was there waiting too.
As the room filled back up with the student musicians, only one of whom I knew, my heart stepped up a beat. At last, the conductor introduced me to the orchestra and told them the plan. I had one run through and then we would tape for my class – no time for error here.
Slowly, I went to the podium and took that giant step up. I felt like the first astronaut stepping out onto the moon. How strange it felt to then be confined to a 3-foot by 3-foot box 12 inches off the floor. Not something you think about until you’re up there. I was hopeful I wouldn’t fall off.
I turned to face the orchestra and that’s when I began to shake. I noticed then that my uncle was even filming this initial run through. I saw the conductor and other leaders had taken seats in the back and were watching me intently – the training orchestra also on a new elevation – training a student conductor. I was too nervous to speak, to smile, or to even say hello – I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I believe it was then that the reality set in and I realized I had NO IDEA what I was doing and no idea how to begin. Hundreds of eyes on me and I was totally blank. I think I stopped breathing for a few seconds at this point. I never felt so lonely in a room full of people.
Finally, the concertmaster, the only student I knew in that orchestra, looked up and whispered, “Take a deep breath and let’s go.” And so I did. I raised the baton and began the count imagining I was back in my bedroom in front of the mirrors where I had practiced and practiced for this moment. When the baton came down and the music began, I knew then where I was. The grand sweep of the score from my new perch was even more breathtaking than sitting in an audience in a grand concert hall or playing in the orchestra. It was a heady moment for a 17-year-old – my prelude to music from a new plateau – my 3-foot by 3-foot box, 12 inches off the floor – a much better view!