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A Transformational Student Performance

Victoria Plettner-Saunders

When was the last time you attended a student performance in your community? You know the junior theater’s production of My Fair Lady or the young art show at the museum…

Although I spend a good part of my time working to keep arts education in the schools, and many of the client projects I work on are related to student learning in the arts, I don’t get to as many student performances as one might think. I do as many do and opt for the big orchestras from out-of-town, or the modern dance company I’ve seen many times over. Boy have I been missing out!

Last weekend we attended a San Diego Youth Symphony (SDYS) concert at the invitation of our friend and SDYS President and CEO Dalouge Smith.

What I experienced was, in a word, transformational.

To begin with, the students were just phenomenal. The clarinetist showcased in Luigi Bassi’s “Fantasy on Themes” for clarinet from Rigoletto had won their 2011 Orchestra Concerto Competition. She could have easily given many professional musicians a run for their money as she deftly moved over the notes with accuracy and poise.

And the Orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in b minor “Pathetique” was the highlight of the evening. Their powerful execution of the third movement was amazing and not something one would think could come from a group of teenagers in the sunrise of their experience as musicians. This was not amateur hour.

But what sealed the evening, was my experience as an audience member.

So often I attend professional symphony performances and am so captivated with the work I don’t want to sit still. I want to move my head in time with the music, or shift my body back and forth in my seat. When I look around I see all these nicely dressed people, with their hands in their laps and their eyes focused ahead, listening politely.

But on Saturday night, I watched as parents and siblings craned their necks and become animated if they saw their child highlighted up close on the big screen over the proscenium. Exhibiting pride in the performers was the norm. Audience members bounced their heads in time with the music as if to help the performers along.

When the clarinetist took her bows for the very difficult Bassi work, friends and family members came down the aisles with bouquets of flowers overwhelming her like an Olympic skater. (The conductor had to carry two arms full of flowers himself just to help her take them all off stage). The audience stood shouting “brava” and applauding with both admiration and encouragement. It was a celebratory moment to be sure.

But pure joy came at the end of the third movement of “Pathetique” when the audience forgot all about the earlier admonition to hold applause until the end. (They were recording the performance and wanted to get a clean take.)

When the musicians came to the powerful end of the movement with the strength and accuracy of much more seasoned performers, the audience couldn’t contain themselves (myself included)—-we moved as if by a force of nature to thunderous applause.

It was then that I realized I hadn’t had this much enjoyment at a concert since I watched Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Israeli Philharmonic. There was energy between the stage and the audience that felt as though we were all there together, musicians and audience, experiencing something great.

It changed the way I think about student performances; appreciating them even more than professional ones.

So the next time you have an opportunity to attend a student performance, buy a few tickets and take your friends. Not only will you be supporting a good cause and you might even feel transformed.

*Victoria Plettner-Saunders is the current Chair of the Arts Education Council at Americans for the Arts,  founder of Plettner-Saunders Consulting, and the co-founder of the San Diego Alliance for Arts Education. 

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