Favorite Oberlin Memories Blog no. 3: Swan Lake children's concert
People say that the early bird catches the worm, and I really hope that’s true because it’s currently 4:30am, and I am on my way to the great state of California for more graduate application fun. To brighten up this very early morning, I’m going to share one of my all time favorite memories with you all: the Oberlin Orchestra’s children’s concert outreach project. It was spring of my second year, and I had signed up for my first PACE class, (Pedagogy, Advocacy, and Community Engagement). Oberlin is well-known for its community engagement, it’s one of the reasons we have that shiny medal President Obama bestowed upon us on display in the Kohl Building. It had been my goal to do something involving community and teaching that year, and nothing seemed to be working out, but when I heard about this class I was instantly interested. The class would collaborate with the Oberlin Orchestra to develop a children’s concert for a large number of schools across the county. Led by Oberlin’s professor of music education Jody Kerchner, the class was set to learn a number of pedagogical techniques, and then develop a learning agenda centered around Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. We would then begin visiting elementary school classrooms, getting hands-on teaching experience and prepping the kids for the concert. This was already really exciting, but the most exciting part was that we would also all work together in writing the script for the actual event.
As you all might have guessed by now, I’m a bit of a writer, so the prospect of developing some of the script was incredibly exciting for me. We were each divided into sections based on the individual movements of the suite. I chose the opening, because I wanted the challenge of coming up with a hook that would hopefully draw the hordes of children in Finney Chapel into the magic that is Swan Lake. My first idea was to bring the orchestra on stage, then turn all the lights off so everyone would be sitting in darkness. Suddenly mystical blue lighting would center on the stage and the narrator would come out in a sparkly outfit. She would start to tell a dramatically written fairytale-like opening script of the Swan Lake story. At the end of her dramatic recitation, the orchestra would play the first few phrases of the introduction. I wrote it all out, and it seemed so imaginative and mysterious, until someone burst my bubble by reminding me that the concert would be starting at noon.
Finney Chapel is a very big, acoustically amazing space, but it’s strewn with windows. So my “darkness” would lose some of its effectiveness with this thing called daylight. Aarrghgh!! Back to the drawing board.
Up until now, I’ve only talked about writing the script, but halfway through the class Professor Kerchner posed the question whether we would want to narrate our own sections as well. I remember the chills going down my spine when it first came up. I’ve always loved languages, writing, reading, vocabulary (I’m the kind of person who has favorite words, like “ephemeral”), but the truth is I also have a pretty noticeable stutter, and I’d never talked into a mic before. However, I have always loved public speaking and giving presentations because the adrenaline does something to my stutter, making my speech noticeably smoother. I thought long and hard about it, but realized I would be green with envy watching anyone else narrate my writing during the event. I knew I could do it, and I wanted to do it!
My next idea for the script worked out much better. My classmate and fellow studio mate Adam was an integral part of this new idea. Adam is a unique character. He’s probably one of my favorite people because he’s so uninhibitedly himself, and everyone loves him for it. At my very first studio class ever Adam did a dramatic reading of Shakespeare, by memory, in Kulas Recital Hall for all of us. He’s the best storyteller I know, we collaborated on writing a Star Trek children’s book for our teacher David Bowlin (more on that in an upcoming memory blog), and I have a video of him singing opera in Finney in a remarkable falsetto.
My idea was to dress someone up as a swan, and if anyone would be up for that, it would be Adam. The opening would work like this: Adam would be a swan hiding in the back of Finney holding a big book. I would write out the fairytale Swan Lake intro that was a part of my first idea, and would come on stage looking confused. I would tell the kids that I had come to tell them the story of Swan Lake but my swan friend was supposed to bring the book, and I couldn’t find him! Then I would ask “have any of you seen my swan friend?” Meanwhile, Adam would start sneaking in through the back of Finney to bring me the book, and all the kids would have a blast finding him. He would bring the book to me, I would sit down on a chair and read the story. Once I was done (with a good cliffhanger, of course), the orchestra would play part of the introduction.
I went online and started looking for swan costumes. I found a small number of swan mascot costumes, but there weren’t many choices (which has always confused me, what kind of a football team wouldn’t want a swan for a mascot?), and expensive. So I took the DIY approach. I found a cheap swan hat on Amazon (which I sent to Professor Kerchner, who ended up buying it, aahh!), took a snow-white bedsheet of mine, and asked my friend Christine for her butterfly wings. Christine even had a butterfly wand to go with her wings, which was even more perfect.
Next I went to the conservatory library and got the biggest book I could find. It was on the top floor, in the back, and I think it was something on polyphony and Bolivian music. It was huge; seriously, I couldn’t fit it in my locker.
Of course the writing was a blast, and it was so fun to see everyone else’s ideas too. They were all great. Some class members dressed up as ballerina swans, searching around Finney for the "dance of the swans" movement, and we came up with ways to explain a waltz meter, accelerando, as well as introducing various instruments.
During our first visit to the schools I started to understand what this was all about. The kids loved it! They were so engaged, and so very excited for the concert the following week. We were wrapping up one class and the kids filed out, when a boy recognized us from a previous class day, and came in to say hello. I could see he struggled with a disability, and he was so excited to see us, telling us how he couldn’t wait for the concert and was planning to get up early that day, have a healthy breakfast, and be all ready to listen! It warmed my heart all over, and I found myself wishing we could do more of this sort of thing, rather than have it be a one-time project.
The concert itself was a tremendous hit! We learned how to plan and navigate the bus traffic and guide the audiences to their sections to ensure minimal chaos. It was the most well attended and energy rich concert I have ever participated in. Finney rapidly filled up with over 750 children and teachers, squirming, talking, and laughing. We had pre-concert activities to make sure the kids were entertained until the show began. Several conservatory students had volunteered to sit with each section of kids, demonstrating and explaining things about their instruments.
One of the PACE instructors had stuck chocolate bars under the benches, and the few lucky kids who found the bars were invited to come on stage and conduct the orchestra for a few bars. We all did our bits, and Adam the Swan was a huge sensation for the kids. Seeing that swan hat floating around the hall, in all humility, was one of my prouder moments in life. As you can see, this is one of the many Oberlin memories I deeply cherish. I would have never guessed that coming up with ideas for a children's concert could be such a challenge for my imagination, and so rewarding in the end. I sincerely hope I will get the chance to be an integral part of similar projects, wherever my future may lead.