by Heather Trussell
At The Soulsville Charter School, Dr. Dennis Leoni and I have been working to create a classroom culture in the high school orchestras of orchestral etiquette, work ethic, and respect for colleagues and instruments. We consistently emphasize the fact that proper technique and posture informs the quality of music-making, as well as showing empathy and respect for fellow students who may struggle more than others.
In September, we brought our Soulsville students to attend part of an afternoon Memphis Symphony Orchestra concert to watch us rehearse Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (“New World”). Douglas Mayes, the Stage Manager, gave the students a tour of the backstage facilities and explained the process of setting the stage, adjusting clouds and the shell, and storage and moving of instruments. Assistant Conductor Andrew Crust showed our students a score and shared some of his preparation and score study process. After the rehearsal segment, Music Director Robert Moody met with the students to answer questions and give some framework to what they’d seen.
Our pre-field experience prep at Soulsville involved playing some video clips of the Dvorak, and sharing Dvorak’s prophetic idea that the “new” American music he heard while visiting would be the basis for a whole new “school” of music-making. I played an excerpt from a string part for them, which sparked a conversation about vibrato and why we don’t do it until the rest of the technique is solid. My students had some excellent pre-field experience questions, but some of the most interesting and thought-provoking ones were the questions during and after the experience.
One cellist asked me what happens if I don’t like something we play. This happens, and my response is to enjoy the craft, and the satisfaction of doing something well. It’s something I tell the students in class too, particularly if they are unmotivated. “Just try: if you’re going to do something, don’t you want to do your best at it?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Another very relevant question was about the lack of reflection of our diverse community in the make-up of the orchestra. It’s a serious problem for orchestras, and now that the Memphis Symphony has newly stable leadership, we are working to create policy that ensures that our organization better reflects and serves our community. Dr. Leoni and I showed some pictures from Sphinx Competition and Convention, and have since then incorporated into our lesson plans time for video clips showing people who look like them playing all styles of music, not just classical, on traditionally classical string instruments. A violist wanted to know why the violas talked so much, marveled at the apparent agelessness of Robert Moody, and wondered why there were so many old people. “Well, we tend to play until we can’t possibly do so any more. We don’t want to retire, so we just keep playing.” They were shocked to know that some musicians have even died onstage. A few students had some really great impressions of conducting techniques that I enjoyed. An extremely detail-oriented violinist drew an entire diagram of the stage and backstage.
Our bass player who attended looked at me just before the trip and said, “Ms. Trussell, you look so happy! You’re glowing!” It’s true. I loved having these students at work with me, and I loved having the opportunity to see what I do through their perspectives. Every day they teach me something else, and I can’t imagine anything better than that.
Heather Trussell, a native of Rochester, N.Y., is entering her 17th season with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Receiving an MMI fellowship over the summer, Heather currently co-teaches high school strings at The Soulsville Charter School and Middle College High School. Heather’s primary concentration is classical orchestral violin, but she also enjoys playing klezmer, Gypsy jazz, and blues. She has three cats, two dogs, six chickens, a brilliant husband, and a Very Dramatic though deeply loved teenage daughter.