Can we let kids run loose? Seems so, at least when it comes to new music. Last month by coincidence one of my student’s endeavors was highlighted in Chatter’s Friday Informer. The project, Formerly Known as Classical, is a new music ensemble comprised and run solely by teens. No one over 18 allowed. The idea has now grown into a full fledged new music concert series that presents music from Adams to Messiaen to crowds of hundreds enthusiastic listeners.
Conceived by Matthew Cmiel, the original concept was to bring together younger musicians to rehearse and play Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round. At first, friends were rounded up for what could be almost called a jam session. There was no performance planned and almost all of the players in attendance had no exposure to new music. But, thanks to the likes of the organizer’s enthusiasm and use of plenty of snacks, the teens took the time to learn the music and got hooked.
As rehearsals progressed, Matthew and the members decided to play a concert devoted to music written after the players were born. From promotion to conducting to producing, my student and his buddies took it all on. They selected works not based on their technical limitations but rather whether they liked them or not. They contacted everyone in the press, blissfully ignorant of the dearth of outlets for the promotion of new music. They emailed everyone imaginable invites to the concert. Matthew even used Facebook, an Internet social networking portal used by students throughout the world, to coordinate production details.
Their efforts paid off. Their first concert was filled with an audience many would envy. The performances had a focus and passion that forgave any technical mishaps that may have been present. Perhaps most intriguing, the project’s success drew in more teens desiring to participate in the learning and playing of new music. Being in Formerly Known as Classical began to be hip among young musicians in the high schools of San Francisco.
So, how come this idea flew and did not fall flat on its face? And, are there lessons from their success that we can take into our own composing, performing, and teaching of new music? In this case, it seems that a “just do it” attitude and a combination of food, friendships, parents, teachers, and blind faith was the trick. Led by a teen passionate about new music, a group of young musicians made their vision happen ignorant of their lack of experience in doing just such a project. No it was not done in a vacuum for, when needed, they brought in adults for advice and help, from the writing of the press release to the procurement of a piano and a concert hall. However, they learned as they went, instead of waiting to learn before leaping.
In discussing this, my husband commented to me how too often it seems in music that there is an unsaid philosophy of needing to know before being allowed to do. This ranges from young composers not being allowed to write music before taking harmony classes, to musicians not being allowed to conduct without first learning formal baton technique. Luckily, in this case, Matthew was not deterred. He came from a background where both his family and education encouraged him to “do” from a very young age. In doing so, he gained a sense of confidence and entrepreneurship that enabled him to bring together like-minded kids to create an innovative ensemble that is turning both heads and ears. He acted fearlessly as only the young (or young at heart) can do.