Deanna Tham, principal conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras, says her favorite part of the job is watching kids learn to work together to create something bigger than themselves.
There is a special moment in every musical performance, right before the sound starts. The conductor takes in a breath and absorbs the profundity of the entire work that is about to be played. Musicians sit at the edges of their seats, bows quivering, eyes staring intently at the baton, waiting and allowing their souls to tap into the buzzing, hovering network that is the essence of the music.
You may have witnessed this magical moment on a Friday or Saturday evening, but it also happens on Sunday afternoons. Looking around, you’ll see musicians at the edges of their seats — feet not quite touching the floor. Quivering bows in the grasps of tiny hands whose fingers are still learning their strength. Fervent, excited, tender eyes that shine in wonder and curiosity at the conductor.
This is the energy you’ll find in Mr. Song’s Jump Start Strings ensemble, the youngest group in the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras (JSYO). In six months, students as young as seven have gone from never having touched an instrument to learning a new musical language, playing songs they know, and becoming apprentices to the humming, illusory network that taps into the souls of all musicians. They, as well as the slightly older Foundations, Encore and Premier Strings ensembles, are preparing for their culminating concert of the year: Festival of Strings on the stage of Jacoby Symphony Hall on the evening of Monday, May 4.
Across the hall, the JSYO Philharmonic orchestra is preparing Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” for its Major Minor concert on May 8. The sweat on their brows beads, and their concentration is palpable. They are hyperaware, searching and yearning for the connection of their colleagues, conductor … Prokofiev himself from the grave.
They’ve gotten a taste of a transcendent connection to not just history, but the weight of the emotions and experiences of all who lived it — and they want more. They work hard to free themselves from the constraints of a fingering or intonation in preparation for the big stage — playing this challenging repertoire with the professional musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony — in hopes of being liberated enough to absorb, every bit of wisdom, pain, joy, and the experiences of their new colleagues. These are the moments that reinforce the necessity of introducing students to the power of live music.
In addition to providing top-level symphonic performances, a large part of the Jacksonville Symphony’s mission is to be an enriching educational resource for music and the arts in our community. We do this through initiatives such as Students at the Symphony (where teachers can bring their classrooms to select concerts for free and receive educational insights about the program), as well as Family and School concerts with engaging stage narratives and supplemental lobby activities. The shining star of all these programs is the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras, where students of all ages and skill-levels can experience playing music firsthand.
Being the principal conductor of this massive program is one of the joys of holding my position as assistant conductor with the Jacksonville Symphony. I am constantly amazed. Not by how fast or high some of these students can play, but by the dedication and eagerness with which they communicate and connect with others. I’m amazed at the depth with which they come to feel, the depth of their non-verbal communication, and the ability they have to transform something technical and physical into something intangible, transcendent and profound.
This transformation is what makes learning a musical instrument and playing in an ensemble so unique and important to being students of life. Numerous studies show that learning to play an instrument is one of the few activities that forges connections between both sides of our brains, making us more adaptable, better problem solvers and faster, more efficient thinkers. A recent study showed that playing a musical instrument throughout one’s life is associated with a lower risk of dementia in later years. Students who participate in a musical activity statistically show higher performance and test scores in academic subjects across the board, including math and science. Music triggers physiological plasticity in our brains: it literally makes our brains grow and change.
The science aside, the best moments of my job are when I see a student — whether it’s a pre-professional Philharmonic player or a beginning Foundations player — grow into a perceptive and intuitive human being. When a connection is forged between a physical action and an impalpable outcome. Maybe it’s the achievement of the perfect shining moment in a Mozart concerto. Maybe it’s the effortless conversation back and forth in a duet. Maybe it’s just noticing when a friend needs a pick-me-up. I tell my students all the time: the skills I want them to take away are not necessarily the perfect fingering, but more importantly empathy and awareness of one’s own state, energy, and how those things affect the people and world around us. These are the things that will help define the path they take in the future.
Written by Deanna Tham, Assistant Conductor & JSYO Principal Conductor