Preparing Students for “The Big Event”

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Preparing Students for “The Big Event”

Ryan LaBoy, Music Director, and Sara Zanussi, Executive Director, of ComMUSICation, St. Paul, Minnesota


ComMUSICation, a Sistema-inspired choral program in St. Paul, Minnesota, performed “America the Beautiful” at the Super Bowl with Leslie Odom Jr. in February 2018. The experience was enthralling. Families were beaming with pride, and the singers themselves were singularly focused; in the words of characters in the musical Hamilton (in which Odom has starred), they were “not throwing away their shot!”

A number of Sistema-inspired programs across the country have had similar experiences, with students playing in large public venues for wider audiences than they’re used to. All have found that preparing kids for these events is a complex and challenging process. This article attempts to distill some of our learning, and the insights of colleagues in other programs, to share with the field– in the hope that all of us will have such opportunities come our way.

1. Focus on process over product. ComMUSICation’s greatest challenge was keeping our students focused on the process of learning hard repertoire in a short time, rather than on the “product” – the Super Bowl itself. For an event that is so grandiose and product-based, we worked hard to stick to process-based teaching.

Other programs we spoke with agreed with this approach. Orchkids director Dan Trahey, whose students have played at a Ravens game and other public events, said, “We encourage the kids to think about every single event, large or small, as ‘the big event.’” Gretchen Nielsen, former L.A. Phil Vice President for Education Initiatives, oversaw YOLA’s appearance with Gustavo Dudamel at the 2016 Super Bowl half-time show. “YOLA is building a culture of performance,” she said, “that applies to all performance occasions, small and large.” And Longy Conservatory president Karen Zorn said of Longy’s Sistema Side by Side orchestra, which performed at a Celtics game, “All the smaller performances along the way add up to the ability to do a big public performance. And we try not to make it a big deal, not to ramp up the kids’ anxiety.”

How to redirect that anxiety? “By focusing on the music,” was Karen’s answer. “The focus needed for big performances is huge; there are so many distractions! So some practice with chaos around can actually help.”

The importance of learning to concentrate is something everyone we spoke with felt strongly about. Dan said, “We try to set up an environment of concentrating, listening, and reflection.” Gretchen spoke of developing “pocketed times” of intense learning. “We can’t just SAY we’re going to be focused,” she said, “we have to actually practice being focused.”

2. Prepare kids for special aspects of public performance. According to Dan, “On the big day, there’s going to be a lot of time spent just waiting. Prepare kids for that. Also, work on exaggeration, so the performance ‘reads’ to a large crowd. We tell them, ‘Look at how you exaggerate when you’re on the playground – and bring that to the music!’”

Gretchen also mentioned this issue. “We had theater coaching for the Super Bowl. The kids were asked, ‘What do you want to share with the audience about what you’re feeling? Your expressions will help the audience enter your world.’”

Karen spoke about the importance of anticipating the non-musical moments when things can go wrong. “We often try to physically create the set-up the way it will be in the space, so kids can practice things like entering and exiting smoothly.”

3. Remember the people who aren’t onstage. It’s important to include, as much as possible, the people who aren’t performing – other students, families, and community. “With big public performances,” said Gretchen, “we have to communicate more with families. They need a lot of context about the big picture, and they need to know the details too.”

At ComMUSICation, we feel it’s important to make sure everyone can celebrate, not just the performers. YOLA had a Super Bowl watching party for their students; we had an after-party for everyone, combining it with our birthday party. Ensuring that all feel celebrated is really important, to avoid cliques and hurt feelings.

Why do big performances? The news stories often say, “Chance of a Lifetime!” But the publicity doesn’t always result in anything tangible. Remember this, and be ready to be okay with it. Say yes for the experience offered, not for the potential future results. We can assure you: the experience is enough.


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