Ah, that old, familiar stress: the uneasy anticipation of a would-be group leader.
If you’re unfamiliar with this feeling, picture yourself outside a theater, 15 minutes before the curtain rises, with a stack of tickets in your hand. Forty UR students have to find you in the midst of a crowd near a building they’ve never seen before, after they park in downtown Rochester, which is no small feat.
It’s quite the experience.
Last week, I performed a final act of service for our University’s pep band; my term as president expired with the new calendar year, but a project from last semester remained unfinished. My task: to buy tickets, find student audience members and arrange carpools for a group trip to Rochester’s Auditorium Theatre. This situation hardly reflects the pep band’s typical function; we ventured off-campus for a very specific reason. “Blast!” was in town for one night only.
What’s “Blast!,” you ask?
Recall that student (or group of students) in high school who loved band with a fiery passion. Maybe you were that person. I was. Combine his or her personality with that of a drum corps fanatic and add a bit of the Broadway kid. Now, imagine that this paragon of musical obsession designed a 90-minute show around the talents of virtuosic brass players and percussionists. That’s “Blast!.”
To explain it more plainly, the show is a brand of performance art that synthesizes some rarely, yet intuitively combined media. The dancers perform modern ballet sequences, color-guard stunts and wordless dramas. The players split, combine and switch instruments such that the same 20 people can form a percussion line, a brass ensemble, a full drum and bugle group and even an a cappella choir within a single act.
To understand why so many UR students from River Campus performance groups would want to attend this sort of show — and why I write this message to the general University community — one must understand something about the nature of musical performance, especially of performance by musicians who play only in large ensembles.
The term “performance” can imply some radically different activities to various musicians at UR: a degree recital at Kilbourn Hall, a rock show on the frat quad, a Sunday afternoon of gospel in Strong Auditorium. But, as a great teacher of mine might say of his own music, performance is always a form of communication. At least one person presents and at least one listens.
The music can be carefree and loud, bold and emotional, or abstract and essentially meaningless, but this does not matter for performers who must present, with conviction, a message of their own.
The successful performer persuades the audience that he or she has something to say and believes in that something very deeply.
This applies no less to Pep Band when playing Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” during halftime than to a doctoral student playing fourth clarinet in a concert with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. Performers, in the truest sense of the word, specifically want to play and sing for others. They take that first breath with confidence, even if they know that their part is just an accompaniment to a more prominent musical line.
This brings me back to “Blast!.” I won’t review the show; trust me, it was amazing. Instead, I ask you to place yourself in my situation again, this time in the theater, with everyone seated and ready to listen. The first drummer strides onstage and patiently taps out a rhythm.
One by one, the other percussionists, brass players and dancers emerge. The texture thickens and the volume increases, but that incessant beat, or that harmony part of the trombone that entered two minutes ago, or even that path of the dancers who led the initial march, is never lost.
Everyone involved in “Blast!” is a performer. They know that their part matters and they know how to send a message to a packed house. So, to the musicians who read this: always remember what it means to communicate with your audience, especially when you play or sing in a large group.
To the potential audience members: just sit back and listen. There’s something we’ve been meaning to tell you.
Stevens is a member of the class of 2012.