Interview: National Honor Orchestra Director, Part 2

Auditions are open for the first annual MENC National Honor Ensembles til February 1. Colonel Dennis M. Layendecker, Director of Orchestral Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, will conduct the National Honor Orchestra in June 2010.

Read Part 1

What would you like students/candidates to know before they participate with you?

I don’t make the sound! In light of this, I firmly believe the role of any conductor worth his/her salt is to facilitate the music making of the people who actually do make the sound. It seems such a simple concept when considered on the surface. Yet, for too many, in my experience, it seems a difficult concept to trust, particularly as it takes longer than a visually dominant “stick driven” approach. One must be willing to accept the initial “messiness” from an aurally dominant approach and, of course, good acoustics are essential to the success of this. However, if one is willing to work with a group in this manner patiently, in the end the group comes together in what is true “ensemble.”

In light of this, as I am fully aware by now just how much sound the stick makes, I tend to treat even the youngest orchestras with, well … a level of respect that many have observed to me. borders on energetically enthusiastic reverence! We’re going to have a great time! My experience within the professional, community and academic settings tells me that people — in our case musicians — young and old alike, professional, amateur and yes, students, will make every effort to meet our expectations if they are clear.

When it comes to making music, my expectations are very high within reason. First and foremost, I expect musicians at all levels to play together — ensemble, intonation, matched articulations. I can ask, but I cannot do this for them. Free of the authority for these issues, I am able to focus my attention on helping them to balance with each other, to solicit dynamic contrasts and tone colors, and to phrase in cohesively expressive manners. So, our participants can expect that my visual cueing will not interfere with their listening, aural “dependence” upon each other, and adjusting together as a as a living musical community, engaged in a grand contrapuntal “conversation” of great music.

I never cease to be amazed at how quickly an ensemble approached in this manner can come together and make great music. Every orchestra participant joining us this summer in Washington, D.C., should come sufficiently prepared individually to meet the musical requirements of this approach. If my past experience is any indicator, they will relish this experience!

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing music educators right now?

Priorities — their own, those of their bosses, those of the parents, and those of their students. In my view, we must constantly and honestly reassess our teaching priorities. By doing so we maintain some hope of fully developing the young minds of the students in our charge who, over the longer view, must become fully active, good citizens for the benefit of our democratic republic. As I have personally witnessed real teaching success stories across America, my heroes remain those music educators who are able to find a true balance between preparing for competitions and providing a substantial, functional, liberal education in music for their students. In so many examples I have witnessed, I believe students are being empowered to enjoy their fundamental musical skills for a lifetime of artistic participation, perhaps as performers, certainly as listeners and supporters. Still, I believe priorities remain the biggest challenge facing music educators across America.
Next Week: Interview with National Honors Orchestra Director, Part 3

— Nicole Springer, January 27, 2010. © National Association for Music Education.