For those of you who are looking for a fun but comprehensive introduction to the orchestra, classical music, or the different types of music instruments, here is my absolutely favorite DVD set: ORCHESTRA! It originally aired on PBS stations back in the 1990s, and is currently available at Amazon.com, although for a whopping $29.98. That strikes me as rather a lot for a 3-disc set, so you may want to find it at your local library first.
Here’s a great intro to the series:
It’s a wonderful journey through the entire orchestra, starting with the strings (violin through bass) and moving forward into the winds, brass, and percussion. Your host is the late actor Dudley Moore, who himself was a gifted pianist, and takes it upon himself to play with the orchestra in the later works that feature piano. I had only heard Dudley Moore as a jazz pianist, so I was surprised to hear him playing the very difficult piano part in Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.” Sir Georg Solti conducts the orchestra, which is an international group of young musicians hailing from all over the world.
When I was in middle school, I participated in an all-state band. You had to go through an excruciating (to me, at the time!) blind audition in order to earn a seat. We all had numbers, which were posted on the doors afterwards in order of rank. In eighth grade, I remember my shock and joy at being ranked third in the state in the clarinet. I was a lowly third clarinet in my school band, had never had a private lesson, could not afford to buy an instrument, and went completely unnoticed by my peers, my band teacher, and my parents. I will never forget returning to school the following Monday and being told by the band teacher that I was to return my squeaky plastic clarinet to the music storage room in exchange for a luxe Buffet wooden clarinet. We had two of these in our band, and they were much prized. It’s a good thing that I was over the moon with happiness, or I might have been offended at the amazed reactions of my teacher and my classmates. Clearly no one had ever thought I was capable of being any good. That all-state band audition changed everything about my role in our school band and my attitude toward myself. I subsequently auditioned for several other select bands and the state junior orchestra, where I played music alongside strings for the first time.
When I watch ORCHESTRA! I am taken back to those days when my life was measured out in spans of time between concerts and auditions. How strange that I have not been a member of a musical ensemble in over thirty years! And yet it has been one of the foundational experiences in my life. I suppose the lesson to be gained here is that you just never know how your children are going to take and use what they learn. And perhaps part of me still stings a bit at the thought that no one thought I would go very far in music. Parents, pay attention to the things your children keep returning to over and over again, even if you don’t think that what they do is “important” or that they are very “good.” You just never know.