Tyler Junior College students were treated to a master class last week with Scottish virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who was in town for a performance with the East Texas Symphony Orchestra.
Glennie has mastered more than 1,000 percussion instruments and typically plays dozens of instruments during each performance. Her mission is to teach the world new ways to listen.
She began losing her hearing at age 2 and was profoundly deaf by the time she began taking percussion lessons at age 12. It took two auditions to convince the powers that be at London’s Royal Academy of Music that she should be admitted based solely on her ability to perform and not prohibited because of her impairment. Her admission to the academy was considered groundbreaking at the time and led to other students with disabilities being admitted.
In her 2007 TED talk, “How to Truly Listen,” she illustrated how listening to music involves more than simply sound waves hitting the eardrums and how she has been able to experience sound through alternate means such as vibrations.
Now age 52, Glennie performs with orchestras throughout the world. She was featured during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London in 2012.
As master classes go, her session with the TJC students began in typical fashion: The TJC percussion ensemble assembled onstage before a capacity audience in Jean Browne Theatre and performed their prepared piece, “Sonatina” by Fisher Tull, as Glennie sat beside the stage following along in the musical score.
When they finished, Glennie stood up and, in her soft, Scottish accent, said, “That piece was completely new to me and was extremely well done.”
Then she asked, “Have you ever thought about playing each other’s parts to see what the experience is like from a different perspective?”
Somewhat puzzled, the students looked at each other and then shook their heads in unison.
Glennie explained further, “An important aspect of reading music is to be able to read vertically as well as horizontally; so basically, you’re working with the full score as well as your individual part, so you can see exactly what your colleagues are doing.”
So, while it’s important to master their individual parts, she said, they should also be aware of the piece as a whole.
“Otherwise, you haven’t a clue where you are in the piece. You don’t know whether you’re accompanying, whether you’re soloing, whether you’re giving a phrase or receiving a phrase, what kind of mallets to use, what kind of sound color to explore. You have absolutely no idea unless you know the whole sound story.”
Glennie wasn’t just imparting a music lesson. She was also teaching them about different viewpoints and seeing the big picture.
Then, she zeroed in on her signature topic of listening.
In the next exercise, she asked each student to play a snippet of their part five different ways, using various dynamics, different parts of their instruments, different ends of the mallets and different ways of interpreting music. She also asked them to take into account the audience’s experience and the size of the room as it related to how they chose to play.
“By all means, observe what is on the written page but it’s not necessary to be hostage to it,” Glennie said. “It’s often things we don’t see on the printed page that actually are really, really important; and those things can make the difference between ‘oh, that’s kind of interesting’ and ‘wow, that was an experience.’”
After the hour-long session was over, Angel Pineiro, a TJC music major from Copperas Cove, said, “I feel like we learned a lot in a very small window of time. She showed us a lot about just experimenting with our different instruments, and it’s not something that I’ve had that much experience with.
“One thing I liked that she said was, as college students we’re used to instruments being played a certain way, and we get caught in that mentality; but she showed us there are millions of different ways to approach the instruments.”
TJC percussion professor Tom McGowan said, “To have Evelyn Glennie come in and work with them is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“As a music educator, it offers some new insights but also might help solidify things that you as a teacher have already said. They get used to me talking to them all the time; but when someone new comes in says the same thing, their attention level will perk up with the change. It’s fantastic for them to have this experience.”
For more on the TJC music programs, go to www.tjc.edu/music.