by Rhonda P. Hunsinger
It happened again.
The South Carolina Philharmonic’s “Conduct the Phil” events are joyous occasions, as we pop up in various places around the Midlands and invite the public to try their hand at conducting. It’s just plain fun to watch the musicians adjust to the style of a new conductor every few minutes, and the giant smiles of wonder as our conductors realize that the orchestra really is responding to their every gesture.
Sometimes, however, my emotions go beyond “joyous.” It happened earlier this season when we visited the Department of Juvenile Justice and witnessed the courage demonstrated by the kids who conducted, and even one who performed with our orchestra – in front of his friends, and with their support. Goose pimples. Awe. Humbling. There is no single word that can describe this feeling.
Last night we went to Epworth Children’s Home. At first, it wasn’t that different from our typical “Conduct the Phil,” with children stepping forward, sometimes two and three on the podium at a time, waving the baton in rhythm (and sometimes not in rhythm) to keep the orchestra playing. Some were nervous and conducted gently. Others danced as they waved their batons wildly in the air. One little girl about two years old beat the baton up and down hard, hitting the music stand, and in perfect rhythm. I found out later that for most of these kids, this was their first exposure to a live orchestra, or even live music of any kind.
I didn’t have to do much “recruiting” of conductors last night, because the staff made sure there was always someone ready to take the baton for the next piece. So I took this rare opportunity to just sit back and watch.
Fairly early in the evening a little girl stepped up – she looked to be around eight or nine years old – and raised both arms up properly. She gave the orchestra a downbeat, and then established a rhythm with her right hand, which held the baton. Her left hand kept rhythm too, and she seemed to sense when it was time to cue the various sections with a flick of her wrist, or a nod of her head. She was very serious, but also comfortable with the task at hand, as if it was just another Monday night conducting a professional symphony. I could see by the expressions on the musicians’ faces that they had not expected this level of skill and seriousness from a young child, and perhaps especially in this setting, where children have been placed because of abuse, neglect or significant loss in their lives. With a history of fractured support systems for these children, one of the pastors told me, classical music wasn’t even in their wheelhouse.
The girl stepped off the podium to great applause and sat down on the grass to watch some more. She continued to conduct from her spot. More kids stepped up, and the fun continued. Attention finally waned, with some of the older boys drifting off to toss a football in the background. The sun was setting, the weather was beautiful, and the crowd of children of all ages, Epworth staff, counselors, parents and guests watched, played and enjoyed each other’s company as classical music continued to fill the air.
Close to the end of our time there, the little girl who had conducted with such care stepped forward again. For me, she was mesmerizing to watch and I wondered about her. Did she play an instrument? Had she ever seen an orchestra before?
As she stepped off the podium for a second time, one of our cellists reached out to her and said a few words quietly. He nodded and smiled, spoke a bit more, and her eyes lit up. She said a quiet thank you, and walked away with a smile on her face. I was certain she had just received well deserved praise for her talent and dedication that night.
And so the goose pimples came back and I felt that overwhelming sense of awe in the power of music. There is no doubt in my mind that every child that conducted will remember this day into their adulthood. I can’t know what the fate of that little girl will be, but if just given a chance, I can imagine her learning to play an instrument, or having a future as a school chorus, band or orchestra director. Or perhaps aspiring to conduct a professional orchestra. She already has experience!
I hope life brings her those opportunities to pursue whatever it is she loves, and for wherever her talents are greatest. I wish it for all these kids, and am thankful that, while we cannot significantly influence their futures, we at least had the privilege of introducing them to live classical music and giving many of them a moment to treasure.
“Conduct the Phil” is made possible, in part, through a Connected Communities Grant from Central Carolina Community Foundation.