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NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Behind the Beat

Frequent orchestral concertgoers know an unusual phenomenon among professional orchestras. From the point of view of the audience, the orchestra seems far behind the beat of the conductor, at least visually. Usually, this is the mark of a strong ensemble and a conductor who is free to communicate more than just the pulse of the music. NYO-USA has also come together as a strong ensemble, which has significance for violinist David Fickes.

David Fickes, Violin

“Ictus! Ictus!” I remember one of my high school conductors shouting, trying to get us to play more in sync with his downbeats. This is something that I got used to, so imagine my surprise when NYO-USA was almost half a beat off from Maestro Robertson—and still completely together. This may seem like the orchestra is simply ignoring Maestro Robertson, but it is intentional. By communicating visually that the piece is dragging, a sense of dread is created—perfect for the melancholy ending of the Britten Violin Concerto. The idea that conducting is for shaping sound rather than keeping rhythm has absolutely delighted me for the entire time that I have been playing with NYO-USA. Everyone is so attuned to the music that entrances can be made perfectly cleanly without a sharp cue. It amazes me that 120 musicians from all over the country with different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds can so completely understand one another that there is almost no need for overt communication—rather, we are able to communicate in hundreds of barely perceptible ways to which we’ve become attuned after years of making music.

NYO-USA Robertson Rehearsal 2 cr Chris LeeRoberston treats NYO-USA as he would a professional orchestra, and the musicians have shown they are up to the challenge.

Does this mean that we don’t need a conductor? Maestro Robertson often jokes about how we don’t really need him there, but the reality is that what he does with and for us is far more important than simply being a human metronome. He is a conduit for our energy, whether he is smiling at a plucky section of Bernstein’s West Side Story, casually strolling about on stage and whistling to Porgy and Bess, or literally jumping for each beat in “Baba Yaga,” developing the unrelenting, steady advance of the witch and her house. It is his influence that brings the entire orchestra to tears after every performance of “The Great Gate at Kiev,” helping us to find a musical maturity in ourselves that we may not have known even existed.

It is truly remarkable how music can connect people, and not just through performance. After living and playing with fellow NYO-USA orchestra members for only four weeks, I feel an incredibly close bond with all of them. We celebrate together and cry together, for we opened ourselves up so completely to each other that we have nearly become one. I know this sounds over the top, but this sharing of self has been probably the most amazing thing I have experienced so far with NYO-USA.

Learn more about the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.