Rebuilding Beethoven

The New World Symphony hopes to start a classical music revolution with a bunch of kids and a big idea

Bookspan tells Marshall she doesn't recall what she said last night. But that's not true. It's a strategem. She wants him to remember, or invent something else. That way the words will sound genuine when he speaks to the audience. "I want it simple. I want it warm and inviting. I want the enthusiasm and the energy and the warmth that you naturally have," Bookspan demands. She gets him to condense his introductory spiel to four points.

After Marshall rehearses the sonata, Bookspan makes a final suggestion. "Don't prove anything tomorrow night, not to yourself, not to anyone, about this piece. And don't try to impress anyone, including yourself most of all," she admonishes. "As your main goal, just share it with us."

Marshall walks onto the stage the next night with his bassoon and looks out at an auditorium full of people. He does not seem nervous at all. "I guess I'm representing what I'm going to call the sentimental portion of the show," he begins. "I just got back from Buffalo, and I had brought a leaf to prove to you that fall does actually exist. But I forgot it," he continues, feigning sheepishness. "If you get a chance to go up there, I highly recommend it." He gets a few chuckles and smiles confidently. The big laugh is still to come. While pianist Michael Linville settles on his bench, Marshall plays a quick scale, then turns to the audience. "Thank you, thank you," he quips, as if that were the piece. Loud chuckles. He and Linville float through the sonata seemingly without effort. The audience claps vigorously.

The show is stolen, however, by the next act. The stage fades to darkness, and from the loudspeakers two women's voices cackle phrases like "a stench is in the air, the funk of 40,000 years." Violists Rene Reder and Jennifer Snyder frantically wrote and taped the introduction earlier that day. Faces painted white and capes streaming from their shoulders, they sprint onto the dark stage and play an eerie, frenetic, scratchy duet called Viola Zombie.

The future leaders of the classical music revolution receive more than acting lessons. The NWS also prepares them for the musical equivalent of combat: the audition. Successful tryouts are key to the NWS mission. When a performer is onstage with 80 other musicians, there is strength and comfort in numbers. But terror can strike when one faces a scrupulous, heartless panel of judges who await one false note.

"As far as I'm concerned, an audition is a fight. And the better you prepare for that fight, the less you'll be bleeding when you come out." That is Don Greene, wearing a crisp, light-blue oxford shirt and tie, talking to about 30 NWS musicians seated in chairs on the Lincoln Theatre stage one September morning. Greene, a former U.S. Army ranger with a doctorate in sports psychology, advised U.S. Olympic divers including Greg Louganis, Kent Ferguson, and Michelle Mitchell during the 1984 and 1988 competitions. He calls the basic element of his technique "centering," which involves meditation, mental rehearsal, and positive thoughts. He tells the NWS musicians this regimen helped Louganis recover after gashing his head on the board during the three-meter springboard event at the 1988 games. Louganis, he notes, earned a gold medal.

"That's what Louganis did: He centered before the next dive and rather than thinking, 'I hope I don't hit my head again,' which is not a good thought, he imagined what he needed to do."

For the past five years, Greene has worked almost exclusively with classical musicians, first at the Syracuse Symphony, then at New York's Juilliard School of Music, and now at NWS. He tells his students that with practice, they will be able to work magic in mid-audition. "You'll be able to do it in less than three seconds. To change your physical tension, to change your focus, and to give you the right thought going into the next piece," he says. "After you play the first excerpt in the audition and they say, 'Thank you very much, now we want you to play the next,' instead of going: 'Why did they pick that? I don't like that piece,' and tightening up and setting yourself up to play it wrong, [you will use] a quick strategy to get your focus back, to get your body relaxed, and to get yourself on target to play the next passage well."

Greene directs his students to stand up, gaze at a point on the floor, and take deep breaths. He instructs them to imagine their center of gravity: "It's about three inches below your navel and three inches under the surface."

Twenty of the NWS musicians Greene coached last season, during his first stint at NWS, won jobs. Bassist Reist believes Greene's teachings were crucial to winning his position with the Nashville Symphony. "A lot of people kind of sabotage themselves at auditions," he says. At Greene's urging, he reduced the pressure by not expecting to play perfectly. He loaded up on carbohydrates. He repeated things like: "I'm going to play well, I'm going to play well." He rehearsed mentally. "I always knew it was important, but I never knew it had such an impact," he says, still amazed.

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