mr. dave meets team oistrakh

Two members of Team Oistrakh, rehearsing earlier this year.

Two members of Team Oistrakh, rehearsing earlier this year.

D. T. Baker is the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's resident expert on all things music-related.  Here, "Mr. Dave" writes about his latest visit to YONA, when he spoke with the students about the history of the person for whom they have named their "team".

As has been documented before, the aim of the YONA-Sistema program is not to turn under-served Edmonton school children into musicians, or even into tomorrow’s ESO patrons. The aim is to use music as a means to improve the community. Through learning music in an orchestral setting, the students of YONA-Sistema find out about respect, cooperation, listening, working toward a common goal, even mentorship. We are in our third year now, and we have expanded the program to reach more children each year.

The students are chosen not from any musical potential, but based on need and on who can benefit most from being a part of the program. These are the kids in the part of town you wish the best for, but maybe don’t hold out a lot of hope for. And it’s precisely for those reasons that I have been wonderfully, delightfully confounded by the children of YONA-Sistema every time I interact with them.

Case in point – yesterday. Every year, each team of YONA musicians selects someone (e.g. Copland, Stravinsky) after whom to name their team. This year, a group of our third-year YONA musicians chose David Oistrakh as their team’s namesake. For the first time, it was a musician, not a composer. Cool, I thought – I can talk about different aspects of music, and since the music examples I played for them concerned how Oistrakh performed the music of others, I decided to focus on the whole idea of “interpretation.” If Oistrakh, why Oistrakh? What was it about his playing that merited naming one of the YONA teams for him?

Along with the third-year Team Oistrakh musicians, yesterday’s group included Team Paganini (I haven’t done him, yet), a group of first-year students, who are being mentored by Team Oistrakh. As part of my presentation, I played two examples of music from Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata – one played by Oistrakh, the other by someone else. I didn’t say which example was which; I played them, then asked for a vote as to which one was better. The vote was decidedly one-sided. More on that in a second.

But then, I challenged them. I said, OK, if example two was better, why? What made it better, for you? And this is where, once again, I was floored.

Out of the minds of these kids came real, reasoned, intelligent observations about performance, interpretation, musicianship. Opinions of course, but as wonderfully and honestly expressed as many I’ve heard in a career that reaches back decades.

As I said, the end goal of YONA is not a musical one. But if you try to tell me that these kids have limitations, I’ll ask you to meet me at the bike racks after school. Don’t tell a child they can’t, and they will never have a reason to think they can’t. Children 7, 8, 9 years old, who a couple of years ago didn’t know a violin from an ocarina, who wouldn’t have heard the name Oistrakh, let alone listen to him play music – demonstrate understanding, interpretation, and have developed the confidence to speak articulately about it. Think that won’t apply when they’re getting ready to take on the world?

Oh, yeah. The interpretation they all chose as the best? David Oistrakh’s. They named their team well, I told them, and I could not be prouder of them, or that this program exists, or that I get to be part of it.

post by D. T. Baker
photo by Carmyn Joy Effa

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