Rehearsing The Kids

It’s nice to walk in to a junior high school and know that, no matter how shitty any of these kids are, I can just beat them to death with my bare hands. I won’t do it, but it’s nice to know I have the option.

I went in to the rehearsal hall, a really nice old auditorium with about five hundred seats and four hundred coats of paint on the walls. I love auditoriums, I love standing on the stage and seeing the seats. It could be that the stage was the only place I ever felt safe as a kid, but whatever the reason, it is the only place I go where I am reverent.

The kids can tell. As they come in, they know they can still goof off, they can still hassle each other and do their 7th and 8th grade pecking order ruthlessness, but they also know not to come up on to the stage where I am. They all showed up at about 3:25, all but one of them, and they didn’t come up on the stage until 3:29. They know, I’ve told them, that 3:29 is their time and 3:30 is my time.

It’s hard to imagine. I’m sure, but I am an effective disciplinarian when I need to be, and a very natural one. I am panicked about wasting other people’s time, and I am driven to use every single second I have toward the artistic goal, and my own drive translates into inspiration.

These are great kids, really talented. I’ve been told a thousand times that I should teach full time, and maybe I should, but if I did, I’d end up with a worse group than I get by teaching ocassionally. Give me a choir of a hundred kids and I’d be great, but select the best 12 out of that group and let me inspire them twice a year and I’m the best choral director in the country. That’s really my secret, I never stay anywhere long enough for contempt to breed. Also, I’d get sued for language and emotional abuse.

Because I treat them like adults. And they aren’t. When you are directing a group of kids, the energy coming off them is like a group of pidgeons fighting over discarded bread, they seem to have a common goal but they just keep wandering and pecking, side to side, a disjointed whole made from distracted parts, methodically and spastically lurching toward their ideal.

So, you have to know that you’ll have to say everything a thousand times. There are things I say all the time, “Breath from here, sing from here” kind of stuff, but there is also “what key are we in?” and “why is this note going flat?” and “where are you going to breathe?” kind of things, hurled at them as quickly as possible. It takes months. One girl will answer “is it the third of the chord?” and I won’t let her answer again until even the 13 year old boy who is using his butt to run laps in his seat figures it out.

By 3:35, one girl still isn’t there and I say, “I am going to single you out when you make mistakes. That is simply going to happen, so prop each other up when you feel bad. Tess is five minutes late. If we were in the studio, the studio would be getting paid, the producer would be getting paid, the AD and the PA are getting paid, I’m getting paid, there is money pouring out of this project, all waiting for *one* of you to show up. We can’t start ’till the whole group is there, and five minutes is hundreds and hundreds of dollars…”

They know. But if I don’t reinforce it, they won’t. I fire kids, I’ve done it a lot. If you are late once, you are told not to do it again. If you are late twice, you’re fired.

Because, despite how talented these kids are, despite the magic of music and theater, despite how much I want to be involved in the creation of the next group of artists, you should *never* be late to rehearsal or a performance, and if you are the kind of person who is, you need to quit and do something else. Be a lawyer, be a typist, be a writer or a publicist or… Jesus, I don’t even know what most people do for a living, but go do that. Be late once a month to your job.

But if you are only as diligent as the average person, you will suffer and fail as an artist. If you are more diligent than the average person, you will suffer and fail as an artist. If you are the 99th percentile in terms of dilligence and hard work, if you turn over every stone, if you have stop gaps for every scenario, if your work ethic is unimpeachable, you will suffer as an artist, but you’ve given yourself a chance to not fail. You probably will still fail, this is s terrible life full of incredible odds, but yoou at least have a chance.

It gets to be 4:30 and these kids have been working for a solid hour with no breaks. They won’t get a break. I need them to be able to focus and concentrate for an hour and a half, take a ten minute break and then do another hour and a half. It isn’t fun, it’s work. But these recordings will be here, still, when their grandchildren have grandchildren and they will be able to play the digital recordings on water molecules or whatever and I want those grandchildren of grandchildren to say “He sounded amazing…”

At 4:46, we are making the sound, the sound that I have worked with kids all over the country for the last 15 years trying to get them to make. Before I knew how to make it, I knew what I wanted, now I know and these kids have worked with me for a year now and I can get them within striking distance after an hour or so. So, I tell one of the girls to take the solo. I play the opening pitch and start counting off.

This is totally unfair, I know the girl will freeze up. You don’t ask college kids to sight-read a solo in front of all their peers, I know she is going to fail. I count off and she squeeks out a note or two and then stops. “What happened?” I ask.

“I don’t know if I can do this solo,” she says.

“How are you gonna find out?”

She doesn’t say anything. I don’t either and the group is staring at the two of us.

“Look where you are,” I say. “Look out there” I point to the rows and rows of empty seats. We’re on the stage, half inch of cloudy laquer on a half foot of wood, literally “the boards”.

“Out there,” I say, “is full of people who don’t know if they can do this solo. For the rest of your life, every single seat will be filled with people staring up here, saying to themselves, ‘I don’t know if I could do that solo’, and you’re going to be up here staring back at them. The only thing that separates the two of you is what?”

“I’m doing the solo?”

“Are you?”

“I’m doing the solo.”

“Exactly.” I give her the pitch again and count off. Of course she sings it fantastically and the rest of the group sings along. It’s a kids song, a really basic little song, almost a nursery rhyme. There is no way that any one of the kids couldn’t have sung it, sight-read it in fact. They could each have done it, and this girl was the teaching sacrificial lamb.

There is still one boy that isn’t making the sound right, and I singled him out at 4:53 and make him sing it alone. The rest of the kids have taken up their pidgeon ways, nudging each other, writing little notes on their music, generally feeling like they are getting away with something, but they are actually just being allowed a little space while I work with this boy.

They are respectful and silent, but unfocused. The boy is locked on my eyes as we sing back and forth. I give him clues and secrets, different things. I finally say “half that loud” and he sings it a little bit better. I say, “half that loud again” and it’s better still. I say, “as quiet as you can” and this voice, this gorgeous perfect bell tone comes out of the top of his head, and every single kid on stage stops what they are doing and whips their heads at me, huge smiles on their faces. No-one says anything.

“That was great, but it was too soft, right?” I ask. The boy, smiling, nods sorta dismissively. “You really need to make more noise than that, don’t you?” The kid sorta laughs and nods. I lean in as if to whisper to him, and all the other kids lean in.

“Look, what’s happening,” I say in a whisper. “if I whisper just to you, using the smallest voice I have, every single person in this room is trying to hear me. In ten years, you are going to be standing in the middle of a stage exactly like this and you are gonna pause” and I say nothing for about five seconds, “and every single butt in every single chair is gonna lean forward, dying to know what you will say next.”

I leave about five seconds of silence.

“Okay,” I holler. “Next Thursday, exactly same time.” and the group leaves with choruses of “Thank you Mister Williams” and the girl smiles and says to me “Thanks, Sean.”

Hey, you won’t be thanking me in seven years when you’re part of the Fraudience at an Ashlee Simpson concert, but, yeah, for now, at this moment you are making music. And, I guess, this moment is all we got.