“Glockenspiel! Take me to the Promised Land!”
That’s exactly what a highly skilled and charismatic conductor exclaimed to a percussionist in an orchestra comprised mostly of international students during a recent rehearsal.
In addition to citing the Biblical reference - “the land that was given to Abraham and his descendants according to the promise God made” - Merriam Webster defines the Promised Land (n) as “a happy place or condition that someone wants to reach: a place where dreams or hopes can come true.” That’s a tall order for a glissando to deliver, but it was the perfect metaphor for the silvery upward swoop in the first bar of this new work, meant to immediately transport the listener to a land of delight!
The student, however, did not understand the Maestro’s message. The downbeat came again, and the same sound followed. No promised land in sight. The Maestro asked about the mallets being used – too thin and light, perhaps? Ah! The percussionist nodded and picked up a heavier pair. Voila! Next stop: promised land. Well, sort of…
Why do I find this exchange interesting? A phrase such as “Take me to the promised land” is packed with cultural and time references which even an advanced English language learner may not know. And in this musical scenario, the phrase served as the conductor’s interpretive direction for creating a specific sound and atmosphere. Yes, the Maestro’s follow-up question about the weight of the mallets brought about the desired sound, in the technical sense. But the initial language from the podium was intended to elicit the sound of promised-land joy coming through that instrument!
I spent the rest of the rehearsal jotting down phrases, watching for understanding and wondering how much meaning was shared between the Maestro and the fantastically talented players. Did “gossamer” and “stentorian,” “Then we go off with a gallop here” and “Shimmer out right away!” produce mental images and physical sensations as they were intended to do? Could any of these words and phrases resurface in professional contexts and if so, would the meaning be missed again? And would the students who didn’t understand this vocabulary seek out their meaning after the fact?
What I write about may seem to be the ideal – a type of promised land, if you will; that is, a place where musicians whose first language is not English enhance their musicianship and communication skills by understanding and using more of its metaphorical, idiomatic and poetic features. Providing that space is one of my aims as the founder of ESL for Musicians. Contact me for private, semi-private or group lessons! www.eslformusicians.com