Developing a habit takes 21 repetitions of the action. Mastering a skill takes 10,000 repetitions. This is the difference between establishing a practical routine and performing at a virtuosic level. Applied to athletics, if you set out to develop a swimming workout, you should perform the work out three times per week for couple of months. To become an Olympic swimmer, you will need to figure out when to fit in the other 9,979 practices before you are about age 18. Applied to music, I am still considering when to follow up one practice session with a second; Nineteen to go. Fortunately, others have applied themselves to the other 9,998 practice sessions to give me the opportunity to enjoy their skills. Fortunately, a friend recently sent us a brochure for the Castleton Festival, which happened to be within driving distance for the Sunday afternoon concert.
The Castleton Festival, in its forth year, has been founded by the conductor, Lorin Mazzel, and his actress wife, Dietlinde Turban-Maazel. With a career of conducting for 74 years (granted his conducting debut was at age eight), Maestro Maazel believes that he has responsibility to return his knowledge to younger generations. Ms. Turban-Maazel has incorporated arts in education of children, including their own three. Castleton Festival is a two-month immersion of young musicians, who gather on the Maazel’s rural, Virginia farm. They spend a month learning and rehearsing, and month performing. This year, they will present two operas, a musical, and nine concerts. In this time they will knock off some of those 9,998 opportunities to develop their skills beyond mine.
The concert, which we attended, included two selections. The first was the U. S. Premiere of Maximo Flugelman’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra. The second was Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. If you did not say, “Ah, Bach” before, you are probably not going to say “Ah, Maximo; Ah, Mahler”. Then again, the only character in M*A*S*H who might have talked about Mahler would have been Charles, and then only during surgery when he was trying to belittle Hawkeye for being too pedestrian. Obviously, being a U. S. Premiere, I have never experienced Flugelman’s concerto. And, Mahler, I find difficult to listen to in the car or at home, for he lulls you into a quiet spot just before he has the cymbals crash, tympani boom, and strings crash through the guardrail and over a musical cliff. Often, live performances bring out nuances that recordings miss.
Live performances have another benefit, beyond your undivided attention: you can watch the performers. The performance tent set up on the Maazels’ farm is a state-of-the-art space. The orchestra is positioned on the ground level, with the seating rising up in stadium style. But, unlike many summer music festivals of five to twenty-five thousand in the audience, the space hosts just over six hundred comfortable seats. We were a little worried about the sound quality when we selected seats in the forth row, to the side of the violins, but what a wonderful view we had. Those violins were no more than 20 feet from us; The harp, no more than 40 feet; Maestro Maazel 50 feet; even the brass and percussion sections no more than 60 feet away.
At these distances, not only could we see the slightest twitch of a finger or eye lid, but we could hear both the individual notes and combination of notes in the quietest and loudest sections of each piece. The cello concerto alternated between full orchestra and cello solos, then combinations of each section of the orchestra with the cello. Mahler’s symphony brings together natural sounds, such as the cuckoo singing, country themes of the hunting horns, melodic dance melodies, and even romping klezmer melodic patterns.
At these distances, we could watch the rolling, right wrist motion as Maazel went from the down beat to the second, third, etc. beats of each measure, the moment frozen in his left hand as he cue a section to be prepared and to enter at the exact time that he flicked his wrist. Similarly, we could see the quiver of the violinists’ wrist as they stroked the string in a sustained vibrato; Contrasted against the sinewy tendons cascading from finger to finger along a line of notes. As the cello soloist wore a sleeveless gown, we could watch the intricate coordination of her right shoulder muscles as they danced from string to string; Now a long draw; Now a series of quickly alternating rhythms with muscle fibers firing in equally fast pace.
Let your gaze drift through the orchestra to the harp to watch the tiniest muscles in the hand and forearm flex the fingers to pluck only the correct sequence of strings, then extend to delicately dampen the resonance. Then set your eye to the woodwinds as the clarinetist counts rests for the precise time to sing out the cuckoo’s song with bouncing nods of his head. And, again watch for the percussion section that waits for the moment when you are immersed in the cello solo… rest, rest, rest, the triangle player stands, strides forward, rest, rest, rest, DING, rest, rest, rest, he sets down the triangle, rest, rest, rest, sits and rests.
On the Castleton Festival website, in the documentary about the training program, one of the students states that spending two months on a farm, learning and performing, no one is tempted to “Pull a Diva, like they might in New York”. Castleton is not about showboating. It is about ensemble. Maestro Maazel role models this for his students. His praise of their excellence is as high as his expectations for their excellence. Yet, during the ovation, he left the podium to stand among his students for his bow. He pushed the soloists to stand up front for their accolades, while he remained in their shadow. He has completed his 10,000 repetitions many times over. He pushes them to complete their first set.