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Education and Inspiration: Quartet of Knights Meet Local Students

  • Caroline Tally, 14, left, waits to play her part of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major #3 on her cello as members of The Knights, an orchestra from New York, watch and give notes at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage),

    Caroline Tally, 14, left, waits to play her part of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major #3 on her cello as members of The Knights, an orchestra from New York, watch and give notes at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage), Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rine Uhm, 14, plays a section of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major #3 on her violin the violin as members of The Knights, an orchestra from New York, watch and give notes at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Rine Uhm, 14, plays a section of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major #3 on her violin the violin as members of The Knights, an orchestra from New York, watch and give notes at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Guillaume Pirard, left, of The Knights, a New York orchestra, listens and gives notes to Charlotte Perkins, 14, right, at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Guillaume Pirard, left, of The Knights, a New York orchestra, listens and gives notes to Charlotte Perkins, 14, right, at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Max Mandel, left, of The Knights, a New York orchestra, listens and gives notes to Zach Benton, 10, as he plays the viola at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Max Mandel, left, of The Knights, a New York orchestra, listens and gives notes to Zach Benton, 10, as he plays the viola at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Caroline Tally, 14, left, waits to play her part of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major #3 on her cello as members of The Knights, an orchestra from New York, watch and give notes at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage),
  • Rine Uhm, 14, plays a section of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major #3 on her violin the violin as members of The Knights, an orchestra from New York, watch and give notes at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Guillaume Pirard, left, of The Knights, a New York orchestra, listens and gives notes to Charlotte Perkins, 14, right, at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said The Knights' Max Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Max Mandel, left, of The Knights, a New York orchestra, listens and gives notes to Zach Benton, 10, as he plays the viola at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, N.H. on Tuesday, October 2, 2013. Although The Knights brought a 20-person orchestra to the Upper Valley for their performances in Hanover, only four visited the UVMC. "We brought a quartet to teach a quartet," said Mandel. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

A musical score tells a musician how long the notes should be (whole, quarter or eighth), their pitch (a note’s position on the five-line staff) and how they should be played (allegro or scherzo, for example).

But what sheet music can’t convey, said Max Mandel, a violist with The Knights, the New York-based chamber orchestra that was in residence last week at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, is the emotion that makes music an essential part of the human experience. That intangible comes from the musicians themselves.

“The problem with printed material is that it’s a really, really bad impression of someone’s imagination,” Mandel said. His audience was small, but intent: four student musicians who’d been rehearsing two movements from a Haydn string quartet for the past five weeks at the Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon in preparation for this master class. Joining Mandel were Knights violinists Ariana Kim-Spinazzola and Guillaume Pirard, and cellist Alex Greenbaum.

During the course of the week-long residency, musicians from the orchestra worked with, and played for, students at both the South Royalton School and the Upper Valley Music Center. The program at the South Royalton school included pieces by Stravinsky, Steve Reich, and a composition by the Knights, ...the ground beneath our feet .

“It was a really great opportunity for our program and the kids and our community, really. I don’t think (the South Royalton School) has hosted a group of that stature,” said Carrie McDonnell, the program director of the One Planet after-school program in South Royalton, Tunbridge and Sharon.

The Knights also performed a side-by-side concert with younger musicians from the Green Mountain Youth Symphony at the Upper Valley Music Center. And they participated in classes on the Dartmouth campus and concluded with a concert Friday evening at Spaulding Auditorium that included ...the ground beneath our feet and works by Haydn, Bach, Stravinsky and Reich.

The orchestra was founded by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen, who have also played with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and are half of the quartet Brooklyn Rider. The orchestra’s name is a play on the Knights of the Round Table: What started as informal musical gatherings at the Jacobsens’ home in Brooklyn evolved into the ensemble “Knights of the Many-Sided Table,” a name that was simplified to The Knights.

The orchestra has been praised for its spirited musicianship and elan. “Is there another orchestra that seems to be havi ng as much fun when it plays as The Knights do?” said a 2012 review in the New York Times ; “Camaraderie and shared enthusiasm for playing music are what drive the ensemble,” said another Times review this year.

What audiences may not know is that musical education is an integral part of The Knights’ public role. The musicians view it as part of their vocation to inspire and excite interest in music for a younger generation, Eric Jacobsen said in a phone interview.

“I don’t have to teach (students) to become a cellist,” Jacobsen said. What he does aim to do is to give students “an opportunity to love music,” no matter what kind of music it is.

That interest in stimulating children’s curiosity about music is one of the reasons why the Hopkins Center was eager to have the Knights come for a residency.

“This particular group of musicians has a really big commitment to teaching and outreach, and they have a very special talent for it. ... They’re very accessible and very present teachers,” said Stephanie Pacheco, outreach and arts education coordinator for the Hopkins Center. “They really tend to open up the music in a way for people who don’t know a lot about classical music.”

Over two hours at the Upper Valley Music Center, the Knights’ musicians conducted a class on technique and interpretation, working with the student quartet as a whole and individually. Although they talked about such technical issues as arm and hand placement, or the distance of the bow from the strings, they tried to coax the young musicians into thinking less about the notes, and more about the emotions they wanted to convey.

Their prescription was: more joy, less seriousness; more swaying and foot-tapping, less stiff uprightness; more interaction, less playing in a bubble. They also focused on stage presence, movement and most crucial, the interplay between the musicians.

“If you guys were just sitting here without your instruments and started talking, what would that be called?” Kim-Spinazzola asked the students. They looked at each other. “A conversation?” they replied.

“Yeah, a conversation,” Kim-Spinazzola said, nodding her head.

Pirard chimed in. “And the conversation you’re having is not a serious or boring one.” The students nodded. They’d gotten the idea. Being playful and light-hearted not only wasn’t wrong, it was encouraged.

After the individual coaching sessions were done, and the students came back together to try the Haydn string quartet again, they sounded and looked surer of themselves. First violinist Rine Uhm, a ninth-grader from Hanover, said that what the master class had taught her was “how to follow the path of the music. I learned a lot about expressing what the composer wanted instead of just playing the notes robotically.”

Charlotte Perkins, a ninth-grader from New London and the quartet’s second violinist, echoed Uhm’s observation. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what the dynamic and rhythm of the piece should be, but not necessarily the feeling,” she said.

It’s those subtler, not so easily quantifiable aspects of teaching music that made the collaboration between the Upper Valley Music Center and the Knights worthwhile, said Ben Van Vliet, program director at the Upper Valley Music Center.

“Having the chance to work with artists like the Knights inspires students to reach new heights in their own playing, and often students come to their lessons after a master class like this excited to try what they’ve learned and to practice more,” he wrote in an email.

It’s not only the students who learn, said violinist Kim-Spinazzola. “Learning how to communicate and articulate things that we take for granted,” such as how to move the body, how to breathe before playing a note, is a valuable skill.

Using a mix of analogies, humor and metaphors, the musicians from the Knights made the young students think about the music in a deeper way than the notes on the page. “We teach students how to ... represent the character of the music before the music even begins,” said Kim-Spinazzola.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.