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Monday, March 7, 2011

Acclaimed Youth Orchestra Leader is Alive with the Sound of Music

By Kaitlin Wright

Capriccio- A free, quick, spirited piece of music

The morning sky is bright, the air still, as twenty year old Marcy Sudock steps onto the quiet campus of California State University Long Beach (CSULB) early in 1973. Five feet six inches tall, full of abundant ambition, Marcy Sudock walks down a long, fluorescent lit hallway towards a set of double doors. She has her music folder tucked close beside her in her left arm and her violin clasped gingerly under her right arm. Her low black heels pitter patter on the linoleum tiled floor as she quietly hums her audition piece to herself. She places her hand on the cool metal door, takes one final breath, smiles and walks into the room. There is a panel of five musicians staring at her, watching her as she glides towards the chair in the center of the room. “Would you like to hear my scales before I begin?” Marcy asks. They stammer a “No”, clearly being caught off guard by the eloquent directness of the girl before them. She has already peaked their interest.

Marcy sits down, places the unopened music folder on the stand provided, and draws her violin to her left shoulder. She closes her eyes, lifts her bow and begins. The four walls that surround her disappear, as do the judgmental eyes of the men before her. The music flows from within, spiraling around Marcy and filling the corners of the room. The piece builds from a rich Adagio of long, slow notes as Marcy sways and dips through the peaks and valleys of the measures. Minutes float by and soon the piece has transitioned into the climatic Presto of the fourth movement. Accentuated by the crisp jerks of Marcy’s rapidly moving bow, the energy of the music pulses through her body. With one final upward stroke of her bow the room becomes noticeably still and silent. Marcy’s eyes blink open, sparkling as the room comes back into focus. She gazes at the table of judges. “Thank you for coming, we will notify you of your results” says the man on the far right of the table. Marcy’s smile changes to a furrowed brow. “Aren’t you supposed to clap?”

That was Marcy’s first real experience with the music world. “I had just played my heart out and didn’t even get the satisfaction of applause. They just looked at me like, ‘Girl, you have a lot to learn about how this music business works.’ It’s too bad it has to be a business.” The professors Marcy auditioned in front of eventually showed their approval of her talent by accepting her and setting her on the path for obtaining her B.A. in Music Performance. Marcy’s skill granted her acceptance to prestigious music departments at both Oxford and Julliard, but her parents were adamant about her staying local. She admits that although she didn’t know it at the time, this was a great choice. She made many contacts while at CSULB that still come in handy, and most importantly, that is where she met her husband. Today, her greatest pride is being surrounded by her growing family. She had two sons and two daughters who all live locally and treasures her time with them. To think that music lead her life to all of that!

Before auditioning for the Music program at Cal State University Long Beach, Marcy had played the violin through her public school music program. In elementary school, she longed to play the piano, jealous of her best friend who got to take lessons, but settled with the violin when the hand-me-down instrument was donated by a family friend. “I hated the violin.” Marcy said, “It wasn’t a mild dislike. It was not the instrument I wanted.”

She eventually grew to love the instrument as she became very proficient at it. Still, her career goals were set on the medical field and she applied to college as a nursing major. Her high school guidance counselor called Marcy into the office one day and said, “I know you want to be a doctor, I know you want to be a nurse-- there are many people who could do this, but there aren’t many people who can play the way that you do. So I’ve taken the liberty to contact your school and I changed your courses for you.” Marcy was furious, but now that her nursing scholarship had been dropped, she didn’t have much of a choice. “It was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me, I just didn’t know it at the time.”

Appassionato- a direction to play passionately or with emotion.

Nowadays, Marcy Sudock spends her time passing her love for music onto youth in her community. In 2002, Marcy founded the Musique Sur La Mer Youth Symphony Orchestra (MSLMYSO). Translated from French to mean “music by the sea” this organization is open to youth ages 21 and younger. Each hopeful musician must pass through an audition before granted entrance into this prestigious group. This orchestra goes above an beyond one’s general expectations for a youth orchestra. They began with a tour of France in their inaugural year and have since toured countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Austria, and The Czech Republic. They are slated to perform in Costa Rica this upcoming summer. As founder, director and conductor of MSLMYSO, Marcy established and has since stood by her mission statement to “create peace in the world through the international language of music.” She said of her goal in creating the orchestra that “people with artistic expression want to do something that they feel very positive about.” She admits that artists, herself included, feel guilty because experiencing life through their personal art seems self serving. They question how or if they are making a difference in the world. Marcy says, “its realizing the power of music and all of the arts to heal and bridge that gap.”

Every Monday night at 5:45 pm, Marcy Sudock climbs out of her 2001 white dodge minivan and unlocks the door to the Los Alamitos Youth Center. She sets aside her enjoyment of cooking tonight and says goodbye to her cat, Hannah, this one evening a week. She walks in past the reception desk that has been closed down for the evening and flips on the lights that illuminate the large multipurpose room. The walls are painted bright blue and decorated with motivational posters, and children’s artwork. This is not your typical setting for a world touring orchestra. There are dingy, mismatched couches arranged along the walls and a broken foosball table teetering on three legs in the corner. Marcy spreads a dense pile of music out across an air hockey table and a pool table-- the irony of a classic 1889 composition by Gustav Mahler being stretched out across a sports bar hobby table is quite the picture. “The kids are getting new music today, so it could be rough” Marcy explains as she pulls out a 3 foot wide square platform, raised one foot off the ground from a closet-- this is what she stands on as she conducts the orchestra. She then wheels out four stacks of chairs and begins arranging them in rows in front of her podium. After 25 chairs are set out and arranged, she hurries back into her storage room and two at a time, sets up a music stand in front of each chair. By 6:02 pm the first students stroll in, instruments in hand.

Crescendo- “Growing”, indicates a gradual increase in volume

Eventually all of the musicians arrive, the chatter of teen girls and bustle of assembling instruments quiets down as Marcy raps her baton on the music stand. “Can you tune an A for us?” pointing to the flutist in the back row. A clear tone resonates through the multipurpose room and slowly the violins join in, followed by the cello, the clarinets and then the brass section. Tuning is the process of adjusting the pitch of a musical instrument’s tone. In a symphony there is usually one reference pitch, in this case, the flutist, and all the other musicians listen and change the pitch of their instrument either up or down to match. Marcy notices a violin in front of her using a tuning machine to adjust her instruments’ sound as opposed to tuning her strings by ear. She waves her baton in the girls face and shortly says, “Tune to her!” The girl looks down, trying to avoid Marcy’s annoyed expression and continues tuning-- this time without her machine. Looking around the room, there are students ranging from about 8 years old to 18. The group is split pretty equally between boys and girls. United by the music they create, there are several ethnicities represented as well as the stereotypes of adolescence. There is the baseball player with the trombone, a soccer girl on flute, a self-proclaimed nerd on one violin and the class clown on another. “We all have something to bring to the table, we all love playing music and thats what matters in the end,” an aspiring website designer, fashion model and violinist, Katya explained.

“Claudia, do you practice at all?” The Converse sneakers, Ugg boots, and various other shoes that were tapping on the floor, keeping time, come to a sudden halt as Marcy folds her hands and stares at the viola player in front of her. “It wouldn’t be hard if you practiced...I’ll go to eleven o’clock if we have to, cause we don’t have a rehearsal next week,” she threatens, the look in her eye says she is completely serious. “From the top” snapping her fingers and raising her right hand, she begins waving her baton-- up, down, left, right-- the music starts-- up, down, left, right-- she cues in the viola-- up, down, left, right-- the cello starts out quiet-- up, down, left, right-- Marcy sways to the cascade of melody coming from the violins-- up, down, left, right-- the flutists add color to the melody with notes that flutter between high sounds-- up, down, left, right-- and Marcy closes her left hand in a fist to signal the end of the piece. “I know its more work, but its worthwhile work... that made me smile, that made me want to dance.”

Agitato- A restless and wild tempo

Marcy’s daughter is sitting in the back of the room on a couch with the stuffing coming out of one arm. “I keep thinking she’s talking to me... a little alarm is going off in my head.” Chelsea Sudock played percussion for MSLMYSO for seven years. When she turned eighteen last year, she quit the orchestra, much to her mother’s chagrin. At first, she played in the orchestra because she really liked playing the drums, she even considered majoring in music in college. “But then”, she says, “I found the orchestra was becoming more of a chore than it was a passion.” She doesn’t regret her decision to leave because she knows she needs to follow her heart. She felt like she was only staying in the orchestra to please her mother and other family and friends. Marcy tried for a long time to persuade Chelsea to not quit the orchestra, but Chelsea is currently pursing her very own dream of competitive figure skating. She skated when she was younger, but traded in her blades for drum sticks and her ice time for orchestra rehearsal-- now she is returning to the ice. “I want to be a trainer someday,” Chelsea says. It was sometimes hard being in her mother’s orchestra, but she is grateful for all the places she traveled to with the orchestra, and she understands that the orchestra is a huge part of her mother’s life.

Chelsea has tagged along to the orchestra rehearsal today, but she sits silently in the back content with her choice to not be playing with the other musicians. Marcy signals the orchestra to flip through their music binders to the final piece for the evening. She has since slipped off her shoes and is standing before her students in her black and white polka dotted socks. She smiles, lifts her left hand, palm towards the sky and the cellos begin with a steady low back and forth bowing like a clock swinging back and forth. The violins join in with the melody and Karl Jenkins’ Palladio fills the youth center. The violins’ bows all move in unison, pointing high towards the ceiling, hovering above the musicians heads, the clarinetists’ fingers scurry up and down the black cylinder and the trombonists slide the brass arm in and out in perfect unison. With one final forceful note by the orchestra, the piece ends. The room is silent and the children have their instruments poised on their knees. Marcy lowers her baton and as she slips her shoes back on says, “Bravo! Excellent job tonight-- Wow! You guys so rock...made my night.”

Marcy assumes a very professional attitude when she steps onto the pedestal before her orchestra. When she looks out over the twenty five music stands in front of her, she doesn’t ease off the criticism because there are fifty young eyes staring back at her. She pushes her kids-- challenges them and strives for perfection as if they were at a serious, paid orchestral job. Sure, this results in many sideways glances for whispering, and unhappy glares for not practicing, there is the occasional outburst of sarcasm and comparison between one player while surreptitiously degrading another, but these are qualities that define Marcy’s devotion, and seriousness to the excellence of the work her students produce. “They are capable of so much, so why not continually strive for more?” Marcy explains. The music world dealt an unfriendly hand to Marcy and she was wholly unprepared. “I want these kids to know what it takes and be ready to confront anyone that stands in their way.”

Dissonance- The sounding of two or more tones which produce an effect of harshness

When Marcy was first out of college, she encountered a lot of resistance in obtaining jobs because she was a woman. No matter that she was excellent in her sight reading and proficient in her scales, the fact that she was not a man kept her from a lot of opportunities. Today, women represent over 20% of orchestra positions internationally, but even in this day and age there are orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic that hold the representation of women at less than 1%. Battling statistics worse than these three decades ago, other women, colleagues of Marcy’s went to Las Vegas to get hired because there no one cared if the musicians were showy. They wanted the ladies to get glammed up and look beautiful. As for scoring a gig in an orchestra in Los Angeles-- that was a place dominated by men. One time, Marcy got a call to audition with a conductor who owned one of the biggest companies for strolling strings. Strolling strings are musicians that come together and play for special occasions and venues. Marcy is a very good strolling violinist although it is a male impacted field.

Marcy walked into the hotel ballroom where the event of the evening was taking place. She took a seat in the reception area-- four men on her right and three on her left-- there was no talking going on, and although Marcy chose to stare at the dark carpet in front of her, she could feel the eyes around the room studying her, questioning her presence. The conductor finally called the musicians onto the stage to prepare before the guests arrived. Marcy got up with the rest of the men and walked toward the stage. Instead of a “hello” or some other expected welcome, the man said, “Oh my God, you’re a woman.” Marcy is apparently short for a man’s name, Marcel. The conductor fully expected a man to show up in Marcy’s place. The rest of the night he would point and say things like, “and the girl, she’ll stand over there on the end.” By the time the night was over, Marcy had collected the most tips out of everyone hired for the evening, she was a crowd pleaser-- charming, easy to talk to, knew her music, and was requested to come back. She never got a second job offer. One day she finally called the conductor in his office. “What did I do wrong, or what can I do better? Because you don’t hire me.” He said, “I’m going to be honest, if you were a man, I would have you working 7 nights a week, as much as you wanted, at top dollar.” He said, “As a woman, you can take me up on sexual discrimination charges and you will win, but you won’t work.”

With that tidbit of negative honesty, Marcy was inspired to conquer this stereotype of male orchestras. She got her business license, called up all the women she knew and started her own company. Heritage Chamber Ensemble and Strolling Strings was born. This company became the biggest competitor of her one time conductor. Business such as Marcy’s supply musicians for what they call casuals. Casuals are any events that need live music, but not in the concert hall setting, such as parties and weddings. On a bad week, Marcy’s company provided musicians for five events, but sometimes that number grew to as many as eighteen booked performances in one week. She eventually ran the other company out of business. “If there was a movie star that was having a wedding, we were the ones that would get called. If there was royalty in town, presidents, whatever, we were the ones that would get called.” Marcy owned and operated that business for twenty five years before selling it.

From that experience she walked away with, not only pictures of herself with Muhammad Ali, or memories of dancing with Gene Kelly and toasting Presidents Reagan and Carter, but the life lesson of taking a situation where someone says you CAN’T and turning that into a reality where you prove to them that you CAN. That is why she takes her job as conductor so seriously. She wants the world to know that yes, these are children, but they are good enough to play on the same stage that Mozart did.

Bravo!-An exclamation of approval used after performance, meaning excellent

The orchestra draws out the final note of An American in Paris. The brass instruments shine in the bright light of the eight chandeliers hanging down on either side of Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal. These same walls have absorbed the sounds of Mozart and Bach and the original 1870 solid wood stage and flourishes of gold ornamentation on the walls have seen hundreds of conductors from all of the world. Marcy is one of these admired conductors and this summer night in July 2007, her orchestra is playing at the 7th World Choral Festival. Her swaying body and unfurling arms come to rest as she freezes with both hands stretched high above her head. The dancers accompanying the orchestra hold their final pose as Marcy finishes her own dance as conductor. There is a brief moment of heavy awestruck silence and then the audience erupts out of the 1,744 seats in a fit of applause. Marcy turns towards the audience and takes a gracious bow. The words the audience is uttering can’t quite be made out because the exclamations are in japanese, german, french with a smattering of english, but the sentiment is clear. They are fully impressed and delighted by the work of Musique Sur La Mer from the United States.

“That was incredible, that was without question my favorite performance,” said Marcy. “[The kids] become more aware of their sameness with other people in the world as opposed to their differences.” Sharing music with the world is Marcy’s greatest passion. Her bright blue eyes fill with wonder as she continues to explain her connection to music and the impact it has on people’s lives. “Music is just the vehicle we’re using to make [life] better.”

Reporting Notes:

  • First Interview with Marcy Sudock- 1 hr 30 min
  • Second Interview with Marcy- 30 min
  • Interview with Chelsea Sudock- 30 min
  • Interview with Orchestra parent- 15min
  • Interview with orchestra participant- 10 min
  • 3 hrs of observation of orchestra rehearsal
  • 1 hr observation of private violin lesson
  • World Choral Festival Video where orchestra performed in Austria
  • MYSLMYSO Facebook page
  • MSYLMYSO Youtube videos
  • Youth Orchestra website: msylmyso.org
  • Vienna concert hall website: www.musikverein.at
  • For information regarding number of women in orchestras: osborne-conant.org/orchestras
  • For Music terminology: http://www.music.vt.edu/musicdictionary/

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