The following article appeared in a recent issue of Making Music, a quarterly music publication.
Creating Community the Classical Way
By Whitney Howe
Whether they were referred by a friend, came upon it thanks to a chance encounter, or simply flipped through the Yellow Pages to find a classical guitar teacher, members of the Chicago Community Classical Guitar Orchestra have all discovered the benefits of making music in this diverse, supportive, and intrepid group, ably led by Dr. Julie Goldberg.
Goldberg, a music professor at VanderCook College of Music, founded The Chicago Community Classical Guitar Orchestra of the VanderCook College of Music Community Music Academy (CCGO) 10 years ago. The orchestra, funded in part by the Clinton B. Ford Fund of the Amateur Chamber Music Players Foundation, has subsequently gained a dedicated following.
The ensemble originally consisted of just a handful of Goldberg’s college students, but now it welcomes as many as 20 members in a given semester. Living up to its role as a community orchestra. the CCGO is melting pot of recreational musicians of all ages and professions, who share an affinity for the classical guitar and, more importantly, for the challenge of playing music on this venerable instrument.
“I always knew I wanted to dedicate my professional career to music,” says Goldberg, who started piano at 5 and took up the guitar at 13. “When I was younger I used to play folk guitar, but you mostly play the accompaniment. I wanted to find an instrument that would play the melody, the bass line and all the notes in between. I wanted do it all!”
Goldberg’s passion and dedication to the classical guitar is felt by those she teaches. Just ask Justin Synnesvedt, a philosophy professor for the past 35 years who joined the orchestra two years ago. “Julie is very generous and tries to put everyone at a comfortable level of performance. She’s a kind leader, but she pushes you to do your best at the same time.”
Synnestvedt had been “strumming along” with folk and flamenco music for many years until he decided he wanted more formal music training. “Flamenco music is learned by ear and you have to pay attention to the beat, but I wanted to master reading music,” he explains.
Learning the classical guitar, a centuries-old variant that uses nylon strings rather than steel strings as on the acoustic guitar, might seem daunting to some, but Synnestvedt took it all in his stride. “It’s like beginning to play the piano when you’re a kid—it’s a step-by-step process. Following the written notes and chords is difficult, but over time it gets easier.”
Persistence & Desire
“I’ve been with the orchestra for about 7 years now,” says fellow orchestra member and bank manger Ken Babiez, “and it’s just been a wonderful experience.”
Babiez’s story will be familiar to many recreational musicians. He played saxophone and clarinet throughout college but put his music on the back-burner to focus on other interests. Years later, he decided to rekindle his zest for music. “I wanted to get back into music with a good solo instrument, so I started taking lessons with Julie and she enticed me to join the orchestra,” Babiez explains.
Although he was just a novice when he joined the CCGO, Babiez is now one of the orchestra’s more advanced players, according to Goldberg, and often times plays the more challenging parts in the ensemble pieces.
“Well, if Julie thinks I’m an advanced player then I’ll go with that,” Babiez laughs. “It’s a constant struggle to try and improve,” he continues. “It takes persistence, time and the desire to do it. You don’t really realize you are getting better until you look at your repertoire. It’s like the ‘boiling pot syndrome’—you are only aware of your progression looking back and thinking ‘Oh wow, I’ve come a long way.’”
The orchestra practices once a week for two hours each VanderCook semester and works toward two final live performances, one at the college and the other at a community space such as an art museum, church, or retirement community. For these performance opportunities, Goldberg has the orchestra perform ensemble pieces and also breaks the orchestra up into duos, trios, and quartets to showcase individual talents.
“For amateurs, playing in a large group provides a sense of security. For those who perform in the small solo groups, the spotlight is more on them,” says Goldberg. Babiez enjoys Goldberg’s approach and says he plays better in an ensemble: “Every guitar is important and you can’t hide behind anyone else. The fact that the orchestra is more than yourself heightens your awareness and improves your playing.”
While the classical guitar often connotes thoughts of Baroque- or Renaissance-style melodies, Goldberg does her best to introduce a wide range of music to the orchestra. “Because my musicians are not professionals,” Goldberg explains, “I try to find something for everyone within their playing ability and to challenge them to master the next level. Put the parts together and it all sounds wonderful.”
“It definitely surpasses cross-cultural boundaries with a mix of Latin, modern, and romantic melodies,” observes Synnestvedt of the broad range of musical styles the CCGO performs. “We play a wide range and I love that.”
“Performance is the payoff for practicing,” asserts Tom Kirke, admitting he sometimes is riddled with anxiety over performing in front of others. Yet he looks forward to the end-of-semester gigs nonetheless. “And not just for the party afterwards,” he jokes.
Kirke, who has been with the orchestra for more than a year, felt an immediate connection with the group. “Julie was one of the judges at a recital I performed at and invited me to join. I went to the next concert and joined immediately after.”
It is clear that the orchestra provides a creative outlet for recreational musicians like Kirke who want to connect with something greater than themselves and share their experience with the general public.
“I love creating something beautiful, the intellectual pleasure of understanding the material, and the satisfaction of doing something difficult,” says Kirke, explaining the joy of recreational making music in terms as eloquent as a classical guitar sonata. “Plus, the classical guitar is one of the few instruments you can play at midnight and not upset the neighbors!”
“The whole thing about learning music is to share with others,” Ken Babiez says, musing on why he decided to join an ensemble and play for others rather than play alone. “Besides, my dog has heard enough of my playing, so I figured it was time to give people a try!”
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the CCGO, Goldberg is going one step beyond the regular end-of-semester concert, inviting all members—past and present—to play a live performance together. Goldberg admits she is an awe of the success of her orchestra and looks forward to its future.
“What has surprised and encouraged me is the dedication of the members. Some have been with the group since the beginning. I think part of what keeps them here is we’re all learning about music and improving our skills,” concludes Goldberg. “There is a very satisfying feeling as the notes come together and you create a beautiful shape and melody—the dynamic of it all is fascinating.”