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Return of the Flunk
After 2020's virtual Flunk Week, student planners are excited about this year's hybrid celebration
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Scattered across distant pockets of the stage in Kresge Recital Hall, seven students—all wearing masks—carrying string instruments of various sizes and weights make some last-minute tuning adjustments before rehearsal. Professor Pierce Gradone, interim director of the Knox String Ensemble, stands on the edge of the stage looking over a particularly tricky section of “Les Cinq Doigts” by Igor Stravisnky. Gradone’s dog, an old beagle named Marlyn, finds a cozy spot between the rows of empty seats for a quick nap.
The six feet of space between each member of the ensemble presents unique musical challenges; their repertoire is demanding, and they’ve only got 30 minutes of rehearsal time a week to learn it. But they’re all here, and they’re ready to play.
“I strive to maintain a supportive and positive environment in rehearsals,” Gradone said. “Even though it’s my job to point out and correct mistakes, I nonetheless take pains to point out the good things that I hear as well.”
Gradone has participated in countless ensembles throughout his career. However, this year is his first time actually directing one. In the past, the String Ensemble consisted of students from both Knox and Monmouth College, directed by Monmouth’s Carolyn Suda (who also teaches cello at Knox). This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group consists solely of Knox students, with Gradone at the helm.
This new ensemble experience has done wonders for students like Sarah Borchert ’24. “I really enjoy working with Pierce,” Borchert said. “You can tell how passionate he is about music; his excitement about the pieces makes me want to give them my all.” As a first-year student—and as the only violinist in the group—Borchert initially felt timid about playing with the ensemble. However, the environment cultivated by Gradone and the other students gave her the confidence to take on the challenge. “The dynamic of the group as a whole is really supportive. You don’t have to worry about making mistakes because we all make them; we all just want to have fun and make music.”
This year, the Knox String Ensemble has a very uncommon instrumentation: one violin, two violas, two cellos, and two basses. (Traditionally, as with a string quartet, violins are the predominant instrument in a string ensemble.) Because there are hardly any pieces written for this collection of musicians, Gradone adapted by arranging piano works by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky for stringed instruments. “In doing so, I was hoping to introduce the students to music of the 20th century, as well as provide a chance to incorporate some of the contemporary playing techniques that these composers used in their music,” he said.
Gradone may be new to ensemble directing, but as bassist Wesley Breyer ’21 explained, his breadth of experience in musicology makes him exceptional in the position. “As a music scholar first, Pierce brings an insightful, thought-provoking attitude that permeates throughout the whole group,” they said. Breyer discussed how performing pieces that Gradone arranged allowed the ensemble to understand the music on a deep and personal level. “We are able to pick apart the pieces more; we understand the theory behind it and the decisions made by the composers.”
The members of the Knox String Ensemble have taken these musical values to heart. Gradone emphasized his admiration of the students’ professionalism and musicality. “One of the biggest reasons that I volunteered to continue the String Ensemble is that we have many talented string players at Knox this year, and I really wanted to give them a chance to make music with their peers,” he said. “I’m continually amazed at how much a piece will improve over the course of a rehearsal. They’ve also been willing to stretch themselves musically by learning contemporary playing techniques and non-classical musical styles.”
But above the technical and stylistic proficiency the students have honed throughout the term, what students have valued most in this ensemble is the opportunity to simply play music together. “All of my classes are via Zoom, so rehearsals are one of the only times I get to see people that I wouldn’t normally see face-to-face,” Borchet said. “Music is like therapy for me. It is hard being a college student, especially during a pandemic, but playing my violin gives me an escape.”
Likewise, Breyer agreed that the ensemble allowed them a sense of serenity that would otherwise be difficult to come by during this time. “Even if there is no one there to listen, musicians play for a variety of reasons: to express emotions, to find peace, and to understand a little more—both in ourselves and outside ourselves,” Breyer said. “When we are able to play with others, we share this: bringing everyone together. Especially now, art gives energy and reasons, and allows people to enjoy the beauty in the world.”
Gradone expressed optimism in students finding fulfillment and joy in the ensemble. “After spending the spring and summer in near isolation, I think that many of us just wanted to be in a room with other people! I hope that String Ensemble has provided students a space for artistic expression and community building; it certainly has for me.”
Sarah Borchert, violin
Diego Gutierrez, viola
Shannon Hall, viola
Kendra Noyes, cello
Sahana Giri, cello
Wesley Breyer, bass
Theresa Matlak, bass
Published on November 23, 2020