On Saturday I spent about 6 hours, mostly backstage, at Castillero Middle School‘s concert. I was hoping not only to capture and share a glimpse of what goes into those last few hours before a concert but also to get a bit closer to wrapping my head around that giant effort that it takes to make something like this come together.
Here are my sketches from that afternoon and evening. I’m going to try a different format from the usual because this is a pretty long reportage piece: The regular type is reportage. The italicized bits might be interesting to you if you are a sketcher; otherwise you can skip them.
3:10pm The afternoon started at San Jose State University’s Music Building. This is just one room full of kids from two orchestras (Chamber and Avant) practicing their pieces before their last rehearsal on stage. Some play in tight little groups, others practice solo; some check their instruments, others their phones.
My first sketch of the day. It takes a while to get used to the noise, and the activity and to decide how to deal with the bits you’re going to be working with all day: instruments in various sizes, lots of kids dressed in all-black, and indoor lighting. Eventually I’ll need to simplify and focus better to tell good stories, but the first piece is usually the ‘kitchen sink’ version.
3:45pm Still in the practice room, behind the kids are empty music cases lying strewn all over the floor like black pelts.
Those empty music bags catch my eye but I need the musicians and their instruments in the sketch to make sense of these random shapeless objects.
4:15pm A rare view of the orchestra. I’m standing backstage, with the orchestra facing away from me. This is the Avant Orchestra on stage for their final rehearsal.
This is my third sketch of the afternoon and I’m still trying to figure how to convey a scene with so many instruments and people without getting lost in it.
On the left:
4:30pm Back in the wings. Bass players again. These kids play with the Chamber Orchestra, the highest level orchestra at our middle school.
On the right:
4:55pm On-stage for practice. I sit in an empty row of chairs behind the last row of musicians. The look of intense focus on the musicians faces is amazing. It’s easy to forget they’re kids.
No name on my sketches, and no detailed portraits, you might notice: If you draw people, and want to note their names or draw very specific portraits, it’s always best to check with them, and if they’re not adults you’d have to have permission from an adult. Or, keep it general. I try to focus on gesture, stance and little details that give them personality to keep the people drawings interesting.
5:10pm This is where about 200 musicians cram onto the stage and perform together. I sketch just a tiny corner of the stage, chock-a-block with musicians. Just figuring how everyone gets on and off that stage is a Herculean task.
When everyone is dressed in all-black and bodies and instruments are crammed together, it is hard to figure how to make sense of it all. I want to communicate the crowd and chaos but I want you to be able to read the scene too…
5:25pm Practicing the piece the evening ends with: Uptown Funk. This is Mr. Krinjen hamming it up for this last piece, captured in quick sketches in a few seconds each. This piece is all fun, all high-energy.
I switch to quick gesture drawing, which is so much fun, and so forgiving: as long as there is one decisive line to speak to the action, and you don’t fuss around too much, it works.
6:04pm Not done with practice yet. Sitting behind the violinists playing Mozart’s Dissonance.
This might be the first sketch (it took that long!?) where the idea of a stage full of musicians comes across without drawing too many of them.
6:40pm The students catch a quick dinner before the 7:00 pm concert. But not the 5 professional musicians who will be playing a couple of pieces that same evening. This 20 minute slot is the only one they have for their practice.
Whitespace on this double spread in my sketchbook helps communicate how the band of just 5 looks tiny in the middle of all the music stands on stage and the big, empty stage now that the kids are gone…
7:20pm The show has begun and the most junior group is on stage. Backstage with these 8th graders, who hang around with the nonchalance of seasoned performers, waiting for the younger kids to be done.
Gestures speak so much. And working in odd numbers helps in composition: the three figures here play off each other for a casual, unstructured feel.
7:30pm I finally move to a more familiar view, and sit in the audience to listen to the rest of the concert.
Having sketched this orchestra and space from the audience point of view before helps pull together this piece pretty quickly.
8:00pm When the more advanced groups play, the younger musicians bring their instruments and come sit in the aisles to watch. It’s a full house, and there are no seats available for them, but it’s still neat that they can all be there to watch what they will grow to be, musically, in the coming years.
Switching to brushpen on these. Bold marks to capture the kids and their instruments. White acrylic marker for highlights and definition. After a few hours with a subject, even strange angles and poses translate to simple shapes pretty easily.
8:45pm One last sketch of the kids in the aisles. It is late in the night, they’ve had a long day, but they still have one last bit of performing left. But right now, they wait. Some patiently. Some not.
As I sketch this piece, I can see from the sketch that I’m tired. So how do all the performers, teachers and volunteers do it? They’re still doing what they’re doing and giving it 100%!
9:15pm is when the concert ended. No sketches from that last half hour, but a lot of foot-stomping for the final pieces and many, many well-deserved rounds of applause. I started the afternoon hoping I’d understand a little bit about how big an effort it takes to put on a concert on this scale. Here are some figures from just that evening:
205 Middle-school musicians, 10 adult chaperones, 10 high school helpers, 2 teachers on standby. 6 pros – including our teacher, Mr Krijnen and the Matt on percussion. Snacks and dinner provided for all. Lucy Yamakawa Cox at SJSU hosted all of this.
Here’s what I think after my backstage experience. This is my third Four Seasons concert. I always thought it was awesome, but it is bigger and more amazing than I had imagined and that it’s pretty incredible what people working together can do.
13 sketches not including a few (below) that had to be abandoned when things changed too quickly. Have I mentioned how much I love reportage sketching?
If you live in the San Jose there’s a Cambrian Symphony Concert coming up at this same venue on February 9th. They’re pretty awesome, go give them a listen. Admission is free.
And if you’re a sketcher, grab a sketchbook and a brushpen perhaps and head down that way.