26 September 2010

a primer on music and travel in Southeast Alaska

I got to take my first flights since we arrived in Alaska this weekend. This also marks the first time that I've left Baranof and Japonski Islands since our arrival in Sitka nearly three months ago. This ALSO marks the first time that I flew on Alaska Airlines, which experience I cannot recommend highly enough.

Some reflections and observations:

Music is very different in Alaska.
This isn't just a matter of the distances or the directors or even the students. The whole system is different. Southeast Alaska is a region that runs from Skagway to Metlakatla (an area similar in size to New England), and there were about 15 band and choir teachers present at our meeting. Two schools also have strings programs and there were one or two people potentially missing. The ethos of this group is something quite special. Over the day and a half that I was in Ketchikan meeting with everyone, there were numerous times where people openly imposed on each other and it was fine because of the trust and friendship that existed. If someone had access to a resource (such as a car), that resource was made available to anyone else in need. My impression is that this attitude is not limited to this one meeting, but persists throughout the school year as well.

We were meeting to conduct auditions for the Honor Choir and Honor Band for the festival in Wrangell next month. Where I've previously been involved in music (Ohio, Michigan, and Arizona), these auditions would involve bringing every student to a central location for live auditions in front of individual adjudicators. Based on one expert's opinion, the students would be ranked and selected. Here, the expense of moving all of those students and the lack of availability of sufficient adjudicators has resulted in an interesting system. Each director brings a stack of CDs, representing the best efforts of each student who auditions. In groups ranging from two at a time to five or more, the directors listen to the CDs, discuss their merits, and rank them. This results in an amazing amount of fairness and consistency in ratings, as evidenced when two different groups rated five or six duplicate Soprano I and Soprano II auditions in the exact same order (some students submitted multiple CDs for different voice parts or instruments). By using this system, we didn't have to provide chaperons, lodging, or transportation for students and were able to spend some very good time getting to know each other when most Outside directors at similar events just run around in circles, nodding at each other in passing.

Next month, we will be bringing over 100 students to Wrangell, where a relatively typical Honor Festival will occur, led by guest conductors and involving intense rehearsals capped off with a performance. Students will homestay with families in town, though, resulting in a very different experience than in most other places. Because of the unusual nature of travel here, the Juneau and Prince of Wales Island programs will be arriving at 1am on Friday morning by ferry (the festival starts Sunday and runs until Tuesday) and they won't be leaving until Wednesday. The best times and rates I can find for myself and the others traveling with me appear to be $1200 for four people (we're flying about 40 miles).

In the spring, we all get together for another big festival. Most places hold two different spring festivals, one focused on large ensembles and the other focused on solo and ensemble performances. Both are competitive, and solos and ensembles that get high ratings can travel to other competitions. Here, the competition is completely gone and both events are combined into one. From Wednesday through Saturday, there are morning adjudicated performances by soloists and small ensembles. These are frequently well-attended, because all of the large ensembles are also in town at the same time. The adjudicators award two scores: "S" for truly superior performances and "C" for comments, given to everything else. Following the morning performances, the adjudicators meet up and select the best three solos or ensembles to present command performances at the evening concert that night. In the afternoon, all students and directors have the ability to attend a series of clinics, and the evening culminates in a concert featuring several large ensembles and the command performances. This repeats every day except Saturday, where the morning is devoted to jazz ensemble performances from those programs that have them. Again, students will homestay with local families. Because of the non-competitive nature of this event, students and directors both look forward to it as an opportunity to meet up with old and new friends without the pressure and rivalry so frequently present elsewhere. The students are truly excited to see and hear each other's performances and appreciate them for the musicality presented, not for the ability to tally up mistakes in an attempt to one-up each other. The anecdote was shared yesterday of several members of a Juneau-Douglas High School choir who approached the Sitka High director and requested to sit in on his dress rehearsal because they wanted to hear his choir and would have to miss the performance for their own warmup. Students just don't do that anywhere else.

Flying is very different in Alaska.
People fly in Alaska like they take the bus or light rail in most other places. I flew three planes this weekend (SIT-KTN, KTN-JNU-SIT), all 737-400s with 50% occupancy or far less. On my second two flights, the boarding announcement went something like this: "Alaska Airlines welcomes to you flight XX, service to XX. At this time, we'd like to begin preboarding for our Gold Star customers, passengers in need of assistance, families with small children, and our first class customers and all rows." I'm used to "all rows" coming a few minutes after the other groups, but it was really all said in the same breath last night. The gate agent welcomes each person by name, passengers board quickly, the safety instructions are given quickly, and the flight proceeds uneventfully (usually). Upon landing (usually a hard landing in order to rapidly decelerate the light plane on a short runway), the plane taxis to the gate with no wait (after all, JNU is a large airport here because it has 5 gates, all right next to each other) and the flight attendants are nowhere to be seen once the seatbelt sign goes off, because they know that everyone will be up and out fast and don't want to be in the way. Two of the three terminals I waited in were empty of passengers save for me at some times, as people don't show up any earlier than they need to for their flights. If you show up late enough, the personnel at the ticket counter will identify you by name when you walk in the door, as experienced by one of my colleagues!

A word on turbulence: if you've never flown in Alaska, chances are you've never experienced real turbulence. On the flight from SIT to KTN, we took off in ~25mph winds and landed in ~50mph winds with driving rain (small water spouts were observed in Sitka Channel later the same day). There was serious discussion of what would happen if we couldn't touch down on Gravina Island*. The descent was so rough that I felt actual pain in my head and back later on Friday as a result. Not only was the plane bouncing in the air, but it was fishtailing. It's not easy to impress Alaskans with your prowess as a pilot (again, they use airplanes like others use buses), but there was spontaneous applause at touchdown.

*Bridge to "Nowhere" interlude: Having now flown into Ketchikan and taken the ferry to and from Gravina Island, I can vouch that a) the ferry isn't bad, but it is kinda crappy and b) Gravina Island may be a junky airport and gravel pile, but a bridge would save a lot of hassle in the long term and, with the number of tourists who come in here (it IS the "Tijuana of Southeast Alaska"), it's worth the expense, John McCain and Sarah Palin be damned.

Fun note: my flight from JNU to SIT was on the Salmon-Thirty-Salmon! The overhead compartments behind first class are all decorated with native Alaskan sea creatures, which I thought was a nice touch.

1 comment:

  1. amazing how things work when i was a kid, these festivals were often homestays. I remember when all state was in my hometown we hosted a small group of kids from out if town. I love the way you describe community up there. I really may have to include Alaska in the post-college job search.

    be well.