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Conductor gets Dixon students tuned for symphony trip

DIXON — If you can’t rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time, you probably can’t direct an orchestra, Dixon students learned last week. In fact, a conductor’s hand movements are much more complicated than most things people do in everyday life.

And on top of the coordination challenges, a director has a lot to remember, including telling the musicians when to play, how loud or softly to play, and much more.

“It’s like doing a big puzzle,” explained Darko Butorac, music director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. 

In preparation for Dixon students’ visits to the symphony Feb. 27 and 28, Butorac spent about an hour last Tuesday morning teaching Dixon fifth through eighth-graders about his job and showing them how fun classical music can be.

After leading the kids in a series of hand coordination exercises — simultaneously drawing a square with one hand and a triangle with the other was one of the most challenging — Butorac asked the kids to share titles of their favorite songs. After some discussion, he led the group in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

“Music gives words meaning through repetition,” he said.

And even if a song doesn’t have words, there is plenty of meaning to be found in the music. While the class listened to a CD of a Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky violin concerto, Butorac discussed how composers use music to express themselves.

“You can see in a piece that (the composer) takes things from life and puts them into music,” he said.

In fact, music is so complex that even a veteran conductor is always learning something new, Butorac explained. Of course, that studying starts with mastering an instrument. Butorac plays the cello and has been conducting for about 15 years.

“If you’re going to tell somebody how to play their instrument, you have to have control of your own first,” he said.

Then in “conductor school” — usually a graduate program — students learn about all the other instruments besides theirs, how to read scores and all about the tricky hand movements. 

“I can never know everything there is to know about every piece (of music),” Butorac said. “It’s a never-ending journey of knowledge. 

“So I get to be a kid and study until I’m dead.”

Dixon students will be attending the symphony on Feb. 27 and 28 — a Friday afternoon performance for the third and fourth-graders and a Saturday evening performance for the fifth through eighth-graders, music teacher Shannon Murphy said. 

“I’ve been doing this for years with the kids,” Murphy said. “I want the kids exposed to the arts, especially a different kind of music.”

Music teacher for kindergarten through eighth grade is just one of the many hats Murphy wears at the Dixon School, but she strives to give her students a full musical education in accordance with district policy. Being exposed to a wide variety of music along with studying its origins helps students with accountability, math scores, social skills and reading, she said.

“It also opens the door to other areas … (and) helps with public speaking and responsibility,” Murphy added.

Every three or four years, Murphy teaches a full semester focused on the symphony. The kids fashion instruments out of any medium they choose and complete a research project that incorporates music, art, science, language arts and math skills. 

“This project is a full curriculum,” Murphy noted.

This year, the students will be specially honored when their instruments are displayed at the Missoula Symphony on the weekend the kids attend performances. They’ll also be treated to hearing world-renowned violinist Robert McDuffie perform a Tchaikovsky violin concerto.

“The purpose of a concerto is to show off somebody who’s really, really good,” Butorac explained. “Basically, what happens is interaction of the soloist vs. the orchestra.” 

And with all those instruments on stage, “if you think how loud one person can play, think of it times 80,” Butorac said. 

“It’s gonna get pretty loud.”

Murphy noted that in addition to the fundraising the students do for the symphony trip, the Ninepipe Arts Group has been “very supportive” of the music program and helped buy the kids’ symphony tickets, something she and the students greatly appreciate.

“(The symphony trip) is something the kids really enjoy,” she said. 

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