There are times in your life when you come upon something that defies any sort of logical explanation, a person with such a gift for music that it doesn’t even seem real. I met such a person this week in Houston. Seven year old Jonathan Okseniuk is his name. Jonathan, of YouTube Beethoven 5 fame, won a contest through KUHA, Classical 91.7. The contest was to “air-conduct” in a video. Submitting a new video for the contest, Jonathan entered. (After all, he IS now 7, so the one shot at age 3 is really quite out of date!) The prize…the opportunity to conduct the Houston Symphony.
We all know the stories of Mozart as a child. His father, Leopold, discovered quite early on that his violin/piano playing son was well above average. As a child, the young Wolfgang was able to memorize music on a single hearing, play very difficult music with relative ease and with very little study, and generally perform like a seasoned musician. These stories are amazing, and truthfully, seem almost unreal…until this week.
I received a call one day from the Houston Symphony office and was told that the winner of this competition would be conducting a piece on an upcoming concert of mine. Truthfully, this scenario happens to me quite often. Great people bid and win the chance to conduct a professional orchestra, or I pull a child up on stage at a concert to conduct something. I almost always choose a Sousa march. (Spoiler alert: Just in case the person conducting doesn’t really know how to conduct, it’s quite possible for a professional orchestra to play through the piece on their own). Usually I stand on stage with the guest conductor, start the orchestra and then leave the musicians and conductor to their own devices. Conducting an orchestra really is one of the most thrilling things that anyone can experience, and for me there is much joy in watching someone experience the power of a full symphony orchestra from the best seat in the house – the podium!
So, I chose John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and away we went. The day of the performance, I had a meeting with Jonathan to work through the logistics and make sure that he wouldn’t have a melt down on stage when he got to the podium. (Generally, I try to avoid melt downs at all costs!) You can only imagine how surprised I was when I sat down with him and began to talk through the upcoming experience and discovered that he was not only completely prepared, but he had the piece memorized…truly memorized. I asked him to conduct for me, and it was obvious that he could imitate the moves that he had seen, so sensing something special I started to challenge him. “What if you did this, or that?” I asked. He responded very well. Then I mentioned to him that there is a ritardando (gradual slowing down) the second time through the last section, but not the first in this particular march. He replied, “I know. Can I turn to the audience once the brass stand and ask them to clap along?” Sure!
After this initial meeting it was quite clear to me that he had a mind for music that was extraordinary. He not only imitated what he saw and heard, but he internalized it and understood it.
At the concert the orchestra was informed that a young person would be conducting the Sousa, but that was all they knew. He entered, climbed up on some crates that were added to the podium, and got into position. He took a moment with his arms up to clear his head, and then with clarity and purpose, he gave an upbeat and the orchestra began to play. Within about two measures (2 seconds) the orchestra realized that he was completely aware of what was going on. Within about 6 seconds he was directing the Houston Symphony! He asked them to play softer in places, and louder in others, and they did. They responded to his musical gestures and thoughts. Finally, they arrived at the place in the last section with the traditional ritardando. This was the first time, so no ritardando was needed yet. As they entered the passage, the orchestra had a slight instinct to slow, and he just kept conducting. They adjusted, and followed him. The second time around, he created the most natural ritardando imaginable. Everyone followed and the orchestra gave him exactly what he asked for!
Now, Jonathan is still seven years old and as a violin and piano student he has many years of learning ahead of him. Over time, he will learn how to manage and use his gift to bring music to people. He will develop and mature into a world class musician, if that is the path he chooses. But today, right now, Jonathan has a gift that I have never seen up close and it is a gift I will not soon forget. Jonathan receives music like most of us receive air or water. His gift is natural, and pure. The best part? He is the most “normal” kid you can imagine. I introduced him to Star Wars. I think he was as excited about Star Wars as he was conducting the Houston Symphony. May the force be with you, young Jonathan!
From Robert Franz’s blog Building Bridges with Music. CLICK HERE to read more of his posts.