Giving direction to the sound of music and young performers


"All music says something," says Elisa C. Koehler. "Endlessly fascinating, music reflects both life and culture."

Ms. Koehler has listened to the sounds of music all her life.

At age 7, the Westminster woman says she knew music would be the focus of her life. By age 9, she was a trumpet player accomplished enough to win a seat "with the older kids" in the school orchestra.

"I picked the trumpet because it was easy to hold and suitable to all kinds of music," she says.

She still free-lances on the trumpet for weddings or with chamber music groups, and offers private instruction.

Early in her teens, she joined the Peabody Ensemble, the first of many groups, including several symphony orchestras, with which she has played. "I wasn't satisfied just playing," she says. She longed to be the leader of the band.

Now, at 28, she is an assistant conductor of the Frederick Symphony and the new conductor for Sinfonia, an ensemble of talented young musicians in training for the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra.

Someday she hopes to wield the baton before a regional American orchestra and teach music at a university.

"I don't like to box myself in," Ms. Koehler says. "Life has its way of happening, and flexibility is an easier way to get through."

She credits her parents, who are ardent opera fans, with guiding her into music. They often took their young daughter to Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts.

"I thought the orchestra was just the greatest thing," she says. "I was fascinated with the conductor."

As a child, she watched conductors -- "usually old men" -- and thought "how far away I was from something I wanted so much to do."

"I never thought I knew enough to conduct," Ms. Koehler says. "As I played and studied, I thought this is something I can at least try. If I didn't try, I would be bitter all my life."

Now a candidate in the Peabody doctoral program for conductors, she has completed all her course work and is working on her dissertation. She is researching Salvator Minichini, a New York bandmaster whose career spanned 70 years. She spent last weekend interviewing his son and daughter.

As Sinfonia's director, she says she hopes to "expose the students to a wide variety of music and get them well-grounded in ensemble playing. There is a difference in playing for yourself and playing with a group."

Her instruction will introduce the children, including a few from Carroll County, to concepts that will help them further their musical careers, she says.

Musical expression is her primary goal in instructing the 35 8- to 13-year-olds, who "all really want to be here."

Ms. Koehler says she finds children a refreshing change. "Kids are so open-minded and usually very enthusiastic," she says. "You don't find that often with adults, unless it's a group of friends making music."

The children will hear something classical for the first time and react "like it's a great new song on the radio."

"I love watching kids as they discover music for the first time. They get so excited. I see them respond to the emotion in the music. Professional musicians often lose sight of the emotion; sometimes they become numb to the emotion," she says.

The children rehearse weekly at Essex Community College. They will perform six concerts throughout the school year. The conductor wants those performances to bring the music to life.

"All technical considerations serve the music," she says. "If the audience doesn't feel something, then we have failed."

She doesn't worry about her young pupils' affinity for rap or grunge rock.

"Too often, people are too hard on today's music," she says. "Art is not always there to be liked; it is subjective expression. The language of music may not be elegant, but it all expresses something."

In her studies, Ms. Koehler says, she has found "fascinating parallels" between music and history.

"At the beginning of the 20th century, music reflected anger and disillusionment, much like it is doing now," she said.

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