Slice of Life: ‘Get out there and play’

Andrew Grams, new director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, talks about life as a conductor

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
(Karen Naess for Shaw Media)
Elgin Symphony Orchestra director Andrew Grams conducts a song during a practice at The Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.

ELGIN – As different as they may seem, Andrew Grams likens his job as conductor of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra to being a football player.

“For me, my role as a conductor was put best by my, believe it or not, conducting teacher – this old-school German cat – who said, as a conductor you have dual roles of being the coach simultaneously with being the quarterback,” Grams said. “You have to start the play and get it going, and then also have to have ability to be coach on the [sideline to see how it all unfolds.”

The comparison became more apparent when he lifted his baton in front of musicians during a Christmas show rehearsal at The Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin. Without a word, he started conducting the song, “Sleigh Bells,” giving musicians cues using his facial expressions and body language.

At some points, he asked a few musicians to be a little louder and stronger at certain parts of the song. He bowed forward to cue musicians in at certain points in the song and stood up on his tiptoes when he wanted them to emphasize a particular part.

“Overdo it so it’s absolutely characterful, so it puts a smile on my face, your face and everyone’s faces,” he told the orchestra after the rehearsal.

Grams, 36, who started his job as music director for the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in May, said in addition to being like a quarterback and coach, a third aspect of his job is to be a cheerleader.

“I think the thing I do the most is just encourage playing. Play, play, play, play, play. Do it. Get out there and play,” he said. “Those three hats you have on at the same time make what it is I do, I find, endlessly fascinating. Also, you’re doing the bulk of your communication without speaking.”

Grams has conducted only three shows with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra this year in between traveling abroad to guest-conduct all over the world in places such as New Zealand, all over Europe, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Japan and Australia. He said next year will be his first full year as music director starting in September, and he gets to choose all the music for the season. The musical lineup hasn’t been released yet, but he said audiences can expect a season with a lot of fire and passion.

Grams said his career as a musician started when he picked up the violin in third grade. Shortly after, his school teacher put his parents in contact with a Suzuki method teacher and Grams pursued that for a few years, he said. He later attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, studied violin and graduated from The Julliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. He performed for the New York City Ballet Orchestra and has guest-conducted all over the country and all over the world.

He said he decided to take the job with Elgin Symphony Orchestra because all the different areas of the program – the board of directors, the staff, the community, the musicians – seemed to mesh together well.

“All of these different variables, all of these different constituencies, work together in a way that made me say, you know what? I could do work here,” he said. “[At] most of the other places I’ve been, there have always been one or two gaping holes in those variables. ... All of those things came together for me, and I said, you know what? I’d sign up for this. It felt very organic. It felt very natural.”

He said one thing he finds “endlessly fascinating” about his job as a conductor is the fact that a whole group of individual musicians all come together to work as a single organism – an orchestra.

“When you raise your wand and gesture, a group of individuals act as one,” he said. “It’s amazing to behold.”

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