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Face the Music

“It’s like putting rocket fuel in a toy car”

By Judith Kogan

Face the Music, a New York–based program for under eighteens, challenges conceptions about who can play—and who is interested in—new music, by exclusively playing the music of living composers. Here, we find out more about this unique organization.

Face the Music music students

Face the Music in lower Manhattan before opening for the Philip Glass Ensemble at the 2012 River to River Festival.
Credit: Meg Goldman

In the hothouse of elite conservatories, students can feel existential angst. They know they should be working hard, but can feel lost in the ecosystem.

This is something pianist and educator Jenny Undercofler knows firsthand. When she arrived at Juilliard as an undergraduate, she immediately noticed the excellence with which so many students played the standard repertoire. She wondered why anyone would want to hear her play it. She even asked her teacher, who responded, rather obliquely, that there were people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who hadn’t heard Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. Undercofler wasn’t convinced this was true—or of the statement’s implications—but the conversation opened a door for her, one pried further by student composers who asked her to play their pieces. There, she felt useful. “It was like, ‘Oh, I have a purpose!’” she recalls.

Fast forward a couple of decades to find Undercofler at the helm of New York City’s Special Music School, the nation’s only public school offering a full academic curriculum with an intense conservatory musical training. It identifies talent early, and offers private lessons and music classes as part of the school day. The students are passionate about music, but the environment is deeply conservative. It’s set up like the Russian system: if the kids don’t make the grade, they’re more or less kicked out—either overtly or by being ignored.

When Undercofler took over at SMS, as the school is known, there were kids who weren’t keeping up. Undercofler knew they needed a place to feel needed. So she announced an after-school club where students would play the music of living composers. It would double as a lab, where Undercofler could see whether the kids enjoyed it, as she had at Juilliard.

And they did. The seeds of a vision took hold and Face the Music was born.

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, Face the Music has mushroomed into a program of more than two hundred kids mostly from New York’s public schools, independent from the SMS. With over forty concerts a season in such venues as Carnegie Hall, Le Poisson Rouge, BAM Café, Roulette, and Merkin Hall (the organization is in residence at the Kaufman Center), it’s an active player in New York’s new music scene. What had seemed impossible has been proved possible: kids, whose brains are still malleable, can learn to navigate difficult new tropes. “It’s scary what they can do,” says composer Michael Gordon, a Bang on a Can founder, whose rhythmically complex work Yo Shakespeare put Face the Music on the map within the players’ peer group. “It’s like putting rocket fuel in a toy car.”




Face the Music is built on two overarching rules: performing musicians must be aged eighteen or under and they only play the music of living composers. Beyond that, anything and everything is possible.

Recruitment materials for the group call for “advanced musicians,” but almost no applicant is turned away, unless he or she is an absolute beginner or there’s no entry point. The audition, which typically takes fifteen to twenty minutes, includes playing a piece, sight reading, and a discussion of musical interests and schedule to determine the best possible placement. Students whose sight-reading is weak are placed in the improv ensemble.

Every Sunday afternoon into evening, the airless subterranean rehearsal rooms of SMS are alive with focused Face the Music students working in contemporary sound worlds. These coached sessions begin with small groups, and culminate in rehearsals of four large ensembles: two orchestras, a jazz band, and the improv ensemble. Racially diverse and grouped by ability rather than age, the students are also a mix of musical backgrounds. Some study classical musical at the elite pre-college conservatory programs and some jazz. Some analyze death metal and play in rock bands—and a few do it all.

Undercofler chooses repertoire that she thinks the kids will enjoy. Early on she looked for pieces with an obvious rhythmic groove—minimalist and post-minimalist music of Reich, Adams, Glass, and Julia Wolfe—but now the kids explore repertoire less tied to the page. She notes a recent hunger on the part of some of the kids to get into what she calls “crunchy” repertoire—chromatically, rhythmically dense—“you know, the scary stuff,” she says. Gordon adds: “Jenny doesn’t mess around choosing repertoire. She thinks: ‘What’s the most ambitious thing we could do?’ then pushes the students past it.”

Novices in Face the Music often quickly discover that music is a much wider landscape than they knew. There can be specific surprises as well: peers used to doing something “off the wall,” like improvising from a score that looks like a giant triangle. One eight-year-old cellist in the improv ensemble, a confident prodigy for whom no musical goal had been unreachable, ran out of the rehearsal room crying when a chord chart was placed on the stand in front of him—he’d never seen such a thing. But by the next rehearsal, decoding the chart was virtually automatic.

Face the Music music conductor

Jenny Undercofler conducting a rehearsal with Face the Music. Credit: Jim Anness

The attendance policy is strict and the bar is set high, but there’s a vibe that says: this is our music. It’s challenging, but cool. And it’s clear that Undercofler really understands the kids. Having watched the group in rehearsal, I suggested to one mother that Undercofler’s respect for the young people is palpable. “It’s beyond respect,” she answered. “In a certain respect, Jenny is a middle-schooler. She’s got the je ne sais quoi of a middle-schooler. She meets them eye to eye. There’s so much trust in the interplay between her and the kids.”

Face the Music can also be seen to be returning classical music to its roots, where musicians worked with composers who wrote for them, giving the whole enterprise an intimacy and immediacy.

Of course, for most of music history, people have played the music of their own time. But lately, as concert presenters find themselves desperate for audiences of young people with no connection to the classical concert or standard repertoire, many have questioned why this gap emerged and why classical repertoire has seemed frozen in amber for more than a century. Classical music did evolve, but it was the province of its practitioners—the composers and the coterie of musicians who performed their works. The musical avant-garde didn’t develop a following like avant-garde theater and dance did.

That started to change with visionaries like David Harrington, first violinist of the Kronos Quartet, who in the 1970s, reimagined the string quartet in both style and content, deciding that the classical concert experience should look and feel current. Starched tuxedos and arid protocol were out; casual dress and dramatic lighting were in. So were new repertoire and speaking from the stage, or having composers talk about their works—anything to connect listeners with the music.

But still, for most young classical music students today, the term “living composer” is an oxymoron. “There are living composers?” Face the Music violinist Gabriello Lewis, 14, thought, when he first heard about the organization. But when Face the Music kids work with composers, they quickly get past the notes, to questions like: “What do you mean by this?” And “What do you want?” In the collaborative process, the answers to their questions sometimes surprise the composers themselves. “It’s mind blowing to watch a composer rethink a piece on the fly and then actually change it,” says violinist Haley Gillia, now 20, who joined Face the Music in its second year.

Call it new music, contemporary classical or alt-classical, it’s been shown to have an impact on brain and character development of those who play it. They become problem solvers and learn to think independently. And of course there are the purely musical benefits. They learn to override their expectation of four-bar phrases and really count. Undercofler says: “It’s not just that the kids feel better about themselves and see the world more creatively, but that if they’re in Face the Music long enough, or the experience is deep enough, they’re doing better in every musical situation.”

What had seemed impossible has been proved possible: kids, whose brains are still malleable, can learn to navigate difficult new tropes.

Face the Music expressly embraces two ideals: your artistic voice matters and making music is a democratic process. This is exemplified in groups like Quartet: This Side Up (Paris Lavidis and Gabriello Lewis, both 14-year-old violinists; Amelia Krinke, 11, viola; Jonah Kernis, 12, cello), which rehearses three or four times a week. This snapshot of the quartet’s rehearsal of Terry Riley’s Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, days before the composer’s 80th birthday concert in Merkin Hall, illustrates the democratic ideals in action. Built on twenty-four repeatable modules, the piece calls for the quartet members to design its overall flow and decide on bowings, phrasings, and special effects.

Treated like working musicians, Face the Music kids learn the authentic rough and tumble of the business. They play in at least one, but an average of three concerts a year. They schlep their own amps; “backstage” can be a cramped smelly room; rehearsal periods are intense; and there may not be adequate time for a sound check before a performance. But performing in less-than-ideal conditions can help to develop a sense of professionalism.

Do it yourself

Face the Music’s Jenny Undercofler shares her tips for setting up a new music ensemble.

  • Student musicians: Fifteen is a good number to start with—enough to do some inventive repertoire and have a good social mix.
  • Coaches: Should be open minded and ambitious and have a good sense of humor. Ideally, they should have experience with new music, but it’s those broader qualities that are important—especially believing that kids can do anything.
  • Repertoire: Should feel challenging to the kids, and sound good even if it is a little rough around the edges. As you build the group, be sure to cover music of different moods, lengths, and styles. Visit www.chamber-music.org/extras to see a list of works Face the Music has played.
  • Space: Big enough for rehearsal, ideally with time flexibility. New music ensembles acquire a lot of equipment, so if there’s a place to leave gear, it saves time and energy.
  • Time: You need a little more prep time to run a new music group than a traditional one. You spend more time looking for repertoire, more time prepping it for students, and sometimes you end up with a bit of a scramble to get the piece ready.
  • Mindset: Faith and flexibility! I’m still surprised every day at how fertile a creative landscape lies within the mind of every young musician.
  • Final thought: Risk taking is part of the thrill of working on new music, so be very cautious with the word "mistake." It's only a mistake if nobody grows from it.

Violinist Gillia says that the organization taught her what true commitment to music means—the responsibility to the composer, the music, and the group. “Jenny’s diligence in making sure rehearsals occur—amid snowstorms, MTA strikes, and long weekends—has helped me immeasurably,” she says. “It’s now always a given that my music, rehearsals, and lessons are my top priority. Showing up—even if you’re not feeling well—and showing up on time, and behaving professionally once you arrive. These things sound so obvious, but not all of my peers grasp this.”

For student composers within Face the Music, the improv ensemble is a godsend. For a young composer, exposure to all kinds of music is invaluable. But getting to rehearse and perform new music impacts on a whole other level. Lavidis says that when you get your limbs into a piece, you start to understand it on a whole different level: “Being in a piece—actually having your body moving in it—awakens an intuitive understanding of structure, timbre, and use of material.”

Face the Music also performs the music of its own student composers. It has premiered more than forty student works for chamber ensemble, jazz band, and orchestra. There’s an annual student composition competition, open to diverse styles and instrumentation, including electric guitar and bass and laptop samples. Composers, not scores, are selected—winners are sometimes asked to compose something entirely new.

There’s also a composer lab that includes reading and recording sessions, and experience with the nuts and bolts of producing new music. Participants may be asked for revisions or new work, to meet deadlines for submission of scores and parts, to promote performances, help recruit Face the Music players, and help Face the Music set up and break down rehearsal spaces.

Undercofler is uniquely suited to lead Face the Music. She’s got the pedigree and the background—she was one of the first graduates of an arts high school set up by her father James Undercofler, former CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra; she has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Juilliard, a doctorate from Eastman and has taught ear training at Juilliard Pre-College. Importantly, though, she also has the access, energy, passion, and the right mindset. She built Face the Music from her living room, off the back SMS where she had access to students, teachers, and some staff. But it’s her missionary zeal and tireless work on behalf of the organization— recruiting students, finding performance venues, connecting with composers—that fuels it.

Undercofler also had the vision to consider that conservatories may not be changing fast enough to respond to profound changes in the modern world, changes that go beyond the economics of concert presentation. During her years teaching at Juilliard Pre-College, Undercofler was already concerned with those going straight to conservatory—those willing to strip everything to an “eye of the needle” approach to life, which she thinks impoverishes the profession.

Constantly tweaking Face the Music to better serve the kids and the music, Undercofler always considers the big picture: “We’ve gone through a great ten years of discovering that all of the things that I thought might be true actually are true: kids can play this music much earlier than anyone thought that they could, they’re excited by it, and it improve their lives. So now what?”

Undercofler would like to have this conversation on a national level. “People should know about it,” she says. “It will empower a kind of music student that tends not to be empowered. It ultimately enriches the art form.”

Judith Kogan, winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for her work in Chamber Music magazine, is the author of Nothing But the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School (Random House) and a freelance writer on music and culture. A winner of competitions on both classical and Celtic harp, and fluent on the baroque triple harp, she is creator and host of Boston's Distinguished Harpist Series. She holds degrees from Harvard College, the Juilliard School, and the Royal Academy of Music (London).

© 2015 Chamber Music Magazine