A Little Prince Minute
Randal Swiggum, Artistic Director
WHY DID WE READ THIS BOOK? | 5/02/19
The fox said, “Here is my secret: what is essential is not visible to the eyes.”
EYSO Translation: What was most important about reading The Little Prince might be something nobody notices at the concert. Did it make us play more in tune? Did it help us match articulations? Probably not. So why did it matter?
This is a question every student must answer for themselves, individually: What was most significant about reading this book? What will I remember most from it? How did it affect me, even if in a small way that maybe no one else would notice?
Here’s what one student wrote:
When I found out that the theme for orchestra this year was The Little Prince, I was skeptical. It was easy for me to understand some of the previous season themes, such as “Elemental,” but The Little Prince seemed like something more fit for a literature class than orchestra.
Over the course of the season, I have begun to see how connections can be made between the book and the music we make. Even so, the significance of The Little Prince came not in the connections that could be made with the music, but through some of the themes of the book itself.
What stood out to me was the concept of taming, or “establishing ties.” I have made many new friendships and have been able to maintain old ones through the EYSO, and in a way, I have “tamed” the musicians I see each week. There is nothing that compares to the connections you make with other musicians through the process of music together, and over the past year, I have come to treasure my section and the orchestra as a whole.
Last year, most of the people in my orchestra and band sections graduated, and I didn’t appreciate the time I had with those people until they were gone. This year, especially through reading The Little Prince, I have been more conscious of the limited time that I have in the EYSO and with the people in the orchestra. I realize that in the future, maybe even next year, I will hear the Bartok or look at an old picture, and I will be reminded of the countless memories I have of the EYSO.
These reminders would be insignificant for the vast majority of people, but for me, they would be tiny “wheat fields”—bittersweet reminders of the many Sunday nights I spent making music with my friends.
It has also been meaningful to read The Little Prince, especially as I am growing older, because it serves as a reminder of my childhood. “All grownups were once children, but few of them remember it.” I am on the inevitable border between the child and grownup, a border that I do not wish to be on. I have been so caught up in doing well in school, in performing well, in how I appear to others, that I have missed some of the stars and roses in my life. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” But then, if I am more aware of these stars and roses and people that I have tamed, will I miss them more when they are gone?
LITTLE BELLS ARE CHANGED TO TEARS | 4/25/19
Never before has the end of the EYSO season felt quite so bittersweet. I understand this—never before have we ended our season with something like The Little Prince.
The ending of this magical, mystical little book is literally about endings—about saying goodbye, about pondering love, about the pain of losing someone. In the final chapter, six years after his life-changing encounter with the Little Prince, the Pilot is considering what it all meant…
“….and at night I love to listen to the stars. It is like five hundred million little bells… “
What he is really pondering, of course, is the way his little friend’s laugh—like pealing bells—still rings so vividly in his memory. And when he imagines the Little Prince, home on his planet, and happy, then “there is sweetness in the laughter of all the stars.”
But other times, he worries about the Little Prince—whether he really made it home, whether he is safe or happy or lonely—the same worries any adult has for a child.
“And then the little bells are changed to tears.”
What does this all mean? It’s way too much to consider here—the book is really for a lifetime of reflection on what truly matters. But this week I return to the book’s idea of taming (French “apprivoiser”). That the tears of saying goodbye—something the Fox warned the Little Prince about—are part of loving, of forging ties, of investing in someone or something besides oneself.
In this age of immediate gratification, it’s hard for kids to stay invested in anything long-term. Our busy consumer culture whispers constantly: if you’re bored, or the work is hard or loses its fun, well…maybe you should quit and move on. The idea of sticking with an instrument or a youth orchestra for years, especially if it’s not a career goal, seems quaint and slightly old-fashioned.
But next week, when Turtle Dove is sung for the twentieth time, graduating seniors will taste the sweet sadness of saying goodbye to something precious. Something that has tamed them. The hundreds of EYSO Sundays spent perfecting a musical phrase, touching the excellent and ineffable, pondering big questions, taking risks, forging lifelong relationships, and growing in self-awareness. And all those memories, all those “little bells,” will be changed to tears.
DRAW ME A SHEEP | 4/4/19
A pilot whose plane has crashed in the desert is surprised to hear a sweet voice quietly ask, “If you please—draw me a sheep.”
Although it’s now familiar and beloved, this is, admittedly, an odd way to begin a book, even a fable for children. Yet it sets in motion some of the Big Ideas of the story—the importance of imagination, of risk-taking, of not fearing the unfamiliar.
Although he has not drawn anything since childhood (and never a sheep), the Pilot surprises himself by sketching a little sheep (“too sickly”, says the Little Prince), and then another (“too old”) and another (“that’s a ram”). Finally, the exasperated Pilot sketches a box with holes in it.
“This is only his box. The sheep you asked for is inside.” “That is exactly the way I wanted it!” exclaims the Little Prince (the first of many delightful but puzzling moments in their unfolding affection for each other).
Our concert this Saturday night plays on this idea: being open to seeing something that is not immediately apparent, something that might enlarge our experience, or challenge our established notions. When Jason Flaks and I first began discussing this concert over a year ago, we knew we wanted to provide our students with a truly eye-opening experience, with music that was radically different, a work of art so new and unfamiliar that it would stretch them, perhaps even transform them. (“Transformative Experiences” might be our EYSO byline.)
WITNESS REUNION, the world premiere piece this Saturday night, will be such a piece, guaranteed. Even the phrase “experimental opera” will not quite account for the moments when you will be puzzled by what you hear—trying to make sense of what feels at once both familiar and unfamiliar—or overwhelmed by the pure sonic beauty of Ethan Parcell’s music, his sensitive collaborators in Focus Group, and our EYSO kids.
This is art. Art which, like the Pilot’s box (with sheep inside), invites you to not just sit back passively, but to engage fully—to pay close attention, to let your imagination soar, and to be open to the possibilities in something unfamiliar and new. Please join us!
Toward a renewed sense of wonder!
ROSES, ROSES EVERYWHERE | 3/14/19
Concerts marked by both excellent musicianship and big ideas to ponder are not unusual in the EYSO—in fact, we expect them. Even so, last weekend’s concerts were something special. As the fox might say to the Little Prince, “Yes, like roses everywhere, there are a lot of concerts. But that one was unique because of the time and thought and patient, careful work you invested in it.”
We saw Primo and Primo Intermezzo, directed by Daryl Silberman, mark their first appearance this year on the Blizzard Stage—bravo! Two fabulous trumpet players, Jeri Rethford and Bailey Cates, dazzled us with the Hummel concerto and Arutiunian concerto, respectively. Philharmonia continued its exploration of The Planets, and Sinfonia got us moving with Tres Ballets Criollos by Columbian composer Guillermo Holguín. Both Prelude and Brass Choir reminded us of the power of slow music to hold our attention and create a sense of the epic. Both Percussion Ensembles captured our attention, with improvisation and ritual. The Clemens Wind Quintet, awash in vibrant color, gave a poignant performance of Ravel’s famous Tombeau de Couperin, a tribute to the memory of friends, just like The Little Prince. And Youth Symphony moved its audience from the hilarity of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (thanks, Danny, for the Foxride demonstration) to the pathos of Puccini’s Manon Lescat to the monumental Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, expertly led by Matt Sheppard.
Congratulations to each EYSO musician—the time you spent “taming” these wonderful pieces means you have established ties with them forever.
SEE THE WHEATFIELDS? | 3/7/19
This weekend’s concerts get their title from Chapter 21, perhaps the most beloved chapter in all of The Little Prince. It’s mostly a conversation between the fox and the Little Prince, as they are “tamed” and come to trust and love each other. It contains many of the most memorable quotes from the book, and was immortalized in a beautiful scene in the 1970 film version, with Gene Wilder as the fox. In preparing for the “big idea” of this weekend, it’s worth a look.
TAMING | 2/14/19
This week, EYSO students all read the celebrated and beloved Chapter 21, often described as the emotional heart of the book. At a moment of crisis (see last week’s A Little Prince Minute), our golden haired boy meets a fox, who befriends him as a wise guide and teacher. Indeed, many of the book’s most famous quotes come from this chapter, including what functions as a kind of “thesis statement,” spoken by the fox in a poignant moment: And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Chapter 21 is also famous for another enigmatic idea; the fox asks the Little Prince to tame him. We learned that the original French word translated as “tame” was apprivoiser, but this has a different meaning than the English word “tame.” “Taming” suggests domination and mastery—we talk about taming pets, or taming messy hair. But apprivoiser means to make familiar, to draw gently closer, or—as the fox explains—to “establish ties.” The fox may as well be saying, “befriend me” or “captivate me” or “bind yourself gently to me.”
Why does any of this matter? Well first, it’s a reminder that translation is a subtle art. And playing music is also a kind of translation—examining dots on paper and continually pondering “what is meant by this?” or “what is the best way to interpret this?”. It’s also a reminder that simply taking things at face value (just assuming I know what “tame” means) often leaves us with a shallow, less robust or rich understanding. Pushing back against our tendency to reduce things to the simplest, quickest to understand, or familiar—this something a great work of art offers us, whether The Little Prince or a piece of music.
BARTOK AND ST. EX. | 2/7/19
“And he lay down in the grass and cried.”
These final words of Chapter 20 were particularly meaningful as we read them in Youth Symphony last Sunday night. For the previous 45 minutes, we had been rehearsing the “Elegia” of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Though Bartók and St. Exupéry never met, they lived in New York at the same time: 1943, a year when many people around the world were feeling profound sadness, Both works of art reflect that unsettled era—the feelings of uncertainty, and even despair, that saturated public consciousness.
Learning Concerto for Orchestra (or any piece, for that matter) takes more than getting the right notes at the right time. Just as a reader varies pacing and tone to breathe life into the words that shape a story, the ninety musicians of an orchestra manipulate timing and sound quality to reflect the music’s subtext and meaning. As we rehearsed, we pushed ourselves to find the urgency and despair in this music. We struggled, but pushed onward physically, mentally, and spiritually to what felt like a breaking point, until the music simply…stops. It was exhausting and powerful—the feeling of nothing left—like the Little Prince, when he laid down and cried.
Matt Sheppard, Associate Conductor, Youth Symphony
GREAT ART HOLDS OUR ATTENTION | 1/24/19
Great art endures because it continues to speak beyond its specific time and place. 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of The Little Prince. Many books (and pieces of music) from 1943 have been long forgotten, but this little book still continues to fascinate.
Right now, in fact, a museum in Singapore has dedicated a rich and vibrant exhibit to all things Little Prince. It’s worth a look. Can’t get to Singapore? Then check out the virtual tour. It’s incredible. (Special thanks to EYSO Board Member Bill Nicholson for pointing me to it.)
PERSPECTIVE AND THE LITTLE FLOWER | 1/17/19
Last Sunday’s chapter was a miniature. In the Youth Symphony, our reader Glauber Ribeiro (Laura’s dad) called it a “Zen” kind of reading—short but provocative, opening up a big question. Our Little Prince comes across a single flower of three petals, “of no account at all.”
“Where are the men?” the little prince asked, politely.
The flower had once seen a caravan passing.
“Men?” she echoed. “I think there are six or seven of them in existence. I saw them, several years ago. But one never knows where to find them. The wind blows them away. They have no roots, and that makes their life very difficult.”
Glauber pointed out that the flower wasn’t really mistaken—she just had limited perspective. Being rooted, she couldn’t explore. Knowing that being open to exploration is a theme of the book, were we now supposed to believe that having roots is a bad thing?
This is one of many tensions in the book—we are asked to weigh the value of wings (freedom and openness) against roots (home and relationships). We are forced to wrestle with this kind of ambiguity throughout our lives, in ways large and small. Music (and the arts, in general) are a great place to practice getting comfortable with ambiguity—knowing that often competing interpretations might each hold some truth, and two perspectives that seem to be in conflict might both be true.
GOOD THINKING AND THE SNAKE | 1/10/19
Last fall, I shared that one of our goals in reading The Little Prince was to help kids sharpen their critical thinking (“not taking things at face value” in our definition).
Youth Symphony members had a perfect chance to practice this when we resumed last Sunday with Chapter 17, in which our Little Prince lands on earth. The first creature he meets is a snake. What does “snake” imply, especially in a fable? That was easy: a cunning liar with the power to kill (and likely enjoy it). And where does our idea of “snake-ness” originate? The Garden of Eden, of course.
Except this was too easy, and a closer reading showed some cracks in this interpretation. This snake, probably used to people screaming or trying to kill it, is surprised when the Little Prince draws near in curiosity, oblivious to danger. They chat, and then sit in silence together, and then chat some more. The snake coils around the boy’s ankle, a move described not as a “shackle” or “claw”, but “like a golden bracelet.” Wait—what? And when the snake starts to feel pity for the loneliness the Little Prince is undoubtedly bound to feel in this world of men, he makes a kind offer: to use his poisonous bite to send the boy “home.”
All the assumptions we had made in our first reading had to be reframed, and new questions now emerged. What are we to make of a fable where the first empathy and kindness the Little Prince discovers in his journey is from….a snake? Is this just a turn-about, interesting for its own sake? Or are we to question our first impressions and challenge our easy assumptions? It is this skill—seeing beyond the clichéd or obvious—that we are trying to sharpen each week, whether in words or notes.
WHY ARE WE READING THIS BOOK AGAIN? | 11/15/18
Last Sunday, our final 2018 rehearsal, we read the chapters where the Little Prince visits various planets and starts to consider what matters to grown-ups, and what (to them) are “matters of consequence.”
Monday morning I found this email from a student in my Inbox:
I think an important part of these chapters is that everyone is on a different planet, completely isolated from each other. They all feel pressure from somewhere to keep doing the things they’re doing, even if those things are stressful or damaging to them. But the pressure seems to come from within, because they really are isolated apart from any society.
For me these chapters struck a chord because I can see myself in these characters to a certain degree. The tippler drinks to forget that he’s ashamed, and he’s ashamed because he drinks, kind of a circular logic. But there’s no one standing there shaming him for what he’s doing, so it’s a sort of self-imposed judgment that he is running from. I can relate to this as I often get caught up in my own thoughts if I forget or procrastinate on something; I assume that everyone is judging me and that usually leads to more procrastination.
Anyway, the conclusion I came to (at least for now, this certainly isn’t everything the chapter has to offer) is that we as people tend to isolate ourselves until it’s damaging. And we follow rules, or assumptions because we believe that’s what we should be doing, even if it doesn’t make much sense. I feel like I have to go do college, and graduate school because I’ve always been “smart” and I need to get good grades. All of this is so I can make more money once I finally start my career. But really? I don’t see much of a point to this other than it is what everyone else does. It reminds me of what one of our chamber music coaches said to us, which is to not waste your time in life doing things you don’t want to do, and often times the educational “system” will try to make you do this.
Thank you for allowing us to take a deeper look at The Little Prince. It’s really led me to ask some hard questions about my own life and future.
NOT A HAT. AND DEFINITELY NOT JUST A CONCERT | 11/8/18
But also on display were ideas. In a world where easy music is available everywhere with just a click of a finger, you showed the value of hard work—patiently and slowly over time—for a longer-lasting reward. You made it more than a concert.
We’ve spent every week since Fall Camp back in August practicing trying to see more and hear deeper. To not just take the intellectually easy path, but really probe deeper for meaning. To not just accept what’s obvious at face value—“it’s just notes, it’s just pretty sounds”—but to awaken our imaginations, and learn openness to possibilities. This is one of the big themes of The Little Prince, and a feature of childhood that’s mostly lost as we grow up.
Why does this happen? And must it be so? In this fascinating short article in Scientific American, psychologist and author Maria Konnikova looks at this phenomenon through The Little Prince, and shows what research is saying: that we, even as adults, can recover our childhood sense of wonder and curiosity. It’s a must-read—let me know what you think.
And thanks for being part of our musical-literary journey!
IT’S NOT A HAT. MORE LIKE A FOREST… | 10/25/18
Next week, the EYSO Youth Symphony will tackle one of the “Mount Everest” challenges of orchestra repertoire: Béla Bartók’s magnificent Concerto for Orchestra. This work is considered both one of the most significant pieces of the 20th century, and also one of the most difficult. (Spoiler: our Youth Symphony will knock it out of the park!)
For those unfamiliar with Bartók’s style, the first movement can sound disorganized and chaotic. To the casual listener, it’s a hat—just a random outpouring of unrelated musical ideas. It’s hard to “see” beyond that. What does it mean? What gives it coherence?
Actually, looking deeper reveals that the very first two notes—a perfect fourth interval (think “Here Comes the Bride”)—is a seed that grows organically into every single melody that follows, creating a powerful, cohesive sense of unity. Once you know that, listening to the piece becomes an endless adventure of seeing how every branch, every leaf, every tendril of this massive organic work carries this little DNA (the perfect fourth). It’s literally woven into every moment of the piece.
Is it possible to hear this level of organization? Certainly not with one superficial hearing. Like all great masterworks, it reveals its layers with patient, attentive listening over time—a rich and worthwhile endeavor, like reading The Little Prince.
IT’S NOT A HAT. WORK A LITTLE HARDER… | 10/18/18
Research is showing that screen culture is not necessarily making kids more imaginative. No matter how rich and visually stimulating their video or gaming world might be, the kid’s role is almost entirely passive: all input, with virtually nothing expected from them.
In fact, I’ve noticed that kids seem to be ever more resistant to having to invent or imagine on their own. They are so used to input coming to them beautifully edited, colorful and complete, that it’s uncomfortable (and hard work!) to have to speculate, envision possibilities, or create.
And the traditional orchestra rehearsal is really just another “screen”—with the musicians passively receiving input and mostly sharpening one skill: doing what they’re told.
In both The Little Prince and the rich, multi-layered music we are studying, we’re trying to practice the skill of imagining. Of entertaining a sense of possibilities. Of slowing down and taking time to look beyond the surface, which might seem quite straightforward. Our goal is to awaken the sense of wonder and curiosity that often disappears after childhood—and not just “for the fun of it” (although it does make life richer and more colorful). This is a skill needed in research, science, diplomacy, teaching, parenting, relationships—virtually everywhere—for life.
IT’S NOT A HAT. KEEP LOOKING… | 10/11/18
When learning an instrument, young musicians quickly learn to prioritize: correct notes and rhythms first, then dynamics, maybe articulation. By about 7th grade, they’ve got this down: what’s most important is seeing what’s on the page and being able to reproduce it accurately (if often mechanically).
What’s often missing in this flat reproduction is two important skills:
- A personal interpretation: bringing the music to life and revealing its expressive subtext, through understanding what’s “behind” the notes
- An understanding of the composer’s work, through a “close reading” of the score
It’s not that hard to just play notes (or see “just a hat”). And for the teacher, critiquing playing at that level is easy: it’s either correct or incorrect, like any standardized test. As a result, much of young musicians’ experience of music remains at this level—taking the printed page at simple face value, and never going deeper. Never asking questions. Never speculating on its “subtext.”
This is one of the reasons The Little Prince is such a valuable text for us to explore. Just like a musical score, its surface features—a simple, childlike story—are not difficult. But the richness of the experience is in going deeper, entertaining possibilities, discovering what’s below the surface.
IT’S NOT A HAT. BE PATIENT. | 10/4/18
Pausing to read a chapter of The Little Prince every week can feel a little uncomfortable to some kids. Especially those who are used to a traditional music rehearsal, where their job is to pay attention, be “good soldiers,” and just play the way the conductor tells them.
The traditional model is simple: students play, teacher points out mistakes, students play again, in an endless loop that requires very little independent thinking from the student. If the “product” is simply getting the music to sound good as quickly as possible, this model is efficient.
In the EYSO, however, we’re going for a different “product”—a kid who has the courage, critical thinking, and creativity to solve problems on their own. Our goal is not just fixing of wrong notes or rhythms—it’s showing kids how to be an “expert noticer” of details, to interpret them for meaning, to have patience to go deeper.
The Little Prince—one of the 20th century’s richest and most layered little books—helps us practice these skills, a few minutes each week, alongside the rich musical works we’re learning. Next week, I’ll share some examples of how we’re doing it.
IT’S NOT A HAT. WELL, SORT OF. | 09/27/18
Last week, I talked about the first (and rightfully famous) drawing in The Little Prince, the “boa constrictor swallowing an elephant.” The narrator drew it when he was six, and would show it to adults who flatly said, “It’s a hat.” This was how he decided who were typical adults who “needed to have everything explained” versus those who “were able to understand.”
This test was not really a guessing game or “gotcha” test. The boy wasn’t thinking “this is something you can’t see or understand, and now I will trick you.” I think if any adult had said, “I think it’s a giant mud pie squished by a giant’s fist” the boy would cheerfully proclaimed it a great insight.
The point of art—including the music we are exploring—is not to guess the “right answer.” The point is entertaining possibilities, using our imagination, and not getting immediately stuck on the most obvious or easiest answer. Critical thinking (“not taking things at face value” in our definition) means resisting the intellectual laziness which stops with the first idea. The flabby thinking which is satisfied with the superficial and obvious.
Reclaiming this childhood sense of wonder and possibility is a lifelong project, strengthening our “imagination muscles”. And we’re trying to practice it every week, in the EYSO.
IT’S NOT A HAT | 09/20/18
Early in The Little Prince we hear the narrator (the downed airplane pilot) reminisce about how he used to draw freely and fearlessly as a kid. His drawing of a “boa constrictor swallowing an elephant” became a sort of “test of imagination” for adults he met. Usually when he showed them, they said, “It’s a hat.”
This semester, our first concert cycle explores this idea: how do we awaken our imaginations, so we can see beyond what appears to be plainly obvious?
My new favorite definition of critical thinking is “not taking things at face value.” This is close reading of a text (literature), interpreting details (scientific inquiry), and divergent thinking for the full range of possibilities (all of life).
Composers do this when they invent new works of sound where none existed before. Musicians do it when they have to interpret lifeless notes on a page and call forth their possibilities. This is curiosity, imagination, risk-taking, and courage. The art of hearing deeper, and seeing more.
WHY THIS BOOK? | 09/13/18
At Fall Camp, before we unveiled The Little Prince, Youth Symphony members were asked to speculate on what book could possibly merit a full school year of reading and reflection—a “lens” through which to consider some big ideas about human nature and art—their guesses showed that they understood how difficult finding such a book would be. Something by Shakespeare? (Perhaps too off-putting for 5th graders?). Orwell’s Animal Farm? (Great allegory, but really a only single, political message) The Bible (a classic, yes, and worthy of a closer look— but where to begin?) Dr. Seuss? (But where’s the deeper message? Actually, Yertle the Turtle reminded us that nearly every Dr. Seuss book carried a moral lesson, whether implicit or explicit.)
This discussion revealed what makes The Little Prince one of the few books that would work for us, to explore alongside our music. Its story can be tracked by young children, but its message resonates all through adulthood.
This is the very definition of a classic. Just like the great works of orchestral repertoire we will learn, it resists our attempts to give it a single interpretation. Every encounter with the book, whether at age 10 or 17 or in jaded adulthood, will speak differently and show us something new. It is these layers—which call us to probe deeply—that make our 43rd EYSO season again so promising and full of potential.
SEASON THEME | 09/06/18
After keeping it under wraps for 18 months, EYSO conductors finally revealed this year’s theme at Fall Camp: The
If you’re new to the EYSO, you might ask: A season theme? Isn’t the theme “music”?
Well, yes. But the EYSO takes a unique approach, believing that music is more than learning notes and rhythms, or merely improving technique on the instrument. We are not only committed to repertoire of depth and quality, and to helping kids perform it with genuine artistry. We also want them to understand the music, to consider it from multiple angles, to learn how to think about it.
So for many years, we have used a curricular theme as a kind of “lens” to look at music. Recent “lenses” have included architecture, Shakespeare, science and nature, visual arts, and the idea of time. This year, we focus on one great work of literature, the classic novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Of all the great books, why did we choose this one? More on that next week…
P.S. Primo families, your big “reveal” of The Little Prince happens this Sunday at Primo Day. So mum’s the word until then…