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Getting into the mind of music

BU Symphony Orchestra conductor David Hoose develops young musicians

For David Hoose, becoming a musician was the simplest thing to do professionally. “There were other things I was interested in,” the College of Fine Arts professor and BU Symphony Orchestra conductor says. “I had a fantasy of being an architect or a graphic designer. But I knew the path for becoming a musician. I wasn’t sure I knew how to become an architect. It’s sort of weird in that way: it was oddly enough the path of least resistance, and of course, it turns out to be the path of enormous resistance.”

His start was easy: Hoose is from a musical family — his father was his high school band instructor and his sister played clarinet — and music was a given. He played the French horn in elementary school because his mother liked the sound, and in high school he began to compose and conduct. Listening to music was an obsession — “I think I drove my family crazy,” he says. While he liked some pop music, Hoose gravitated toward classical. “When I was in high school, the Beatles came to the United States for the first time,” he says, “and I thought they were just reprehensible. I think differently of them now” — he breaks into a deep laugh — “but I was a snotty little kid.”

He entered Oberlin College’s horn program, but soon switched to composition. He still played the horn in the orchestra and the ensemble and with a chamber group, but began conducting more seriously and went on to graduate studies at Brandeis. Now, in addition to his work at BU, he is the musical director of Boston’s Cantata Singers as well as Collage New Music and the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra.

Sitting comfortably in an oversized leather chair in his home study, Hoose seems to be conducting even as he speaks. He gestures broadly, his voice filling the room as he animatedly talks about teaching music. He believes strongly that his role is not just to prepare undergraduates for careers, but to help them truly develop as musicians as well.

“When I went to college, back in the Dark Ages,” he says, “it was before anyone thought of education as anything except something to expand your life and develop you as a person. I didn’t think about a career when I was an undergraduate.” Today, he says, students are more focused on what they’ll do after graduation, which isn’t always a good thing. “It’s necessary, but it doesn’t always help people fully engage with music at the deepest level. That’s something that takes time, patience, intellectual curiosity, and emotional openness. All those things are difficult to tap if you’re thinking, I have to take that audition for the Syracuse Symphony.” He is quite aware that a music school must help prepare a young musician for a career. “But,” he points out, “career preparation and development as a musician are not the same thing. I worry about people who actually in certain ways are ‘prepared for the profession,’ but not necessarily prepared for life on an intellectual or emotional or spiritual level.”

The goal, Hoose believes, is to instill a passion for music that will last a lifetime. He was rehearsing a Mozart symphony last spring with a group of freshmen and sophomores in the chamber orchestra. “At some point,” he recalls, “I said, ‘How many of you love playing your instruments?’ Everybody’s hand goes up. ‘Good. I’m glad. I’d be concerned if they didn’t go up,’ I said. ‘I think that the clue to your loving what you’re doing when you’re 65 is finding your love of music. At 65, it’s not likely you’re going to be in love with playing the cello. Yo-Yo Ma is no longer in love with playing the cello. That’s why he’s out doing all kinds of things, to keep him engaged. The cello is not the thing for him anymore; it’s the vehicle for him to be engaged in music. If you really are engaged in all of those parts of music that touch the human spirit, the mind, the body, the heart, the soul, you’ll still like playing the cello.’”

Hoose often asks his students to stop and consider what they are playing. He wants them to do more than merely translate the marks on the page. “Music has a biological form,” he says. “It has life that is burgeoning at times and receding at times. We have to find a way to identify it, tap it, and bring it out. Because just playing the dots on the page isn’t going to do it. I think the way to do that is to get into the mind of the music.”

He does this regularly himself. Rehearsing a Bruckner piece with students last semester, he ruminated about a section that didn’t make sense to him and found a new meaning. Always learning is what keeps Hoose interested. “I’ve never performed a piece again where I didn’t think, ‘My God, how did I miss that?’ ”

If his students find that fascination, Hoose believes, they will go far. “That thing that I yearn for, for anybody who is looking to give his or her life over to music, is that they mine their curiosity. If they do that, then they have a chance of becoming vital musicians.”

Hoose conducts a free concert open to the public performed by the Boston Universitiy Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m., Thursday in the Tsai Performace Center. The selection will be Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of the CFA magazine Esprit.