Jobs in the music industry come in all shapes and sizes. As my summer orchestra jobs wraps this week I thought I'd try something new. What follows is a video blog of an inside look at the Central City Opera Orchestra.
I played one of the best concerts of my career the other night. It was amazing--a sold-out audience, inspiring conductor, top-notch orchestra, exciting music and thrilling soloists. It was one of those experiences that come along once in a great while. It capped off a pretty amazing month.
The end of the concert season brought an abundance of great musical moments. First, there was Beethoven's Ninth with our Music Director Emeritus, Lawrence Leighton Smith. The very next week brought our new Music Director, Josep Caballe'-Domenech to conduct Bruckner's 7th Symphony. A week later I subbed with the Colorado Symphony and played Mahler's Ninth.
The musicians reading this will appreciate what goes into preparing and performing these works. Orchestral playing requires a very specific tool set. We must learn our music, read our music, watch the conductor, watch the concertmaster, play with our stand partner, play with our section, listen to the rest of the orchestra in order to blend sound, volume and tuning. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is performed more frequently than the others but still has to be practiced every time. All three works are more than an hour long. They are technically and physically wrought with challenges. Electrifying while at the same time, exhausting. All this is done in a concert hall with an audience that is expected to sit quietly until all the movements are complete. Then they may clap and/or leap to their feet.
Maybe it sounds like I'm complaining. On the contrary, performing works like these keep me inspired. They make me look forward to next season. Masterworks are worth every bit of the effort it takes to play them. These pieces remind me of the training and practice I invested in myself.
In spite of all that great, inspiring music, sometimes a girl just wants to have fun. No Beethoven, Bruckner or Mahler were performed on my favorite concert of the season. In fact, this show couldn't have been further from the Viennese masters. When I told my friends, neighbors and children that I was playing Mahler some might have nodded with understanding. It's quite a different reaction when you tell folks you're playing with Earth, Wind and Fire. Honest to gosh. The band came into town two weeks ago and hired a 31-piece string section for their concert at Red Rocks. It was carefree and joyful and just about the most fun I've had with a viola in my hands. We danced in our seats, we laughed, we cheered, we took pictures. Never have I seen a bunch of orchestral musicians so happy. I'm going to remember this one for a long time. Yep, Shining Stars for one night, we danced our cares away in Boogie Wonderland.
For students and teachers everywhere, it is time to move on. Changing schools, growing up, graduating, retiring. There is change in the air for all of us. There is laughter and anticipation. There are tears and goodbyes. It's a bittersweet transition.
I remember graduating and leaving my private teacher of seven years. He was my mentor, my guide, one of the most important figures in my young life. Yet when the time came to move on I never looked back. Thrilled at the prospect of college, a new city and new musician friends I couldn't wait to leave. Now I understand the conflict of pride and loss.
My newest endeavor, teaching elementary orchestra classes, has a special significance for me. Ages ago my 4th grade orchestra class shaped my life. I threw myself into playing the viola with a fervor. That experience started me on my musical path. The path which led me to this very spot. As I bring these classes to a close I wonder about my students' futures. I know I shared my passion and caring. Did I make an impact? I suppose all that matters right now is they made an impact on me.
This weekend the Philharmonic said farewell to our Music Director. Lawrence Leighton Smith and I joined the orchestra the same year. I was glad to win a contract. He was ready to start something new. His passion and joy in music-making was just what the orchestra needed yet he shared more than music with us. He became part of our lives. He stood by us when the orchestra declared bankruptcy in 2003. He married the second flute player. In recent years our quartet performed piano quintets with him and working with him was revitalizing. He coached us like a teacher and he treated us like equals.
After 11 seasons it was time for him to move on. He announced two years ago that he was stepping down. We didn't see Larry much this season. We were busy auditioning Music Director candidates; he was busy writing his autobiography. In January Smith revealed that he had been diagnosed with a form of dementia, Binswanger's Disease. Scheduled to conduct our last two concerts, he was able to lead us in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in April but declining health forced him to cancel his farewell concerts last weekend.
The community threw him a formal party to say goodbye. Two hundred friends, colleagues and patrons were there to honor him. Memorable food. Grateful words. But there was a much more touching tribute. I bumped into Larry during the cocktail hour. He greeted me warmly, took my hand in his and wanted to know all about our quartet concert last month. He told me what a pleasure it had been to coach us. It was a moment I'll never forget. Utter humility. And I'll bet he was just as charming and attentive to everyone in the room.
I've come full circle. I remember how effortless it used to feel to move on. With each May I experience the pride of seeing young musicians taking the next step. Today I feel the solemnity of a goodbye. Farewell Maestro, you will be sorely missed.
A composer quiz. Which composer lost both parents at the age of 10? Who started a 180 mile journey on foot to join a choir at the age of 15? Who returned from a summer tour with a prince and court musicians to find his spouse had fallen ill and died during his absence? Which composer worked in 6 different cities before finding a job that would last for nearly 30 years? Who was not even recognized as a great composer until his music was rediscovered more than 50 years after his death?
Many disappointments and hardships plagued this composer although each setback seemed to ignite his creativity. Instead of giving up he allowed his circumstances provide him with opportunities. When he became the unwilling victim of a private quarrel between employers, this composer spent his "idle" time writing a cycle of organ chorale preludes--enough to last for an entire year. While serving under the Calvinist prince Leopold who didn't require elaborate music in church, he focused on secular music, composing orchestra suites, cello suites, violin concertos and other keyboard works.
We usually associate amazing accomplishments of our mystery composer. He was skilled at singing, violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord and was the finest organist of his day. He was a prolific composer and a gifted improviser. His abundant creativity spilled into his personal life too--he was father to 21 children!
In his later years, this composer became the Cantor for the city of Leipzig. His duties were to organize the music for four churches and assemble choirs for the church services. He also wrote the cantatas that were the centerpiece for each Sunday's service. He wrote approximately 300 cantatas! The works were crafted these to convey the mood of the biblical text of the day. And each was dedicated with these words: Soli Deo Gloria, To the Glory of God Alone.
Have you guessed yet? Johann Sebastian Bach is the mystery composer. In spite of his hardships Bach lived to the age of 65 and wrote more than 1,000 pieces. One of his last unfinished compositions was a fugue based on the letters of his name. In fact he was a master of the baroque forms of fugue and canon. At the end of his life he wrote tremendous works of a musical genius--the B Minor Mass, the Musical Offering, and The Art of the Fugue, which catalogs fugues and canons.
A belated happy birthday to Johann Sebastian Bach, born on March 21st. In this video you can see and hear Bach's fascinating Crab Canon from the Musical Offering.
The Improv Project has taken a side step for a couple of weeks. The students continue to incorporate dynamic elements into the daily warm-up scale which keeps one element of expressive control in their fingers. On Friday I asked them to play the scale at volume 7 with "happy" quarter notes just to make sure they had retained some of the original lessons. It's amazing to hear them--they know exactly how to create that effect.
The kids enjoy their march through the pages in Essential Elements so we've focused on covering ground. It's important for me to put this in perspective: students want to see their accomplishments in a method book. Checking off the numbered exercises is their goal. Introducing them to expression while they learn an instrument is my goal. I want to keep the lessons balanced.
Around the time we took a break from playing with sound I introduced them to 12-bar blues. The bass player and cellist were given a simplified walking bass line. The upper strings are playing a simplified part as well--just the root for now. All I put on the board is the note names so they get to choose which D, G and A they play. Having a note option teaches them more about their instruments and about music. Yes, there really are A's all over your violin! We also work on rhythm by having one student tap 4 quarter notes on each bar.
After two weeks the chin fiddles are completely comfortable with their part. And the walking bass is coming along. They love playing this so much that we started adding dynamic expression. I asked the students to suggest volume levels and we added some finger snaps in addition to the tapper. A usually mild-mannered student asked to play volume 12. So far, ten has been our loudest volume. At the end of 12 bars he was still playing like a rock star sawing frantically on his violin. He was having a blast! Now that's priceless.
Near the end of our class period they almost always ask if we can play 12-bar blues. It's a great way to play for enjoyment. And this kind of music is definitely more fun with a group. I think it teaches them to work together. In future classes we'll try different rhythms, new notes and more of our expressive techniques. The possibilities are limitless!
Whether your student is taking private lessons or learning with a whole classroom of students, chances are they've played many times for a teacher. The others who have heard them play might be fellow students, parents and siblings. Most often students find themselves in their bedrooms playing for an audience of tongue-tied dolls while the family dog races for the nearest exit. (This is based on personal experience--one of my dogs used to rub her ears and howl when I played! Not so supportive; definitely hilarious.)
In the course of learning an instrument students will be presented with various opportunities for performance. Last weekend a few of my private students participated in our school district's solo contest. These violinists and violists prepared solo pieces to perform in front of a judge for oral and written critique. Judge? Critique? Whoo boy--a silent teddy bear is starting to look a whole lot better! At least you're guaranteed a hug.
Whether it's the familiar setting of a studio recital or the institutional feel of an adjudicated festival, students need additional preparation. Once a student has spent time learning a piece we talk about the nuts and bolts of performance. For my youngest students bowing politely is one of their first lessons. We work on ignoring distractions by playing focus games. Older students practice starting their piece with a few silent measures of introduction before the bow even touches a string. This kind of preparation teaches performance etiquette, concentration and how to play your best from the very first note.
In spite of all the preparation no one can predict the outcome. We can plan and prepare but a live performance is…well, it's live. And that means it's subject to any and every variable. What happens when the piece is over? How can we support young, tender feelings? That's where emotional preparation comes into play. That can start during lessons, in the classroom and at home. In Suzuki training we were taught to always start with a positive compliment. After that you can move on to suggestions and ideas for improvement. Parents can also offer support with this method.
It's never too early to start performing. Practicing performance skills with your students and children will help them grow as musicians. Encourage your students to perform often in familiar settings. Beginning students can arrange weekly family concerts. Students in group classes can play individually or in small groups for the rest of the class. As a teacher, it's my job to make sure students are prepared before they take the stage. As a mentor, I can assure them that performance isn't the goal; it is just one step on a journey.
It was a great article to read on a Monday. "Where do good ideas come from?" a book review posted by The Improvised Life blog. Steven Berlin Johnson's book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" suggests innovation is not only a collaborative effort it's also sparked by what we do during our down time. And that got me thinking. While I worked on the day's and the week's "to do" list I was also inspired to fit some more play into my days.
Several years ago I read a terrific article about devoting 10% of your life to what you truly love. That has been a great source of inspiration. Think about it. Ten percent of a 16 hour day is about an hour and a half. Ten percent of a year is 36 1/2 days. Most of us don't have an extra month of time off. But look at it this way. If you could spend even an hour a day doing what you loved most how would you use your time? A recent example that I found delightful is the Ohio State fan who devoted 2 years worth of his off hours to build a replica of the school's horseshoe-shaped stadium with Legos. How fun is that?
Johnson also talked about Google employees who are given 20% of each work day to devote to their own creative projects--and that's where half of Google's innovations begin. My favorite "finding your inner artist book," The Artist's Way asks you to go on weekly dates, with yourself. The purpose--to take a break, have some fun and recharge. Think of it as making the opportunity for inspiration.
How to fit it in? I won't say it's easy but I will guarantee it's worth the effort. Like anything new it helps to start small. Getting started is the key. Take 10 or 15 minutes each day to figure out what you love. Then keep that 15 minutes in your day to start on your idea. Or take a short artist date this week just to try it. Remember: twenty one days makes it a habit. My students who may be reading this already have the right idea--recess! For those of us who have only faded memory of the playground, let's make a pact to have more fun.
Last week was a double loss--Colorado lost a native son and the classical music world lost a history maker. The great violinist, Eugene Fodor passed away on February 26 at age 60. This artist made his impact on the classical music world by becoming the first
American to achieve the top prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. The year was 1974 during the height of the Cold War. Being an impressionable young musician I remember the excitement. He was a hero of the classical music world. And a hero of mine. I was lucky enough to hear him play live at the Saratoga festival in the late 70's.
Eugene was a charming ambassador for classical music able to bridge the gap between the concert hall and popular culture. But with fame also came infamy. An arrest for drug possession in 1989 stalled his promising career. He continued to record and perform but it was never the same.
Investigate his videos on You Tube to hear more from this talented violinist. Rest in peace, Eugene Fodor. May the memory of your artistry live on.
Some quick impressions 3 weeks into the project:
This week I announced a surprise playing test for beginning orchestra. Pretty simple--play a D major scale, play Twinkle Little Star and play a piece of my choosing. As students arrived they saw the pop quiz announcement and unpacked quickly to prepare. I could hear a difference in the group's sound even during warm-ups.
The students played for me one at a time. The rest of the class continued their individual practice. A happy cacophony. Another difference--they are making more sounds during down time. Some new tunes; some noise. Right now I think any sounds are good sounds. As for the playing test, I was astonished to hear every single student play with a well developed tone. I observed some technical issues such as droopy violins and make-do bow hands. But they all seemed comfortable playing their instruments. That is such a plus!
What have we tried so far? We experimented with volume of sound. How loud can you play? How soft can you play? We've also tried moods--playing with characters or playing with emotions. Without discussing the technical aspects we've tried to make our instruments sound happy, sad, tired, scared, proud. And we learned that adding mood impacts tone production. We are conveying feeling and that covers an enormous range of sound.
It could be that after 20+ weeks my students would feel more at home with their instruments in spite of the improv project. Certainly there will be improvements after a semester of lessons. How about this?--Improv is a great way to Improve! My guess is giving students permission to wail away on their instruments in class has carried over to home practice. I'll bet they are playing louder, stronger, and more courageously at home. My hope is by taking them out of the book and off the page we can find the spark that made them choose an instrument in the first place. They're making more sound--and that's what makes them sound like musicians.
Ever since I attended Mark Harris' fantastic clinic on developing musical expression I wanted to explore his concepts with my students. The idea of using an instrument as a way to communicate is something I've written about before. To teach musical improvisation based on spoken language concepts instead of chord structure is something new. It seems obvious to try this out with private students so they could receive the benefit of one-on-one coaching. You might be surprised to hear that I thought my beginning orchestra class would be the ideal place for this experiment.
My class played their instruments for the first time in the last week of August. They have been working on the notes of the D major scale for weeks. Most of this time with the same quarter note rhythm pattern. Half notes and eighth notes are a very recent addition. We're really just drilling the facts--like multiplication tables. As with any classroom, some students want to race ahead and others want to linger on the familiar songs. Let me tell you, the fact that tunes like "Jingle Bells", "Twinkle Little Star" and "Hot Cross Buns" all can be played with the notes of the D major scale has been a great motivator.
The biggest stumbling block for any student is reading music. Playing a stringed instrument is challenging enough--then you throw in note-reading? It's like learning a whole new language. In my private studio, I introduce most beginning violinists and violists to the Suzuki method which teaches music by rote. The method is geared towards very young students so we only tackle one new skill at a time. Fourth and 5th grade students have better developed muscle control and already know how to read so they can begin playing and reading at the same time.
It's a challenge for my orchestra students to focus attention on holding the bow while holding the instrument while reading notes on the page while listening to the teacher and all the classroom noise. It's an awful lot to filter. That's why I was eager to show my beginning orchestra students what they can do with their instruments right now--in spite of forgetting their books and forgetting how to find F#.
Last week I started the "Improv Experiment"--my name for this project. How is it working? Well, the best news of all is it seems to make the kids happy. No matter their level they can play and play together. I'm excited to see what will develop over the coming weeks. And I'm working on a plan to document their progress. Next time, I'll talk more about the details and results.