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.
Last week I attended an inspiring clinic presented by Mark Harris, Saxophonist and Visiting Assistant Professor of Saxophone at Metro State College of Denver. The clinic was entitled "Sowing Seeds of Expression-Using (Non-Jazz) Improvisation to Develop Musicality." This concept was geared towards wind and brass instruments--there was even a quartet of young trumpet and woodwind players on hand to demonstrate. Though the principles we learned could apply to all instruments. He started the class with an important point: we teach elementary instrumental music by showing kids where their fingers go and how to produce a sound. And we can all agree that these are necessary skills. But when do we talk about using our ears?
This session was so exciting to me! Mr. Harris led the quartet through several demonstration exercises all based on listening. I want to emphasize that these were young players--early middle school-aged. The quartet was able demonstrate and discuss tone color, articulation, pitch and dynamics. What's more, they were tuned in to each other--each student took a turn leading a short musical phrase and the group followed with surprisingly accurate ensemble. (Many of you reading will understand how challenging it is to get musicians of any age to play together).
My favorite demonstration was "playing a musical scale." Mark started by reading the first sentence of "the Gettysburg Address" in a bland and boring monotone. They he read it again with feeling. He explained the difference between playing a major scale routinely or playing it musically. Each student had chance to play a musical scale. I'm laughing now thinking about the amazing things I heard. Each scale was unique and each scale was musical. The trumpet player experimented with dynamics, rhythm and smooth articulations. One of the saxophone players used punchy articulations, rhythm and rests, the space between the notes, to draw us in to his musical scale.
I left eager to try this with all my string students--from private students to the beginning orchestra class. Mr. Harris shared enough ideas to keep me cooking for a long time. To think that students so early in their training could make this leap across space and time. To go from wielding a clumsy tool to commanding sound, now that is truly astonishing. It's what all musicians strive for. The instrument is merely a mouthpiece that conveys the music we want to express. The sophisticated sounds and expression he coaxed from the group was amazing. And he did it by using what they already knew--language. This musicality didn't come from a method book; it came from inside.
Before we moved to a year-round school district, summer was our time for fun and enrichment. My kids and I took field trips, enrolled in art and science classes and joined outdoor activities clubs. These are some of my fondest memories because we had the opportunity to grow and learn together away from the hectic pace of the school year.
For music students summer is a welcome relief from weekly practice, weekly lessons, weekly music classes and orchestra rehearsals. One of the wonderful things about music is it's different every time--why not celebrate this break from routine? It's tempting to put the instrument on the shelf just to get away from all the stress. Instead summer is the perfect time to fall in love with music again.
Just think, you have time to play what you want without preparing for the weekly critic. (That would be me!) Now there's more time to listen to some different kinds of music and maybe discover what you'd really like to play. And you have time to go to concerts and see live music. If you haven't been in a while there's magic in live music performances. And summer is the time to relax on a blanket under the stars while listening to a free park concert.
You can take some time to find out about the composers you like. If you are interested in Beethoven, for example, your library has 100's of books, audio books, videotapes and sound recordings--just about Beethoven. That's enough material to quench a summer's worth of music-thirst! The Douglas County Library even has a whole section devoted to emedia. There I discovered a huge library of music to play right from your computer.
Another great resource is the Petrucci Music Library. This website is a free public domain sheet music library that boasts nearly 25,000 works. Use this extensive resource for finding music to play for fun, music to work on all summer, music to play with your friends and even music to work on your sight reading skills.
Take a book about Beethoven or Mozart or even the history of the violin on vacation. Play a new piece every week. Relax and have some fun with music. Let your mind drift back to the reasons you wanted to play in the first place. Something inspired, motivated, challenged you. I'll bet it's still there. Bring it back by exploring something new.
I encourage parents to use these resources to provide a supplemental music structure during the summer months.
I ree public domain sheic 16, 2006 · 24,596 works · 60,875 scores · 3,263
What is practice? Why do musicians of all ages and competence levels need to practice? What about other artists like painters and writers and photographers? It seems like they just go out and do. Yoda would be proud--"do or do not. There is no try." Well, really painters and photographers are developing their eyes and writers are developing their voice. Musicians are closest to the art of dance in their practice. We work on developing our artistic expression while training like athletes.
Certain fundamentals like scales, arpeggios, broken thirds form the basis for most music. Daily practice of these strengthens the muscles while allowing fluidity and flexibility. The goal is to see a passage on the page and let the fingers just fly. This is practice for the future.
There is also practice for the present. This is the study of pieces to be prepared for private lessons or ensemble classes. To get immediate results, a student needs to break their piece down into different sections--melodic sections, technically challenging sections, rhythmically challenging sections. This is the practice that's great for the brain--it's problem solving!
I'm fascinated to read about competitive athletes preparations. They too work on strength, endurance, flexibility and they also spend a lot of time on their mental game. How can we add this kind of practice to our students' routines? So often in lessons a student will hurl her bow toward the string and then wonder why a beautiful melody didn't spring forth. I like to train my students to mentally prepare by playing the piece in their head before they move a muscle. Focus. Hear the music. Take a breath. Play. It works like a charm!
And just like athletes, the steps we repeat reinforce the outcomes we achieve. Slap the bow on the string to start every piece? Chances are you'll begin with a crunch at the Spring Recital. Repeat the same mistakes every time you practice? It's more than likely you'll make the same mistakes at Solo and Ensemble Contest. Take a little extra time to work on your fundamentals, to think about the details and listen to yourself. Remember: practice doesn't make perfect; practice makes permanent!
Is your child learning an instrument? Is she a music student? The early study of a new instrument can be quite a challenge. Throw together fine motor skills and a new language. The physical limitations can feel shocking. If your child was really excited about playing chances are the sounds she hears in her mind are miles away from the sounds you hear from inside the practice room. She needs your help to travel that road. You can help her become much more than a struggling student. You can help her become a musician.
This is a work in progress. Even Michelangelo said, "I am still learning." We all wake up every morning and try. And along the way we look for inspiration. A musician is taking a long, creative journey. You can't really distinguish between the practice and the art. So how do we support the study while encouraging a creative identity?
For parents and teachers, it's understood that a specific level of commitment is required for progress. There's a fine line between sharing our youngster's enthusiasm and setting expectations. If your child has extended himself by choosing an art then we need to honor that. This creative expression will become part of his identity and will flourish when nurtured. If this is a work in progress how can we offer structure while nudging him toward creative flight?
I was prone to dwell on my parent's negative comments. "When are you going to learn vibrato? All your friends know how," and "your scales sound good on the way up but they're always out of tune on the way down." Artists can be fragile souls. I'm ashamed to admit, I was such a practice ogre that my own son had a heavyhearted request for his 8th birthday present. "Can I please quit guitar?" Ouch.
How can we offer welcome support? Set a dedicated time and place for practice. If you are involved in the practice sessions try to make at least one positive comment first. Get your student involved by offering choices like, "Do you think it would be better if we tried it this way?" Keep it positive. This is about nurturing. Lots of supportive parents can't carry a tune and don't have a musical bone in their body. That's ok. Share music together. All kinds of music. And most of all, remember that true support begins with making sure you believe he's a musician.