Thursday, January 31, 2008

Musical Self-Worth

Today is the first day of the Illinois Music Teachers' Association convention, and the high school musicians across the state who were recommended to participate in the All State orchestras, bands, and choral groups are, even as I write, taking auditions to see how they "measure up" against their counterparts from other high schools. The students, particularly the orchestral string players, are separated into two orchestras--one is an "honors" orchestra and one is the "regular" orchestra, and lined up two-by-two in order of playing level. Even thinking about it makes my blood boil. Every person who has been recommended for All State (in any state) is capable of playing his or her part. Some people prefer to be leaders and some people prefer to be followers, but everyone has to submit themselves to the ranking.

I have always hated competition because of the "better or worse than" aspect. Nothing reinforces insecurity like being measured and ranked, especially by someone you do not know who only hears you play for three minutes under tremendously tense circumstances. The people who participate tend to, even if they are not interested in being one of the leaders (people who sit on the first stand), evaulate themselves according to where they are seated.

I imagine that the people who enjoy this kind of competition are often the people who go on to win auditions, if they choose to go into music as a profession. But aren't the people who love music and practice carefully, but do not enjoy this kind of competition, just as capable of being excellent members of a musical organization?

There is the larger question of musical self worth, which I think is a problem for musicians because the way to "quantify" the quality of someone's playing or composing is so fragile. Somewhere along my path to music I picked up the nasty phrase, "You're only as good as your last performance." How I hate that phrase! How I try not to let it creep into my mind, and how I try to drown it out it whenever possible. It always comes back, though. And then there's the (irrational) fear, after a successful performance or after completing a piece of music that "works," that the next performance I give or the next piece I write won't measure up to what I have done. Since every act in music always starts from scratch, there is always the possibility that the next thing, whatever it is, won't be as good as the last thing.

For years I was haunted by wrong notes and wrong entrances. In the perfection-driven arena of wind playing, nobody could afford to make mistakes. It has taken me a long time to get to the point where I can put this all behind me. I can safely say that I am no longer haunted by wrong entrances or even by wrong notes. They happen once in a while, but I don't keep track of them or lose sleep over them because they really don't matter.

Making improvement on the violin does not make me a better musician or a better person. It just makes it easier for me to express myself. Being able to play the first chords of the Bach Chaconne with a little vibrato is a great accomplishment because now I can play the first chords of the Bach Chaconne with vibrato. Period. Having the ability to navigate through chromatic passages while shifting from position to position does not make me a better person. It just makes it easer for me to navigate through chromatic passages while shifting from position to position. If there are technical things that I cannot yet do, being able to do them will not make me a better person or a better musician.

Having the ability to write a piece of music that I like doesn't make me a better person. It just means that I have the ability to write music that I like.

I hope that anyone reading this who is auditioning for one of the All State orchestras will understand that your ranking is not a measure of how good a musician you are or even how good a player you are. It is simply a reflection of how accurately you play during a very short audition. I guess it is the only way that festivals like All State can organize their musicians quickly and efficiently in order to maximize rehearsal time and make the performances at the end of the week as enjoyable as possible for the musicians and the audiences.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

What musical device is this man making?



You can find out here courtesy our friends at Modern Mechanix (and also courtesy of Michael who showed it to me).

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Lesson with Frederick Delius

The comment on my last post left by rootlesscosmo lead me to seek out this great Delius website, I found a link to this list of Delius quotes (compiled by Bill Thompson) that is well worth sharing. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Emotion is the flesh and the blood of music.

Nothing is so wonderful as elemental feeling; nothing is more wonderful in art than elemental feeling expressed intensely.

Music is a cry of the soul. It is addressed and should appeal instantly to the soul of the listener. It is a revelation, a thing to be reverenced.

It is only that which cannot be expressed otherwise that is worth expressing in music.

Always stick to your likings - there are profound reasons for them.

No composer whose chief idea is to be brilliant or startling ever lasts. Cleverness counts for very little, in my opinion.

I believe that harmony is entirely a matter of instinct.

In music, which ought to be the expression of emotion, only that which is based on emotion is capable of development, and nothing based on technique or on anything objective will develop into anything but mere intellectuality.

Form is nothing more than imparting spiritual unity to one's thought. It is contained in the thought itself, not applied as something that already exists.

Name that Composer

No cheating now. If you look it up on Google you will find three references (one would be this post), but see if you can guess without help.

“What is music? How can one define it? Music is a calm moonlit night, a rustling of summer foliage. Music is the distant peal of bells at eventide. Music is born only of the heart and it appeals to the heart. It is love. The sister of music is poetry and the mother—sorrow!”

This is a case in point that a composer's music can be anything that s/he wants it to be. In the case of this composer, the music this composer writes could probably not be described any more accurately, eloquently, or honestly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Absolutely Beautiful Trumpet Playing by Tine Thing Helseth


Isn't this the most beautiful playing of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto you have ever heard?

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day

I feel proud to share this speech by Barack Obama with musicians and and music lovers (new and old) all over the world who read this blog. As different as we all are, this is a day for unity of the human race, and this speech makes it abundantly clear.

Brain Altering Experiences?

This article in Live Science is a condensation of an article in Psychological Science that found (in their control group of 20--ten Americans and ten recently-arrived people from East Asia who were hooked up to brain-scanning equipment) that it was more difficult for Americans to make relative judgements and more difficult for people from East Asia to make absolute judgements. The study also suggests that exposure to a new culture might alter the brain, but that is yet to be determined by another study.

This study concludes that people from different cultures don’t see the world differently, but they think differently about what they see. Common sense tells me that this may be true, but I don't understand how somebody could come to any kind of conclusion about the way people think by using a control group of 20 people coming from two rather broad "cultures." America, being a constantly-evolving "melting pot," has many cultures, and East Asia not only has many cultures and languages, it has many countries.

It would be (hypothetically) interesting to hook up my new "crop" of music appreciation students to brain scanners (a control group of around 50) at the beginning of the semester, and then again at the end of the semester, and see if they think differently about what they hear (have more brain activity, or what have you) after being exposed to the "culture" of "classical" music, but I imagine it would be a great waste of time, because my experience tells me that the way individual people respond to new cultural material like "classical" music varies from person to person. Listening to and enjoying classical music is based a great deal on personal sensual experience. I hear statements from my novice students like, "this sounds familiar," or "I have heard this before somewhere," or even, later in the semester, "this sounds like Beethoven."

Are those judgements relative or absolute? I haven't a clue.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Musicians' Humor

Growing up in a household of musicians, dinner time was always sprinkled with the pun of the day, usually a play on a piece my father was playing or a conductor he was working with. A few puns come immediation to mind like, "I prefer my coffee without sweetener or Leitner," or "Neville Martin in left field." When my musical sphere was expanded at Juilliard, every conductor's name was instantly turned into a pun, as were many of the names of the composers who wrote the pieces we played in orchestra. Even names of courses were fair game: L&M (Listening and Materials of Music) was generally referred to as S&M. I guess I might have had a small part in some of these activities, but there were a lot of musicians who had punning powers that were far greater than mine.

Now, after writing that "disclaimer" I will proceed to share a very silly thought that came to me this afternoon, while playing a Chaconna by Johann Pachelbel that had, as Chaconnas do, a repeating ground:

Imagine a coffee shop called "Pachelbel's Grounds."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Harpist Casper Reardon

The quality of the film is a bit rough, but the playing is anything but. "If they could only get that thing in a canoe!" By the way, he went under the name of "Arpeggio Glissandi" when he played popular music on the radio.



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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cello Bow Month


Even though I can not play the cello at a level beyond that of a beginner, I find these graphic descriptions of cellists' bow concerns very interesting reading. Cellist Emily Wright, who keeps a blog called Stark Raving Cello, is devoting the month of January to discussions about the bow and the hand and fingers that control it.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

A serious word of thanks

Rather than celebrating what has become the "traditional" birthday of a blog, I thought I'd take this opportunity to celebrate my 364th post. I could wait until tomorrow, or for the post that I will make after this (my 365th), but I'm not sure that I will have the same generous thoughts tomorrow that I have today, since I have to enter the "real world" of teaching tomorrow.

I feel very proud to be able to participate in the musical blogosphere. I started this blog kind of reluctantly. My husband Michael, who keeps a magnificent blog, encouraged me to start it, and I rationalized the whole thing by thinking of it as a "place" to "put" various articles that I had written over the years that needed to find a safe home, far away from editors who threatened to edit the life out of them. I was (and still am) surprised to find that there are people who find reading about my experiences donning and doffing my different musical hats helpful in their own journeys to and through what I still actually think of as "serious music."

The music I'm talking about can be seriously enjoyable, seriously mind-expanding, seriously spiritual (for whatever spirit moves you), seriously difficult, seriously challenging, and even seriously honest, especially when it is evaluated. It can be seriously annoying, seriously pretentious, and even seriously dull. It can be seriously out of tune, seriously repetitive, or, in the case of this list, seriously long-winded.

Even when I am having fun I am a serious person, and I appreciate it when I am taken seriously. Being part of the musical blogosphere has given me the chance to learn that there are people in the musical world outside of my very small community who take what I think and what I write seriously.

So this is just a word of thanks to everybody who happens across this post, everyone who has commented on posts I have made, and especially everyone who has encouraged a sense of musical community among serious musicians and serious music lovers who are looking for one. We are a tiny part of the world's population. Those of us who play instruments or train our voices to sing are an even smaller part. Those of us who practice daily are an even smaller subgroup. Those of us who write music are part of an even smaller group, but we are, as the musical blogosphere has helped me to realize, a mighty one.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rule Zero

Thanks to Jason Heath for directing me to Seth Godin's remark(et)able blog. In this post about the music business Godin really shows us the difference between commercial music and what we don't like to call "classical music."
Rule 0. The new thing is never as good as the old thing, at least right now. Soon, the new thing will be better than the old thing will be. But if you wait until then, it’s going to be too late. Feel free to wax nostalgic about the old thing, but don’t fool yourself into believing it’s going to be here forever. It won’t.
There some wisdom to Rule Zero, but it is important to remember that Godin is not concerned with the music itself, just the market for music. In "classical music" the "new thing" (at its best) will never surpass the old because the "new thing" is just as important a measure of musical creativity and is as much a tonal "photograph" (or should it be "phonograph?) of current times as Bach's music or Josquin's music, or Haydn's music or Bartok's music was a response to the times they lived in. I believe that exposing ourselves to Beethoven's musical mind (as an example of music at its best) we tap onto something that is still challenging in the present time, whenever in history that present time happens to take place.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

State of the Arts

The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

This is not happening now in American schools. Even if you forget the larger catastrophe that only 70 percent of American kids now graduate from high school, what are we to make of a public education system whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally competent entry-level workers?

The situation is a cultural and educational disaster, but it also has huge and alarming economic consequences. If the United States is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, it is not going to succeed through cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully, this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.

This is an excerpt from a commencement speech given by Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts this past June that appears in a condensed version in the January/February 2008 American Record Guide.

I found it interesting and enlightening to look at the various presidential candidates' positions on the arts.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Kenneth Woods' advice to composers

This post with advice to composers from conductor Kenneth Woods has the title "Now it's the poor composers," but I believe that composers who read it will be a great deal richer from the experience of reading it.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Making your own luck

I recently heard a story about the golfer Sam Sneed, who, years ago, was asked if there was any luck connected with golf. Sneed replied that there was: the more he practiced, the more luck he had.

Partly by chance I came across a list that outlines four varieties of luck as defined by J.H. Austin.

1. Pure luck or blind chance, which is independent from anything else we might say or do.
2. Good luck that occurs in the context of general exploratory behavior (i.e. persistence or curiosity) which increases the likelihood of "happy accidents."
3. Good luck in the context of the prepared mind (a mind that has the ability to recognize connections)
4. Good luck that appears in the context of personal activities that might be removed from what you happen to be working on.

Musically speaking nobody can control the first variety, either as a composer or a performing musician. The second variety of luck is the kind that happens when we work on music: writing and writing about music, practicing, rehearsing, and performing. The third kind of luck happens when you extend yourself, go out into the world, listen to unfamiliar music, seek out new musical experiences, and read about music. The fourth kind of luck is luck that happens when you extend yourself in extra-musical ways, always remembering that as musicians it is our job to reach out to a larger world, even if it is not currently reaching out to us.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Here's a reason to celebrate!

Thank you to all the people in Iowa!



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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Musical Community

Daniel Wolf has put together a nifty Winter Album of twelve (and maybe more) piano pieces that incorporate a great range of compositional techniques. One piece is a formula for pitch generation, there are several different applications of minimalism, an event map (in homage to Stockhausen), pieces with out meter, a piece that requires props and electronic equipment (in this case the pianist wears mittens), a piece for right hand only, a piece for two hands that brings out the most percussive qualities of the piano, and then there's one that looks rather traditional (that would be my piece--I can't help it).

It brings a little warmth into the bitter chill of this cold winter's night to know that such a community can exist. Thanks for letting a few composers sit together in your figurative parlor, Daniel.