Sunday, December 31, 2006

Playing Music on the Street

I used to do a lot of playing on the street when I was a flutist. I started doing it in New York in the late 1970s. I even played flute duets with people who went on to become famous flutists like Jeff Khaner, who is now the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a whole bunch of other Juilliard students who have gone on to find "legitimate" work in music. Jeff and I used to play in front of a book store in Greenwich Village. The book store people liked it because we brought in business, and we liked it because we always got a nice audience and actually made what we felt was a respectable amount of money. Back in the 1970s the whole thing was rather novel and exciting for people walking on the streets, and it was a way for me and my musical partners to feel like were were a part of the city.

When I went off to Austria I continued playing music on the street because I was in serious need of money. I was preparing to go to a flute competition in Budapest that required a bunch of solo flute music, so I sometimes even played alone. One day while I was playing on the street in Graz, an art student drew this portrait of me. Then she went away for a little while and returned with a whole bunch of brightly-colored chalk, and drew the same portrait on the sidewalk itself. When I moved to Vienna, the Kartnerstrasse became my new "work place." I played there every day with a Finnish bassoonist, and we did quite well for ourselves until it started to get cold. People photographed us all the time, and I'm sure that many tourists thought that what they were hearing were Austrian musicians. I really had the time of my life.

When I returned to New York after being in Europe I tried playing on the street again. It wasn't the same. The "hot" venue was now Columbus Avenue on the upper west side. I do remember having a great time playing with a violinist named Jenny Nilsen, who I believe is now married to Garrison Keillor, but street playing had already become a fixture of New York life and was no longer the kind of novelty it had been a few years earlier. People were walking around with Sony Walkmans (Walkmen?) in their ears, and it seemed that in order to be successful you needed to have some kind of act, shtick, or ballyhoo in order to grab people's attention. Eventually people started getting permits and using amplification. Now they even sell CDs.

Playing on the street in Boston in the 1980s was also interesting. The place to play was Harvard Square, and securing a place on the square with some protection from wind and traffic noise was difficult. I remember one particularly difficult evening when I had gotten a great spot in front of the Harvard Coop. My busking companions and I were probably playing Haydn or Mozart, and we were totally blown out of the auditory waters by a Klezmer band. I believe that group was what now has become the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

I haven't played on the street for a long time, and as a string player I don't think I would want to expose my instrument to the elements the way I did as a flutist. When I hear someone play on the street who plays well, I always stop, listen, and try to remember what it was like when I played on the street in a more innocent time. A time when hearing someone play un-amplified music in an unexpected place was a moment of serendipity.

Perfect Vegan Banana Bread

I have finally perfected vegan banana bread. Unlike most of the banana bread recipes I have used, this one is moist and light. I thought I'd share it.

2 T Earth Balance (vegan margarine)
3/4 cup sugar
4 ripe bananas
1/3 cup water
1/2 t cider vinegar
2 cups white flour
2 T soy milk powder
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground nutmeg

Heat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a square 8x8 baking pan (I use a glass one). In a large bowl, cream the Earth Balance and the sugar, add the bananas, and mix until smooth.

Mix together the dry ingredients. Add the vinegar to the wet ingredients, and add the wet mixture to the dry. Bake for an hour.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Granular Dounis

My very eloquent husband Michael wrote an excellent article about granularity, the process of breaking large tasks up into smaller pieces, for I decided to use the granularity principle to cut up my new 300 page Dounis book into smaller pieces. The grid system I used when I was working through Opus 12 chopped those exercises into 480 little bites, but now that I have grown (or my technique and strength-building needs have grown), I can digest and process larger pieces of Dounis.

Here is what I did. I put tabs on the different sections, and I play a healthy chunk of each section every day. After I have played a chunk, I put a post-it note at the beginning of the chunk I plan to do the next day. How much of the chunk I decide to play is up to me, but I do know that eventually I will get through the whole book.

Here is a photo of my system. Notice that I also have a special "Dounis Clip" attached to the left hand page. That keeps the page open. It works for cookbooks too.

Friday, December 29, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

At the insistence of our son, we saw An Inconvenient Truth the other night. It just came out on DVD, and we rented it from our local video store. It is a movie that everyone should see right away, because everybody needs to know the dangers of global warming, and everyone needs to act right away to help reduce the amount of excess carbon dioxide that goes into the air. As of the other night, we now use long-life light bulbs that use less electricity than normal light bulbs (and they are just as bright), and we walk to do many of our errands, like going to the store. I hope that the little things we do will be able to make some kind of difference.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Dounis Collection

I am now the proud owner of The Dounis Collection, Carl Fischer's collection of Eleven of Demetrius Constantine Dounis' books of exercises and studies for the violin. At 303 pages there is just too much to organize with my grid system, so I need a new routine. My first step was to put little tabs on the book to mark the sections that I want to make sure to cover every day. I'm grateful to Carl Fischer for publishing all this Dounis and for making the book in such a way that it stays open (with only a little manipulation) on a music stand.

Monday, December 25, 2006

With More Technique Comes More Responsibility

Yesterday I listened to a recording of run through of a recital that I am playing next month (actually in four weeks) and, though I was expecting to hear a great deal of improvement in my playing as a result of practicing Dounis every day, I found that I still have many of the same old problems, only on a larger scale. They are on a larger scale because I am making a bigger sound and playing more in tune. I have the capacity to play a whole lot better than I did yesterday, but the only way I can is if I remember the things I always tell my students and should remember to tell myself. I making a relatively public list here as a way of remind myself that these things matter. Maybe they might matter to some other people.

1. Every note has an end as well as a beginning. The way a note begins is extremely important (I have gotten better at this thanks to Dounis and Sevicik), but the way a note ends is just as important. The vibrato needs to continue all the way until the end of every note, and it needs to be on every note. Playing without vibrato on an instrument designed to make a big sound ends up sounding like the aural equivalent of ugly blobs of watery brownish paint.

2. Don't try to be fancy and "musical." The music takes care of itself when the notes behave the way they should. Something that might seem to be clever (a little slide for no good reason, a little freedom with rhythm when it disrupts the flow of the music, a whimsical harmonic) at the moment is an expressive crap shoot. It can do more harm than good.

3. Every note is important. Don't hide behind the piano part.

4. Practice the difficult passages slowly with a metronome. The notes will not take care of themselves.

5. Everything I play is my responsibility. The music may seem to "play itself," but that only happens when it has been practiced so carefully that it becomes second nature. If the music "plays itself" it means that I am not completely present, and if I am not completely present I will lose the attention of anyone who is listening.

6. As Stevens Hewitt says "every day you must raise the price of your notes."

7. Building technique is like building and taking care of a house. Having a little technique is like having a little house. You still have to clean it, but it can be managed and kind of "kept up" without expending that much energy. Having more technique is like having a bigger house. It takes longer to clean, is more expensive to furnish, and requires more energy to heat.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Playing Duets

When I was a beginner flutist one of the great pleasures in life was to play duets with people who were also relatively new to their instruments. I used to carry a whole repertoire of duets along with my instrument pretty much wherever I would go. That is one of the advantages of playing the flute--it really fits anywhere. Playing duets was a time of special bonding. It was a time of mutual support, and if there was a bit of competition between me and my duet partners, it was usually healthy. I always learned something from playing duets, and I always knew that my duet partner did too.

I was reading some of my favorite blogs today--blogs written by adult beginner cellists who have formed a blogging community and write about the progress, difficulties, and concerns that they have while learning to play the instrument. One of the cellists posted this duet played by herself and another blogging cellist. One cellist played her part with a metronome, and the other cellist played the other part along with the first recording. They used Audacity to record their parts, and sent them to one another as MP3 attachments.

There is something about the whole thing that makes me smile. It reminds me of "playing duets" when I first started playing the flute. I hope that these cellists get the opportunity to play duets together in real time, but until that time comes this is a creative way to break the isolation of being an adult beginner.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

. . . worth checking twice

This Visit from J.S. Bach is really inspired.

Competitive Composing

There are some interesting posts on Musical Perceptions, Renewable Music, and Soho the Dog concerning composition contests, and I can't resist posting one myself.

When I first began writing music seriously, someone advised me to enter composition contests, telling me that Penderecki entered three pieces in one contest and got three prizes. This person proved himself to be kind of a fraud during the years of our association, but being naive and hopeful, I believed what he had to say. I entered a number of competitions. At first it served as a kind of stimulation for me--a challenge to write a piece of music for a specific ensemble. A few of the pieces I wrote ended up being pretty good. They never won any prizes, but my personal prize was to have written a piece of music "to order." I was filled with the spirit of one of my heroes, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and her attempt to generate new music by creating a composition competition back in 1919.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the great American patron of new music, moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts with her husband. He had tuberculosis, and the Berkshires were considered a good place for a "cure" because of the air, but he died in 1915, leaving her part of a large fortune. Her parents died the same year, leaving her even more money. With all this money at her disposal, she immediately became a social and musical philanthropist.

Cultural life in the Berkshires was rather limited, so Coolidge had to build a musical life from scratch. She had a son who played viola, and noticing the dearth of good repertoire for the instrument in 1919, she decided to create a "Berkshire Prize" competition for a new work for viola and piano. The pieces would be judged by violists and other musicians, and prizes would be given to the pieces that the violists and other musicians liked best. Music came in from all over the world, and there was a tie for first prize between a work by Rebecca Clarke and one by Ernest Bloch. Because Clarke was a friend of Coolidge, in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism she gave the first prize to Bloch. Both pieces are still "main staples" of the viola repertoire. The sad part of the story for me is that fact that it has been impossible for anyone to even construct a list of the other entries in the competition. What Coolidge probably intended to be a way to exponentially increase the viola repertoire from its pitiful handful of pieces written before 1919 ended up being great publicity for the winners (especially because one was a woman) and added two pieces to the viola repertoire.

And those were the good old days. And that competition was created by a person who was probably the greatest personal force in promoting new music that America has ever seen or will ever see.

Sometimes I fantasize about that list, imagining what pieces might have been entered into this competition. I imagine the devastation that people might have felt from the rejection letters, especially because they were rejection letters from such a great patron. Were those pieces destroyed? Were they written by people who we now know and admire? Were their ideas recycled into pieces for other more popular instruments?

After a few more rounds of the "Berkshire Prize," Coolidge put her efforts into commissioning new music directly from composers, and she did it in spades. I like to think (because she is a hero of mine) that she had the same misgivings that I have in retrospect about all that "lost" music from the composers who didn't win the prize. Maybe, in a best of all possible worlds, those composers were on the top of her list as commissionees. Who knows?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Drifting in the Enharmonic Sea

Or is it the key signature of C? Tonality is such a luxury when writing music, but I find that the music I write drifts from one tonality to another at a pretty fast rate, and I have to throw all rules of traditional harmonic analysis out the window when deciding if a note should be a G sharp or an A flat, especially if it is going to an odd place. (And what is the point of using tonal harmony if you can't be creative with it anyway?) When push comes to shove (or once the bowing and blowing starts), what matters is how little thinking a musician needs to do in order to get from one note to the next in order to play it comfortably and in tune.

I have found that most orchestral musicians (including myself and excluding competent pianists)

1. don't give a fig about traditional harmonic analysis
2. prefer to be comfortable, both mentally and physically, when they play
3. like to have parts that sound resonant on their instruments
4. like to be able to hear what's going on around them


Wind players prefer flats
String players prefer sharps
Everyone hates double sharps and double flats

So in my current drift through the enharmonic sea (working on a piece that does not include piano) I'm taking the ride easily, and I'm not going to worry about anyone's analytical thinking. It is very liberating. Imagine what would have happened if our friends in the Neue Wiener Schule had relinquished their worries about analytical thinking rather than the need for tonality at all?

I think that the next time someone asks me what kind of music I write, I will tell them that it is "enharmonic."

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Marketing Music

I remember back in the winter of 1994 reading an AP article in our local (small midwestern town) paper that a recording of Gregorian Chant performed by the Benedictine monks from the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos was on the top of the pop charts in Spain. The story, as I recall, mentioned that a DJ at a pop radio station decided to put a recording of Gregorian Chant on the air during rush hour, and the response was tremendous. People who were normally frazzled were somehow lulled into a state of religious calm.

I was working at a radio station at the time, and I knew that the only way a recording of Gregorian Chant could make it into a pop radio station was if it was sent there gratis from either a record company or a record distributing company. I think that promoting the "Chant" recording was a way for Angel Records to test the waters for marketing. The very smart marketing people behind this particular frenzy might have had certain controls to work with for their particular marketing challenge:
1. Find something really old and would be completely unfamiliar to the pop audience. It could even be something religious.

2. Make sure that the music is in the public domain so that nobody needs to be paid royalties when the profits come rolling in. How about monks in a monestary?

3. Give it a one-word title and a catchy cover that combines the far-away sacred with the eternally hip mystery of Rene Magritte.

4. Don't spend any money. Use only the media, particulary the international news media, to promote it. Make up stories if you have to. Send copies to pop radio stations all over Spain. Call the DJs at the pop radio stations and encourage them to give it airplay. Assume that they will judge the record by its hip cover. Let reports of the recording's odd popularity raise people's curiosity. Who cares if they ever listen to it again after buying it?
This marketing scheme actually paved the way for the then "new age" audience of twenty-somethings that embraced (and bought recordings of) the music of Hildegard von Bingen (produced by Angel, by the way), and for groups of monks to come out with their own far-superior recordings of Gregorian Chant. But isn't it odd that these resulting frecordings of Gregorian Chant made on record labels other than Angel Records never hit the pop charts or sold millions of copies?

I wonder how Gorecki’s Third Symphony made it to #3 on the British pop charts in 1991, and I wonder if Angel was following Nonesuch's marketing strategy--or testing it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A New Spin on the Season

This post by Matthew Guerrieri is just too great not to share!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ralph Gomberg

There was an obituary in the New York Times today for Ralph Gomberg, the former first oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and my first oboist--the first oboe sound I knew came from him, and his playing is the standard I have always held for oboe players. It is very sad to me that the three wind players I idolized in my youth are no longer living: Ralph Gomberg, Harold Wright, and Sherman Walt.

I came across this very fine article about Ralph Gomberg in the International Double Reed Society Journal.

Neue Mozart Ausgabe

Even if you can't read the German, Just click "ja" and you can see all of Mozart's scores on line! What you are clicking "ja" to is a statement that you are using the website for personal use only. There is a great deal of traffic right now since the news story hit the cyber-waves an hour or so ago, so it might be better to wait for a later time to access it. I say a great big danke to the folks at Baerenreiter for doing this!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Worth a Thousand Words

Violinist Enrique Fernandez Arbos, the first violinist of this quartet (that's him on the left) wrote on the back of this 1887 photograph that this was a rehearsal of a Mendelssohn quartet with the composer's nephews.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Interview with Oliver Knussen

I just came across this interview with Oliver Knussen that that comes from Paul Griffith’s book New sounds, new personalities: British composers of the 1980’s.

At What Price Competence?

Many years ago I came across a maxim in a method book for Oboe by Stevens Hewitt that reads as follows:

Competence is enough. Competence is all there is.

As a practicing and performing musician and as a composer my first goal is to be competent. Of course I would love to be more than competent, but I don't have a great deal of control over anything besides my daily work--moving one step at a time. Anything beyond mere competence that might happen to come out of me happens on an subconscious level, and no matter how hard I try, I have no control over what happens beyond competence. I have no understanding at all about how subconscious artistic stuff works. I'm really happy when it does, though.

As a critical listener (and as a reviewer) I am usually not impressed by competence. I can even be bored by competence, which is odd because I know how much work goes into writing a competent piece, giving a competent performance, or making a competent recording. As a critical listener I can tell when there is something special going on, and I can be impressed and even moved by a performance that has audible flaws. Clearly Hewitt did not intend his maxim to be interepreted by an audience of critics.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dounis Update

Today I finished my first "pass" through Dounis Opus 12, and today I can actually play the Debussy Violin Sonata. B.D. (Before Dounis) I could muddle and guess through the piece, but now (I guess it would be A.D.) I can play all the notes most of the time.

I have not increased the amount of time I practice since doing my "row" of Dounis and Sevcik every day (it takes me about 45 or 50 minutes to do a "row," and I have been adding Sevcik bowing exercises), but I have improved the quality of my practice and the physical strength of my hands and fingers.

I absolutely believe that this kind of practice, switching from one activity and challenge to another, is the secret to achieving a state of technique on the violin.

Monday, December 04, 2006

like writing music in the old days

The igniter on our furnace decided to fail last night (and would you believe it was around zero degrees outside at midnight?), so this morning, while waiting for the plumber to return with a new igniter (it's a hot water heater), dressed in many layers, including a robe that would pass for a winter coat in 19th-century Russia, I was at the piano, working on writing a piece of music. Despite the fact that I was really cold (I could see my breath!), I kind of enjoyed the discomfort. I felt like I was transported to the olden days--the days before central heat, where the very discomfort of a person's physical situation during the cold winter months made it really appealing to seek out harmony for warmth and comfort.

The house is starting to get warmer (though it's not warm yet--the thermometer reads 50 degrees), and I'm at the computer, just having entered the spoils of my frozen labors into Finale. Writing in the cold was fun, but I will be happy when I get back to the 21st century.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Fritz Wunderlich

I can't remember where I read it, but when a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic was asked about how to learn to be a great violinist, his reply was to listen to Fritz Wunderlich's recordings. I agree with that violinist (whoever he may have been), and find that the correlation between diction and right hand violin articulation is present on every vowel and consonant Wunderlich sings. And every time I hear his recording of the Dicterliebe, a recording I have listened to at least a hundred times, I am both overwhelmed and comforted.

Here is Fritz Wunderlich in "The Magic Flute."

And here he is singing Lenski's aria in "Eugene Onegin."

I have never been very good at math, but here's a violinist-tenor equation: If Fritz Wunderlich = Michael Rabin, then Richard Tauber = Fritz Kreisler.

Who would balance DeStefano, Gigli, Caruso? and Bjorling? Any suggestions?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Those who can . . .

I feel very fortunate that I have difficulty with a great many things having to do with music, because the fact that I have to face my difficulties every day makes me a better teacher. The instrumental teachers who have really helped me have all been people who worked all the time to improve their own playing. Teachers who have tried to show me how "easy" it is to do something on their instrument, using spoken phrases like "play it smoothly" or "play it like you are in a grand cathedral" have never given me anything I couldn't give myself. As far as I'm concerned, phrases like that are meaningless when it comes to directing the thousands of neural transmitters and hundreds of muscles in the hands and arms to do what an accomplished player would call a simple maneuver. Students need to be told exactly how to accomplish a task, and they need to have the task broken down into steps that can be followed. The only way I learn, even from myself (I am my own teacher now), is by breaking down tasks and identifying and separating the difficulties.

Drawing the bow in a straight line, for example, is simple in concept, but it is probably one of the most difficult things for a string player to do, especially in circumstances that involve difficult left hand manipulations and odd harmonic situations. It is a perennial difficulty for me, something I always have to work on improving. Because I have this difficulty I can notice it in my students and help them improve their bow arms (which improves everything else). If I didn't have this, as well as a whole slew of other "challenges," I believe that the development of my students would suffer. If everything came easily to me, I don't think I would be much of a teacher. If I didn't have to work for what I have accomplished and for what I will accomplish, I don't think that I would ever feel satisfied as a musician.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Food of Love

I guess my two constant creative activities are cooking food and composing music, and all of a sudden, while I was making vegan Chili today, I realized that they are quite similar.

First of all, cooking often requires a recipe. A piece of music in progress has one too: the instrumentation, form, key, and tempo of the piece. Cooking requires ingredients that work harmoniously together. So does a piece of music. Sometimes we use unusual food combinations (like sweetness and spice together--raisins and curry come to mind), and sometimes we use unusual harmonic combinations: dissonant intervals interspersed with consonant ones. Once the form is established in cooking, we have given parameters that we know will work, and we have ones that we know won't work. It is, for example, impossible to saute onions in raspberry jam.

My wastebasket has seen many examples of musical parallels to that sort of thing. If you want to have raspberries and onions in the same dish, you figure out ways of cooking the onions properly and adding the raspberries so that they do not fall apart and destroy your frying pan. If you want to have unlike elements working together in a piece of music you have to figure out a way for both (or all) of the elements to be heard. Every situation is different, and each problem needs its own unique solution.

After a lot of practice cooking you just know what ingredients work together. You can invent recipes based on classic models that taste totally different from their prototypes. It is the same with writing music. You can add an ethnic identity to a dish you are cooking with a combination of spices. You can do the same with a piece of music by incorporating harmonic or rhythmic elements and/or instruments from a particular culture, or you can combine elements from different cultures.

And then there's the question of taste...

Now it's time to get back to work.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Audio Musical Terms Dictionary

Wow. This Multimedia Music Dictionary from Virginia Tech is a pronouncing dictionary with audio clips of musical terms. It is a very useful tool, but it is also lots of fun to play with.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Way Leonard Rose Plays

Some very kind soul put this excerpt from an interview with Leonard Rose from The Way They Play on the Cello Heaven website. There's a lot of Dounis in Rose's approach to the cello. Actually, there's a lot of violin playing in his approach to the cello, which, translated into "cello," and articulated by an absolute master of the instrument, gives the lessons learned from Dounis a whole new meaning for me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What's in a pseudonym?

I'm working on a set of songs with lyrics by Arthur J. Lamb (yes, "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" is one of them), and I have had to do some major sleuthing to find more old songs with Lamb lyrics. There are a few by Dorothy Lee, a composer who is new to me. Of course I thought it odd that a woman who was that proflic in the America of the 1920s would, by this time, be celebrated, collected, and written about by people seeking advanced degrees in musicology.

Then I found out that Dorothy Lee was a pseudonym (one of many) used by John Stepan Zamecnik (1872-1953), a student of Dvorak who lived in Cleveland until he moved to Los Angeles in 1924 to write music for silent films. He published more than 1500 pieces of music under 21 different pseudonyms for the Sam Fox publishing company, of which these 14 have been confirmed:

Lionel Baxter
R.L. (Robert) Creighton
Arturo de Castro
"Josh and Ted"
J. (Jane) Hathaway
Kathryn Hawthorne
Roberta Hudson
Ioane Kawelo
Dorothy Lee
J. Edgar Lowell
Jules Reynard
F. (Frederick) Van Norman
Hal Vinton
Grant Wellesley

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Public Domain Sheet Music

I have to share this fantastic sheet music site that wants to be for sheet music what Project Gutenberg is for literature. The Mutopia Project has (so far) 756 pieces of music in the public domain to download for free as PDF files. Much of it is keyboard music for both organ and piano: lots of Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Diabelli, Mozart, and all of it is free and quite useful. There is also quite a collection of guitar music.

In addition to having the PDF file in both letter- and A4-sized documents, each piece comes with a downloadable MIDI file.

While I'm at it, here are a few more free sheet music sites:

Project Gutenberg has its own sheet music "department," and the Choral Public Domain Library has a tremendous collection of sheet music. They have been collecting music since 1998, and have 8324 scores to date. The Werner Icking Music Archive has other useful (and eclectic) pieces of information and links to various articles of interest, like a repository of common engraving mistakes.

I find this all very exciting.


Yesterday, while I was practicing my "Daily Dounis," I hit upon something that sounded like Paganini. Just for fun, after I was finished with my Dounis, I opened up my Paganini Caprices to look for the specific passage. I was totally surprised to find that I could actually navigate my way through many of the Caprices, and actually realized that they are a lot of fun to play (not that I was really playing them) because they are so well written for the violin.

Today, after my Dounis, I think I might even pick one and start to work on it! It's really hard for me to believe that this is possible. I always thought that being able to play Paganini was one of those unreachable goals; kind of like being able to reach a high shelf without a stool.

Well, it is on to the challenges of the day for me.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Musical Encounters up and down the fingerboard

When my kids were little we used to watch a show on PBS called "Musical Encounters." I believe it came from a West Coast television station, but wherever it was from, the show was remarkable. One show featured Josef Gingold and the 16-year-old Corey Cerovsek playing Wieniawski. Corey answered questions from the audience of young children about the dangers of playing in a tree house (what if a bird poops on your violin) and the paint on his violin ("actually, it's varnish" was a buzzword in our household for a while). Another show featured a pigtailed and freckled 9-year-old Leila Josefowicz storming through Boehm's Perpetual Motion, and another show featured two violin-playing brothers who were remarkable. When the audience asked them how they knew where the notes are on the violin, one brother's response was "you have to practice."

I often think of that simple statement when I am shifting around on the violin (or the viola today--it is an orchestra week, so I'm spending some quality time with my viola). Eventually we, by some mysterious alchemy and by a lot of practice, learn where the notes are up and down the strings the way we know where notes are in our own voices. It takes a long time, but once your body physically knows where a pitch is, the connection between hand and ear becomes automatic. It doesn't need to be interpreted by the conscious brain.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Four Greek Myths

Susan Nigro, the great American virtuoso of the contrabassoon, and Mark Lindeblad, her pianist-partner in musical adventures around and about the lower ledger lines of the bass clef, played my Four Greek Myths for contrabassoon and piano on a concert at Northwestern University in October. They sent me a recording that you can listen to here if you like.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Grieg Lyric Pieces

I have spent the last few days listening to a recording of Aldo Ciccolini playing all the Grieg Lyric Pieces (the recording is on a Swiss label: Cascavelle VEL 3083), and I am totally enchanted. Most people know the famous ones like Grandmother's Minuet, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, and Puck, but taking the time to listen to all ten volumes of these Lyric Pieces makes me realize once again what a phenomenal composer Edvard Grieg was, especially as a composer of music for the piano. It is funny. I often hear the influence of previous composers when I listen to 19th century music. In Schumann, for example, I often hear the influence of Schubert and Mendelssohn, in Mendelssohn I often hear the influence of Mozart and Beethoven, but when I listen to Grieg, I don't hear anyone specific from his musical past. I hear what future composers might have heard in his music. I hear what might have influenced Debussy to a certain extent, and what might have influenced Gershwin to a great extent.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Double Stops

Warning: This post will be very dull to non-string players. It might even be dull to some string players, but I hope that it might be useful to others.

After practicing Dounis Opus 12, which, to my astonishment is all double stops, I finally figured out something practical and truthful about playing double stops: the fingers are the easy part. My "it's the bow, stupid" realization came to me when I was tuning this morning. I realized that as string players we spend at least 90% of our time (if not more--unless, like me, you do an hour of Dounis) playing on one of four single strings. When we play single notes on single strings, we pay attention to the straightness of our bows, our bow changes, the contact of our bow to the string, the loudness and softness, and we can usually have a pretty good shot at sounding good on a series of given notes if all goes well and we are paying attention. At least it works for me.

So, while I was tuning today I realized that if I wanted to be able to hear both of my open strings for the entire length of a bow (at a slow tempo), I had to really pay attention to having contact on both strings at the same time for the whole bow stroke. I found it rather difficult to do, so I did it for a long enough time to feel like I could keep both strings equal. After my bow stroke was under control, I found it far easier to really tune my strings.

When we play fifths, whether they are open or stopped, we are dealing with exactly the same length of string for both notes, so the bow shouldn't have to do much compensating. But once in a while, if the bow isn't exactly straight, or if the contact with both strings is not exactly equal, or if the strings are out of tune, the exciting magical resonaces that happen when playing fifths seem to "fight" with one another for rank in the overtone series.

When we play thirds there is a two-inch (or more in the case of minor thirds) difference between the length of string from note on the lower string to the bridge, and from the note on the upper string to the bridge. Our bow are has to take those different tensions into account, not to mention all the other sympathetic resonances that come up when the third is in tune. It is like planning a quiet picnic for two and finding that the whole family has come along. Sixths are far easier than thirds because we only have an inch or so (less with minor sixths) difference in distance from the bridge. The overtones that pop up are rich and comforting because the interval is usually easy to get in tune, and the bow doesn't have to stress to keep either the pitches or the overtones under control.

An octave is only a little more difficult for the right hand than a sixth because if an octave is in tune, all you hear are the two notes of the octave. There is a three-inch difference of string length between each finger and the bridge, and it is easy to forget to listen for both notes all the time.

Dounis has several exercises using fourths. The fourth combines problems with the fifth (a fourth is just a fifth turned upside down, so all the sympathetic resonances of the fifth are there, vying for position) and the difference in string length of the third. They are also hard to hear and hard to find when you have to shift to one. They are also really annoying to listen to.

I have decided the the difference between Dounis and Sevcik is that Sevcik exercises can actually sound beautiful, and it can be downright relaxing to practice them. Dounis' Opus 12 exercises do not sound beautiful, and I always have to be on my toes when I practice them. In the past nine days I have noticed that when I practice music my sound is far more consistent, my double stops are better in tune, and I have a lot more bow control. And everything transfers remarkably well to the viola, particulary my new found strength in my third and fourth fingers.

I'll say one more thing, and then I'll stop: I have always thought that Sevcik wrote his books of exercises so that violinists could acquire the technique necessary to play Dvorak violin parts, and my silly reason for the reason the Beethoven "Kreutzer" Sonata is called the "Kreutzer" Sonata? Because in order to play it you have to have mastered all the Kreutzer etudes.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tooting my, er, horn

Actually, it's more like tooting my flute, violin, and viola at the same time, but I just put a virtual recording of a rather spooky piece I finished last week called Crepuscule, Interlude, and Dance on my new music jukebox page just in time for Halloween.

Yes, the recording is computer generated. Some day I want to make a recording of it by over dubbing all three instruments. I'm not quite sure which version would be more realistic.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Daily Dounis

Practicing Dounis Opus 12 is like yoga for the left hand, and like jumping jacks for the right. It is actually less mentally taxing than Sevcik, and it is just as rewarding to practice using my Moyse chart. I also found a PDF of Dounis' Violin Player's Daily Dozen on line. The Daily Dozen is from 1925, and the Artist's Technique of Violin Playing is from 1921. I have been doing a bit of both every day, and I notice a lot of improvement in my playing already, particulary in my legato playing.

I know that Leonard Rose and Channing Robbins used Dounis in their practicing and teaching, so I think that the Daily Dozen would be extremely valuable for cellists as well as violinists.

Once again, here is the link to the page with the Dounis PDF (I put this in twice because it deserves at least two looks from every person going to this post).

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Move over Sevcik, Dounis is on my music stand!

I finished my chart-regulated "walk" through all of the Sevcik books yesterday, and I have decided to apply the same magic Marcel Moyse sequence of 480 numbers to the Artist's Technique of Violin Playing by D.C. Dounis. Yesterday I divided the whole book into 480 parts, writing in all the numbers (tedious, I know, but much easier than actually playing the exercises), and today I am going to begin. Yes, I'm procrastinating a bit. Let's see, I spent the last two hours working on (and actually finishing, I think) a piece for flute, violin, and viola. It is really a blast to work on because I can play all the parts. And now I'm writing a blog post.

I'll Just bite the bullet and save my walk for after Dounis. Wish me luck.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Twelve Tones of Passion

I'm not sure how I came upon this blog entry, but it is something really worth sharing. Imagine a TV soap opera made from characters and actions of the circle of composers and artists who lived in Vienna around the turn of the century.

Now it's time to enjoy a description of a season of Twelve Tones of Passion

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Switching from Flute to Violin

I started playing the violin when I was 7 and stopped playing at around 11. I always wanted to go back to it, but it took a long time to muster up the courage. At age 32 I started from "scratch." I figured that if I practiced for ten years, I would be an adequate violinist at 42. If I didn't start at 32, I would still be 42 in ten years. Now at age 47 I have played for 15 years, and I play as well as an average graduate student at a conservatory. I'm very proud of what I have accomplished.

Sometimes people are amazed that I switched from being a professional-quality flutist (I say professional quality because I didn't have a professional job as a flutist at the time) to being a beginning violinist at the age of 32. I believe that it is the best personal "move" I have ever made. It was also very easy to do.

When I moved to our small university town in 1985 I was welcomed as a flutist. It seems that they hadn't ever had a decent flute player in these parts, but I was a decent flutist without a master's degree, so I was unable to be hired by the university when the flutist who was here suddenly decided to leave town. I taught the students, but when it came time to hiring for the job here I guess I didn't have the necessary credentials.

Not being able to teach at the local university significantly narrowed down my chances of gainful employment, but the reason that I never got a master's degree in flute performance was that I didn't want to teach flute at a university. I didn't believe that it was ethical to teach flutists that if they had talent and practiced a lot they could make a living playing the flute. Even with all the practicing I did and all the talent that any person could want, I had a great deal of trouble trying to get work in Boston and in New York before I moved away; and the work I did get was not enough to even think of trying to make a living from. It had nothing to do with the quality of my playing, and had everything to do with knowing people (especially contractors) and being available. There was also relatively little work for flutists, and that work always went to people who had been around and connected for a long time. I know very few freelance flutists living in New York or Boston who make a decent living solely from their playing.

It seems that the moment I became a string player I had people to play with. The day the university orchestra director heard that I bought a violin (it might have been a day or two after I bought it), he came over to my house with orchestra music for me. I didn't even need to ask. The music was way above my violinistic head: Stravinsky's Firebird, but I did my best to try to play the second violin part. I continued playing violin in the orchestra until I bought a viola at a garage sale (really! It cost me $100 and it is a very reliable instrument) and started playing viola in the university orchestra. Then I started playing viola in a string quartet, and now I'm practicing the violin--finally getting some technique, and learning the violin repertoire. I'm playing viola in a couple of orchestras in a city about an hour's drive away, and I'm having a wonderful time. When I reflect on what my life would have become if I hadn't taken the steps to do what I always wanted to do, I shudder.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Dora Schwarzberg

I just listened to a great recording by violinist Dora Schwarzberg and pianist Martha Argerich (Franck, Debussy, and Schumann on avanticlassic). My fascination with Schwarzberg and Argerich led me to a page on a Italian radio site that has links to a bunch of what seem to be radio performances of sonatas and chamber music made between 2002 and 2006. I'm listening to the Beethoven 10th Sonata right now.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Being Self Sufficient

I guess that most musicians depend on the opinions of other musicians to somehow validate what they are doing. We all seek approval, and those of us who are trying to do something worthwhile put a lot of stock in our impact on others. Sometimes that means getting validation from sources that are unable or unwilling to give it. And if we get some validation, we sometimes don't believe it because we are all aware of our own weaknesses and our own place on the path of where we would like to be some day.

This has been my problem for my whole musical life. I remember when I started playing flute I used to ask my brother if he thought I had improved. He listened to me practice every day for hours on end, so he had about as much objectivity as I had. All he could tell me was that he noticed when I changed the order of the things I practiced. My parents also had their subjective positions relative to their own musical and parental insecurities. When I asked Julius Baker, my teacher at Juilliard, if he thought I had any talent, he told me to see a psychiatrist. Being a dutiful student, I did. The psychiatrist and I talked mostly about my difficulties with my teacher not paying much attention to me at what usually turned out to be group lessons. I think that my psychiatrist believed, in his heart of objective hearts, that I was probably not worth paying attention to as a musician. He came to a recital I gave (which was really quite good), and then he totally changed the tone of the therapy, aiming for more Freudian ways of using my parents' insurance company's money.

So, now as an adult I am often in the position to validate the work of others. I do it as a reviewer, as a program annotator, as a teacher, as a parent, as a spouse, as a chamber music partner, and as a friend. I'm actually quite good at it because I have had to be self-sufficient for so much of my developing life. I have even sought out opportunities to do it, sometimes blurting things out when I am not even asked.

I also have to do it for myself. Most people know me as a person of rather strong opinions, and most people imagine that I don't need to have them validate the work that I do. Maybe I don't, but then again, like everyone else in the world, I have an "inner child" who wishes that every ball that I throw into the world will come back at me, that every review or article I write is a potential conversation, that every piece I write is something that people will enjoy playing and listening to.

Maybe there is no real self-sufficiency when it comes to music. So we just plug away, working in isolation, and hoping for some kind of connection with the outside world. We keep ourselves in the company of great musical minds, having most of our musical intimacy with people who are no longer alive, people who have been kind enough to leave something of their musical selves for us to play. And we keep looking for people who understand the importance of communicating honestly through music.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Automated Musical Comedy Orchestras

Last night I had my first experience watching a musical comedy with the accompaniment of a pre-recorded synthesized "orchestra." We have explicit laws covering copyright protection, and in a better world we would have laws to protect the shows themselves by not allowing performances of musical comedies to be done with "sound tracks." There were, of course, other problems with the show I saw last night. It was put on by a group of rather inexperienced actors and actressess who did not have any vocal training and could not really dance. Their collective missing of the mark was not funny, and it was only enhanced by their vocal and physical robotic responses to the ersatz sound track.

Isn't it worth all the time, effort, and money that people put into a show to at least hire a pianist? Or maybe it would be better for a troupe like this to perform in front of a synthesized audience.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Joy of the Fuddy-Duddy Concert

This week I had the opportunity to play a symphony concert that was made entirely of standard repertoire. It began with a Dvorak overture that was followed by the Brahms Violin Concerto, and after intermission we played the Schumann Spring Symphony. The program was well thought out, the program notes gave the progam a sense of continuity, and the performance was satisfying in every way. The solo violinist in the Brahms was Eva Leon, an up-and-coming soloist from the Canary Islands, the conductor and program annotator was Steven Larson, and the orchestra was the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. I was playing with the orchestra for the first time, and really enjoyed being in its viola section.

I remember going to concerts like this in the 1970s and even in the 1980s, before it became necessary to "reach out" to the audience, before there was competition for the "leisure dollar." The audience for this concert was small: the hall was filled to about half its capacity. The concert was also on a week night. The people who came to the concert came because they wanted to hear the music. They also came because it was a concert by their local orchestra--an orchestra that, as far as I'm concerned, plays better than some professional-but-local orchestras I have have heard in larger cities.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Match Point

I saw the movie "Match Point" on DVD the other night, and to the film's credit, I have been unable to get "Una furtiva lagrima," from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore out of my head. It annoyed me that the Caruso recording Woody Allen used in the film always started from the second verse, but I was very impressed with the way the images in the film and the music (arias from various operas with various plots that could be connected with some of the emotional or narrative substance of the plot) went together. My favorite visual moment was when a tennis ball "paused" over the net while Caruso held a note for as long as he wanted to hold it. The rubato on the recording, though it was something that Caruso determined at the moment, was a fixed entity. The film (and our perception of gravity itself) had to be manipulated for the two elements to work together. When music takes priority, wonderful things can happen.

I liked the visual and musical aspects of the film, but I would have preferred a script with dialogue that sounded more plausible. Much of the dialogue could have been left out, because it just stated the obvious.

Well, I'm off to listen to Giuseppe Di Stefano's 1944 recording of the Donizetti (plus a whole bunch of other great tenor arias). And I'll finally get to hear the first verse.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Best of All Possible Music Schools

After reading Eric Edberg's very interesting post about listening to the same audition pieces over and over, I started thinking about how I would run auditions and classes at my ideal music school.

Since I do not have any aspirations to become an academic musician in the conventional sense of the word, I feel free to think as far "out of the box" as I want. Because I am operating completely in the realm of my imagination, my school would provide tuition, healthy vegan-friendly food, and housing for all students without charge. Nobody would be able to stay longer than four years, so everybody would have to make the most of their time. There would be between 200 and 300 students in the school--enough for a symphony orchestra, an opera orchestra, a chorus, and enough pianists to keep everyone happy. The setting would be rural, but it would be within a half-hour's journey (either by car or by public transportation) from a major city. The faculty would be well paid, and they would be able to come in from the city if they choose, or they could live on campus. If they have late rehearsals or concerts, they would always have a place to sleep on campus.

The school would be supported by concerts put on by the students and faculty at the school, generous gifts from music lovers everywhere, and grants from a government that understands the importance of music in our culture and thinks of education as a priority towards achieving world peace (don't laugh, it's my fantasy). All the "work" on campus would be done by the students, except in the case of building repairs where a professional would need to be called in.

Students applying for the school would be expected to know the chamber music repertoire for their instrument. They could be students of any age who have finished high school. Auditions would be held year-round, and would consist of chamber music reading sessions with the faculty, playing an unprepared piece of music from that instrument's repertoire--something that the person auditioning should know anyway. In addition to playing chamber music with the faculty, students would have to have an understanding of music history, understand the origins of their instruments, and know the recorded legacy of their instrument. To prove their understanding of music, they would have to write several essays written on specific topics, but geared towards subjects that would be relevant to their instrument. These would need to be extremely well written and would need to show the kind of devotion necessary for a music student to stand tall in a world that is generally not interested in anything that matters to them. There would also be an interview, followed by more playing, if the person seems a likely candidate for the school, and there would be a waiting list.

The course of study would be varied, but everyone would have a daily hour of slow practice. The motto for this hour would be "no quarter notes over the speed of 60 beats per second," and everyone would develop a beautiful sound. Students could practice scales, exercises, or music, but everything would have to be slow. In addition to courses about music, there would be courses in literature, poetry, and art, and people interested in science and math could audit courses at a City university for credit.

Everybody would have to learn to teach, and part of the coursework would be for each student to go into the city once a week and hold an improvisation class with children who were interested in music. At the end of the school year (or maybe at intervals during the school year), there would be a city festival showcasing all the different improvisation groups. The students could also teach private lessons during their city day, but the money would all go to the music school. For their entire four years at school they wouldn't have to use any kind of currency.

In addition to teaching children, the students in the school would be expected to go into the City and introduce their peers to the joys of listening to music and going to classical music concerts. Maybe the idea would really catch on, and we could have schools like this all over the country.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Mozart Opera Action Figures?

Last night I went to a fantastic production of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Bloomington Indiana. This morning I was struck with a rather wacky idea to introduce opera to kids: Opera Action Figures. If I were an enterprising person (and if I knew how) I would form a company, hire a great costume designer, and go into business.

Just imagine children (or adults) listening to operas on CD, learning to identify characters, and "staging" operas at home. There could be interactive "kits" to build small stages, and panels that could be made into sets. Nothing would be as technically elaborate as puppet operas, but there could be a lot of room for making characters "modular." The characters could be supplied with costume changes (and masks, when necessary) that snap on to their little plastic bodies. They could even have little holes where their feet are, and the stage could have little groves so that the can move while they sing (being controlled by sticks that go through the grooves in the stage and go into the bottoms of the individual action figures).

The action figures could be sold in opera "kits." Don Giovanni only has 8 principal players, so its kit would consist of 8 figures (including a "stone guest"). The "stone guest" would be the only figure that would not be able to work in any other opera (being a statue representing a dead Commendatore), but the other characters could also double as extras in other operas. The kits could also come with large sheets of paper and mounting frames so that people could design their own sets. There could be instructions about different kinds of media that can be used--watercolor, crayon, colored pencil, charcoal, and collage. Some clever person could even design an easy way to mount the sets on rollers, which could snap onto the frames. The kits could come with suggestions for making props (out of clay, maybe?), and set pieces (tables and beds).

I imagine that any parent buying this kind of thing for their children would end up playing with them as well. Gee, the kids might even want to go to actually see an opera, once they know the characters and the arias. They might become experts on staging and set design before they are even old enough to read the super titles. Before that they might just sing everything in Italian. Or German. Or French.

Imagine the action figure set for Wagner's Ring! The kits could be geared for different age ranges, with the more "adult" operas saved for later adolescents or adults. My mind races at the thought of the set of action figures for Salome.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Beethoven played by the Iraq National Symphony

This New York Times article about the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra tells about the tragic situation in that country for musicians. Hearing the orchestra play Beethoven on an "audio slide show" link on the page made me cry. The quality of the playing is not high: it clearly reflects the fact that the musicians are not allowed to practice their instruments, but the emotional content of their performance is extraordinary.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Good Enough Never Is

About ten years ago I was in the strange position of being able to invite Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Field's Cookies, to the local university. It was when I worked at the university radio station, and during a time when there was a bit of fire damage, I was put in charge of organizing a fund raiser. Because the sister television station was airing a Mrs. Fields cooking show, hosted by Debbi herself, I thought it would be a great idea to have her talk at our fund-raising party, and serve desserts from her cookbook with dinner. Somehow it managed to work, and everything was a great success. We even duped Debbi Fields into thinking that we had a functional station, even though we all knew that it was a quagmire of dysfunction.

Her big motivational talk was about the idea of excellence, that "good enough never is." In walks of life and professions other than music, this is something of a revelation. In music the reality that "good enough never is" is something that practicing musicians face every day, with every note. It's not good enough to play well once--you have to be able to do it again, and you have to be able to do it on demand, not just when you feel like it. And no matter how well you play a piece, there are people who will play it better. No matter how much insight you have and how much structural knowledge you have, there are people who have more. Once you get beyond the age of 12 or so, there are always people who are younger than you, who can play as well as you can, or better. After a good concert, it's back to square one, back to getting the strength to play as well again. The response of an audience is short-lived, because the real excitement of music fades away as soon as the concert is over.

But then again, the idea that "good enough never is" keeps us fascinated with exploring the possibilities of nuance and bow changes, and it allows us to open our ears and try to hear more counterpoint, more voices, and more in the way of orchestration when we play in ensembles. It helps us to listen more closely to music that cannot be improved upon (like most of Bach's music, most of Mozart's music, most of Haydn's music, and most of Beethoven's music, to give a few examples) and learn to ride a stream of musical thought that goes far beyond just playing well or trying to write music that is meaningful.

I really got a kick out of meeting Debbi Fields. Now if she would just start making a line of vegan cookies, that would be really exciting. I'll be happy to let her know if they are good enough.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Practicing Debussy

I am finally coming to terms with my double life. I have decided that it is morally and ethically correct for me to switch from violin to viola whenever I want to, and that it is fine to enjoy everything there is to enjoy about both instruments. Actually, what I enjoy most (on either instrument) is to cross the bridge between not being able to do something--to play a passage or a piece--and being able to play it.

Tonight the challenge is Debussy. My pianist friend and I have a recital set up for Mozart's Birthday (January 27th--his 201st), and in addition to a bunch of Mozart, we're playing the Debussy Sonata. I have an old French edition without any fingerings or bowings, so I am totally on my own to figure out what to do. I thought of cheating--watching some of the Indianapolis Finalists who have their recitals archived on the IVCI website--but I'm not going to even watch (or listen) until I have figured out everything for myself.

Working on this piece seems to tighten the screws in my brain. It makes me get sounds out of the violin that are actually violin-like. A year ago I played violin like a violist, embracing the darkness of the lower register and avoiding any resonance on the E String. Now I think I might even pass as a violinist.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Shostakovich Birthday Tribute

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times has a perfect birthday tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich written by Miles Hoffman. If the LA Times link does not get you to the article, try Arts and Letters Daily and look at the column on the left, under "Articles of Note." If Shostakovich were alive he would be celebrating his 100th birthday today, but since he died in 1975 we'll all just have to do the celebrating for him (and we are).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

After Indianapolis

The people who run the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis work for four years in order to make the event happen once every four years. I can easily say that it is worth all the effort, and that it's even worth the wait.

I arrived in Indianapolis in the middle of last week, in the thick of tremendous excitement: the beginning of the final round. It seemed like the entire music-loving population of Indianapolis, plus violinists and music lovers from around the world, were all focused on one thing: listening to six highly accomplished violinists play. The energy was tremendous, and people who had been listening to the previous rounds of the competition had developed serious personal feelings about the people playing.

There were IVCI flags all over the downtown, and a huge amount of community pride. I met wonderful people, and I could talk with them about what I heard--even at intermission. The vioinlists were so good and so different from one another, that we in the audience could disagree on matters of taste and style, and still find common ground. And everyone was happy to say what they thought. In normal life people tend not to say what they think, for fear of offending someone or exposing themselves as ignorant. The audience in Indianapolis was so used to listening critically, that talking about the music came quite naturally. And everyone was equally enthusiastic about Augustin Hadelich.

I feel for the judges. I couldn't imagine keeping quiet about what I heard both on line and in person. They were not allowed to talk with one another about any of the performances while the competition was still going on, and they had to do it day after day for two weeks. All of them are such upstanding professionals that I'm sure they stuck to their vow of silence. What a relief it must have been to finally be able to talk about the violinists--after it was all over, when everyone was planning to go their separate ways, back to their normal lives.

I left Indianapolis early in the morning after the end of the competition. For me it felt the way it feels when a circus rolls into town, puts on a great show, and then packs up and leaves. It is very sad, but the memory of the event seems to linger. I'm hoping that the sad part of this sweet sadness passes, and that I will be reminded of the 2006 IVCI every time I get a chance to hear the finalists play concerts in the "real world" or get to hear their recordings.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Proud Mom

Last night my 17-year-old son Ben Leddy and his friend Bryn Rich gave a performance at his high school variety show (Ben is the one on the right side of the screen with the high baritone voice). Bryn's mother videotaped it and put it on YouTube, and I'm putting it here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Indianapolis Finals: Size matters

I have been waiting to write about being in Indianapolis for the finals of the competition until after the competition was finished. I am very pleased that Augustin Hadelich won the gold medal and the use of the Gingold Strad, but like nearly everyone I have talked with, I am baffled by the computerized results of the judges' decisions for the ranking of the other finalists. I imagine that many of the judges are baffled as well. What matters to me is that Hadelich will be able to use a first-rate instrument, and that he will have a chance at a real solo career. He is an extremely special musician on top of being a first-rate violinist.

I am grateful to this competition for introducing me to Yura Lee (yes, I go to meet her--she is an absolutely delightful person, and her superb musicianship reflects her personality completely). I believe that she has an original and necessary voice as a violinist, and I know that other violinists and other music lovers were moved and inspired by her performances in every round of the competition. For me her playing represents a living ideal of music making for all the right reasons: to engage performers and listeners in a kind of dance. She is a very generous musician, and she gives of herself in a very unselfish way. Because of her small size she has to work twice as hard as violinists with larger hands and longer arms. She is a physically small person, but she is a very large musician. Seeing such a small person make such large musical gestures can give the impression that those movements are extra-musical and unnecessary. In Yura Lee's case she is trying with every square inch of her body and her entire musical soul to set the air in the hall in musical motion.

In the "meet the jury" forum on Saturday, an audience member asked a question specifically about judging based on physical motion. The jury members that answered said that they did not take that into consideration at all. I don't think that such a thing is possible unless he/she is either blind or is unable to see the person performing.

Barnabas Keleman, the 2002 IVCI Gold Medal winner, played a wonderful recital between the semi-final round and the final round. He is a large man who plays with very large gestures, both musical and physical. There is no doubt that he is a great artist, and because of his physical size relative to Yura Lee, he can get away with large gestures.

I feel that Yura Lee should have gotten second place in this competition on the basis of her exceptional violin playing and extraordinary musicianship. I don't want her to change anything about her playing. I don't think that she should consider "toning down" the movement because it might get in the way of the marvelous (and original) things that she does as a musician.

The IVCI is planning to keep all the performances, not just the performances of the semi-finalists and finalists, archived on their website for three months (the interactive commemorative program guide is the best way to get to them).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bartok and Shostakovich Concertos in Finals

It looks like we will get to hear three performances of the Bartok Concerto #2 this weekend in Indianapolis. I don't think that the Bartok Concerto is on the "A" list of concertos that orchestras ask for when they engage violinists as soloists (the big Romantic concertos are the ones that draw in the audiences). Likewise with the Shostakovich, but because this is the 100th anniversary of his birth (I believe it is the 25th of September), he has gotten a great deal of play this year.

I'm hoping that these violinists play these concertos, particularly the Bartok, so well that every orchestra will want to play them.

Here are the finalists and the concertos they are playing


Lamsma: Mozart 5
Lee: Mozart 5
Choi: Mozart 3


Hristova: Haydn
Golden: Mozart 4
Hadelich: Mozart 2


Lamsma: Shostakovich
Lee: Bartok
Choi: Shostakovich


Hristova: Bartok
Golden: Dvorak
Hadelich: Bartok

Monday, September 11, 2006

Very Different Styles from the Same Teacher

How interesting to hear Stephanie Jeong and Anna Tifu in back-to-back recitals. Both are fine violinists, both are students of Aaron Rosand, and their musical personalities are very different from one another. Jeong seems to have a larger sound than Tifu, but Tifu is also an excellent violinist. Her interpretation of the Beethoven Spring is rather convetional to my ears, and her sound in it wasn't as strong as some of the other semi-finalists were in their Beethoven Sonatas. Her Franck was really fine, as was her Tzigane. The last performance of A Night at the Chinese Opera was just great, maybe one of the best of the 16 readings, but so was the penultimate performance by Jeong.

I feel for the judges because the musicians in this semi-final round are so impressive. My "short list" has eight people I would like to hear in the finals: Saeka Matsuyama, Simone Lamsma, Yura Lee, Bella Hristova, Augustin Hadelich, Celeste Golden, Stephanie Jeong, and Anna Tifu.

Very Exciting Bartok

Celeste Golden's performance with Akira Eguchi of the Bartok Sonata #1 was simply sensational. It think it was my favorite piano performance by Eguchi of the Competition. Augustin Hadelich's solo Bartok yesterday was also fantastic.

I imagine that Celeste Golden will be in the finals (her Romantic Concerto is the Dvorak), but some of the other people I imagine will be in the finals will be playing the Bartok Concerto #2. It is very likely that we will hear multiple performances of that piece this weekend, making the IVCI a sort of accidental Bartok festival.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Augustin Hadelich

I was completely bowled over by the recital I heard Augustin Hadelich play in Indianapolis today (I heard it on line). I think that the difference between him and all the other violinists I have heard in this Indianapolis competition is that I could imagine myself playing like most of the other violinists, that is, if I had enough technique, strength, stamina, and if I had healthy nerves. With Augustin Hadelich it is different. When he plays, he challenges my musical imagination. I feel like I can understand his playing physically, but the excitement, intensity, and personal investment that goes into every note and every phrase sends his playing to a completely different musical level from anything I could ever even imagine attaining or really understanding.

I had my violin case open while I was watching his recorded performance, and I looked at him, and then looked at the picture of Michael Rabin I keep in my case. My reaction to Hadelich's playing is not that different from my reaction to Michael Rabin's playing.

The video of his recital is archived now, and may only be available for a few more days. If you want a thrill go here and follow the link to listen to the performances of the finalists.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

My moment with Chinese Opera

Listening to Bright Sheng's A Night at the Chinese Opera reminds me of my first encounter with Chinese Opera.

In the early 1980s I was filling for a music teacher on maternity leave at St. Catherine's School for Girls in Hong Kong. The pictures on the introduction to their website look exactly like the school looked over 20 years ago. The uniforms are the same, and they still have an orchestra (which was started by Keith Anderson, the person who now writes program notes for Naxos).

One afternoon I went on a field trip with my students to a rural part of Hong Kong that the other teachers said was very much like rural China. My job was to teach the girls at St. Catherine's Western music, and they decided that the bus ride was a chance for them to teach me something about Chinese music (I loved these girls).

First they taught me to sing Ach du lieber Augustine in Cantonese, and then they started singing some music from a Chinese opera. I was completely surprised by what I heard. They used their voices in very strange ways, but they seemed completely comfortable (these were very musical girls). I was also amazed that these young children would embrace what seemed to be a rather adult musical style. I guess I likened it to American children introducing their Chinese teacher to Western music by singing a bit of Verdi.

When my six weeks at St. Catherine's were up, the students gave me a box of small ceramic masks that represented characters in Chinese Opera.

Tremendous chamber music playing

What a treat to have just heard Yura Lee play Beethoven's First Sonata and Brahms' Third Sonata with Rohan De Silva at the IVCI this morning. I didn't expect to hear such fine chamber music playing in a competition! Their reading of the Bright Sheng piece was a true dialogue--extrordinarily engaging and exciting. Now on to Ysaye.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Bright Sheng's A Night at the Chinese Opera

What an exciting event this is: a world premiere of a fantastic new violin piece at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis that is available for everyone to hear on line. Last night we got to hear the piece twice, and it was played with two vastly different interpretations.

Saeka Matsuyama, a Japanese violinist played it with rhythmic spring that immediately evoked images for me of the delicate and "over the top" stylized characters of the Chinese opera. Her performance was engaging and charming--dramatic and strong, but never "dramatic" in an overtly Western way. I particularly liked her range of sounds (that sounded like Chinese instruments), and her liberal use of slides.

Daniela Shtereva, a violinist from Bulgaria and her pianist played the piece in a far more aggressive way that sounded more like Western drama. Frankly it sounded like a wild night at a Bulgarian opera, which is highly appropriate because her dramatic, musical, and cultural experience comes from a tradition that is in a different world, both geographically and culturally, from the world of Chinese opera.

I'm really looking forward to today's performances.

This experience seems to be to be a lot like giving a bunch of visual artists the same set of objects to paint, using the same colors and the same materials, and observing that resulting paintings might have far more to do with the individuality of the artists than the objects themselves. This is a remarkable chance to witness the blurring of the lines between a composer and a collaborating performer, particularly since in this case it is the performer who is being judged.

There is also the cultural aspect. Bright Sheng grew up in Shanghai, but he was schooled in the Western musical tradition. Still, his music reflects who he is, and much of it is his music, though it uses Western instruments and techniques, consists of musical response to Chinese culture. He is such a fine composer because he writes music that reflects who he is as a musician as well as his cultural heritage. It is music that really works, music superbly written for the violin, and music that speaks in a way that goes far beyond the limits of spoken (or sung) language.

We are at an odd musical crossroads. There is no doubt for anyone listening to this competition that some of the most sublime musicians and finest violinists, playing music that we used to say belonged to a Western tradition, are from Asian countries or have one or two parents who come from countries in Asia. These musicians have, until now, been evaulated on their performances of music that has always been part of the tradition of the West.

All of a sudden things have changed, and we have the unique chance to watch and listen to it change before our very eyes and ears. All of a sudden 16 fantastic violinists who have been steeped in the traditions of the music Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, and Ysaye, are stepping out of their musical skins and taking a huge leap out of that tradition into a world of musical wonder that most of them have never explored before: Chinese Opera. Bright Sheng is giving it to them on a silver platter, and they are giving it to the whole world for everyone to hear as it happens, in streaming audio.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Day Three: Waiting for the results

I'm trying to be patient. I imagine that thousands of other people (or maybe hundreds of thousands, who knows) are logging onto the IVCI website with the hopes of finding out who they will be hearing in the semi-final round.

I heard two violinists today who I really loved: Stephanie Jeong and Emilie-Anne Gendron. I heard Stephanie play at a master class ten years ago when she was 9. She played like a 20-year-old then, and she has continued to grow as a violinist and as a musician. I guess I would say that she plays with the musical mind of a very smart woman in her 60s, and has the physical stamina of a 19-year-old. She gets a personal award from me for the most inspiring use of the outer extremes of the bow. Gendron (who has a real college degree) played a stunning short piece by Sibelius, and my favorite Paganini Caprice (for listening), #9 (the one that imitates flutes and horns). I also loved her Bach A minor.

Well, it is time for me to try the IVCI website one more time. I hope that the results come in before I start teaching this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Day Three of Listening to Violinists in Indianapolis

I have decided to be bold and list the violinists I have heard so far that I hope to see and hear in the semi-final round of the Indianapolis competition. There are seven people playing tomorrow.

Saeka Matsuyama (I liked what I heard through the technical recording difficulties)
Simone Lamsma
Daniel Khalikov
Zhijiong Wang
Ryoko Yano
Yura Lee
David Coucheron
Ye-Eun Choi
Bella Hristova
Yang Xu
Rachel Harding
Augustin Hadelich
Eunice Keem

Of course my list doesn't mean much of anything, but it will be fun to compare with the list that comes out of the computed calculations of the judges.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Indianapolis Competition Day Two

Like any good addict I have organized my day around my addictive activities, which means I basically spent most of the holiday today watching and listening to the competition. I did my eating and practicing during the breaks, and I listened to the archived performances that I missed because I was teaching.

Practicing this evening has been interesting for me. I was worried at first that I would be horribly disappointed with the level of my playing (I don't think I'll ever be able to play Paganini, even in private), but I feel like I really learned a lot from watching these young people play.

There are people I would love to hear play again, so I guess it does mean a lot to me who gets into the next round. I just hope that the judges have similar musical tastes to my musical taste. It seems that with playing at this high technical level, the thing that people will be judged most on is musical personality. Today there were people with musical personalities I liked with techniques that let them down and made them tense, and there were people with musical personalities I did not like who played without any technical flaws at all.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Listening to Violinists in Indianapolis

Now I understand how sports fanatics feel. I have been basically tied to my computer all day listening and watching (in real time) the prelimary round of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and I find it really hard to stop. I really like the way some of the violinists play, and I am indifferent to others. I'm glad I'm not one of the official judges of this competition, but I'm glad that I am able to watch and listen and learn about the process of judging, because, try as I may, I judge most of time. The only time I don't judge is when I am dazzled or fascinated by someone's musicianship.

I wonder how this computer access will affect the violinists who are playing. I'm sure that all of them are curious about one another's playing, and I'm sure that the voyeuristic ease of listening and watching on the computer would be very tempting for violinists who are playing this afternoon and in the rounds during the rest of the week.