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.