Saturday, October 3, 2015

Just Listen

Just listen. I t seems like a pretty simple thing to ask of a group of young orchestral musicians.
But when you think about it we're really asking an awful lot of these young folks in a large ensemble setting. We are asking them to read and interpret the written page. We want them to utilize their knowledge of key signatures, tonal center, and intonation to play in tune and to make pitch adjustments at all times. We want them to play musically and think about the direction of musical line. We want them to interpret the gestures of the conductor and follow them every step of the way. We want them to move freely and express the sound and feel of the music in a visual way as well. We want them to interpret the rhythms represented on the written page and play them together in unison.  All of this is done while in an uncomfortable suit under really hot lights in front of an audience.   You get the point. We are asking an awful lot of student orchestral musicians. But, so often I am compelled to say "Just Listen."

 At its core,  listening is absolutely crucial. It seems like a simple thing to say and perhaps it even seems like a simple thing to do. After all, they are making sound. And, why would they do it if it weren't listening?  Of course they are listening. But, do our students really know what to listen for and how to react to the things they are hearing? These might be the larger questions.
In recent weeks I have been compelled to consider what I am asking students to listen for. In other words, I am trying to be very specific regarding cues that they may hear that will help them with rhythmic accuracy, tonal accuracy, and musical interpretation. I believe that good listening needs to become a habit in student musicians. The only way that good habits will develop, is for us, the instructors, to provide students with solid cues that lead to appropriate reactions by the players. When a student musician has success in following these new-found habits, they will be more compelled to incorporate those habits into their everyday playing life.

Let me give you an example. Today, I was involved in a performance of the final movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. At the beginning of the final Allegro, which is in 2 beats per measure, there is a dotted half note. The violins were leaving that half note way too early, getting to the next measure easily a 16th value early if not more, and causing a real rhythmic problem. Simply asking the students not to rush that note, was an ineffective request to make. It really didn't yield any better results. However, when the students were asked to listen to the inner rhythm of the viola's 16th notes, they then had something meaningful to listen to that provided much needed information. Now on that passage, when the students are asked to just listen, they know what to listen for and can react appropriately with the knowledge that by listening, the passage will stay together.

I'm convinced that there are so many times in all repertoire that students want to know what to listen for, but are simply unsure. We as directors, must be very specific in providing suggestions for appropriate listening in the context of an orchestral rehearsal. Our students have so many things to think about when playing. Specific instruction will really clarify the process.

Let me give another example. Today, I was conducting Convergence by Carold Nunez. This is a really cool piece of music that I've programmed many times over the years. Most notably, it has a dance-like 7/8 section in the middle that can be really tricky for the second violins and violas. Throughout the course of rehearsals this week and the students really fought to avoid rushing. The two sections have the eighth, quarter, and dotted quarter notes passages that must lineup between sections. At some point during rehearsals I decided to stop conducting to really forced the students to listen, not only to their own section, but also to the sections around them.  Through this exercise, the second violins came to realize that, if they listened to the 1/8 note passage in the violas, the inner rhythm during their dotted quarter notes, they would much more accurately place the next pulse of this complex rhythm. In fact, during the performance today, at that spot in the piece, I stopped conducting so that the students would "just listen."  The technique was effective. The students knew what to listen for. And the passage was very successful.

Simple, right? Just listen. Well, no. Not really. I would encourage you to think about ways that you might encourage your students to listen more effectively. Find passages in your repertoire where the students can receive meaningful information from another section and incorporate it into their effective performance. Find spots in the repertoire where you can stop conducting and place more value on the skill of listening. It is actually very liberating for a conductor. It takes a great deal of the responsibility off of the stick and places it more squarely in the ears of the musician playing the part. Another way that one might consider this is that it's really the chamber ensemble approach to orchestral music. Again, I think the real skill is knowing when to lift one's listening attention more specifically to another section, knowing what to listen for, and knowing how to react to the things that one hears.

 Obviously, sometimes it is way more important that each musician watches the conductor. So, students need to know when the most important information is visual, and when the most important information is aural. They also need to know when they are giving the information to some other section to listen for. That, too, is an important piece of knowledge for every musician to have. When that is the case,  the section with the passage that is providing information to the other section may more effectively point that information out.

Finally, I would point out that, quite often it is the rock and jazz musicians that are the real pros at just listening. They are the ones that don't have as much information written down in front of them. As a result, they are less likely to get so tied to the note reading aspect of music making. They are more likely to just listen (and react) in an ensemble setting. We, as orchestral musicians, could stand to learn a great deal from our friends in the jazz and rock world.

So there are some thoughts on the art of just listening. I hope that this provides some new insights for you or perhaps gets you thinking about listening on a little different level. I challenge you to encourage your students to listen this week. And also challenge you to think about how would you might specifically direct your students to listen. You might also consider putting down your stick in certain passages of a piece and force your ensemble to find the important information in other areas of the ensemble and to find the places where they are providing the important information.

I know that the students in the ensemble I conducted this weekend can all honestly say that they were encouraged to just listen. And, they really gave an effective performance that demonstrated their understanding of the skill of listening. I wish you the same success in coming weeks and months.



Pedagogy from the podium

This weekend, I have been conducting an Honors String Orchestra Festival at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. My thanks to Emily Crane and all at Austin Peay for inviting me.  It's been a wonderful event and, as a result of my rehearsals here, throughout the weekend I have been giving a great deal of thought to my upcoming educational sessions at a couple of different conferences. A session that all be presenting in coming months, including at the National ASTA Conference in Tampa, is "Pedagogy From the Podium." This is a session that I began giving many years ago while I was still teaching in Palmyra, PA, based on some of the "best" practices that I had discovered in my daily teaching life. But, as you can imagine, over the years the content and the approach have changed a great deal. 

 Those of you that pay attention to this blog know that last year I was strongly considering the anatomy of any strong pedagogy. I presented a model where there were four components of any pedagogical concept that needed to be addressed. Those components are as follows: 

1. A SYSTEM is developed 
2. The system is SEQUENTIAL
3. There must be strong NOMENCLATURE introduced to clarify the system
4. The instructor provides a HARMONIC UNDERPINNING to any skill that is introduced modified . 
So, my task over the last several months has been to consider the systems that I have developed over the past several years. As this has been in the front of my mind, I've become more and more aware of the myriad of systems that I've developed or utilized over the years. Last year, I spent a good deal of time discussing, creating resources for, and teaching about the system of Finger Patterns that I had acquired from other great pedagogues and modified to suit my particular needs. Continuing on that theme, I have become more and more aware of other systems that have become an integral part of my teaching over the years.  Some of these were developed by others, some I have modified, and others I have developed.

Those of you that attend Pedagogy From the Podium, will get a strong dose of my belief in the model for these systems, and a number of specific systems that you can use in your classroom which utilize the model. I am still weeding out the final content of these sessions, but right now these are the areas that I will potentially be addressing. 
  • Ensemble Tuning
  • Ensemble Playing Position
  • Finger patterns as a vehicle to ensemble intonation
  • Rhythmic stability and Inner Rhythm
  • Watching the conductor and general ensemble awareness
  • Movement and breathing into phrase
  • Dynamics and the dynamic nature of ensemble playing
  • Spiccato and other intermediate to advanced bow techniques
  • Bow speed/placement
  • Pizzicato accuracy and technique
  • Musical "essence" and the art of self editing difficult passages
  • Precepts of bow direction
  • Bow weight as it relates to bow placement
  • Bow style as it relates to historic era of composition

Obviously, this won't all be addressed in a one-hour session. So, as you can see, some of this will be "weeded out" in coming weeks and months. I hope that you find some of these topics interesting and truly hope to see you at one of the sessions. Please let me know if any of these areas particularly resonate with you, or if there is something missing here that you would like to see.  Here's what I can promise: I will certainly be thinking about these systems and my approach to the ensemble development in the coming weeks and months. I will do my best to offer specific and pertinent content for everybody who attends.

For those of you on the East Coast: stay dry and safe this weekend. To those of you here in Clarksville TN, thanks for an awesome weekend of music making, sharing, and collaborating. You all have been wonderful to work with and I know our concert today is going to be magnificent!



Saturday, September 19, 2015

Family Day 2015

Welcome to Family Day 2015

We hope that you enjoyed the musical performances at the opening ceremonies today. We are so happy to greet you today and welcome you to NCSSM. We love taking this opportunity to give you some information about the courses your child is taking and for you to get to know us just a little bit better.

One of the concepts that I encourage students to consider in music classes, particularly in our classical piano and guitar course, is that of music performance as fluency. That is, learning to play a musical instrument is very similar to learning to speak. When we learn a new word as a small child, we use that word over and over until it's simply becomes part of our vocabulary. It's very similar with our beginning piano and guitar students. When they learn the notes and rhythms of a song, it is imperative that they continue playing that song and those techniques over and over so that they become part of their musical vocabulary.  Reading is another part of that skill.  It comes along at a different rate than the performance side and that is fine.  Some folks read with fluency early and others take more time to get there.

This is the same for advanced musicians and more difficult music as well. We are never finished working on the rudiments of music just like we are never finished considering strong grammar when we speak. The learning process involves adding new words and ideas to our vocabulary on a daily basis while practicing those that we added yesterday, the day before, the week before, and the month before.

So, that will give you a quick idea of one of the important concepts that we cover in music at NCSSM. We hope you have a wonderful day. I look forward to speaking with each of you throughout the day safe travels, and please know we love working with your kids and we will continue to nurture them in their musical development, as well as their development as young men and women.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Company of Angels: Dorothy Straub

I learned yesterday of the sad news that my dear friend and mentor Dorothy Straub had passed away. Dorothy Straub is one of the most influential individuals in my teaching life and certainly in my career trajectory in string education. From the day I met her, she encouraged me to think of my work in string education as an opportunity to positively influence lives, and to view my work as a mission, not just a job. As I reflect on my nearly 30 year friendship with her, I feel compelled to tell the story, from my perspective, of this wonderful educator who had so much influence on my life and the lives of other string students and teachers around the United States. 

I first encountered Dorothy Straub in the summer of 1988 when I attended a string pedagogy workshop at Central Connecticut State University. Dorothy was one of three instructors for that workshop along with the great Marvin Rabin and James Kjelland. Each of the three instructors had a specific influence on those in attendance and a clear role to play in the workshop. Dr. Rabin introduced me to the pedagogy of George Bornoff and the concept of finger patterns. Those of you that know me well know that I continue to give workshops built on that foundational material to this day. (In fact, I will be speaking on finger patterns at several conferences during the upcoming school year.) Jim Kjelland provided a more philosophical approach and outlook for those in attendance.   I remember him introducing me to the concept of Gestalt philosophy and thinking.  Again, those of you that know me, know that I have built on many of Jim's philosophical foundations and am a frequent presenter on topics that have grown from his ideas. Some of those include Habits of Mind, Ethics and Leadership, Core Philosophies, and others. I remember many late night discussions with Jim centering on his ideas about string education and larger ideas that could be related to our craft. 

Dorothy, however, had a very different role to play in the workshop. She played, in my opinion, the role of the quintessential traditional school string educator. In fact, I grew to learn that is exactly who she was.  She worked with us on the intricacies of teaching beginners, strong foundational techniques, more advanced techniques, and classroom management. She also introduced us to much of the great standard repertoire for young string orchestras. We dealt with various grade levels of repertoire and the challenges that the works provided for students.  In fact, I am certain that she introduced me to Percy Fletcher's Folk Tune and Fiddle Dance at that workshop. Every time I conduct that work I think of her. She was patient. She was encouraging. And, she was accessible. I asked questions. She offered strong responses built on a lifetime of truly best practice. But, beyond the content, she was so supportive of me as a young teacher with so much to learn. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she had faith in my ability to succeed with students and to become a leader in our field. She affirmed my musicianship and playing ability. Even though at times my ideas that were little bit outside the box, and she allowed me to grow through the course of that week both as a teacher and as a friend. 

Over the years, we've remained in very close touch. She would always attend when I was presenting sessions at conferences when she could. By the early 1990's, I was living in teaching in Maryland and working every day with her sister, Mary Ellen Cohn, the Executive Director of the Maryland Music Educators' Association. Mary Ellen and I developed a strong friendship and professional trust that always had her sister Dorothy at the center of it. That friendship continues to this day.

Interestingly, many years after the fact, Dorothy and I realized that she had an impact on my life even when I was a senior in high school in 1983. I had attended the All Eastern Orchestra Festival held in Boston that year, and she was the chair of that event. As I look back on that event, I can still remember the friendly, authoritative, articulate, sharply dressed woman who was running the event.  I could  tell from the start that she was a person that others respected and looked to for leadership.  Of course, it was Dorothy.

In later years, Dorothy, who served as String Music Supervisor for the Fairfield, CT public schools, invited me to conduct an all district event for her district. I was so honored to be invited to conduct by the great Dorothy Straub. I wanted to do such a good job for her. But of course that is who Dorothy was; someone who supported others and whom others wanted to please. I felt such a great responsibility to be an exemplary conductor and educator at that particular event. Interestingly, I can recall one young student who tested my patience right up to the moment of the performance. My recollection is that I didn't handle the situation very well.  Dorothy, in all of her wisdom, helped me navigate a difficult teaching situation with grace and love as she always did. 

In recent years, Dorothy was recovering from the effects of an aggressive brain cancer. I had the great pleasure of participating in a ceremony in her honor at a recent ASTA national conference. As part of that ceremony, and a new work by William Hoffeldt was commissioned in her honor. He entitled the work In the Company of Angels, and Dorothy was presented with this gift and honor at that time. Just a few short months after that ceremony, I was honored to conduct the first public performance of that work with the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. That piece will always serve as a perfect remembrance of Dorothy and the spirit with which she approached all of her relationships and teaching. Those of us that knew her always felt that we were "in the company of an angel" when we were with her. I know that today I am comforted by the thought that she is now "in the company of angels." ( I have to take this moment to thank Bill Hofeldt for such an insightful title and beautiful piece of music that bears a dedication to Dorothy Straub.)

Of course, throughout the course of her life and career, Dorothy had many other important and influential roles. She served as president of MENC, a leader in the American String Teachers Association, and published many important articles on string pedagogy and education including  “The Impact of the National Standards on Music Performance.” in Teaching Music Through Performance in Orchestra, and "Strategies for Teaching String and Orchestra." She served as Chair of the MENC Committee for String and Orchestra Education, editor for “School Teachers Forum,” in American String Teacher, and Chair of the MENC String and Orchestra Task Force.  She was awarded the American String Teachers Association Citation for Exceptional Leadership and the National School Orchestra Association Lifetime Achievement Award.  

From her MENC vitae: "One of only two American String Teachers Association members to serve as MENC president, Dorothy Straub took office at a time when the national focus was on curriculum and standards. Her presidency was marked by concerns for advocacy and promotion of the National Arts Standards, and in March of her term, the standards were completed and delivered to Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Although many of Straub’s monthly president’s columns in Music Educators Journal and Teaching Music focused on the standards, she also wrote about the importance of providing each child with rewarding musical experiences. In her columns for American String Teacher, she encouraged string teachers to provide students with a challenging and enjoyable curriculum, calling it a “myth” that children learning string instruments could not produce good sounds for several years."

In the end, Dorothy was an advocate, friend, and mentor.  I simply can't articulate how much she influenced me throughout my professional life.  She was a dear friend and trusted colleague.  She supported and advocated for me.  She taught me how to be a whole teacher.   There isn't a day in my teaching life that goes by that her influence isn't felt in some way.  I only hope that I can be the advocate, friend, and supporter of young teachers the way she was for me.

I will miss you, Dorothy.  I hope that we can one day celebrate together again "in the company of angels."


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Repertoire for Intermediate Concert Orchestra, Concert 4, 2015

It has been a great summer for the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen in 2015 and we are very excited to finish the summer with a wonderful performance this coming Saturday at 4:00 PM in Kresge Auditorium. As part of that performance we will be performing four works. I would like to give you a little information on each of those works.

First, we will be performing the first movement of Percy Fletcher's Folk Tune and Fiddle Dance, the Folk Tune movement. This work starts out in 6/8 time, D major and works its way through a variety of time signatures and key signatures throughout.   This is an exciting and varied movement that requires students to shift seamlessly between styles, time signatures, and key centers. Fletcher explores compound time, a minuet feel, a pesante section, and finishes back in 6/8 time with the original beautiful melody, eventually modulating to E major.

The kids were asking me to do something a little bit more technically challenging for this concert, so I put a little-known work by Alfred Reed in front of them. It is the first movement of his Suite Concertante for String Orchestra entitled Prelude and Fugue. This work is in ABA form and begins with a fanfare in rhythmic unison, mixed meter. The B section is a contemporary fugue that really challenges each section rhythmically and technically. The fugue builds to a magnificent climax, and then melts back into a recapitulation of the prelude. The movement ends with a huge allargando ending and a exciting musical exclamation point to finish! This may end up being the opener for our program. One quick note to music instructors and conductors out there: there are many misprints in the parts and score. If you would like a list of Errata, please don't hesitate to contact me.  It will sve you a great deal of time and frustration in the end.
Interlochen is in the midst of a Copland Festival in the summer of 2015. With that in mind, I decided to program a number of Aaron Copland works for ICO as well. For this concert, we will be performing The Red Pony, Excerpts from the Film Suite by Aaron Copland, as arranged by Erik Morales. This version of the Red Pony is taken from the film suite which was completed in 1948. It includes four tunes from the film: Morning on the Ranch, Dream March, Walk to the Bunkhouse, and Happy Ending. Each of these sections includes wonderful Copland style and sounds, and provides ample technical challenges for the ensemble. This work lasts about 4 minutes and 35 seconds and takes the students through 6/8 time section, a difficult 5/4 section, some lovely open chorale passages, a march style movement, and ends back in compound time.

Our closer for this program is an original work by Bert Ligon, entitled Road Trip to Rio.  This up beat contemporary pop piece is perfect for closing a concert and the summer.  It is a light work listed as a grade 3. However, I feel it's just a little more difficult than that. There is plenty of syncopation throughout the work that requires strong rhythmic skill and attention. The pop style is not always a "slam-dunk" with young string players, so much attention must be paid to articulation and phrase beginnings and endings. An opportunity for improvised or written-out solos is  found in the middle of the piece. We will be welcoming an Intermediate guest pianist, drummer, and all of the guitarists in the Intermediate Guitar Program here at Interlochen to participate in performing this piece. I know it will be an exciting closer for our program.

So, there it is! It has been a wonderful summer of music-making at Interlochen and I hope that some of these notes on repertoire have been useful for you.  I will try to post links to the recordings as they are available as well.

My attention will soon turn to the fall at NCSSM.  There may be a few more Interlochen posts,  but things get pretty busy for the last few days.  Who knows, I may get inspired to put some  more thoughts in writing before heading back south to NC.



Friday, July 24, 2015

Chasing That Emotional "High"

In the summer of 1981, I attended a week-long church camp that was simply a blast.  It was called “MAD” Camp and focused all week on music, art, and drama.  It was part of the summer program at Westminster Highlands, a Presbyterian Church Camp facility in Western PA,  where I usually spent a couple of weeks each summer.  My time at Westminster Highlands and the relationships that I established there had a profound impact on my development as a young man in many ways.  I had just finished 10th grade and was beginning to realize that I had a little something to offer in the area of music and peer leadership.  I wasn’t particularly interested in the visual arts, but I was open to working in drama as well as music.  That summer, we created a musical out of the book, The Singer Trilogy, by Calvin Miller.  We wrote original songs and music to accompany the text and I ended up playing the lead role in the production at the end of camp.  I wrote and performed much of the music as part of that experience. 

It was truly a “mountain-top” experience.  I had never invested so much of myself into a project.  I had never been part of such a close-knit community of artists. I had never been part of such an impassioned performance.  I certainly had never garnered that type of attention from my peers and friends for my talents and accomplishments.  It was intoxicating and I wanted more!!

I remember talking with my Dad on the 3 hour ride home and telling him  all that I had learned and accomplished.  I also expressed concern that things at home could never be as exciting as the past week had been.  Things at home were so mundane.  I didn’t relate to the people in the same way.  How could I ever re-create that experience again?  I will never forget my Dad, response.  First he acknowledged what a great thing I had experienced.  But then he told me that we couldn’t sustain that mountaintop experience all the time.  If we were always on the mountaintop, how can we appreciate it when we get there again?  There have to be peaks and valleys.  He encouraged me to use the experience that I had as motivation to get there again.  And, to use the ideas that I had developed to make the ensembles and communities that I lived with on a daily basis better.   He reminded me that the folks that expect the mountaintop all the time are rarely satisfied.  He encouraged me to keep seeking the mountaintop, but to also embrace every day.  Even the ones that aren’t mountaintop experiences. 

What amazing advice!!  It is advice that I have used over and over again in my lifetime.

I feel like I am constantly chasing that mountaintop experience as a musician all the time too.  I love that “emotional high” that I experience after an amazing performance.  Those goosebumps on your arms or the warmth of an amazing ovation in completely intoxicating.  That knowledge that you just moved the emotions of an audience is what we strive for.  I want it as a conductor.  I want it as a violinist.  I want it as a teacher.  I want it as a student. 

I am keenly aware that much of my work as a conductor is done in the festival setting.  I am fortunate to work with kids at Interlochen summer arts camp in the summer.  We are chasing that mountaintop musical experience with every rehearsal, practice session, and performance.  I am fortunate to conduct numerous local, regional, and all state festivals as part of my work and we are doing the same thing in that setting.  We are looking for that amazing musical experience – not just technically, but emotionally as well.  Even my work at NCSSM is similar to this.  Our time together is limited and then the students go back to something else.  In the two years and limited rehearsal that I get them, I want to bring them together for a mountaintop, special, emotional musical experience.  And I think in some ways they expect that from me.

So, what is it that leads us to that end.  What gets us from the mundane to the extraordinary?  What moves us from “physics” to “metaphysics?” (I love that phrase and concept!!)  I will throw out a couple of thoughts here. I am sure there are more and I would love to hear from you with your ideas.

When I look back to what I wrote at the top of this post about my MAD Camp experience it was the following: personal investment, a close knit community, impassioned performance, positive feedback.  Let’s explore each of these briefly. 

I have written before about the power of community.  I firmly believe that strong communities are the foundation of strong ensembles.  I have been in musical ensembles that weren’t strong communities, but, for me, it always better when they are. We have to want to work together. We have to trust each other.  Form me, smiles and friendship works better than fear and intimidation.  Personal investment is a key as well.  When we give freely and passionately of ourselves, we are more likely to get more in return.  Sometimes it hurts to be fully personally invested, but it is usually (always) worth it.  I find this in relationships.  I find this in my daily work.  I find this in musical ensembles.  I also believe that as a leader, I have to set the tone of personal investment if I want my ensemble members to give in the same way.  It doesn’t seem to work in reverse.  Positive feedback is also key.  There is nothing like an “atta-boy” to keep us going when the going gets tough.  And it will get tough at some point.  (See “personal investment.”)  That “atta-boy” for musicians can be the applause.  But, it can also be the feeling you get when the ensemble really hits that passage in rehearsal.  It can be the relationship between a musician and their stand partner.   It can be the conductor’s comments.  It can be the personal knowledge of a job well done after a long rehearsal.  It comes in many forms.  Finally, an impassioned performance can really be the key to the mountaintop experience for the musician.  That only comes with great rehearsals, a well prepared and in-sync ensemble, and active mental and creative investment and preparation from all involved.    This category is really a sub-category of “personal investment,” isn’t it?

Before wrapping up this post, I would like to offer up a few thoughts about the nuts and bolts of the “impassioned performance” idea here.  What does this entail from a technical and musical perspective?  I have been thinking about this and I believe the key is that notion of a well prepared and in-sync ensemble.  Orchestrally, each musician must have a common concept of the priorities, direction, and goals of each note, phrase, section, and piece.  So, as conductors, we have to be heading in that direction in every minute of every rehearsal.  We should be striving for that idea of unification and common notion within and between sections.  This is a bit tough to articulate, but here goes.  We are seeking precision that is driven by the goal of a passionate performance and, ultimately, an emotional response.  My friend Eugene Friesen says that once you have done the rigor, you are free to emote and express.  That makes sense to me.  Rigor leads to freedom, which leads to that “emotional high.”  We should be seeking precision in rhythm and rhythmic concepts, intonation and tonal concepts, phrasing and musical concepts, a common vision of dynamic variation within the piece, tone quality and concepts in color, and finally conceptual precision and common vision.

On another note, it is also vital that we remind students in the midst of a mountain top performance that it is their responsibility to take that experience back home to their daily lives. They must bring their newfound enthusiasm and passion back to the daily routine so that it might be infused with new energy for the folks that don't have the same opportunities. We really need to stress the "Pay It Forward" concept to our top students who get awesome opportunities. Take the elements of that mountain top experience back home with you and share it.

So, there are some of my thoughts on seeking that “emotional high.”  As I look back over that post, I just finished a great rehearsal on the work Aspire: A Dream Fulfilled, by Bob Phillips.  It occurs to me that I am definitely seeking that “high” with this work.  We are working on all of those concepts outlined in the previous couple of paragraphs.  I want that mountaintop experience for myself and my students on this one.  It is in reach.   I will let you know how it goes.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

The RUSHING Epidemic

Is it me or does every darned group of young string musicians rush tempo like crazy?  I know this: it is driving me crazy.  I have definitely noticed in recent years that young string musicians at virtually every level rush tempo and particularly cut off the ends of phrases.  In recent weeks, I have been trying to ascertain the reasons for this epidemic in rushing and to devise methods for correcting the problem as well and tools for ensembles to get back on track when it happens.

Let me be clear here.  This happens in young groups and older groups.  It happens with kids that are not very experienced and with very experienced kids.  So, in this post, I will try to identify the problem and offer some solutions.  

I have had several conversations with colleagues regarding this lately and I am thinking that I am particularly tuned into this because I so often play in a rock or pop setting with the steady undulation of a drum set as part of the ensemble.  I often tell my orchestras that I sort of always hear a drum set accompanying the orchestra when I conduct.  I think that many conductors do this - we hear the "inner rhythm of the piece at all times in the front of our mind.  In other words, if the most common subdivision of the work is 16th notes, that subdivision of the time is always going through or head.  It should be going through the instrumentalists mind as well.  Playing with so many rock and jazz ensembles over the years has made this a natural thing for me.  It is almost like playing with a metronome in many ways.  In fact, just last week, ICO performed Take the A Train in a concert with  a drummer and the rushing really was non-existent.  But, the piece before and after it DID have a tendency to rush.  The inner rhythm wasn't being beat into their ears and then the rushing came back.  To me, this concept is critical to the concept of functional musicianship.  And, it an element of musicianship that is lacking in, I am guessing based on my experience, the majority of high school and younger musicians of all ability and experience levels.

I often stop an ensemble that I am working with and say, "Are you going to conduct me, or am I going to conduct you?"  I can't tell you the number of times I have watched ensembles perform where the conductor essentially gives up and follows the kids.  I often notice young and old teacher/conductors clipping off the 4th beat of a measure in 4/4 time by as much as a 16th note value or even more!  

Those of you that know me, know that I try to have a system for correcting pedagogical problems.  The system  must have the following criteria.  It  should be sequential, have a system of appropriate nomenclature, and must include harmonic underpinning or other related functional viability.  so, later in this post, I will offer a system for correcting the rushing epidemic.

The Problem

OK, so exactly what is the problem?  Well, it is a combination of factors.  
1. Musicians need to listen to and look for the inner rhythm.

My dear friend, Jung Ho Pak has taught me that musicians need to know who is the teacher and who is the student.  And, no, the conductor is not always the teacher.  In an ensemble setting, some voice is always the rhythmic teachers.  That is the voice that is playing the inner rhythm or smallest subdivision of the pulse. The "students" or other musicians must key in on that subdivision with their listening and visual skills. (The beauty of string playing is that we can usually see the pulse or subdivision as well.)  If the violins are the "teacher" then the other sections need to play the role of student and hear/see the subdivision.  As soon as they clip off the end of a longer note value, all rhythmic heck breaks loose!!  Encourage your students to know who has the inner rhythm at all times.  If no section has the inner rhythm, then everyone needs to audiate it (in other words, think it) and that is the time that the conductor is the "teacher."  The important information will come from the stick.  Conductor/teachers: it is precisely at that moment that the pressure is on you to not clip off the end of the measure because you are afraid someone will beat you to pulse.  That is what rehearsal is for!  I always say that trust is a 2 way street.  Instrumentalists have to trust the conductor, but the conductor also has to trust the instrumentalist.  As soon as they realize that they are conducting, you have lost the battle!!

2. If the inner rhythm isn't audible, musicians must audiate the inner rhythm.

Everyone needs to do this; the conductor, the violins, the violas, the celli, and basses.  Every member of the ensemble must audiate inner rhythm.  I believe that in rehearsal, it is the conductor's job to teach the musicians how and when to do this.  Remember, if it is audible, everyone needs to listen for it and permit the  voice with that rhythm to play every note in its entirety.  No exceptions.  If it isn't audible, everyone needs to be thinking it.

3. Ensemble musicians must look for the downbeat and know exactly what/where the downbeat is.

In addition to thinking or audiating the inner rhythm, the orchestra members have to know when and where to look.  How often have you noticed folks arriving at the downbeat at the top of your downward motion as a conductor, rather than at the ictus?  It happens all the time.  So, we, as teachers, need to clearly explain and reinforce this concept at every step in the process.  Don't give up.  the downbeat is not at the top of the downward motion, it is at the bottom.  The VERY bottom.  The also brings up another related point:  be sure that you are giving clear visual information.   If your downbeat is unclear, it isn't fair to ask them to be able to interpret it.  And, if you are conducting subdivisions or backbeats, no one will ever know your intentions.  

4. Students need to practice with a metronome more often and in a variety of ways.

Metronomes don't lie.  Use them for fast practice.  Use them for slow practice.  Have the click on all pulses.  Have the click on 1 and 3.  Have the click on 2 and 4. Have it click an eighth note inner rhythm.  Have it click a 16th note inner rhythm. Have it click on only the first beat of the measure. Have the click on only the fourth beat of the measure. Have the click on only the second beat of the measure.  Encourage students  to challenge themselves with the metronome.  It is a magnificent tool for establishing consistent rhythm.

5. Ensemble musicians need tools for combating this in a performance setting.  
Give your orchestra tips for correcting the problem when it starts.  Not if it starts, because it will happen at some point.  I always tell my ensembles that when a problem occurs, that is the time to lift up your eyes to the "teacher."  Not always the conductor! Also, moments of static activity are always the time to look up: repeated eighth notes, whole notes, repeated ostinato passages, etc.  Students need to lift up their eyes much more than they are inclined.  Give them spots and ideas for this. and, you must look at them as well.  Remember, if you aren't giving them important information, they will stop looking.  Trust is a two way street.

6. Conductors must be dogmatic about all of this.  They can't give up!!
I think you know what I mean.  Think about it: if we give up on anything, it will end up being wrong.  How often do we need to remind students about left hand position?  (It never stops.)  How often do we need to remind students about proper bow hold? (It never stops.)  It is the same with inner rhythm.  It is a daily process.  They key is giving good tools for combating the problem.  Simply telling students "don't rush," and "watch the conductor" is not enough.

The Solution: A System

So, as I stated earlier, I believe in crating a system for combating the problem.  For me, this always involves getting the students' faces out of the music.  Approach the problem by eliminating various factors that lead to the problem.  So, I would start with scales.  Create an exercise or etude where one section or even one student has the inner rhythm that the others must listen to in order to play the scale in time.  Bounce that role around the orchestra. The voice with the inner rhythm is the "teacher."  Then give the "teacher role" to the conductor.  Create rhythmic patterns that involve a sustained note at the end. (Perhaps 4 eight notes and a half note on each step of the scale.)   Don't let anyone clip off that last bit of the half note as they ascend and descent the scale.  

I am also a strong advocate of "bumping" the pulse lightly in the left hand for violin and violists and in the head for cello and bassists.  Simply showing that pulse, much like in chamber music is a great orchestral technique at certain points in the repertoire.  it is a skill that can be developed outside of the music-reading.  Do this will scales on whole notes.  Have the 2nd violins conduct with the bump while the others watch them.  This goes a long way toward getting their faces out of the music. 

Then, take these concepts into the repertoire.  Ask students to identify who is the teacher and who is the student at any given time.  They won't know at first.   they are too busy trying to figure out their own part.  But, eventually, they will begin to think this way.  It is so invigorating when an ensemble begins to internalize this concept.  It is also amazing when they have tools for correcting the problem in performance and they actually do it.  I have had this happen a couple of times this summer in performances already and was elated at the student response.

In the end, all of this comes down to aural and visual awareness in the ensemble.  It is much more than right notes and rhythms.  It is about  communication.  Build a system in your ensemble for strong visual and aural communication.  Don't avoid it.  Provide tools for your students to succeed in the difficult task of rhythmic stability in all facets of performance.

I hope that this provides you some food for thought with your ensemble or performing situation and I certainly welcome your ideas and reactions.  I would love to hear from you.  All my best and may you experience steady rhythm!!


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ICO Concert No 3 Repertoire

I met my new ensemble yesterday for the first time and can't wait to get started working on the repertoire that I have selected for the 3rd Intermediate Concert Orchestra performance of the Summer 2015 season at Interlochen.  It is a great group of kids and there are many returning musicians from previous summers.  Also, my son, Cael is a member of the bass section, so that is a new experience for both of us and I know that will make the second three week session even more memorable.  

We sight read most of the music in the folders yesterday and I was really pleased with the level of the ensemble. Today we will be really digging into the repertoire.  Here are some notes on the works we will be preparing for the first concert on Wednesday, July 29, 2015.

Keystone, Silva

This is a new work, published by Kjos in 2014, that I discovered at a new music reading session that JS Pepper sponsored for the NC Chapter of ASTA last November.   Alan silva has a really impressive resume that includes feature films, television shows, Disney, and even the rock band, KISS.   This piece is in A minor and has a really cool 3-3-2 rhythmic structure. It features driving rhythms and beautiful elongated soaring melodies.  This is an interesting and exciting work and will be perfect for this orchestra.  the minute I heard it in November, I knew it would be on my repertoire list for this summer.

Aspire, Phillips

Sub-titled "A Dream Fulfilled," this  work was  commissioned by the Elizabeth Ruthruff Wilson Foundation and dedicated to Theresa Powers, the students of the Tecumseh School Orchestras, and their directors Amy Marr and Michael Bough.  It is published by Highland Etling and Alfred Music. I discovered this piece while working with the Providence HS (Charlotte NC) Orchestras and their director, Sara Russell last fall.  This is a lush and beautiful piece that features a constantly shifting time signature with a common quarter value pulse. The piece starts in D major and shifts to E major at the end.  This piece offers numerous opportunities for each section of the string orchestra to shine and features 3rd and 4th positions for the violas and celli.  Basses get a lovely counter melody in the middle and violins soar into upper positions throughout.  This piece is listed as a grade 3, but there are ample opportunities for musicians of all levels to stretch their expressive muscles.

Concert Piece No 2, Mendelssohn, Opus 114

This work is scored for clarinet, bassoon, and string orchestra accompaniment and will feature my Interlochen colleagues Doug Spaniol (bassoon) and Sandy Jackson (clarinet) with ICO.  I  heard them perform this with piano accompaniment last summer and we began discussing the possibility of doing it with string orchestra this summer.  I am particularly excited to do this,  because Sandy's daughter, Sophia, is a cellist in the orchestra this summer.  (Incidentally, with my son, Sandy's daughter, and Maria Silver, daughter of Interlochen Clarinet Faculty Member, Dan Silver in the orchestra, we really have a neat community of Interlochen folks in the ensemble!!)  We will more than likely, only perform Mvt 3, a light Allegretto Grazioso in F major.

Folk Tune and Fiddle Dance, Fletcher

Finally, one of my favorites is Percy Fletcher's well-known string orchestra work, Folk tune and Fiddle Dance. The Folk Tune begins in E minor 6/8 time with a lovely tune that longs for the sea. The movement shifts between time signatures, key signatures, and feels, only to return to the opening tune in a wistful manner at the end.  The Fiddle Dance in G major is a good old fashioned hoe down that drives throughout.  In ABA form, this movement that features the violas and celli prominently is perfect concert-ender.  I first discovered this piece in the mid 1980's shortly after graduating from college and have used it consistently ever since that time.  

So, that is what we are looking at.   Perhaps one of these will be appropriate for your next program. 
All my best!


Thursday, July 16, 2015

ICO Concert #2 Repertoire

Hi all!
This will be a quick post on the concert repertoire for the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra performance on July 17, 6:30 PM.  This concert will be livestreamed at
So, I hope that you can check it out if you have a chance!

We will be doing 4 works  on this concert.

We will open with Aaron Copland's string arrangement of his wonderful Hoedown from Rodeo.  I gave this out  to the kids as a challenge early in our three-week time together and they stepped up to learn the work in grand fashion.  Interlochen is in the middle of a summer-long Copland Festival and it is fitting that we do this work in honor of the Festival.  There are so many challenges in this work: rhythm, high passages, intricate intrplay between sections, solos, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.  I am really proud of the accomplishments of these young musicians on this piece.

Next, we will perform Robert McCashin's adaptation of Allegro Moderato from No. Symphony 29 in A Major, by Mozart, published by FJH Music.  This is a wonderful grade 4 adaptation that provides the perfect opportunity to teach Viennese-style techniques, including spicatto bowing,  detailed interplay between sections, wonderful crescendi, and beautiful lyrical playing.  It will be a nice contrast following the Hoedown.

Next, we will feature my colleague, jazz saxophonist David Kay, on Bert Ligon's arrangement of Billy Strahorn's Take the "A" Train. This arrangement is great for teaching swing style to young string students.  We have added student piano and drum set players as well.  Every section must count independently and really understand the rhythms and style to pull it off.  David will be tearing it up on this one.  I am really pleased to share the stage with him again this summer.

Finally, ICO will finish up with Legend of the Phantom Pirates, by Brian Balmages.  This is a wonderful original (grade 3.5) composition that toggles between a slow, mysterioso section and a driving allegro pirate theme.  The kids love it and it will be a perfect finale for the ICO portion of the show.  I recommend this one highly.

I can't wait to perform this concert!  The students have prepared well and it is time to wrap up this three-week session at Interlochen.  Congratulations to all of the fine young musicians that have participated.



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Doobie Brothers!

I just walked up to the commons area of Interlochen in time to hear the concert begin:  Do Do Do - Do-Do - Dooooo, Do Do Do - Do-Do - Dooooo, Jesus is just alright with me, Jesus is just alright with me....  The crowd is pouring into Kesge Hall and everyone seems amped to see a great show.  Rockin Down the Highway just started.  Awesome!

So, here I am hangin out, listening to the Doobie Brothers tear it up.  They are fantastic!

I have two overarching memories of the Doobie Brothers from my childhood that I will share real quickly.  One involves "China Grove" and the other, "What a Food Believes."

The year was 1978.  I was in 7th grade at Indian (PA) Junior High.  I loved being in junior high and was working hard to  figure out  the social situation in a junior high.  I was a good musician, a good student, and a mediocre athlete.  I didn't dress in the latest fashions, but had a knack for getting by with a few well placed labels and fashion items: a clear plastic belt, one pair of Levis, a pair of Nikes, and occasionally a jean jacket  (not Levis).  I only remember a couple of teachers and classes with any clarity.  English was my favorite.  Mr. Petro, my English teacher was really cool.  He gave interesting assignments and seemed to like me.  He inspired my creativity in all the right ways.  Mr. Shadel was the band director.   He was all band director.  And, while I was a violinist, I played percussion in the band and really enjoyed it.  I learned a great deal about adolescence in band.  Back there in the percussion section, there was much to learn - and not really having anything to do with music most of the time.  Finally, I remember Art class and Ms. Olsen.  She was very cool.  She always played the radio while we worked on assignments.    I was a horrible visual artist, but it was so fun to listen to great tunes on the radio, tell stories, laugh, and generally have a great time.  The tune that I remember hearing all of the time in that class was "What a Fool Believes."  Michael McDonald's amazing voice was intoxicating.  I couldn't get enough of it.  That song must have come on the radio every single day of 1978 during my art class.  I think of that class every time I hear it to this day.

China Grove was released in 1973, but I was first introduced to it in 1979 or so.  I was playing in one of my first bands, and had to learn a lot of  music on bass in a short time.  China Grove was one of the tunes.  Our singer, Ricky, and our guitarist, Joe, really already knew the tune and they wanted the rest of us to get it down quickly.  It was perfect for Ricky's  voice and Joe could tear it  up on guitar.   It quickly became our best tune and we played it at every show.    We even got to play it  as part of a warm up act for the Iron City House Rockers and the Silencers, a couple of regional bands from Pittsburgh that had a little bit  of chart success in those years.  What a blast!!  I think of that show every time I hear China Grove: the lights, the sound of the crowd, the feeling.  It was something I wanted to experience for the rest of my life.  Fortunately, as a musician, I have had that feeling many more times in my life.  I am truly blessed to make music for a living!

There are definitely memories from other Doobies songs, but those two are the biggies.  So, for now, I am going to hang out  and enjoy the show.  They sound great.


First ICO Concert of the Season, July 8, 6:30, Kesge Auditorium

This will be a very short post regarding the repertoire that ICO will be performing on our first concert of the Summer 2015 season.  It has been a great first week of the summer and I am looking forward to getting on stage with these wonderful young musicians.

We will open our program with Bold Venture, by M.L. Daniels (published by Kjos).  It is a grade 4 string orchestra work that is full of syncopated rhythms in E minor.  It was the winner of the 2000 ASTA with NSOA Merle J. Isaac Composition Contest.  It is marked "moderato," but I am taking it significantly faster than the suggest quarter = 98 bpm.  It begins and ends with a quick, masculine feel and has a brief lyrical section in the middle.  I chose this work because one of my favorite pieces to play as a student in the 1970's was another work by Daniels, entitled Festique, which has a similar feel.

Next, we will be featuring two of our section coaches, violinists Brittni Brown and Jacqueline Joves, performing the Double Violin Concerto by JS. Bach.  We will be doing this work in its entirety.  The well-known first movement provides an opportunity for our violin section to understand the other side of this work, serving as accompanists and truly learning the meaning  of performing "terraced dynamic."  The cello and bass section have a great challenge performing the continuo part.  The 2nd movement is in 12/8 time and offers a great opportunity to really teach compound meter.  The Largo tempo also provides ample teaching/learning opportunities and really requires the musician to have a complete understanding of all of the rhythms and associated performance practice.  This movement requires great rhythmic patience and maturity from all of the musicians.  The third movement is an Allegro in 3/4 time.  It moves along very quickly and, again, requires a keen understanding of all rhythms and the concept of tutti vs. ripieno playing.

We will finish our portion of the program with The Faraway Place, by William Hofeldt (published by Kjos).  This piece was suggested to me by a member of our viola section back in the fall.  I checked out the piece and loved it immediately.  It is in E flat major, in 3/4 time, and is a beautiful "unhurried" ballad.  There is tremendous opportunity in this piece for me to teach the importance of watching the conductor.  The piece allows for a great deal of rhythmic stretch and tug.  We discussed the impact that music can have on our emotions and I believe that the students will give a lovely, emotion-filled performance of this beautiful work.

I can't wait for tomorrow. We have about 5 1/2 hours of rehearsal time left before the concert.  There is much to do, but we will be ready!

I will let you know how it goes!


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Yes, Please

I just finished devouring Amy Poehler's 2014 memoirs, entitled Yes Please, This is a fun, light read with plenty of laughs and great stories of her childhood, as well as her time in the improv comedy scene in Chicago, SNL, and Parks and Recreation.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and finished it in about a day and a half.  I love to read about the lives of artists and the experiences they encounter. This one didn't disappoint.  There are about 3 quick remarks that I am eager to make as a result of reading the  book.

First, the title.  Yes, please is a result of her work in improv comedy and theater where the cardinal rule is to always affirm the statement of direction that your fellow actor takes the sketch.  You always say yes. You never say no.  I have  heard this numerous time from my friend, Theater Instructor at NCSSM, Adam Sampieri. So, this is not a new concept for me.  I really enjoyed getting Poehler's take on this to add to my understanding from Adam.  And, if you read my post, "I Want More," a few days ago, I think that I said the same thing in a different way. As a fine arts instructor, I believe it is my job to say, "Yes."   The trick is to say, "yes," and then provide the framework or direction to get to the destination.  This is the essence of teaching and particularly the essence of teaching elective subjects.  Students want to get there.  We must say yes.  But, we need to have a plan (sequence, system, nomenclature, and harmonic underpinning) for getting to the destination.  I will continue to try to say, "Yes."

The "please" aspect of the title reflects her understanding that please isn't ever a bad thing to say.  Polite is good.  Appreciative is good.  Manners are good.  A phrase I use a lot is "love works."  I continue to believe this.  Amy Poehler affirmed that for me this week.

Next, I tweeted out two quotes from her book that I  want to reiterate here as well. 

First, Poehler reminds us that  "Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result; not about how good people think you are."  This is such a good reminder for all of us in this age of social media, public commentary, youtube concert broadcasts, and a general air of criticism.  I have definitely learned over the years to trust and care about my work.  There will always be critics. Stay the course and your work will speak for itself.  Trust me, not everyone digs my work.  I usually take it really hard. We all want to be universally liked and  respected.  I don't think anyone gets that luxury.  I think the very best sports commentator on rado or television is Colin Cowherd from ESPN.  I love his interviews, intellect,  style, commentary, and his sense of humor.  He gets absolutely killed by bloggers, critics, and every other random dude that thinks they know better.   He is totally ambivalent (at least publicly).  He knows that his work stands on its own.  I know that my work stands on its own.  You can rest assured that yours does as well.

 Finally, she tells us that, "You need to be where you are to get where you want to be."  This is such a good reminder for me this summer.  I am up  in Michigan, teaching at Interlochen, doing really important work.  I truly believe that these kids in ICO need me.  I have a unique perspective as conductor, parent, improvising musician, classical musician, teacher, husband, and colleague.  I really try to impact my students, the young folks that are on staff for the summer, colleagues, and parents.  I also really try to be impacted by all of them.  I want to grow every day.  That said, my wife and kids are at home. I miss them a great deal.  I am missing baseball games, conversations around the dinner table, weekend trips to the beach and relatives, holidays (today is July 4), and numerous other events this summer.  I am very fortunate to have a wife that loves me and understands my work.  When I questioned whether it was a good idea for me to be here this summer, she texted me that "It is ok.  You are doing important work."  I am really blessed.  I really try to be present when I am at home.  She has often told me that is one of my gifts as a father.  I don't know if that is always true, but I really try.  You really do need to be where you are to get where you want to be.  I know it in my heart.  I am glad that Amy Poehler reminded me of it  this week. Her timing, as usual, is really good!

 Thanks, Amy.  I loved to book. 


Friday, July 3, 2015

Terraced Dynamics are not "Terrorist" Dynamics

This week, I have been teaching/conducting the Bach Double Concerto with my orchestra.  One of the all-important concepts that students need to understand is that of terraced dynamics.  I use all kinds of illustrations to get this point across. Terraced dynamics are a vital component of effective and appropriate performance of any  music of the Baroque era. (For those of you that aren't sure which composers that may include, think Bach, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi.) My techniques include historical perspectives (all vs. one),  social and religious philosophy of the era (good vs. evil), other arts (light vs. dark), and many others.  It is certainly appropriate to give historical context to music learning and this is one of the primary components of the Baroque era.

It takes a great deal of mindfulness for a young orchestra to master this concept.  Most commonly, young musicians commit to the concept for a brief period and then get lulled into some uninteresting place that we refer to as "mezzo."  This is just some middle ground of volume that is generally uninteresting and is the opposite of the word we use for volume in music, "dynamic."

In order to realize a wonderful performance of any Baroque repertoire, the performer must fully and actively commit to terraced dynamics.  The louds are very loud (all, light, good) and the softs are VERY soft (one, dark, evil).  Note:  I am actually not sure if good is loud and evil is soft or if it is the other way around.   The important point is the contrast.  Nothing in baroque performance is really mezzo.

Anyway, I have come to realize that we sometimes miss even the little things in teaching.  I now know that I have to clearly articulate and define the word terraced. I often use the visual of terraced agriculture that I learned in elementary school where the farmer cuts terraces in the side of a hill to effectively plan his crops.  There is no slope, only terraces.  It is the same idea with the dynamics of the Baroque era.  You can imagine my dismay when a student once asked me why they are called "terrorist" dynamics.  One can even imagine how this mistake could be made with my good vs. evil  analogy.

OK.  My bad.   I will always clearly define and explain the word "terraced" from now on.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

How can I possibly look up when I have to play all of these notes?

Watch the conductor. Look for the downbeat. Make eye contact. Watch. Make eye contact. Watch. Look. Follow. Watch. Watch. Watch.

Watching, looking, following, are all an integral part of orchestral musicianship and performance. Every conductor wants their musicians to watch, to follow, to connect. But, I often wonder if the young musicians that find themselves in my ensembles are thinking, "How am I supposed to watch when I have to play all of these notes?"  If they aren't thinking this, they certainly are saying it with their actions.

Yesterday, in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen, we addressed that very issue while working on William Hofeldt's beautiful composition, "The Faraway Place." This is a lovely slow work in 3/4 time that has lush string sounds, several interesting divisi sections, and rich close harmonies. The first violins are asked to play up to sixth position, but outside of high pitches, the technical challenges are minimal. The beauty of that situation is that the ensemble and musical director may then focus on the elements of ensemble that truly make a work dynamic.  This, of course, includes the skill of watching the conductor and being very aware of all that is happening in the ensemble.  

With this work, I will focus on phrasing, the intricacies of truly moving dynamic changes, and the all important skill of following a conductor and allowing the conductor to push and pull temple in meaningful purposeful ways. All of these skills require the musician to lift their eyes up to, to watch, and to communicate purposefully with both the conductor and the other musicians in their section, as well as the other sections.  The musician must not only know what their part is doing, they have to know what all of the others are doing as well.

In a rehearsal yesterday, we were working on some of these skills with minimal success.  The students were playing their parts reasonable well, but there was very little sense of ensemble or unity.  I decided to create an etude out of a simple major scale with the goal of eliminating the note reading aspect of the task at hand.  This, essentially, eliminates one of the multitude of tasks that the ensemble was asked to complete.   I used to an old trick that many directors and teachers have used in the past by creating a round out of a 2 octave major scale.  I had the ensemble play 3 quarter notes on each pitch (same meter as the piece) of an E flat major scale (key of the piece) in 2 octaves.  The Violin I section played first, on the third note of the scale, the 2nd Violins and Violas entered on the tonic, and on the fifth note, the celli and bass entered on the tonic. When we arrive at the top of the 2 octaves, we don't repeat the tonic and simply come back down.  Some directors will have one section hold a pedal tone on the tonic. This creates a beautiful round, reinforces the key, and provides an opportunity to drive home the need and benefits of watching the conductor and each other throughout the exercise.  I conduct throughout the etude.  I never let the 3rd pulse of the measure rush. (This is a common problem with young ensembles.)  At times I stretch the tempo and other times I push it.  Sometimes these changes are subtle and other times they are drastic. 

I also usually have the violins and violas stand for this exercise, because I am always trying to promote more movement in their playing.  This is another related concept  and I will address it in a future post.  But, the natural movement of playing while standing is often lost in the young orchestral musician.  I see so many "statues" in ensembles of every level.  We must promote movement in the orchestra so that students may give and receive visual communication from not only the conductor, but every individual piece of the ensemble.  Movement is also a key component to expressive playing, regardless of the visual communication aspect.  I see fluid movement in young ensembles less and less in my work.  I will continue to "wave this flag" in all of my work as a conductor and clinician!

This etude is wonderful for driving home the necessity of watching and lifting up one's eyes.  It invariably is less than terrific the first time we do it.  Students lose focus on the task, become passive, and, ultimately, it doesn't' really work.  Often the 2nd time through, it works better.  Yesterday, I went back to the piece after we did the etude twice, and it was much more cohesive!  Then we returned to the etude and it was much better!  The concept was beginning to realized.  

Many of you know that my belief that all good pedagogy has 4 important components.  There is a SYSTEM, it is SEQUENTIAL, It has strong, authentic, NOMENCLATURE, and involves a HARMONIC UNDERPINNING.  This exercise has all of this.  It is a system designed to encourage young musicians to watch and communicate with purpose.  It is a starting point in the sequence for this skill that ultimately comes back to the repertoire.  With this, I introduce the nomenclature of push, pull, ritard, rubato, upbeat, downbeat, etc.  And, of course, the major scale, possible pedal tone, and tonality are the foundation of the harmonic underpinning.  All of this is rock solid, from my perspective.

So, regardless of whether you are rehearsing a grade one arrangement of "Let it Go," from Frozen, or Barber's "Adagio" with an all state level group, the challenge remains of getting the group to watch in a meaningful, purposeful way.  Perhaps this exercise will provide the foundation for a lesson for you to use.   I feel like it was effective for my ensemble yesterday.  On we go!


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Repertoire stress

I know that I have posted before about the challenges of selecting repertoire for youth orchestras. This continues to be a primary topic for me, particularly in that I always seem to feel stress over selecting quality repertoire that provides the appropriate challenge for students and yet leaves some meat on the bone (time in rehearsal) for teaching musicianship, tone quality, and other orchestral concepts.  My guess is that many music ensemble instructors out there feel the same stress on a regular basis.  So, music teachers, and particularly ensemble directors, this post is for you.

This is an unending challenge: appropriate technical challenges for the top students, appropriate technical goals for the less advanced students, and plenty of time to work on ensemble technique, advanced musicianship (phrasing, tone, balance, rhythmic push/pull, etc), and team building.  The point of this post is to simply say, "We all feel it!"

I have been doing this now for over 28 years.  I have been in front of elementary, middle, high school, and collegiate ensembles.  I have conducted for camps, festivals, all county, all regional, all district, all state, university festivals, and others.  I have worked with very advanced young musicians to under-instructed young musicians.  I have sort of seen it all.  And yet, I still feel that stress!

I believe it grows from an overwhelming desire to give students all that we possibly can.  And, that process only happens when the repertoire is appropriate.  If the rep is too hard, we are only chasing notes.  That is SO unsatisfying for the players and the conductor.  If the music is not technically challenging enough, there can be an air of disappointment that is very tough to overcome in a rehearsal.  Trust me, I have dealt with both of these issues over the years. Perhaps that is why I am so focused on repertoire selection as a topic.

In the end, I love "selling" a piece to an ensemble.   I love it when their first reaction is less than enthusiastic and I can bring them around to loving the work.  What a kick.  But, I also love it when I walk into rehearsal and everyone is just so excited to get going because of the repertoire.  That is really fun!  

But, for all of you music educators, young and old, that read this today, simply know this:  you are not alone.  We all struggle with repertoire.  We all want to give our kids the best.  It is  an inexact science and I don't believe we will ever fully figure it out.  All we can do is forge ahead, learn from our mistakes, and work to be better every day, every concert, every school year.

I hope that these words resonate with some of you! Please let me know if you have any further thoughts on the subject.

In coming days, I will be discussing the repertoire that I have selected for my Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen this summer.  Perhaps I can share a title with you that you haven't considered yet and help out with your repertoire selection process.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I want more!

I want more!

Who wouldn't want to hear this from their top students? After all we want our students to thirst for more. We want them to grab as much as they possibly can, to truly desire excellence, and to live, eat, and breathe their instrument.  That said, as instructors, we have to be ready to respond to that charge in an affirmative and realistic manner. We have to know ahead of time what we're going to give them when they ask for more.   Material must be realistic and appropriate.  Tasks must be authentic and lead to real-world performance techniques and skills.  And, for goodness sake, we never want to squelch that enthusiasm.

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that I encountered this very situation this week. Honestly, I'm not sure that I really responded in the best way. I encouraged the students to give it time and they would find the challenge and difficulty in passages of the repertoire that I had selected. I've been thinking about this for the past 24 hours or so, and I'm convinced I really didn't give their remarks justice at the time that they presented them to me. I've been thinking a great deal about what I can give these students to really challenge them in their pursuits water here at camp this summer and certainly want to meet any challenge that a student might present to me.

So, with that in mind, here are some thoughts for members of each section of a string orchestra and ideas for conductors to use in order to give their students that truly desire an extra challenge, or "more." I am sure that many of you will have additional ideas to add to this list. This is in no way comprehensive. And, I would love to hear your ideas as well. But, for now here is some of my thoughts after about 24 hours of reflection.

First violins

I feel like the biggest challenge with the first violin section is encouraging them to use upper positions on passages that don't necessarily require them to play high pitches. It always seems to be a trick with young musicians to get them to see what would be an open A as a second finger on the D string in third position, or some other finger, if the passage calls for 2nd or 4th position. I encourage them to seek the best opportunities for shifting, opportunities for playing a passage on a single string with shifts, and to look for possibilities of altered fingerings to encourage a sweeter vibrato on sustained notes.

Another great challenge for a first violinist is to hand them a cello part or a viola part and encourage them to learn to play those parts on their instrument. There is no downside to learning how to play bass or alto clef on the violin, transposing by the octave where necessary. And really, in that same vein, shouldn't the first violin section learn to play the second violin part as well as their own? That can only enhance their true understanding of the work and the musical ideas that the composer is trying to develop.

Second violins

So, the obvious challenge for a second violinist, is to learn the first violin part. There is no downside to this challenge for a student in the second violin section. Additionally, all of my previous thoughts on playing in upper positions are options for these students as well. This can be particularly meaningful, as so many of the second violin parts, particularly for student orchestras, are in the lower register of the instrument. It is a wonderful challenge, for a second violinist, to get off of those open strings and up into 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th position, particularly for sustained passages or repeated notes.

Additionally, I always challenge the 2nds to concentrate on richness of tone and the role of the inner harmony in the ensemble.  Training young ears to hear that role is a full time job and those that figure it out will go far!  I also always encourage my 2nd violins to listen for their opportunities to be in the spotlight.  When do the 2nds have a moving part while everyone else is sustaining a chord?  That is the time to "sit a little straighter" and play like a diva!!


When in doubt, TREBLE CLEF! I really feel like any violist that is ready for extra challenge must be encouraged to develop their skills in reading treble clef. Hand them a first violin part. Or, hand them a first and second violin part. Encourage them to learn them all. Again, this will only enhance their understanding of the composition, and make them a better player in the long run. It will prepare them for all kinds of performance situations where they will be required to read from treble clef. And, if they do a great job and learn those parts, find a way to feature them in a performance. Perhaps you could add a small repeat somewhere in the midst of a piece where violas could take over the first and second violin part as a feature passage.

All of my previous remarks about shifting also certainly apply to the viola section. I would encourage violist that desire an extra challenge to think about fingering in relation to the tonic and key of the work. Have them consider how their scale study relates to the passages they are performing. If they are doing scales that begin with first finger on the tonic, then finger passages accordingly. If they are working on scales with second finger on the tonic to begin, then encourage that philosophy in fingering passages in the orchestral repertoire. Drawing these connections between scale study, concepts in theory, and the repertoire is invaluable.

I also always encourage violists to be extraordinarily cognizant of musical line and direction. a fine violist must always find the direction of the phrase and work to enhance the understanding of that line for every other member of the orchestra.

Finally, obviously, the tonal implications of the viola section are huge. Violists that are looking for more, should be encouraged to be thinking about their vibrato, bow weight, bow distribution, balance, and tone production throughout every rehearsal and whenever they have their hands on  their instruments.  After all - that is the real-world role of the viola in the orchestra:  richness, inner harmony, color.  This is what the violist loves and our viola students need to learn to embrace that  challenge.


For cellists, I would reiterate many of the aforementioned concepts. However, one additional concept is to focus on fluid movements while playing and performing with an orchestra. I have noticed, over the years, a deep divide in musicianship between those cellists that move freely when playing versus those that are rigid in their posture.  The cellist (and all other musicians for that matter) that moves, typically produces a musical line that sings!


I had a wonderful conversation this evening with my dear friend and colleague, AaronTenney, bass instructor here at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, about this very subject. He suggested that young bassists that claim they need more must be reminded to concentrate on issues that truly define the essence of bass playing. These include: concentrating on a consistent vibrato, working to generate a "room-filling" tone, always performing with a classical pizzicato technique (as opposed to jazz - yes there is a difference), and considering tone, rhythm, and balance on every note of a work.  In a word, mindfulness is the challenge.  The essence of bass technique is the goal.

I hope that you find some of these suggestions to be helpful. I am certain that many of you will have additional ideas for challenging your top students. Please share them with me. I would love to hear from you and continue a dialogue.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Interlochen 2015 Opening Thoughts

Today marked the first rehearsal of my 5th season at Interlochen with the Intermediate Concert Orchestra (ICO).  I love working this with group and always enjoy my time at Interlochen.  For me, it a wonderful period of music-making, concert attendance, time with colleagues from around the country, and personal rejuvenation that I have come to rely on and anticipate throughout the regular academic year. 

Today, I met a great bunch of kids that are ready to work together, learn and grow as musicians, learn and grow as people, and invest in ensemble and the magnificent world of orchestral music. I know we will make some amazing music this summer.

Each year, I have learned that there are some constants that I can look forward to at the start of camp; greeting old friends on the faculty at initial meetings, meeting new faculty members, greeting former students from past summers, marveling at the beautiful lakes and scenery in Northern Michigan and many others.   One of these constants is the inspiring opening remarks to the faculty from Ted Farraday, Vice President of Educational Programs at Interlochen, at our opening faculty meeting.  Ted is a 24/7 educator.  I have learned over the years that he is always thoughtful and prepared when placed in front of a microphone.  He is always teaching in a perfect way for the setting he is faced with.  At our opening faculty meeting, he has a way of setting a course for the summer. He provides a backdrop and in some ways, a mission for the summer.  I always look forward to these remarks and feel they provide a bit of direction for me as I am still trying to wind down from the previous academic year and get psyched up for the summer ahead.  

I should say here that my dear friend and former colleague, Dr. Gerald Boarman, had a way of doing the same thing.  He would always give some sort of charge at the beginning of the school year.  I would usually write down his words and reflect on them from time to time throughout the year.  Was I really meeting those ideals and expectations in my daily work?  It was really effective for me as a teacher and a professional. Direction is so important.  

This week, Ted encouraged us to reflect on the following model. When teaching the arts, we are dealing with issues of skill, intellect, emotion, and imagination.  He encouraged us to consider how we are nurturing each of these areas in our daily contact with students and in our teaching.

As I consider my role as a conductor and music instructor, both at Interlochen and at the NC School of Science and Math, I am reminded that each of these areas is absolutely integral to the process of teaching my subject.  And, upon further reflection, isn't that the goal in all disciplines?  So for now, I will simply reflect on how these will find their way into my work with ICO this summer. In doing so, I know that I will begin thinking about my upcoming work at NCSSM in the fall and beyond.


As a pedagogue, this one should be self-evident. But, perhaps folks don't always realize the role of a conductor in promoting skill in the plays he directs.  This is particularly important in an orchestra such as ICO.  Today, we dealt with a very specific tuning procedure, specific expectation for playing position, ways of approaching inner rhythm in the ensemble, the concept of direction of musical line (approach, arrive, depart), specific universal notations and markings that musicians place in a score and when to place them, when to make eye contact with the conductor, and a variety of other specific skills.  And today was the first day!!  Sure, by later in the concert cycle, we will be dealing more with emotion and imagination, but today was about the skills.


Have you ever noticed that bright kids often gravitate to musical pursuits?  I believe that one reason for this is that there is an unending opportunity for stretching the intellect in music.  You never really know it all.  My role this summer is to push the intellectual boundaries of notation, rhythm, pitch, fingering, communication, syncopation, feel, and historical context for each of these students from their current individual level in a context that they can understand and grasp. Today, I encouraged my students to mark their parts and take notes so sufficiently that they only have to solve each musical equation one time. Why re-solve a puzzle every time you encounter it?  This summer we will solve many musical equations.  What an opportunity! 


This one has Interlochen and the camp experience written all over it.  One of my great frustrations at NCSSM is the lack of concentrated, consistent rehearsal time for my ensemble in the midst of students' busy and varied schedules.  It is tough to invest emotionally when you are so stretched out.  But here at Interlochen, we have time to invest.  The students invest in each other, in their conductors, in the repertoire, in the expectation, in their own advancement, and it ultimately shows up in performance.  Emotional investment doesn't happen by accident.  It has to be promoted, demonstrated, and even required by the leader.  I am invested emotionally.  It is really easy to be emotionally invested here.  The place is beautiful and the people are beautiful.  The common theme of beauty and art is intoxicating and the investment is natural.  Sadly, I have learned over the years that not all musicians or performances are the product of emotional investment.  But here, that investment is a large part of the equation.


When we think of the Arts, we think of imagination.  Creating is built on imagination.  But for us classical musicians, that isn't always front and center.   After all, we are all about re-creating someone else's vision.  The great challenge for a conductor is to bring the element of imagination to every note in a piece.  We must breathe life into a work, well beyond the notation on the page.  I love this challenge and I truly desire to challenge my students to stretch their imagination in the ensemble as well.  Other areas of the arts do this a little more organically.  Writers work with a blank page, composers start with blank manuscript, artist have their canvas or clay.  

Today, a student mentioned that she was concerned that the repertoire that I had programmed was not challenging enough for her following the first rehearsal.  (I am never surprised by this remark and I certainly am not offended by it.)  It simply represents a misunderstanding of all that is involved in this process.  Learning and playing the correct notes and rhythms is only the first step in the process.  There are so many more steps to the ensemble goals that involve developing skill, intellect, emotion, and imagination.  My hope is that she will find all of these and more in the next few weeks while playing in my orchestra.  

So, there are some of my quick reflections on the opening remarks of my friend Ted Farraday. I certainly took note of his words and charge at the beginning of camp and will revisit them from time to time this summer and again as school begins in August at NCSSM.  As I think about NCSSM, I know that my colleagues in the Math, Science, and Humanities Departments all encourage these four areas as part of their daily work.  The culture of math modeling, for example, requires great imagination and NCSSM students have earned much international recognition for this very aspect of their approach to math.  One only need see a few of the research presentations of our science students to understand the depth of emotional investment that goes into that work, on top of the obvious skill and intellect involved.  I could go on and on here.

For now, I am ready to get going.  Today was a blast and I can't wait for rehearsal tomorrow.   It is going to be a great summer!!