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!!


Monday, June 15, 2015

Thoughts on a messed up arm

This is a blog post about an injury. It is been a long hard road since I started this rehab on my injured left arm and its going to be a long road ahead.

This ordeal all began back in March of 2015. I had a gig the night before it began. We had a great time and played well. The next day, I was doing the dishes in my kitchen when I flipped a heavy frying pan over to rinse it. I felt something give in my elbow and that would change the scope of my next several months. The following Monday my arm was bruised from above my elbow to below my wrist and the pain was excruciating. I made my way to Triangle Orthopedics thinking that I would get an MRI or an xray. After a quick diagnosis, I was told that I had a torn bicep. I scheduled an appointment with a bicep specialist and thought that was where we'd be heading for the next several months. After some more pain in the ensuing days, I went to my friend, Thomas Michell in the NCSSM Athletic Training Department. He seriously questioned the bicep diagnosis and sent me immediately over to Duke for a meeting with a highly respected orthopedist whom he trusted a great deal. At that appointment, I was told this was more likely a repetitive stress situation and that the real area of concern was my brachialis. I was advised to go to physical therapy and did so for the next several weeks. By the time I left Durham to head to Interlochen for the summer, I was really feeling pretty good. I had a full range of motion in my arm and was back to playing the violin on a semi-regular basis.

But sadly, after only one week at interlochen of daily conducting and playing, I had a knot the size of a quarter in my left elbow, couldn't play, and was conducting with great pain on a daily basis. To make matters worse, I woke up one morning with hives up and down my arms and all over my back.  I was getting desperate.

It was at that point that I looked on the internet for a chiropractor or physical therapist that I might be able to trust here in Traverse City. I found Dr. Don Funk at his practice,  Structure and Function, here in Traverse City. Don is a great guy to work with at every level. He is knowledgeable, authoritative, and super friendly. He's got a small child at home, and we really related to each other both as Dads, professionals, and as caring, dedicated individuals. Almost immediately, Dr Funk reassured me that he understood the problems that I was experiencing, and that he could help me get on the path to good health quickly and efficiently. The problem, he told me, was a result of years and years of micro tears and the resulting scar tissue that developed. Essentially, my muscles and tendons had repair themselves in such a way that I was able to supinate my arm, but could no longer pronate my arm. He advised me that the problem could be corrected with PT and that he had a plan to get me there. He also readied me that the advise I had received back in Durham was on track and that this setback was simply par for the course. Basically, he could get me feeling better. And, I was thrilled that he wanted me to continue all of my activities. Rest want going to be part of the plan.

That was four weeks ago. In the time sinse, I have regained a great deal of motion in my left arm, the pain has diminished significantly, and I feel good about my future in conducting and playing the violin.  I have to tell you that just a few weeks ago, it was hard to imagine being able to play my violin on any regular basis again. I was able to fight my way through rehearsals but even the most basic of conducting motions for my left arm were difficult and painful. Try to imagine the two primary activities that have been central to your life and your career being in jeopardy. I was completely freaked out. I was concerned about my ability to do my job. Moreover, I was concerned about my ability to do the things that bring me such great joy in my life.

Now, just a few short weeks later, I can reimagine what my life looks like as a violinist in the classical arena, in I.finitt Road, the country band I play in, in Broad Street Collective, leading worship on Sunday morning at Blacknall, and playing and practicing with my children and students on a regular basis. I was worried that my practice of demonstrating string techniques in my rehearsals could be over forever. And, I was concerned that I would have to limit my conducting on some level which seemed impossible to imagine.

So, is there a point to this post? I suppose there is.

First appreciate the activities that you love in your life. I've always appreciated my ability to conduct and particularly my ability to play the violin. But when it starts to feel like it's going to go away, you grow to appreciate it even more. Ever since I had surgery on my vocal cords about 5 years ago, I've been intimately aware that my violin is my expressive voice. The thought of that voice going away was more than I could bear. Appreciate the activities in your life that you love.

A second point to this post is one of appreciation. I want to thank Dr. Don Funk for his magnificent care over the past 4 weeks. He's a magnificent doctor and I recommend him highly to anyone at Interlochen or in Traverse City that needs some chiropractic care or physical therapy. He was a God-send for me this summer. Thanks Don.

Another point of this post is simply to say to my colleagues, take care of yourself. I am the classic guy who doesn't listen to his body. I fight through pain. I play too long and too hard. And I generally don't take care of myself. Colleagues, learn a lesson from me. Stretch before playing a long gig. Stretch before conducting a long rehearsal. Ice sore joints and muscles after long gigs and rehearsals. And, seek out great health care early when pain starts. I recommend chiropractic care very highly.

Finally, I want to thank my friends and colleagues here at Interlochen, back at NCSSM, and all over Facebook-land, that have expressed concern and care for me as I have been battling this injury. I can't tell you how much your care and concern mean to me. I have felt incredibly loved throughout this ordeal. I'm not better yet, but I'm on the right path. Doctor Funk has recommended a chiropractor/ physical therapist in Durham that is very close to NCSSM. I will continue my physical therapy with him when I get home, and know that I will be back in good health with continued diligence and care.

In the end, it is been a trying 6 months or so from a physical perspective. But, I really think I'm on the other side. I am hopeful that as we begin a new school year, I will continue to feel better on a daily basis. It is so nice to begin a new school year with hope. It is one of the great things about being an educator. We have beginnings and we have endings. As we be getting a new year at NCSSM, I am anticipating a great year of music making and a great year for my own physical health.