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.