Saturday, August 27, 2016

More Habits

A few weeks ago I published a post entitled Five Habits of Successful Musicians. A few days after that post was published, I was discussing it with my orchestra at Interlochen. The kids listened with great interest and really took the notes to heart. Following my remarks, the kids begin adding their own suggestions of habits that are important for successful orchestral musicians. I promised them that I would publish them as soon as I had some time to sit down and write the article. So, here it is. More Habits of Successful Orchestral Musicians as discussed by the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra in the summer of 2016.  The habit and the person that suggested it are in bold, followed by my commentary.

1. Stop playing immediately when the conductor stops conducting. ~Abigail
Nothing derails a rehearsal faster than students playing past the conductor's direction and wastes valuable time. It is such a good habit to stop immediately. Also, by playing beyond the conductor's direction, there really is a question as to whether the musician is truly mentally with the ensemble. Great advice!

2. Listen to each other at all times. ~Yael
It seems so simple. But, listening is key. So often, students get tied up in reading the notes and the part that they forget to listen. This habit must be developed very early in a young musician’s life.

3. Mark Your Parts independently without being prompted. ~Alma. 
Student who mark their parts independently are clearly demonstrating that they're thinking independently. Ultimately, that is the goal in any orchestra rehearsal. We want students to be independent musicians that are tied into the greater good of the group. And, we want them to mark their part so much that it will be impossible for them to make the same mistake the next time.

4. Ask questions when you are confused. ~Julietta.
This is such great advice. So often, if the student has a question, they worry about being the only one with that question. The fact is, if one student has a question, probably many are thinking the same thing. As hard as conductors try to be clear, sometimes it just doesn't happen. Ask questions when you're confused. More than likely, others need that answer as well.  We can handle it!

5. Practice the most difficult parts first outside of class. ~Charlie.
Human nature is funny. We want to practice the things that sound the best. The fact of the matter is that we don't need to practice the stuff we already can play. Go directly to the most difficult passages and practice them first when your attention is at its highest. Practice them slowly and accurately. Then go back and play the stuff that you can play well and like to play. Those passages are much better held until later in the practice session.

6. Make a plan for turning Pages. ~Katelyn.
So often, student musicians turn pages way too late. The inside player should always stop well in advance of the page turn and be prepared to get that page turned before the downbeat of the first measure of the new page. It is always the inside player's responsibility. Anytime the outside player feels compelled to turn the page, the inside player has dropped the ball. This is standard etiquette of orchestral playing and should be adhered to in every situation.

7. Be prepared for every entrance two bars early. ~Gloria.
I always instruct my ensembles to have instruments up and ready to play two bars before any entrance. This consistency helps everyone in the section know exactly when to enter. If someone has lost track of a long series of rests to be counted, they can jump back in if the entire section is bringing their instruments up exactly to bars early. Consistency is the key here.

8. Bring water to rehearsal. ~Eva. 
I am not sure that I would have included this in my list. But, at Interlochen where we were making the list, it is close to 100 degrees in many of the rehearsal spaces during the summer months. Hydration is absolutely key for these kids. And, as I think about it, having a bottle of water on the floor is actually a pretty good idea in any rehearsal setting. As long as it doesn't distract from the rehearsal, a sip of water can be quite refreshing in the middle of rehearsal and can actually provide a little bit of extra energy toward the end of a long rehearsal. 

9. Mark your mistakes so you can go back and practice them later. ~Eva.
It is always good to put a little note in the music on passages that need to be reviewed. This, again, demonstrates independent thinking and musicianship. Anything that makes practice more efficient is always welcomed by a conductor!

10. Look through the section not just at the conductor. ~Julietta
Musicians that get in the habit of looking not only at the conductor, but also at the front stand and those around them tend to be the most accomplished ensemble musicians. They should be paying attention to the bow placement of those around them, bow direction, style, articulation, and many other facets of the ensemble's work. This would include those in their own section and those in other sections around them.

11. Breathe into phrases. ~Yael
I always ask section players to breathe into every entrance, just as if they were playing in a string quartet. Every player is the conductor.  That breath and preparation into a phrase is vital to strong ensemble performances. And, it is a great habit to take to the chamber ensemble as well. (By the way, soloists need to develop this as well!)

12. Look the part.   Play the role.  ~Yael.
I always tell students that if they don't look like they know what they're doing, they probably don't. The first step is always to look good in an ensemble. That means sitting on the front edge of the chair, having feet firmly planted on the ground, and holding the instrument in a beautiful, perfect playing position. Other aspects of looking the part include bow hold, position relative to the conductor, general posture, and many others.

I hope that you find these helpful and encourage you to share them with your students.  What have we forgotten?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.  

Best wishes for a successful 2016-2017 academic year!!


Sunday, August 7, 2016

ICO 2016 Interlochen Final Concert

Before I close the door on my 2016 Interlochen experience, I want to make sure that I say a few words about the repertoire that I selected for our final concert of the season. That concert actually took place several weeks ago.  I am sorry I didn't post about it prior to the performance. I do, however I encourage you to check out the audio recordings of the concert at the Interlochen Public Radio website. I will attach the link here as soon as it is available.

For this concert we did 5 selections.

We began the program with Mandolina by Gabrielle Faure, arranged by Tom Sharp. Those of you that know me, know that I frequently perform alt styles works arranged and composed by Tom Sharpe. This, however, is a wonderful piece by Faure, originally scored for piano and soprano solo. Tom Sharpe has brilliantly arranged it for string orchestra. Let me Begin by saying that this is a pretty difficult work. We actually had to modify some of the viola and cello parts to accommodate some of the less experienced players in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra. That said, it was quite easy to transcribe the bass line for these areas of the piece. This work includes beautiful melodies for each section of the string orchestra. It begins with a lovely soaring cello line and then hands the melody off to the violins. The B section is led by the violas. The melody then returns to the cellos  featured on the A' section to the end. I must say that this addition does require a good deal of editing. The bowings also must be modified for young orchestra in order to make the phrasing really speak. Also, it takes some time to really figure out who has the melody at any given moment and how the accompaniment parts fit in underneath the melody. That said, when all assembled, this is an absolutely beautiful work. I would rate this as about a grade 5 piece. It is absolutely stunning when performed.

For our second piece, I continued with the French theme. We performed the Minuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin, by Maurice Ravel, arranged by Carrie Lane Gruselle. I became aware of this work 2 years ago at a new music reading session that ASTA presented in North Carolina. It is a little outside the box of what I would normally Program for young orchestra. Each voice in the string orchestra is very independent and it requires attention to dynamic detail, as well as attention to details in phrasing, bow technique, hooked bowing, and other techniques associated with the impressionistic period. This piece features lovely melodies in each section and requires students to be very cognizant of conductors' nuances in the stick. The B section of this work features a muted string section performing a haunting minor melody.

Third, the orchestra presented the world premiere of Peter Terry's Blindsighted. You can see my notes on this piece in my previous post.

Following that, we performed the world premiere of another String orchestra work. This piece, the Colosseum, by Macenna Hanson held a place very near and dear to my heart. Miss Hanson, you see, was the concertmaster of this very ensemble during the summer of 2015. She approached me at the beginning of the summer of 2016 and informed me that she was now a composition major at the Interlochen Arts Camp. She told me that she had been working on a piece for string orchestra. I offered to read the piece in one of my rehearsals and she enthusiastically accepted the offer. After looking at the score and hearing a midi recording of the work, I offered to spend some time on the piece and see if it might be performable. It became clear very quickly that this piece would be a favorite of the students and myself and we could certainly perform it on the stage of Kresge Auditorium. Of course, Macenna was thrilled and we, in fact, performed the world premiere of that work on our concert. It was such a thrill and pleasure to perform a work by a young composer and see her hard work come to fruition in such a magnificent performance space.

Our fifth and final selection for this concert was Bert Ligon's Bossa Rojo for string orchestra. This is a wonderful, light bossa style piece for string orchestra that features opportunities for teaching articulation, improvisation, and pop style playing for young string orchestras. This piece is a grade 3.5 and is truly a pleasure to perform. The melodies have been stuck in my head for the past several weeks! We decided to feature Interlochen faculty piano instructor, Alejandro Bernard  Papachryssanthou on the electronic keyboard as part of this performance. He added a solo on keyboards that was a true face melter! What a blast! It was a wonderful way to end the 2016 concert season for the Intermediate Concert Orchestra.

Again, I encourage you to check out the recordings of these pieces. I could not have been any happier with our performances. I look forward to continuing to write about repertoire that I select for the various orchestras I am working with in coming weeks and months.

Until next time.



Wednesday, August 3, 2016


This week, on the final intermediate concert of the 2016 season, the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp will be presenting the world premiere of Blindsighted for String Orchestra by Dr Peter Terry (Carl Fisher Publishing). This has been a great summer of world premieres at Interlochen and I really think that we have saved the best for last. Peter Terry wrote this work with the Interlochen Intermediate Concert Orchestra in mind and he has really hit the mark with this piece.
It has been a great experience for the students to participate in the process of learning a new piece of music. There is so much that goes into this process that is unique in the ensemble music world. In that it is a new work, I have actually been formulating my opinions and approach to the work as part of the rehearsal process, rather than prior to rehearsals per usual. It has been great for the students to participate in those moments of discovery and decision-making. Some of these moments are very concrete. They might include bowing concepts, tempo decisions, style, articulation, and other clear technical decisions. Additionally, however, there are the more abstract realizations that come as part of living with a work for a period of time. For this piece, this has been the really fun and enlightening part of the process.
As I began to dig into this work, one of my first impressions was that the A section is very angular and geometric in nature. There are clear angular rhythms and ostinati throughout this section which create a somewhat aggressive, almost hard rock, driving impression. The angles and geometric figures are somewhat "black and white" in their presentation. I explained to the orchestra that one of our jobs as an ensemble is to take those black and white figures and begin to make them three dimensional and colorful through the use of dynamics, style, movement, and contrasts in the work.
The slower, more lyrical B section of the work features a small, initial battle between the anglarity of the A section and the softer more muted ideas of the slow middle section. I told the students that the the transition almost reminds me of the process of coming out of a dream state; that moment when you feel yourself waking up but still are pulled back into a dream. I feel like the students really responded well to this concept and will perform it very well with this idea in mind.
As the piece transitions back to the  A' section, that battle between dream state and lucidity reoccurs. Finally, the geometric, angular, dream re-emerges and the piece drives to the exiting end.
Within these changes, it is certainly the orchestra's responsibility to generate dynamics, direction, approaches and arrivals, and interest through articulation, accuracy, and drive.
Yesterday, for rehearsal, Dr. Terry came and listen to some of the work that we have been doing on the piece. In my preparation, I had somehow neglected to look up the definition of blindsighted. As I told Dr. Terry my impressions of the piece, that I have already written about above, a pleasant smile came over his face. He told me that the word blindsighted is actually a reference to the dreams of people that are blind. You can look up this concept at the following link. In the end the impressions that I had of geometric figures, dream states, and 3 dimensional images in the mind, all relate to this title. What an amazing coincidence! I think that Peter and I both felt a real satisfaction in this realization that we had connected on the meaning behind the work based entirely on the music that he had written.
We had a wonderful rehearsal yesterday and the students really gained a significantly deeper perspective through the opportunity to talk with the composer and hear his impressions. He will come to another rehearsal on Friday, too. I loved the fact that he was willing to articulate to the kids that a world premiere only happens once in a piece's life. He really charged them with the excitement and immediate sense of the situation and performance that is in front of them. The students are totally excited to have this opportunity.
He will come to another rehearsal on Friday to conduct the work for the students as well. I will be conducting the world premiere on Saturday, August 6th, 2016, at 4 o'clock in Kresge Auditorium on the Interlochen Center for the Arts campus.