Monday, January 22, 2018

Immersive Experience

This past weekend was a busy one at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. We had a number of performances and the weekend finished up with the magnificent lecture by our current featured guest visual artist, Heather Gordon.

Heather Gordon is a magnificent, scholarly visual artist who's work centers around complex origami patterns based on a variety of data sets. Her lecture last night served to explain her current installation at NCSSM entitled "Elements." Her work centers around the concept of alchemy and features 4 large works which are made out of tape on two dimensional wall surfaces. They are titled, "Sun," "Moon," "Sulfur," and "Mercury." She explained the significance of these 4  "elements" as part of her lecture and went on to describe her creative process and the highly sophisticated mathematical equations that are required to complete this type of work.  The artwork is simply magnificent and inspires me every day when I walked into the building at the school. 

As part of her lecture, she introduced a couple of concepts that I can't stop thinking about today.  One is that "ideas + material =  transformation." The other is her commitment to what she referred to as "Immersive  Installation."  That is, that the consumer of her art is immersed in art. They are literally inside the art. This is achieved by creating an actual space that the consumer walks into. Obviously this requires large spaces and large artwork. The installation at ncssm is an example of this very thing. When viewing this exhibit, the consumer is literally in the middle of Sulphur, Mercury, Sun, and Moon.  The experience of being immersed in this exhibit is quite powerful. I was moved by her explanation and commitment to the immersive art experience.  (There is a great deal more to the implied metaphor here. I will stop short of explaining all of it now. But, if you are interested in it, there is much to learn about alchemy on the all powerful Google machine.)

Stay with me now as I draw a strong connection between these ideas and my experience of preparing for an orchestra performance and performing as part of an orchestra.

This past weekend, my Orchestra performed Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, No. 41. As we came to the end of the final movement, I found myself disappointed that the process was over. My students had been immersed in and in preparation for this performance for the past 3 months. To see it come to an end is certainly part of the process. Albeit, a somewhat melancholy aspect of the process.

As part of her lecture, Heather talked about the process of taking down her installations. She pulls this copious amount of tape off the walls of the exhibit space. Someone asked her what that process of tearing down the exhibit is like. Her response was,  "Well, at the end I have a big ball of tape." And that too is part of the artwork. It's part of the immersive experience.

This is not unlike the final release of the final note of a great musical work. In the end we have our memory of the experience. We have a "huge ball of tape," one that will last and stay with us forever in our memory and in our heart.

Another event of the past weekend was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Southeast Honors String Festival. My youngest son, who is 15, participated in the ensemble as a string bassist. Now, it is important to know that his primary passion is not the string bass. Nor is it orchestra music. His primary passion is baseball. Given the opportunity to choose to do anything with his day, he would prefer to be on the baseball field. I love that about him. He is passionate about his sport and all of his activities. But, this weekend he was a bassist in a wonderful Honors Orchestra conducted by my dear friend Alex Jimenez from Florida State University. The concert was magnificent. They played works by Hovhaness, Kirk Mosier, and C. Armstrong Gibbs. On our way home from the performance, I was able to articulate to my son how important it is that he participate in this kind of activity. He, in fact, had the opportunity to be immersed in an artistic work. As a bassist he was part of the ensemble that created this incredibly beautiful sound. Sometimes that is lost on our students. The aesthetic opportunity to be immersed in a large ensemble making beautiful sounds is rare. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do this. I'm so happy that he has been exposed to these ideas and the materials and has this opportunity for transformation.  He will be a more complete human (husband, father, partner, teammate, friend) for having experienced this.

Which brings me back to that phrase, "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." Many of you know that I've been involved in KidzNotes, an El Sistema USA program in Durham, NC. This is a classic example of this concept of ideas plus materials equal transformation. Through the generous support of individual donors, kids notes provides both the materials and the ideas for underserved children in the area to be transformed. We have seen over and over that families and individuals, through the infusion of classical music and opportunities to experience and create art, are transformed.

Teachers do this every day. I think of my many colleagues around the United States who are providing ideas and materials to so many students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to participate in ensemble music. They are all experiencing the immersive art of the orchestral experience on a daily basis. They don't always realize this rare opportunity in the moment. But, as they move on to various careers, cities, family obligations, and environments, they will look back on their school orchestral experience as a transformative time in their life. I have seen it time and time again.

So today, I share with you these two phrases: the concept of "Immersive Installations and "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." I encourage you to consider these today and never lose sight of the fact that we are instruments of transformation in the lives of our students.



Thursday, January 18, 2018


Context is so important. For those of you that know my thoughts on pedagogy, context is very similar to the "Harmonic Underpinning" aspect of my pedagogical model.  When we have context and/or harmonic underpinning, everything makes more sense.  We are not playing in a vacuum.  With context, we play with a sense of greater understanding and investment.  I believe that as educators, most of us really understand this.  But, it is easy to leave it out or move quickly past it.  We can't.  We must continually provide our students with the "why?" of the work we do and the lessons we assign.  Learning without context is pretty hollow.

For those of us that lead orchestras, it is absolutely vital that we provide context music that we play. Lots of pedagogical repertoire even provides explanations of the composition on the inside cover of the score.  This might include the story behind the piece, pedagogical priorities, and other composers notes.  But,  this wasn't the case in the time of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven.  My Orchestra is currently working on Mozart's Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter." We had been working on this piece for about four weeks leading up to the holidays. For the last rehearsal before winter break, I decided to take some time and outline the context of the piece.  I wanted the students to understand many of the intricacies of the composition and the wonderful little secrets that within the piece.

My remarks that day included things as basic as the date of composition (1788), other works that were composed the same year (Symphonies 39 and 40, as well as piano trios in E major (K. 542), and C major (K. 548), piano sonata No. 16 in C (K. 545), and violin sonatina K. 547), some of the details of Mozart's life during that time, and basic structure of the work. I also included obligatory explanations of form as it applies to a Viennese Symphony. We talked briefly about Sonata-Allegro form, structure of a Minuet and Trio, and other standard details of form.

We discussed many other interesting details surrounding this work. We discussed the significance of subtitle Jupiter. From Wikipedia: "The celebrated finale of the symphony is a re-working, albeit a majestic one, of the opening movement of Carl Ditters's symphony in D, Der Sturz Phaëtons (The Fall of Phaëton) of 1785. In those days of classical education, members of the Philharmonic Society, of which Salomon was a founding member, will have known that the planet that the ancient Greeks called "Phaët(h)on" is the same planet that the ancient Romans called "Jupiter."  We discussed the significance of this piece historically and we covered the great deal interesting details the composition itself

One of the coolest aspects of this piece is that the first movement includes a reference to an aria entitled "Un Bacio di mano"  (A Kiss on the Hand) to which Mozart composed the music earlier that year. There is a direct quote of the music that accompanies the aria at the end of both the exposition and recapitulation of the first movement.  It is a compositional joke that reminds us of Mozart's true greatness and mastery of the symphony and artistic expression of the time.  Tom Service from The Guardian calls it, "an intertextual gag of the highest musical and dramatic subtlety."  

We discussed the weaving of themes throughout all 4 movements, the direct foreshadowing of the first theme of 4th Movement Fugue found in the 3rd Movement Trio, and the great significance and compositional achievement of the intertwined sonata allegro form and 5 themed fugatta 4th Movement.  We also discussed the historical significance of the 4 note theme which is originally found in Josquin des Prez's Missa Pange Lingua from the 16th century and eventually in the work of Michael Haydn, brother of Joseph.

Honestly, there is so much more.  I was so glad that I took the time to do this right before the holidays.   One student, thanking me on the way out of class, told me that it was really meaningful to her.  And, I think that the information has impacted our performance of the work.  So often, students erroneously look at Mozart's compositions as light and even perhaps insignificant compared to the great Romantic Symphonies.  This simply isn't the case.  It takes so much control to shape every phrase and keep the performance elegant. There is nothing simple about it. Honesty, I learned a great deal by doing a little bit of light research and the kids were certainly the beneficiary as well. 

So this is my reminder for today. Provide context work the works you are preparing.  Whether you are working on  arrangements of great works, new pedagogical compositions, or the masterworks, provide the context.  Encourage your students to act and think like scholars.  (CAST)
Context increases our scholarship, our understanding, and our investment in the work.  It will certainly impact your performance and enhance your students' learning and appreciation of the music you are preparing.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Functional String Improvisation

Several months ago, my friend Chris Selby, at the Charleston County School for the Arts in Charleston South Carolina, invited me to come to his school to give a weekend seminar on string improvisation. I was hesitant to accept his invitation at first because, as many of you know , I am not really a jazz educator in any way. I am an improvising violinist and a string educator. But, I really haven't taught a great deal of improvisation over the years. Nor, am I an expert in jazz or even formally trained in improv.  My improvising skill and style is much more self-taught and from the school of hard knocks.  So, I really wasn't sure if I wanted to tackle the daunting task of a weekend seminar explaining and teaching my approach to improvisation.

With that in mind, I thought for a while about my values in teaching and decided that if I could come up with a systematic, sequential system that outlined my journey as an improviser, I may be able to give the students something that would be useful and practical. I began putting my thoughts together and as a result of some discussions with Chris and with my wife I came up with the title, "Functional String Improvisation" for the weekend. This notion of being functional is very important to me. I am so aware that I am not a jazz performer nor an expert improviser. But, I am a functional violinist. I am able to go into almost any performing situation and provide something that is interesting, stylistically appropriate, musical, and enjoyable. I am as comfortable playing over chord changes in a recording studio as I am playing in the middle of a violin section of an orchestra.

So, here is the system that I articulated that weekend.  It is my approach.  It is an articulation of my journey and experience.  I don't hold it up as the gold standard, but I know that it has worked for me.  Working on and developing these concepts and skills has helped me to become the improviser that I am today.  This is all built on time, practice and experience.  The system is effective, but practice and repetition is the key.

I am providing my outline and annotations here.  My hope is that other string teachers may find something here that resonates with them and begin the journey for themselves.  Or, if already on that journey, find a different twist or approach.


Basics of Functional Musicianship
  • There is no substitute for core technique and tone
  • Functional String improvisation is a combination of the following:
    • Functional/Applied Music Theory
    • Internalized concepts of harmony, chord tones, and voice leading
    • Listening
    • Understanding the function or role you are playing at any given moment in the tune
    • Imagination
    • Practice!

Skills to Develop:

Free Improv and musical conversation
  • Listen and respond/react
  • “Yes, and…”
This skill encourages the musician to play without fear of wrong notes. There ARE no wrong notes in free improv.  This is an opportunity to take chances, listen and respond at any level. Players can be rhythmic or a-rhythmic, tonal or atonal, the same or different, and the list goes on. This is the time to get comfortable without the notes in front of you.  I also like to discuss that idea of "Yes, and.." from the improv world of theater.  The idea is that you never deny an idea. Rather the only response is, "Yes, and..."

Imitation (learning by ear) and playing with radio (15 minutes)
  • Listen to the tune. Identify and imitate the various voices
  • How do you imitate guitar, snare, bass, vocals, lead guitar
This, too, is an opportunity to get away from the written page.  I loved listening to my son spend hours in my studio with Pandora on and just playing along on his bass guitar.  That is how it is done.  You just have to be willing to spend the time.   This is a great way to learn keys, hand positions, cool licks, and ideas in songs.  The player can imitate all of the instruments (drums included).  When I was a kid, my parents would get mad at me when I was in my room "practicing" and playing with the radio.  I was supposed to be playing my classical rep.  Little did they know that this was a really good use of my time!!  Oh how times have changed!

Major and Minor scales in first position,
  • scale patterns 3rds, 4ths, etc
  • Alternate ideas on scales, jumps
  • Pentatonic scale
  • Shapes (finger patterns) - thinking like a guitar player
I really believe in making etudes out of scales.  Put on a drum beat and make them fun.  I also strongly believe in playing all of the major and minor scales in first position - all the way from the lowest possible not in the key to the highest possible note without changing positions.  This really establishes all of the possible scale "patterns" that are necessary for quickly and functionally performing in all keys.

Diatonic Harmony
  • Triads - know your 3rds and 5ths (7ths too!)
  • Patterns
  • Key
  • Playing pads (whole notes)
  • (Extreme ranges)
  • 3rds and 7ths
This is  where the hard work begins.  It is where your functional understanding of music theory and harmony intersects with your playing.  The player must develop the skill of thinking on their toes.  Can they name and play the triads?  Can they find the 3rd and 7th for any chord?  I think this where many would-be improvisers get hung up.  It is easier to think melodically as a string player.  We do THAT all the time.  Be persistent and don't give up.

Bass lines -
  • Roots
  • Riffs
I played bass in bands as a kid.  I feel like this skill has served me well over the years.  Playing bass lines is a whole different feel and idea than focusing on melody.  Listen to bass lines on the radio.  Imitate them. Practice playing them on violin, viola or cello.  It is really fun.  And, it takes you another step in the journey to becoming a functional improviser.

Melody vs Off melody
  • Does the range blend with or cut through ensemble appropriately?
This is really important in my opinion.  Where is there space for notes in the tune?  Are you the primary melodic voice?  Or are you a secondary voice?  Listen to songs you like. Listen for the melody and for other voices that are responding to the melody.  Then, play over songs where you are the melody, then respond to the melody instead.  I use this skill all the time when accompanying in church and creating parts for singer/songwriters.

  • Importance of 2 and 4
  • Chops
  • Chords
  • Strum bowing
This is where classically trained players can be a little square.  Listen to popular music.  Listen to the snare drum.  Where is the weight of the pulse?  Usually on 2 and 4.  We need to get aware of this and try to imitate it.  There are numerous times that the string player provides a rhythmic role in a band.  What should you do?  

Blues patterns
  • Check out Blues back-tracks in various on Youtube.
  • Listen to blues artists and imitate them.  Play along a ton!
Every kid that learns the guitar in the garage starts here.  We need to spend some time on it. Listen. Imitate. Repeat.
Interpreting a lead sheet (the thought process)
  • Slightly modify the melody 
  • Think “Theme and Variations”
  • Build the piece dynamically
This is a skill that must be developed. It takes time. But all of the above skills will get you into the right ballpark.

The Art of Listening

There is no substitute for listening with purpose.  Think about the things you are hearing.  Think about the function of every voice that you hear in the tune.  

So, there you have it.  Let me know what you think.  And, good luck with your journey to improvisation.  It is so much fun to be able to express yourself without notes in front of you.  But, remember, it takes time.  So, get to work!


By the way, if you are really ready to dive into the world of creative strings and improvisation and want some individualized training, I highly recommend attending Christian Howes' Creative Strings Workshop as part of your summer professional development.  He's the best.  Hands down.  My son will be attending this summer.  I don't give a higher endorsement.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Strings Players and Dancers

Hi  all.

This will be a bit shorter and certainly less developed than some of my other ideas expressed in this blog.  It is more of an observation today.  Here is the  quick thought:

  • String players = start with technical,  work toward expressive.
  • Dancers = start with expressive and work toward the technical

My Recording Technology class recently completed an assignment that I call the Dance-Mix Editing assignment.  The students are tasked with editing several of their favorite songs together in mo more than 32 pulse segments, editing for consistent tempo, consistent or complimentary key and tonality, 8 count phrases, and "cutting to resolution."  The idea is that it could be used for a dance team or cheer-leading team routine with no difficulty.  I am always pleased to hear the resulting ideas and themes that emerge with this first project of the course.

As we were reviewing all of the projects in class, I came to find out that one of my students is particularly interested in dance and took a particular interest in this project the possible applications to his art moving forward.  A wonderful conversation about dance and movement ensued, spurring the following train of thought.

String playing and dance are certainly similar. Both require a great deal of physical training in order to become proficient.  Both require a great deal of kinesthetic rhythmic movement. And both, when done well, can elicit a great emotional response.  That said, it seems to me that string playing typically begins with a focus on the technical and can lead to emotional expression of ideas with perseverance and determination.  Conversely, dance and dancers typically begin with a desire to demonstrate emotion and eventually develop the techniques that  facilitate this pursuit.

A few months ago, I wrote a related post entitled What? and How? I that post, I explored the need for young artists to be aware of the areas of technique, artistry, purpose and perspective.

This may be a subtle difference, but I don't think so.  Having been around instrumental string music education for over 30 year, I have observed students and teachers alike.  I pay attention to string pedagogy and love to consider the intricacies of teaching.  Us string players are obsessed with technique.  I think that we all really want to be expressive, but I find that it is very difficult to attain artistry.  In fact, I have written before that is was very hard for me to consider my self an "artist" until well into my middle-age years.  I was a technician.

I have enjoyed watching various dance shows over the past several years, including So You Think You can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and others.  One of the things that strikes me always is the artistry and artistic motivation of everyone from the judges, to the pros, to the students. The motivation of the dancer seems to begin with the artistic.  From there, the best dances seek out the technique that is needed to further their art.

Us string folks seem get there from the opposite direction.  Young students (or perhaps  sometimes their parents) want to learn how to play the violin.  They rent an instrument, go to their lessons, and begin the process of learning the techniques of playing.  If they hang in there long enough, they will make the transition to artistry.

I head about 150 violin students audition for a regional orchestra festival yesterday.  I will bet that I heard less than 10 get close to an idea of expression or artistry.  Don't get me wrong:  Artistry is hard. And, one MUST learn the proper techniques in order to demonstrate artistry.  So, I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with any of this.  I just find the dichotomy to be very interesting and telling.

By the way, I was just thinking about kids that start on the guitar and other "rock" instruments.  Many of them begin with an artistry motivation as well.  But, the techniques that are required for real expression with a guitar can be attained significantly quicker.  Tone quality for a power chord happens pretty fast. Tone quality on a violin is a lifelong pursuit.

What are your thoughts? I welcome your feedback and remarks.  Meanwhile, string players: seek out artistry.  You ARE expressive. You ARE artists.  Play with an ear toward moving your audience at all times!


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Audition Thoughts

A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I would create a post with some thoughts about auditions. This season in public schools sees many auditions for district, regional, and all-state band and orchestra events. I have judged on audition screening committees for many years and have also sent hundreds, if not thousands, of students into auditions as part of their regular process in high school orchestra over the past 31 years. So, after a busy couple of weeks over the holidays, here are some of my tips and thoughts.

1. Always focus on accuracy.

Too many students get focused on learning a whole piece at tempo that includes hard passages. In other words, they look at the big picture too quickly.  In reality, it is the details that matter:  clear intonation, accurate rhythm, accurate style and technique, confident accurate fingering, appropriate bow technique.  Adjudicators are looking for clean, accurate performances in auditions. Show that you have done the foundational practice.

2. Never stop practicing slowly.

This is an extension of accuracy.  I recently spoke with a conductor from a major US symphony who told me that the top soloists in the world still review difficult passages slowly in their dressing rooms just prior to performances.  Students tend to get a passage learned and up to tempo and never slow down again.  Bad idea. Your brain has the opportunity to make all necessary neurological connections if you repeatedly practice fast passages slowly and methodically - even after you can play them fast.  A good plan for fast passages is the following: 4 times slow -  1 time fast, 3 slow - 1 fast, 2 slow- 1 fast, 1  slow- 1 fast.  Repeat.  Every day. This promotes accuracy and clear intonation.  I encourage students to do a very slow and careful run of difficult passages as their final bit of prep before going into the audition room.

3. Pay close attention to all markings in the written score and make the judge know that you have noticed them.

Judges are looking at a copy of the music.  I would estimate that on average 80% of auditionees ignore all or at least a large percentage of dynamic markings. It is your job to make the judge notice that you have noticed them! Of course there are other markings as well.  Look for martele' accents, staccato or legato markings, rallentando, stringendo, and others.   I encourage students to practice their piece with an eye toward EVERY written mark in the score at least once a day.  Emphasize wide dynamic swings and extremes.  Don't let the judge think that you didn't know the marked dynamic.

4. An audition that is a few clicks slower and accurate is better than a few clicks faster and sloppy.

As a judge, I would always prefer to hear an audition a bit slower and clean over fast and sloppy.  Again, I think that kids feel like they have to be at the tempo of a recording and feel like the tempo is the most important thing.  Obviously clean AND fast is best.  But, sloppy is never a good idea. and, sometimes just going a click slower can make you feel like you have extra time to think during the audition.

5. Tone quality matters.

Tone production should be an integral part of preparation for an audition.  This would include bow use and technique.  Focus on a beautiful sound in all phases of preparation. It sounds like a no brainer, but so often I hear students focus on passages and not on tone.  Also, new strings a week or so before the audition might be a good idea.  You would be surprised how many times I see/play student instruments with strings that are several years old.  A new set of strings can do wonders for student tone.  (By the way, don't change strings right before an audition - they may need a day or two to settle in.)  By the way, rosin your bow!   Tone is definitely impacted by rosin.  

6. Find the shape of every line.

Those of you that know me won't be surprised by this.  I want to hear direction of every line.  Where is the line going?  When does it arrive?  When does it depart?  The answers to these questions must be obvious to the judge. And, the student musician must have a vision for the direction of every line.  This is what breathes life into a passage. This is what shows up in the "musicianship" score.  

7. Judges are looking at your bow hold! (At least I am.)

Seems simple.  But, I will bet that 80% of the students that I hear/see in an upcoming regional orchestra audition room will have a flat right thumb.  It is that simple.  An appropriate bow hold impacts tone and technique at every level.  I can tell immediately if a student has a good bow hold.

8. In the audition, focus on your task at hand (your performance), not on the desired result.

Read the book "Choke," by Sian Beilock.  It gives lots of great justification for this.  If we let ourselves think of the desired result, (a high seat or getting into the group)  our brains are distracted.  Think of your brain as a CPU.  There is only so much capacity for information.  Use the capacity for the task at hand. Focus on the performance. Focus on all of the techniques that were solidified by your slow, thoughtful preparation.  The results will take care of themselves.

9. Don't neglect scales and sight-reading.

In North Carolina, scales and sight-reading are 50% of your score. So many students do well on the solo and give points away on something as rudimentary as scales.  Practice scales with a drone. Practice scales slowly, for true intonation.  don't just play scales for the "right" fingering.  Think tonal center at all times.  Practice sight-reading daily.  Have a routine: look for key, time signature, accidentals, shifts, time changes, etc.  Don't give away potential points on scales and sight reading.

10. When preparing your scales, focus on accuracy, not just on fingering .

See above.  Practice scales with drones.  Practice slowly. Pay attention to tonal center.  Know them inside and out.  

11. Practice your audition in front of anyone who will listen as much as possible.

You will play better in an audition if you are comfortable in new performing situations.  So, practice new performing situations.  Play for friends, relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends.  Play for anyone who will listen.  Try to create situations in which you are a little nervous.  There is no substitute for experience.

12. Auditions are like photographs. Sometimes when we have our picture taken we look better than we should and other times we look worse than we should. Pictures (auditions) rarely provide an exact picture of your development. Think about it: in order to get one good set of 5 or 6 senior pictures, there might be 100 actual photos taken.  We don't get a perfect photo every time and we don't get a perfect audition result every time. There are so many factors that come into play.  Is it early or late in the audition day?  Were there hundreds of auditions that day?  Did you have a big lunch? Did you hear a really good audition right before you?  A really bad one?  The list goes on and on.  I have seen so many students over react to a seating or placement as a result of a 3 minute audition over the years.  Play the audition. Do your best.  Let the judges create a seating or result and if you are disappointed, get over it fast.  Use it as motivation for sure.  But, don't let it ruin your day.   It  is rare that a seating in an orchestra is an exact representation of the quality of musicianship from chair 1 to chair  20.  It gives a general idea of the picture you took on that day at that time for that judge.   Period.  Don't ever let a single audition be a litmus for your long term work and preparation.

So, these are my ideas today based on my years of experience.  I hope you find it helpful. Please share this with your students and colleagues.  And, most importantly, all you students: Good luck on your upcoming auditions.  I hope this helps you to be just a little more prepared as you walk into that audition room.  And, for those of you that want more perspective on performance and auditions, I really recommend that you reach Choke.    It is a good read with lots of application to the audition and performance process.