Logo

New Works for a New Generation by Jake Bellissimo

When confronted with the challenge of adapting concert music for the 21st century, there are many different topics discussed, including performance practice, preserving “masterworks”, and making the music more accessible. However, possibly the most talked about subject is the incorporation of new works into recitals and concerts.

Frequently you’ll find contemporary pieces either sandwiched in-between canonical pieces (in order to persuade the audience to listen to them) or just thrown on the beginning so the audience can be late if they want to—of course, that’s not always the intent of the people making the programs, but it’s become common practice to do so. Even then, though, that’s if you’re lucky and people want to perform your works. This has always been a perplexing challenge; how do composers get performers to program contemporary works?

This question is not an easy one to answer, and it’s easy to feel that the amount of performers who want to play abstract contemporary works are a niche (already within the niche of people interested in classical music). Thankfully, at Eastman, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Here, composers have very strong relationships with performers, and there is plenty of support from the faculty with regards to performing new works.   

Like many places, juries at Eastman require performers to have contrasting pieces, oftentimes having the contrast coming from a recent (written in the past 50 years) piece. Professor Rodland typically has her students “commission” works from composition majors, but this year she decided to take it one step further. There are currently 7 new works being performed within the Rodland studio written by Eastman composers. However, these works aren’t just being written for juries—there is also a concert where all of the works will be performed.

This has been a great opportunity for violists to gain more experience with new music and for composers to be able to play around with the elusive “solo viola” (gasp), an instrument that many people write for at one point or another within an ensemble, but not one that people have the opportunity to write for in a solo setting.

In general, the dynamic between performer and composer isn’t something that is often explored in-depth, and frequently composers don’t get to speak with performers or performers don’t get to ask any questions. What made this a unique process was that the performers worked directly with the composers.

From a compositional standpoint (as I mentioned above), solo viola is a field not often explored in contemporary composition. Alexander Leon (BM ’16) said that “[he had] written for viola before, but only in ensemble settings…[he has] written a lot of solo violin music, and was thinking of the viola as a violin with a deeper range.” Of course, using the viola as a viola is a complicated matter, and separating the viola from the rest of the string family (“a bigger violin” or “a smaller cello”) was an important part of the process. “You can do a lot with color on the viola,” said Daniel Sawler (BM ’18), “Each string has a very different feeling, in particular the C string, which opened up many warm possibilities in terms of composition.”

Exploring new possibilities is always an exciting prospect in composition, and being able to work with the performers directly only made the process smoother. In the case of Alexander Leon’s piece, he “wrote a first version, and then Sergio [Muñoz Leiva, MM ‘16] and his pianist came to my composition lesson and, together with Professor Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, found compositional problems and thought of different approaches to solving the issues.”

With new compositions also comes a different musical language, and some of the violists had to explore new techniques and interpretations in order to effectively perform the pieces. Alex McLaughlin (BM ’18) said “[his] rule of strictly following the music loosened a bit.” Because he was able to work directly with Daniel [Sawler] as he wrote the piece, they were able to find an interpretation of the piece that didn’t stray from Daniel’s vision but satisfied Alex’s creativity. Alex commented on approaching contemporary pieces with his conservatory training, saying that “with Daniel’s piece, I feel like I had all of my previous experiences with canonical music in a little toolbox that I could pull out when appropriate.”

Overall this project has been productive in expanding the solo viola repertoire, and along the way it became a learning process for both the composers and the violists. The importance of new music is often an overlooked problem, and its opportunities like this concert that make both the composition and viola departments at Eastman unique.

The aforementioned concert will take place at Howard Hanson Hall at Eastman on Friday, March 27th, at 8pm. 


Why I Play Music by Chanmi Na

What does music mean to me, and why should I continue playing? I asked myself these questions when I picked my viola up again after a two year hiatus. Years of stress due to being nervous on stage had left my confidence in shambles and taken a serious toll on my health. While recuperating after gallbladder surgery, I worked as an administrative assistant at the music department of my university and dealt with the shock from quitting, something I had never imagined myself doing before. It may seem strange that I would start my story from the point where I gave up music, but this was the turning point of my life. It was then that I truly realized my desire to perform and considered the importance of sharing music with others, and it ended up leading me to come to the United States to pursue my Master’s degree. 

I think many of you would agree that music has a strong power to touch people’s heart and enrich their lives, and I believe such power can be revealed only through sharing music with people. No matter where it takes place or what kind of group of people it is for, performers become the vessels who create meaning for music and deliver it to audiences instead of simply mastering their instrument. There are two major stories of mine that inspired me to commit myself to music major and I realized later that those are all related to sharing music. 

In 2001, as a member of amateur chamber music group, I could have a chance to visit Sorokdo (Sorok island) which is the site of leper colony, a place to quarantine people with leprosy, back in the history of Korea. There were still many ex-leprosy patients who had lived their whole lives since they were forced to move to that island. What my group mainly did was playing music, listening to their stories and holding their hands. Nothing fancy was there that we could do for them, but it was very special for me to see how much they were comforted by our playing and how music could let their loneliness and grief go at least at that moment. At the end, that visit drove me to be a music major. 

Here is another story. When I was in college, I had led a dissatisfied and stressful life that always felt like it was lacking something, and it was during my break from music that I realized how much I had pushed myself in a wrong way in the past. I decided to take a different approach and start feeling grateful about everything I had, and this change reached into and influenced all corners of my life. I started valuing different and meaningful goals, such as sharing the blessings that I had been given, and this prompted me to go on a volunteer trip to China to teach students of Chinese and ethnic Korean origin how to play the violin. The students could not learn music because they did not have a teacher or a proper school. Six musicians including me heard about that trip and we all jumped at the chance to share our talents. When I met the students, I immediately felt guilt and shame because I felt there was so little I could do for them with my limited knowledge. Still, I taught them to the best of my knowledge, and to this day, the small rustic classroom where I spent my days teaching around five students how to make sounds on the violin and the smiles and genuine happiness on their faces are fresh in my mind, and these memories are part of the driving force behind my desire for musical education.

Even though there are some limits as a student to fully involve myself in the activities to share music, but I am trying to remember the importance of sharing music and keep looking for the opportunities. Whether it would be teaching or performing, if there is anything that leads you to reach out to people and share your talents, I would like you all to take the opportunities as many as possible. Here at Eastman School of Music, we do also have such opportunity to share music with people outside of school. ‘Music for all’, a chamber music program to reach out to the local community for those who are taking chamber music course in spring semester, and ‘If Music Be The Food…’, a benefit concert series created by Carol Rodland in 2009 associated with Rochester Foodlink for awareness and support for the hungry in the community, are good examples of sharing music. For ‘IMBTF’, even though I didn’t play at the concert, I found myself full of joy and happiness with just being there and watching how music plays its role and fully reveal its value. Next upcoming ‘IMBTF’ concert is on May 8th, 2015, and especially for that concert Kim Kashkashian is featuring as a guest artist (For more details, refer to the website: http://www.ifmusicbethefood.com). I think it would be a wonderful chance for those of you who are looking for the way to take part in the moment of sharing music! 


Music with Integrity by Christiana Reader

Chipotle, you have my burrito-lovin’ musician’s heart.

Anyone that knows me could easily report that I rarely touch fast food as I try to be a generally healthy person. I identify as a Michael Pollan groupie, and a lover of a delicious meal. I was therefore mortified to understand that my favorite little burrito-haven that receives the bulk of my lunch money qualifies as fast food. I recently was in a business presentation with the CFO of Chipotle, Jack Hartung, where I was woefully out of place among so many numbers-oriented suits and fast talkers. But I remained curious enough to listen, leaving the lecture feeling like we as musicians could learn a lesson or two. 

Please indulge me while I explain. 

Chipotle is currently valued at $12 million per restaurant, a number that is calculated by taking the current stock price divided by the number of restaurants. This leaves its next fast food competitors in the dust: McDonalds is valued at $2.6 million/restaurant, Panera at $2.2 million/restaurant. The lowest example on the graph was Jack in the Box at $800,000/restaurant. 

The presenter, Hartung made the point that Chipotle has been out-performing all other fast-food businesses for the following reason: food with integrity.

Their food culture: the willingness to invest a large portion of the budget into high quality ingredients without additives developed into something extraordinary through excellent cooking technique, considering the sustainability of where that food comes from their people culture: hiring people with character who demonstrate success and leadership by doing their own job well and making the people around them better their strong business model: creating value, getting more out of what you invest by being efficient.

As I was trying to follow along in a field that I know nothing about, I could relate best to these elements that are similar in our preparations to become professional musicians. 


Musician culture: We have to commit to high quality ingredients, becoming willing to practice well, to hone our technique and artistry, and to expand our musical horizons. This requires a huge commitment to our own personal and musical development at an inevitable sacrifice. This can happen in the smallest details such as striving for ever better intonation, more clarity, or a more beautiful tone. It means showing up prepared and friendly (see Kayleigh’s post). It means being informed about the broader contexts of what we are working on (see Sergio’s post). It means giving up free weekends, late nights with friends, or plentiful excuses in exchange for quality time with the instrument or our aural development through concert attendance.

Or it can happen in the big picture: deciding to go to that particular school because the teacher and the school were the best fit to push you as a musician (see Professor Taylor’s post). Investing our best quality selves at either the micro- or the macro-level happens daily.

People culture: Our own individual integrity and character coupled with a supportive network of people carry us through inevitable rough patches when things do not go our way. Our disciplined commitment to our individual development influences the way we relate to our teachers, students, peers, and mentors. The high-quality work we put in shapes us to become leaders in our fields whether as performance, composition, music education, or musicology majors; whether at small conservatories, liberal arts colleges, or big state schools. We are given the opportunity to inspire those around us–doing our part to contribute to a rising tide that lifts all boats. 

Business Model: Because we have invested ourselves into this difficult field, we have to consider how to be the most efficient to service our growth in the best way, with our best quality. This means striving to live with a healthy, balanced perspective as we generate value for our development and our career-path. Nothing can replace savvy time management and a growth mindset, guts and sheer grit, hard-work and doggedness (check out the fascinating recent psychological research on these TED talks on success by Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth). It is a circus act figuring out how to structure daily schedules and obligations, practice time and mental practice, audition or recital preparation (see Professor Rodland’s post), potential injury-related sidelining and body awareness (see Angela’s post), or performance anxiety management (see Emily’s post), among other obstacles. 

I am more and more convinced that thoughtful, intelligent, and directed consistency is one of the most valuable character traits I could learn in music. Real commitment changes and informs every one of us to become stronger, more convincing musicians in all areas to set us apart. It gives us something authentic and real to offer our audiences and the world around us. 


Happy practicing (and burrito-eating) my friends! 


Chipotle, you have my burrito-lovin’ musician’s heart

chipotle-secret-menuAnyone that knows me could easily report that I rarely touch fast food as I try to be a generally healthy person. I identify as a Michael Pollan groupie, and a lover of a delicious meal. I was therefore mortified to understand that my favorite little burrito-haven that receives the bulk of my lunch money qualifies as fast food. I recently was in a business presentation with the CFO of Chipotle, Jack Hartung, where I was woefully out of place among so many numbers-oriented suits and fast talkers. But I remained curious enough to listen, leaving the lecture feeling like we as musicians could learn a lesson or two.

Please indulge me while I explain.

Chipotle is currently valued at $12 million per restaurant, a number that is calculated by taking the current stock price divided by the number of restaurants. This leaves its next fast food competitors in the dust: McDonalds is valued at $2.6 million/restaurant, Panera at $2.2 million/restaurant. The lowest example on the graph was Jack in the Box at $800,000/restaurant.

The presenter, Hartung made the point that Chipotle has been out-performing all other fast-food businesses for the following reason: food with integrity

  • their food culture: the willingness to invest a large portion of the budget into high quality ingredients without additives developed into something extraordinary through excellent cooking technique, considering the sustainability of where that food comes from
  • their people culture: hiring people with character who demonstrate success and leadership by doing their own job well and making the people around them better
  • their strong business model: creating value, getting more out of what you invest by being efficient

 

As I was trying to follow along in a field that I know nothing about, I could relate best to these elements that are similar in our preparations to become professional musicians.

 
Musician culture: We have to commit to high quality ingredients, becoming willing to practice well, to hone our technique and artistry, and to expand our musical horizons. This requires a huge commitment to our own personal and musical development at an inevitable sacrifice. This can happen in the smallest details such as striving for ever better intonation, more clarity, or a more beautiful tone. It means showing up prepared and friendly (see Kayleigh’s post). It means being informed about the broader contexts of what we are working on (see Sergio’s post). It means giving up free weekends, late nights with friends, or plentiful excuses in exchange for quality time with the instrument or our aural development through concert attendance.

Or it can happen in the big picture: deciding to go to that particular school because the teacher and the school were the best fit to push you as a musician (see Professor Taylor’s post). Investing our best quality selves at either the micro- or the macro-level happens daily. The writer, Annie Dillard said it best: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

 

People culture: Our own individual integrity and character coupled with a supportive network of people carry us through inevitable rough patches when things do not go our way. Our disciplined commitment to our individual development influences the way we relate to our teachers, students, peers, and mentors. The high-quality work we put in shapes us to become leaders in our fields whether as performance, composition, music education, or musicology majors; whether at small conservatories, liberal arts colleges, or big state schools. We are given the opportunity to inspire those around us–doing our part to contribute to a rising tide that lifts all boats.

 

Business Model: Because we have invested ourselves into this difficult field, we have to consider how to be the most efficient to service our growth in the best way, with our best quality. This means striving to live with a healthy, balanced perspective as we generate value for our development and our career-path. Nothing can replace savvy time management and a growth mindset, guts and sheer grit, hard-work and doggedness (check out the fascinating recent psychological research in the TED talks on success by Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth). It is a circus act figuring out how to structure daily schedules and obligations, practice time and mental practice, audition or recital preparation (see Professor Rodland’s post), potential injury-related sidelining and body awareness (see Angela’s post), or performance anxiety management (see Emily’s post), among other obstacles.

 

I am more and more convinced that thoughtful, directed, and intelligent consistency is one of the most valuable character traits I could learn in music. To borrow the words from the graphic designer, Debbie Millman, “expect anything worthwhile to take time.” Real commitment changes and informs every one of us to become stronger, more convincing musicians in all areas to set us apart. It gives us something authentic and real to offer our audiences and the world around us: a taste of a musician with integrity.

 

“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.” (Mary Oliver)

 

Happy practicing (and burrito-eating) my friends!Chipotle


Paul Hindemith – Der Schwanendreher (1935)

Sergio Muñoz Leiva will perform Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher with the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra on Friday, 6 February 2015, in the Eastman Theatre at the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street, Rochester, New York 14604.

Paul Hindemith wrote Der Schwanendreher, his third and most popular viola concerto, during a period of political hostility in Germany. He was the object of both open and indirect attacks by the Nazi regime because of his avant-garde style as well as his collaboration with his Jewish colleagues at the Berlin Musikhochschule, where he taught composition. Many of Hindemith’s works were forbidden and musicians feared programming those that were not. For this reason, even though he would not decide to flee from Germany until 1938, most of his musical activity happened in foreign countries.

Hindemith started composing Der Schwanendreher shortly after completing his opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter). The opera discusses the theme of the artist’s social responsibility in the face of oppressive politics and power. While the opera reflects Hindemith’s own artistic and political dilemmas under the Nazis, Der Schwanendreher portrays in a less overt, more intimate way the emotions that the composer was experiencing during this time: Feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss, but also hope for a better future and willingness for finding light in the midst of darkness. The concerto was finished on 13 October 1935 in Berlin. It was premiered in Amsterdam on 14 November 1935 by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg and Hindemith himself playing the solo.

Hindemith wrote a programmatic note to the piece: “A minstrel comes to a happy gathering and shares what he has brought from afar: Serious and light-hearted songs, a dance for closing. By his inspiration and skill he extends and embellishes the melodies like a true musician, experimenting and improvising. This medieval picture was the basis for the composition.” Hindemith’s interest for the past is in accordance with his development of a very personal extended sense of tonality within traditional musical forms and techniques. His solo and ensemble writing, for example, are said to have been inspired by the style of J. S. Bach.

The concerto’s unusual name comes from the folk tune that inspired the last movement: Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? In fact, every movement is inspired by one or two medieval German folk tunes, which can be found in Franz Magnus Böhme’s Altdeutsches Liederbuch: Volklieder der Deustchen nach Wort und Weise aus dem 12. bis zum 17. Jahrhundert (Old German Song Book: Folk Songs of the German after Words and Melodies from the 12th to the 17th Century). Hindemith’s interest for folk song stems from his desire for bridging a stronger connection between the composer and the listener by drawing from material that is familiar to everyone.

The first movement uses the tune Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal (Between Mountain and Deep Valley):

Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal, Between mountain and deep valley
Da liegt ein’ freie Straßen: There runs an open road:
Wer seinen Buhlen nicht haben mag, He who does not like his sweetheart,
Der muß ihn fahren lassen. Must let it go.

Fahr hin, fahr hin, du hast die Wahl. Away, away, you have the choice.
Ich kann mich dein wohl maßen! I can sense your welfare!
Im Jahr sind noch viel langer Tag, There is many a long day in a year
Glück ist auf allem Gassen. And luck is on every alley.

This movement is in sonata form. The slow introduction starts with a declamation of the main theme by the soloist. This first statement of marked angular contours climbs to high pitch mountains before descending to the deepest registral valleys of the viola and into the march-like entrance of the orchestra, with the folk tune in the horns and trombone. The viola presents the first thematic material of the exposition, which retains the militaristic character of the introduction. After complex yet transparent contrapuntal play between the soloist and the orchestra, the clarinet arrives at the opening melody, which becomes a songful and playful second theme. Throughout the rest of the movement, the folk tune will come back in multiple occasions on different instruments, but never sounded by the soloist. The viola only gets a fragment of the tune at the very end of the movement, in the coda.

The second movement features the tune Nun laube, Lindlein, laube! (Now Shed Your Leaves, Little Linden!) and is the one that discloses Hindemith’s emotional conflict most vividly:

Nun laube, Lindlein, laube! Now shed your leaves, little linden!
Nicht länger ich’s ertrag’: I cannot bear it any longer:
Ich hab’ mein Lieb’ verloren, I have lost my love,
Hab’ gar ein’ traurig’ Tag. I have such a mournful day.

The music is in ABA form. The opening A section is an intimate duet between the soloist and the harp; its swaying sicilienne rhythm creates a lilt that makes this music sound almost like a lullaby. The melancholic folk tune appears as a chorale in the woodwinds, where every phrase is intercepted by recitative-like declamations of the viola. The introspective mood is interrupted by a cheery fugato B section initiated by the bassoon and followed by the rest of the woodwinds. The fugue theme is the tune Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune saß (The Cuckoo Sat on the Fence):

Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune saß, The cuckoo sat on the fence,
Es regnet sehr und er ward naß. It rained a lot and it got wet.
Guck-guck, guck-guck! Cuckoo, cuckoo!

Darnach da kam der Sonnenschein, Then came the sunshine,
Der Gutzgauch der ward hübsch und fein. So the cuckoo was cute and fine.
Guck-guck, guck-guck! Cuckoo, cuckoo!

Alsdann schwang er sein Gfiedere, Then it swung its wings

Er flog dort hin wohl übern See. And flew away over lake.
Guck-guck, guck-guck! Cuckoo, cuckoo!

This naïve and comical song in contrast with the mournful chorale brings out the absurdity and poignancy of what Hindemith was living in the years leading up to his emigration, as he realizes that he would not be able to survive as an artist in such environment. The lost love is not a romantic partner, but Hindemith’s home country, the German fatherland. The return of the opening material is no longer a duet, as this time Nun laube, Lindlein, laube is heard as a cantus firmus on the horns. This enhances the unity between the outer sections, bringing closure as if the sad cantus firmus had always been there from the beginning.

The last movement is a set of twelve variations on the cheerful tune Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? (Are You Not the Swan Turner?). The swan turner was the person in charge of turning the swan when it was being roasted on a spit.

Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? Are you not the swan turner?
Seid ihr nicht der selbig’ Mann? Are you not the man himself?
So drehet mir den Schwan, Then turn me the swan,
So hab’ ich glauben dran. So that I can believe it.
Und dreht ihr mir den Schwanen nit, And if you do not turn me the swan,
Seid ihr kein Schwanendreher nit. Then you are not the swan turner.
Dreht mir den Schwanen! Turn me the swan!

It is remarkable in how many different ways Hindemith presents the theme. Sometimes it is sounded complete by various combinations of instrumental groups in the orchestra. Other times it is embedded in embellished compound melodies in the solo voice or barely hinted at, as fragments of it get passed between different instrumental groups. The variety of instrumentations, textures, and rhythmic re-interpretations of the theme creates very playful and colorful sonorities. Other than the theme itself, what seems to holds the movement together is its light-hearted character. Although, as the variations progress and the mood gets tenser, it is not clear if we are going to get to a happy ending. By the last variation, the enraged viola makes it hard to remember the happy-go-lucky tune in its original form. But the very last utterance of the orchestra brings everything to a sudden, simplistic, unison C major close. Was all of this just a joke?

Sergio Muñoz


Crash Course in Orchestral Viola Survival

Whether you’re a seasoned orchestral player, or you’ve just been called to play with your first regional ensemble, orchestra is a challenging and rewarding way to make music. Yet, it can be tricky to juggle the responsibilities of playing in a section with self-care and etiquette, especially if you do not yet know your colleagues well. As I wrap up my first year or so playing in a full-time orchestra, here are some of my tips:

1. Come prepared. School orchestra is generally a terrible way to prepare for professional ensemble playing because rehearsals are often spread out over many weeks and rehearsals are a few days apart. While each school operates differently, a lengthy rehearsal period leads people to believe that they don’t need to come fully prepared to the first few rehearsals, because there’s still two more weeks of rehearsal after that. Unfortunately, professional ensembles will often assemble a full program in two to three days, no matter the difficulty of the program. Listen to a recording or two before practicing, and plan ahead for difficult works or things you haven’t played.

2. Be aware of your responsibility in the section. Ellen Rose’s “Responsibilities of Orchestral Players” is a great start, especially for your first professional opportunities. Section responsibilities include blending sound, neither playing too loud nor too soft in order to encourage ensemble playing, and not leading the people around you. Always make sure you pass back bowing changes! Nothing is more distressing than playing last stand and having folks in the middle not taking marking the boeings or passing them back.

3. Bring earplugs. Violas traditionally sit in “the line of fire,” aka. the spot in front of the trombones. This can be overwhelming, especially if you’re in the back of the section or there are no sound shields. Hearing damage is permanent, and while it’s important to hear yourself, your hearing is your occupation and your livelihood. Most people are comfortable with one earplug in, one ear open, which allows for section/self listening.

4. Learn how to sit with proper alignment. You may have heard of headlines like “Sitting is the New Smoking,” and new desks that feature treadmills or standing desks. Sitting in the same position for hours a day isn’t great for your body, and your alignment while sitting makes a big difference. Ask your teacher for some suggestions or consult a movement therapist. My basic guidelines are to find your sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) and then stack your lungs over your hips. Be wary of the texting slump or head forward positions which are predominant in our movement culture these days!

5. Be a good colleague. Part of being in a viola section in an orchestra is teamwork and supporting your fellow musicians. That means greeting your section members at rehearsal, politely asking people to move if you can’t see, and being polite to conductors, personnel managers, and administration. If your colleagues are involved in other concerts, go and support them in their endeavors if your schedule allows, or ask them about it later.

Orchestral playing is a team sport, and being standoffish or assuming a snobby attitude towards colleagues (regardless of their playing) is a way to prevent good section playing and camaraderie.

6. Don’t EVER use your phone in rehearsal, both as a courtesy to your colleagues and to prevent the possibility of your phone going off in rehearsal. Turn it off, leave it offstage, or put it in airplane mode. Using your phone onstage, even before rehearsal, shows your colleagues that your texts/emails/facebooking/twittering is more important than engaging them in conversation or practicing your part. Most ensembles have a strict no-phone policy, but unless it is an emergency, put it away. (*If it is an emergency that you be reached, give someone the personnel manager’s number. That’s how things were done in the 80’s and 90’s before the ubiquitous cell phone.*)

7. Be respectful of personnel managers- if they call you for a gig or rehearsal, try to get back to them as soon as you can, even if you have to check your schedule or move an engagement. A prompt reply will show them you’re serious and respectful of their time, and will keep you on a sub list or on the radar for future work. Along that same line, double and triple check the schedule, dress code, and rehearsal/concert venues. You don’t want to anger a personnel manager if you’re a sub, and it’s good to avoid extraneous emails to personnel if it can be avoided.

8. If you’re playing principal, be aware of your responsibilities. It’s nice to mark bowing changes with an x or check mark in the margin to give your colleagues an idea of where to look on the page. If you have a comment for the section, don’t speak when the conductor or concertmaster is speaking and give your section members a rehearsal or so to catch accidentals, tricky rhythms, etc. Do your best to give clear physical cues for entrances, especially if sight lines are compromised. Also take care to praise the section for a job well done!

9. Never act as though you are “above” the group you are playing with. Whether it’s the Lake Wobegone community orchestra or the New York Philharmonic, the players in an ensemble deserve respect, even if you think you are better than your peers/stand partner/etc. Work is work, and be aware that many other people would be grateful for the position or the subbing work you have, especially if it’s with a full-time ensemble. Most section auditions draw between 30-100 people per audition, so even subbing is a privilege that can be revoked at any time.

10. Try not to complain too much. For all of the joy of section playing, orchestral musicians love to complain about the conductor, the repertoire, the soloist, the tempi, whether or not the conducting is clear, whether the rehearsal time was well used, whether the third piccolo was good…etc. It can be tempting to fall into this trap, but be aware that orchestra jobs are diminishing rapidly both in audiences and funding, and that a poor attitude won’t help your orchestra morale. If you don’t like playing in orchestra, then get out and do something else you love, whether that’s teaching, chamber music, or contemporary music. There are too few jobs with too many violists looking for work, and many violists who would love your job.


Entrance Audition Tips

Audition season is rapidly approaching! You have been practicing diligently for months, you have selected the schools to which you want to apply, your plane tickets have been purchased, and your accommodations have been booked. Now all you have to do is play!

As you zero in on the big day (days!), I wanted to offer you a few tips from the audition panel’s perspective, which I hope you will find helpful. Please know, first of all, that we all want you to do your best and we are rooting for you. We are not harsh judges waiting for you to make a mistake; rather, we are open-minded (open-eared?!) listeners, hoping to meet joyful, thoughtful, talented, well-prepared musicians, who are eager to share their expressive gifts with us and who might fit in well to our musical communities. So, as you continue to prepare for this experience, please try to remember this and to access your love for the music in every note that you play. We will get it and be thrilled if you let yourself do it!

You have prepared a large amount of repertoire, but at most schools, you will only have 15 minutes to show your stuff. Because time is of the essence, you want to be certain to be as organized and efficient as possible during the audition, so that you can maximize your presentation. This means having your music organized in such a way that you can access the pieces requested very quickly. Most panels will ask you to choose your first selection, and then they will choose the subsequent repertoire from your list, so do be ready with the piece that feels best for you as an opener and then be ready to play anything else from your list in any order. I suggest to my students that they do mock auditions prior to their audition trips, opening with the piece of their choice, and then asking their listeners to choose selections from their repertoire lists in random order thereafter. It can feel unnatural to have to switch gears quickly, so just knowing your pieces well will not necessarily make you feel comfortable; you need to have practiced jumping between sections and stopping and starting, as this will most likely happen at the audition, given the time constraints.

Please do be fully prepared with entire works, if indeed this is required on the official web site of the school you are visiting. The panel might ask for anything you say you have prepared, and of course it makes a better impression if you really do have it all ready to go!

If possible, be tuned and warmed up before entering the audition room. We all appreciate it if you greet us when you enter the room, but you do not want to waste any of your precious playing time by chattering unnecessarily. Be polite and open, answer any questions the panel might have for you, but get down to business as quickly and as calmly and confidently as possible. This includes avoiding the diffident apology if you make a mistake while you play; it is not necessary as of course the panel knows the repertoire and its pitfalls. There is no need to highlight such things, and it can seriously interrupt your momentum!

If your repertoire includes any non-traditional works, please do bring multiple copies to the audition, so that the panel can follow along. If you are unsure what falls under that category, err on the side of caution and bring extra copies.

Bring extra strings, just in case.

If you are visiting a school in a very different climate from where you live, you want to be sure your instrument and you have enough time to acclimate to the new environment, so again, arrive early to the audition site if at all possible. If you are coming from a moist warm climate and are going to a cold climate where heat is blasting, having a humidification system in your case or having a dampit in your viola until right before you play can be very helpful in keeping your instrument happy.

While you do not need to don formal concert attire for an audition, you do want to present yourself professionally, so your choice of clothing is important. You want to look professional, and you also want to be comfortable, able to move freely and to play without discomfort from your wardrobe. For women, it is a good idea to avoid wearing excessively high heels to an audition. High heels have a detrimental effect on your balance and prevent you from feeling well-grounded.

And finally, while it is always important to take good care of yourself, auditions and the travel associated with them can be very stressful, so it is especially important to up your self-care game as you go through this process. This means doing your best to eat well (bring snacks and water with you to the audition in case you are kept waiting), sleep well, stretch, and exercise gently in addition to practicing.

Wishing you all the best as you begin this very exciting process to determine the venue for the next stage in your education!


Performance Anxiety

Performers tend to be private about their own performance anxiety. Although its effects are often apparent to the listener, it’s difficult to admit there were blips at all, and even more difficult to dig into the biological and psychological reasons why. Sometimes we avoid discussing the problem; in my experience a big gaffe in a recital is much more likely to elicit compliments about what did go well rather than result in a conversation about why the mistakes happened. This is a totally appropriate audience response, because we support the performer – but eventually, there needs to be some post-performance evaluation that includes an inquiry into the topic of nerves. And, of course, taking auditions is a different kind of performance with its own list of stressors, unique from a recital or chamber music performance, and that might require its own separate investigation.

There are myriad resources available to help a performer address both biological and psychological responses to stress, from books to blogs to yoga. I’d like to share some things I’ve gathered directly from other performers or from reflections on my own performances (both those I’m satisfied with, and those in which I wished for a different outcome). Of course, since our stresses are individual and our musical and performance experiences personal, these probably won’t resonate with everyone – but I do think everyone can benefit from finding their own list of helpful self-hints to think about before performance.

  • Bring your own audience – I don’t mean this in a marketing sense; I mean this to be a visualization exercise, and it does take practice. Think back on successful performance and audition experiences you have had over the past several years, and think of the people who surrounded you in the preparation and execution of those experiences. For me, this became key when I was taking grad school auditions. I couldn’t get through my repertoire from memory in studio class the week before my first audition, and in a moment of panic I emailed a professor I’d studied chamber music with. She agreed to meet with me and spent a lot of time and energy helping me find my confidence again. She’s in my “own audience,” as are all the teachers I’ve had and other significant mentors – musical and otherwise – along the way. Friends and family don’t really count – this audience should be comprised of people who have helped you struggle through something and have bolstered your progress.
  • Diversify your interests and activities – I think it’s important that every student at a conservatory have a non-musical hobby, and, if possible, for all students to take intellectually challenging courses outside of the musical curriculum. There are several reasons for this, perhaps the most often cited being that you can’t create meaningful musical experiences in a vacuum – you must have other human experiences to draw upon. Personally, I believe that aside from having an obligation to yourself as a human to experience the world as richly as you can, you must also find something to commit time and energy to that you are not competitive about. This can be something that is intellectually stimulating or personally enriching like learning a language and immersing yourself in another culture, but it can also be as simple as committing to training for and running a race, or volunteering with a non-musical non-profit. This should be an activity that adds meaning to your life, gives you the opportunity to become a part of the non-musical community in your hometown, and challenges you without stressing you out. This year, I began to volunteer as a coach of a local Girls on the Run group. It has been wonderful to be a positive influence on the lives of others without once bringing my viola, and without undue emphasis on my line of work or place in life. To the girls on my team, I was “Coach Emily” – not “Emily the violist,” and although it’s difficult to describe, this is very important to me. Perhaps the best way to attempt an explanation is that it gives perspective to my musical pursuits; if it’s only a part of who I am and what I do, I can be a more whole person and give more of my whole self when I am playing.
  • Trust your fellow performers – This has been a big one for me. I’m more likely to be nervous for a chamber music concert than for a solo recital. I tend to get sympathetically nervous for the other performers on stage and to completely lose track of where I am in my own part, which of course leads to silly mistakes. I’ve been trying to learn to trust my fellows, which is a hard thing to practice without performing often. So there you have it – to trust your colleagues, perform with them as often as you are able in as many different settings as are available to you, from coffee shops to house concerts to sight-reading gigs. When the whole group is actively trusting one another, each individual plays better.
  • Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend – This is something I think we all could do more of all the time, not just in a musical setting. When a friend asks you to listen to repertoire for an upcoming performance, or when a colleague plays in studio class, we look for ways to give both constructive criticism and praise; neither of these modes of feedback is helpful without the other. The same is true when we are giving ourselves feedback while we practice, and even on our feet while we perform. In the practice room, it’s easy to get caught up in what isn’t going well, and we often forget to recognize and acknowledge the progress we are making. In performance, one mistake often leads to more mistakes because we immediately start in with negative self-talk. Instead – and again, this takes practice – in performance we should learn to recognize the good and mark the areas that need attention for later practice, and for the moment to let them go. In practice, work on giving yourself a comment in the same vein that you would give to a friend. Notice first what you are doing well, and then notice what you need to work on; give yourself concrete instructions about how to effect change, and act.
  • Breathe – You are no one’s surgeon. Your performance is probably going to make someone’s life better for at least a little while, but you most certainly won’t make it worse. Be grateful for what you are given the opportunity to do, breathe in, breathe out, and share your music.

 


A Violist on Her Head

Asymmetrical Reflections from a Scoliotic Life

Gravity and I have a complicated relationship. My right shoulder is higher than my left, my legs are different lengths, my ribcage is rotated, and my waist is uneven. Gravity is unkind to these asymmetries.

As an eight year old, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a fairly common condition where the spinal column curves and rotates laterally. Even after four years of wearing a back brace, my curves continued to worsen. By the time I was 15, my spine had progressed to a severe right thoracic-left lumbar scoliotic curve, also known as an “S” curve, typified by a major curve in the thoracic spine with an equal counter curve in the left lower lumbar region. My spine eventually stabilized after I finished growing, and although my doctor recommended surgical intervention to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, I was not convinced such an invasive procedure was my only option. It was time to come to terms with gravity. Upside down. Head over heels. On a yoga mat.

During my sophomore year of college, I began studying Iyengar yoga with an incredibly knowledgeable teacher. At my first class, Iwas initially shocked that flexibility was not even on the agenda. Rather, I learned that finding stability and balance in asymmetrical positions was my priority. What good is flexibility if there is no stability? Uniting these two concepts that I once believed to be mutually exclusive was liberating. I had found my answer: uniting balance and asymmetry was the key to withstanding the force of gravity, both as a violist and a scoliosis patient. I can still hear my teacher: Angela, your collar bones do not have scoliosis! Make them even. She taught me that it was possible to retrain my muscles that are distorted—overstretched or understretched—by my curvature. Even though I am intrinsically asymmetrical, I can use my discomfort as a guide, mapping a path to balance.
This guiding principle from the yoga mat is also applicable in the practice room. You may not have to deal with structural imbalances resulting from scoliosis, but playing viola certainly presents a number of functional imbalances that can be problematic. As you work toward a healthy physical relationship with your viola, here is some advice I have learned from living life a little crooked:
1. Challenge Imbalances. Every time you pick up your instrument, you have a choice. You can either let gravity happen to you or you can resist its downward pull. Since our bodies are best equipped to deal with gravity when they are properly aligned, finding balance begins with posture. In rehearsals, I usually notice an alarming number of violinists and violists who are letting gravity win, a defeat evidenced by sunken left shoulders and raised right shoulders. It is important to remember that gravity is an attraction between two objects, not just a downward force. Consequently, instead of caving under the weight of the instrument, meet your viola with a shoulder energized and supported by the entire back, countering the weight of gravity.
2. Dynamic Extension. Whether you are playing viola, doing yoga, or sitting in a music theory class, always strive to extend from your core. As Iyengar suggested, “Extension and expansion always stay firmly rooted in one’s center…When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are.” Essentially, dynamic extension is when your body stretches in multiple directions, expanding from the core. For instance, in a forward bend, as you reach toward the floor, it is of equal importance that you also stretch the opposite direction with your hips. This provides traction and allows the spine to fully lengthen. In viola playing, this translates into grounding through the floor while energizing and lengthening the spine upward. Dynamic extension is another effective strategy for resisting gravity.
3. Relaxation is not always passive. We all know that tension is harmful. The alternative? Just relax! But it is important to point out that too much of a good thing, even relaxation, is detrimental. Your skeletal system needs support! If you melt into a pool of pudding, how do you expect to move? Even savasana (corpse pose), arguably the most relaxed yoga posture, is still a highly informed pose. I encourage you all to cultivate active relaxation, a state of being where your muscles are engaged without excess effort and every motion is intentionally executed. I leave you with this thought: “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action” (Light on Yoga 48).

Embrace gravity. Act well.


Groupmuse

I met Chris in a local coffeeshop. He asked me why I had moved here, so I mentioned that I am a musician. Then, the topic of Schubertiads came up. I told him about a network that supports modern-day Schubertiads and after explaining that I am looking for hosts, he set a date to host his own.

The day finally arrived. I leave rehearsal as quickly as possible to get to his house. The quartet is already there, sitting around in the little room next to the kitchen, chatting with Chris’s roommate and his girlfriend, as she stirs some mulled cider and takes a tray of bruschetta out of the oven. A few minutes later, four strangers walk into the living room.

“Is this… Groupmuse?”

“Yeah, come on in! How did you hear… [about Groupmuse]?”

“We’re Emily’s friends.”

“Oh, Emily! I met her in Boston! Through Groupmuse. Welcome, welcome!”

“Yeah, we’ve been friends since high school. She told us to check it out.”

And just like that, three or four more groups of strangers with beer, chips, chocolate truffles, fruit platters, and wine arrive to the party. They are all neighbors, friends, friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends.

When Chris arrives, I thank him again for hosting and ask him when he wants to begin. So we herd everyone into the living room, where music stands have been assembled. By the time everyone has found a spot either on the couch or simply on the floor, Wendy and Angela, first violinist and violist, are only inches away from the people in the front. I don’t think any of the people in the room who weren’t holding instruments had been that close to a string quartet before. You could sense the mixture of nervous reluctance and excited expectancy in the air.

“Welcome everyone! Thank you Chris and Mike for hosting! Hosts are so important; without friendly, welcoming people like you this wouldn’t be possible… This is a Groupmuse…” After the spiel, Angela introduces the piece, its historical background, and things to listen for. Then Mozart’s String Quartet No. 15 in D minor ensues.

Groupmuse is a social network that sponsors events that are both a house party and a chamber music concert. These events, known as Groupmuses, are conceived after Schubert’s own Schubertiads and they help communities generate their own chamber music concerts in people’s living rooms by creating instances that are both socially and artistically stimulating. Through a simple online platform (www.groupmuse.com), hosts get connected with musicians in their area and guests can RSVP to as many concerts as they would like to attend. At the end, a donation bowl is passed around the audience and everything goes to the musicians. Then a clipboard goes around, where people can join the network’s mailing list and indicate whether they’re interested in hosting a Groupmuse or volunteering as MC. The clipboard is crucial, because it’s usually after people have attended a Groupmuse that they want to host their own. That’s how Groupmuses keep generating themselves and the network keeps growing. People usually want to come back for more.

Most audience members in a Groupmuse, also known as “Musers”, are not trained musicians. One may think that this could be an obstacle for them to enjoy the music, but the reality is the opposite: Musers have not been exposed to classical music to the point of saturation that music students sometimes reach. I love music and I don’t think I could ever get tired of it, but when you are in music school, there are so many performances available that one could begin to take them for granted. And that’s on top of practicing for your lesson, rehearsing with your chamber group, making recordings for summer festivals, preparing for a master class… You name it. Eat, Sleep, Music.

Musers, in turn, do not often have this kind of exposure to live music, so coming to one of these concerts is a very special and unique experience for them. They deeply appreciate the chance to experience chamber music in a setting that, unlike the concert hall, is not intimidating. As untrained listeners, they experience visceral reactions to the music, they can move to the music if they feel so inspired, they clap between movements, and they’re not afraid to ask questions at the end of the performance, because the setting allows it. I’ve even had people in a Groupmuse cheer from excitement in the middle of the recitative before the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132! It was awesome! And it shows that they get it.
Musicians, in turn, are encouraged by this enthusiasm, making the music more vibrant, more alive. Something new emerges between those few inches that lie between performer and listener. It’s an invisible connection that is hard to describe, but if you are a musician, I am sure you have experienced it: It’s the satisfaction to know that you have reached someone. And it doesn’t come from flawless technique or impressive stage presence; it comes from an open heart and a willingness, an urge to share. Groupmuse has been so significant for my development as an artist because it has helped me rediscover why I play music: To connect with other people in order to share what it is to be human.

Before being musicians, we are people just as our listeners. It’s time to do away with the stuffiness that drives us apart: Dressing up in funny outfits that make us look like penguins; expecting listeners to be moved by the music but to sit still and quietly in the dark, using a physical space that sends the message “I am an Olympic god; you are a simple mortal. Don’t touch me.” Wouldn’t you rather be enjoying some Brahms in the comfort of your home, with a drink in your hand and surrounded by friends? But beware: Groupmuse is not musical outreach. The concept of outreach involves reaching out of your comfort zone only to go back to it later. Through Groupmuse, musicians meet lay audiences where they are, where they feel comfortable: In the living room, at the center of daily life.

The Groupmuse model was created in Boston and has successfully been exported to other major cities in the US, such as New York and San Francisco. It’s getting started in Seattle, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Rochester, and it has recently crossed international borders with Groupmuses in Toronto, Canada; Toulouse, France; Berlin, Germany; and Seoul, South Korea. If you want to know more about Groupmuse, check out the website. Read the About section at the bottom; it has some beautiful insight on how Groupmuse got started and what its main goals are. You can also take a look at some pictures on Facebook or watch this short video made by Time Magazine to find out what a Groupmuse looks like. If you are a musician in one of these cities, create a profile and get involved to experience first hand what Groupmuse is about! If you’re a musician in a different place: Get in touch with the Groupmuse team and start Groupmuse there! All you need is musicians to play with and a non-musician friend who has a living room and friends who will come to the party.