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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! 

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!