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Welcome

Greetings, dear Violists and Viola-Enthusiasts!

We are excited to welcome you into our Eastman Viola Community via the 2014-15 AVS Studio Blog!

It promises to be an exciting school year, and we look forward to giving you a taste of the viola life at Eastman as well as sharing our thoughts with you on myriad viola-related topics. You will be treated to posts by faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, Eastman alumni, and various friends of our Eastman Viola Community.

We hope you enjoy and we look forward to spending the virtual school year with you!

Warmest wishes,

Carol Rodland, George Taylor, and Phillip Ying

Life after Undergrad: A Field Guide for Unicorns

by Erin Kirby, BM Eastman School of Music ‘12

Here is a list of things I wish someone had told me earlier, or things people told me a lot but took me a while to understand, and also some things no one could have told me. Most of these things apply for me on a micro level and a macro level: the practice room, the stage, the career path, everyday life. I hope you can find something helpful which rings true to you.

1. This task was appointed to you, Frodo of the Shire. If you do not find a way, no one will.

You have to believe in yourself before anybody else can. It’s just practical. A wise and acclaimed violist once told me that I had to find what it is that I do better than anyone else in the world. My immediate thought was, “It probably has nothing to do with the viola.” Uh oh! That’s weird! Time for some introspection, no? After a long while, I think I’m starting to figure out what it is (and yes, it has something to do with the viola). Life and auditions have been a lot better since. You are physically capable of every challenge presented to you in viola playing (except, maybe, tenths). It’s not arrogant to think you have something of your own to offer musically. It’s a true and necessary idea to keep you going as an artist. Give it a try!

2. You’re a unicorn.

People want to hear YOU. They really do. If you go into an audition and don’t play like you, who are you playing like? If you’re not playing like you, can you really believe in what you’re doing? And that brings us back to the Frodo factor. Besides, it’s really fun putting your whole self into your music— your suffering, ecstasy, and wit. No need to be contrarian, just do your thing. Dig deep; that’s where the interesting stuff is hanging out. Another part of what makes you you is your body. It’s different from everybody else’s. It’s not going to look or function exactly like someone else’s when you play because you’re you! Hallelujah! That keeps things interesting.

To get on stage and play like you, first you have to practice like you, though. Who are you? Well, only you really know that. What makes you tick? What keeps you interested? What kinds of technical approaches just make sense to your hands and brain? See what happens if you really go with that.

3. You can’t please everyone all the time.

It’s normal to feel a little afraid of showing the world who you are, because then they might not like you, and wouldn’t that be the worst thing ever? Nope! Haters gonna hate. And dude, YOU’RE A UNICORN.

Everybody has an opinion. They can be useful and help you grow, and it is good to remain open to growth. But in the end, you have to know how to filter. Recently, a Big Deal Violist told me (in short), sorry, you’re a good musician, but you have too many sound production problems, you are too old to be fixed, and probably also too small. Just a few days later, another Big Deal Violist told me I was not only a great violist, but a great musician and artist. And I should start doing competitions as soon as possible. They assured me they’ve had much older students who have made great leaps. Who’s right? Welp. It doesn’t really matter. I still play the viola.

4. Fear is your friend.

My personal motto recently has been, “If you’re afraid of it, you should probably do it.” It can be extremely unpleasant deciding to do something you fear, but in the end you always realize the struggle wasn’t as bad as you had anticipated, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re still alive. That makes you inclined to take more risks in the future. A big part of why I continue to play is that I have to be honest with myself and confront my own demons to improve. Even, and especially, in the practice room. No matter who you are, at any given time, there’s probably some crud deep down which desperately needs a scrubbing. When you scrub the emotional grunge, your light shines brighter.

If you’re afraid of what’s there, now’s a good time to take a peek, before it gets gnarlier. (I think of it like something molding in the fridge.) Look for your darkness. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is usually trying to tell you that you could be doing something better. A good way to locate that good ol’ grimy grunge, for me, it is to observe how my actions might be negatively impacting others. Usually, I’m doing the same thing to myself with my thoughts. Acknowledge it, heal it, and then use it to your advantage when you find it in music. You can’t work it out if you ignore it. But you can’t even ignore it if you don’t realize it’s there. Don’t worry— it’s not just you. It’s everyone. Let your musical practice be your spiritual practice.

5. Failure is your other friend.

If you’re not failing, you might not be trying. Reach. The more you can embarrass yourself, the better. You are missing out on too much growth if you are afraid of what people will think of you. Break the rules. Be ridiculous. Just try it! Anyway, everyone’s too busy thinking about themselves to care.

Frustrated about being waitlisted at the same “fancy” festival (and a whole lot of other stuff) time and time again, I complained to a friend. This wonderful musician friend suggested that maybe I just hadn’t found the right festival yet, and persuaded me to audition for even more ridiculously-difficult-to-get-into festival. So I did, and guess what? I got waitlisted at that even FANCIER festival. (It’s cool, I’ll get it next year . . . .) But it was way beyond what I thought I was capable of even applying for, simply because my resume didn’t have all the “normal” precursors. You are not your resume.

School especially is your time to fail. That’s pretty much what it’s for. There are almost no real-world consequences to testing your limits in school. I played regretfully badly in the new music ensemble a couple of times, not because I didn’t try, but because I just wasn’t equipped at that particular moment. It was a crappy feeling at the time, but then I knew what skills I needed to seek.

6. Politics are real.

Sometimes you won’t win an audition because someone else is stronger than you are at that time. But sometimes, you’re just as “good” as whoever won that audition, and your teacher just wasn’t on the panel. Oops! Their loss. There’s so much you can’t control. In fact, you mostly can’t control it. All you can do is keep improving. Keep finding your truth. Everyone with the power to help you on your path is you looking for something different, and if you keep asking yourself the hard questions and putting yourself out there, eventually you’ll meet the people who have been looking for you.

Your path isn’t going to look like anyone else’s. If you’re treading on well-worn territory, are you advancing your art form? Maybe! Maybe not. Just because you didn’t go to School X and Festivals Y and Z all before the age of 22 doesn’t mean you are useless. It just means you haven’t been in the right place at the right time yet. Maybe it’s a treasure hunt and not a ladder.

7. So you might as well have fun.

This is your one life! Try to enjoy it. At a certain point, I realized most of the musicians I admire have a very joyful and curiosity-driven relationship to music which translates into their study of the instrument. A lot of them play many styles of music, not just classical. Most of them are also whole people with other interests which often inform their playing. Remember a time before Don Juan when you used to like this? That time can be now!

8. Enough about you! What about the composer?

Should you honor him or her? Yes, please! Do your homework. Have legitimate reasons stemming from the original text for why you’re doing what you’re doing. Good news, composers are people, too, and they were probably trying to express something about the human condition. Everything is fair game. They did it in music, though, at a specific point in time and in a particular style. So it can’t hurt to have an idea of what the heck is going on. Take it from me, graduate of the School of Hard Knocks: it’s really embarrassing when someone asks you why you’re doing what you’re doing in your interpretation and you don’t have a very good answer.

9. No rules.

Dude. It’s art.

Revelations based on Historical Performance

by Kyle Miller (2010)

Hello, everyone! I graduated from the Eastman School in 2010 as a student of Carol Rodland, and I’m delighted to revisit Eastman (virtually) to share a couple of my postgraduate experiences. After I finished at Eastman, I shipped out to NYC to continue my studies, and in the Big Apple I began to get serious about something that rests upon a relatively unbeaten path: the Baroque viola. I’ve had some eye-opening experiences in the realm of historical performance over the past four years, and I’ve been mulling over what might be of greatest interest for this blog. In the end, I’ve settled on two related experiences that I would like to share with you. The first is more of a cerebral experience, an enlightening discussion that I overheard and have since pondered and will now recount. The second, which took place more recently, involved me personally as a performer. While different in nature, both experiences have helped to steer my musical thinking in a single direction. Check it out:

Tale the First: Of Slurs and Other Trifles

Last January, the students of Juilliard’s historical performance program (of which I was still a member) were invited to attend a master class given by members of the London Haydn Quartet (LHQ), a string quartet that specializes in period instrument performance. I decided to attend, and boy was I glad that I did: It was there that I had Experience the First.

One could say that the setting for the class was austere. It took place in a classroom, with a handful of students and a couple of faculty members looking on from classroom desks (the kind whose desk table flaps from a hinge so that one isn’t forced to slide into the chair from the side). Two members of the LHQ were present, also seated in desks: first violinist Catherine Manson and violist James Boyd. The master class ended with a Q & A pow-wow, and that’s when things got crazy interesting.

A couple of my fellow students grilled the two LHQers on how their quartet prepares for a performance, and the matter of performance editions arose, in particular for Haydn’s string quartets. (Given their name, it should come as no surprise that the London Haydn Quartet specializes in Haydn.) The question of the day was this: When the LHQ performs a Haydn quartet, do they use parts reprinted from an early edition (e.g.: late 18th- and early 19th-century printings such as those by Artaria of Vienna), or do they use a respected modern edition (e.g.: Henle)?

I was immediately stimulated by this question because the previous year I had performed a Haydn quartet — Op. 20, No. 4 with the Diderot String Quartet, of which I’m a member — using an early edition (that of J. J. Hummel (not to be confused with the pianist-composer J. N. Hummel)). While we (the DSQ) were preparing the quartet, it was my understanding that our use of the Hummel edition was mostly one of convenience: none of us owned a set of Henle parts, and we would have been unable to check out a set of parts from a library for more than two weeks at a time. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of performing from an early edition of Haydn’s quartets, here is a representative scan, taken from the Hummel edition, of the viola and cello parts in mm. 25-30 of the first movement of Op. 20, No. 4:

Miller Ex. 1

Hummel Edition

The parts are in alto and bass clefs, respectively. If you squint, you’ll notice that the articulation markings in the third measure are not aligned between the two parts. This phenomenon runs rampant in all four parts throughout the entire piece. Tisk, tisk, Hummel! How did all of that refuse slip past quality testing? Now, here’s the same passage as presented in the Henle edition score:

Henle Edition

Henle Edition

(The parts are still in alto and bass clefs, respectively.) Much tidier, right? One might think that performing from the Hummel edition would accomplish nothing beyond necessitating additional rehearsal time, as the players would have to align their bowings for practically every measure (and also need to squint to make out the notes). Arguments would break out over whose bowings are the best, chairs would be thrown and stands knocked over, mouths would foam with impatience, and the group would permanently dissolve in a cloud of baboon-like rage. How could Hummel allow this to happen?

Are these printing discrepancies genuine mistakes, or did he (and whoever helped him) simply not think that aligning every articulation marking was something of great value? When I worked on this piece with the Diderot Quartet, we did indeed spend quite a bit of time coordinating our bowings and even dynamic markings, which sometimes were drastically different. (I should note, though, that we still had a grand ol’ time and that no baboon-like states were reached.) Given this experience, my evaluation, at the time, of what the Henle and Hummel editions respectively brought to the table was something like this:

HENLE

– Graced by a cleaner, more spacious layout (everything large and well-spaced, with more room between staves to make pencil markings)

– Edited by respected scholars so that the work is rehearsal-ready (articulations and dynamic markings reconciled between the parts, with editorial alterations tidily marked between brackets)

– Based upon Haydn’s own autograph score

– Blessed by the miracle of measure numbers

HUMMEL

– Nothing

So, back to the master class: Why would the London Haydn Quartet, composed of seemingly well-balanced and logical individuals, choose to perform from the baboon parts? As Catherine and James began to explain their choice, it quickly became clear that their analysis of the editions’ features was roughly the same as mine but that they valued wildly different things. I suspect that their list of table-bringing would look something like:

HUMMEL

– Graced by a more distinctive and varied layout (not everything is of uniform shape and size, so it’s more fun to look at)

– NOT edited by respected scholars (a number of performance decisions have not been made beforehand, allowing the performer more freedom to decide for herself)

HENLE

– Printed on much nicer paper (probably)

It turns out that Catherine and James did not consider unified bowings to be a necessary thing. In fact, they claimed — and continued to claim, in the face of extreme hypothetical situations tossed at them by myself and others — that their quartet spends exactly 0% of their rehearsal time discussing bowings. When it comes to bowings, all four players are left to their own devices. Each person, for any given musical gesture, may play the bowings in his own part, use a different bowing that he witnesses another player use, or simply invent a new bowing entirely. The members of the LHQ exercise these rights in their rehearsals, and they do the same in live concert. It’s possible that any homophonic or imitative passage will receive four different bowing treatments. Catherine compared the effect of the alternative — four people playing the same bowing, with the same gestural inflection, at the same time — to the effect of four people suddenly saying the same thing, with the same inflection, at the same time, during a conversation. To her and to James, the painstaking care that’s poured into the homogenization of articulation markings in a modern edition produces something unnatural.

With their alleged liberation from premeditated bowings, it was clear that the members of the LHQ valued spontaneity very highly. Imagine choosing a new bowing, live in concert, just because you feel like it, guilt-free, even if the person sitting next to you is playing the same musical figure. It’s pretty liberating. I had the great pleasure of watching the LHQ’s concert in NYC the night after the master class, and they did indeed practice what they so passionately preached: bowings didn’t always line up.

I took special note that the four players changed their bowings on the repeats of sections. The result? Everything felt wild and free and fresh, and the differences in articulation were not distracting — as, I confess, I’d expected them to be — but engaging. There were four distinct personalities onstage, and I was delighted whenever when they did slightly different things.

Perhaps the Hummel edition’s greatest value, when compared to the Henle, is that its pages present more musical possibilities for the player’s consideration. If, say, the viola plays an identical passage more than once within a movement — say, the theme of a rondo — then that passage (in the Hummel, or in pretty much any printed edition from around the same time) is almost guaranteed to have different articulation markings each time it appears. I find that this happens much less often in modern editions, where slurs and dots — albeit in editorial brackets to announce their intrusion — are added so that the articulation markings are consistent for a recurring gesture. The same treatment is given to a motive that’s passed around between different instruments. If the LHQ’s mission is to be spontaneous when it comes to articulation, then it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to use modern editions. By using an edited modern edition, the quartet would be paying money to support scholars whose painstaking work they would largely end up ignoring in the heat of the moment.

I should make it clear that I am neither denouncing modern editions of old works nor criticizing performances to which those editions give rise! I am simply sharing, for your delectation, an interesting concept that was presented to me. Indeed, the LHQ could play exactly as they do even if they were to read from Henle parts. They probably just find it easier to feel a sense of freedom when looking at the less homogenized typesetting and less toiled-over markings in an 18th- or early 19th-century edition, and that’s a personal choice. Given that there are so many articulation discrepancies in early editions, one could imagine that musicians of the time took similar pleasure in approaching articulations with a certain amount of freedom.

With their alleged liberation from premeditated bowings, it was clear that the members of the LHQ valued spontaneity very highly. Imagine choosing a new bowing, live in concert, just because you feel like it, guilt-free, even if the person sitting next to you is playing the same musical figure. It’s pretty liberating. I had the great pleasure of watching the LHQ’s concert in NYC the night after the master class, and they did indeed practice what they so passionately preached: bowings didn’t always line up.

I took special note that the four players changed their bowings on the repeats of sections. The result? Everything felt wild and free and fresh, and the differences in articulation were not distracting — as, I confess, I’d expected them to be — but engaging. There were four distinct personalities onstage, and I was delighted whenever when they did slightly different things. Perhaps the Hummel edition’s greatest value, when compared to the Henle, is that its pages present more musical possibilities for the player’s consideration. If, say, the viola plays an identical passage more than once within a movement — say, the theme of a rondo — then that passage (in the Hummel, or in pretty much any printed edition from around the same time) is almost guaranteed to have different articulation markings each time it appears. I find that this happens much less often in modern editions, where slurs and dots — albeit in editorial brackets to announce their intrusion — are added so that the articulation markings are consistent for a recurring gesture. The same treatment is given to a motive that’s passed around between different instruments. If the LHQ’s mission is to be spontaneous when it comes to articulation, then it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to use modern editions. By using an edited modern edition, the quartet would be paying money to support scholars whose painstaking work they would largely end up ignoring in the heat of the moment.

I should make it clear that I am neither denouncing modern editions of old works nor criticizing performances to which those editions give rise! I am simply sharing, for your delectation, an interesting concept that was presented to me. Indeed, the LHQ could play exactly as they do even if they were to read from Henle parts. They probably just find it easier to feel a sense of freedom when looking at the less homogenized typesetting and less toiled-over markings in an 18th- or early 19th-century edition, and that’s a personal choice. Given that there are so many articulation discrepancies in early editions, one could imagine that musicians of the time took similar pleasure in approaching articulations with a certain amount of freedom.

Tale the Second: Of Adventures in Bass Clef

This August, I — along with a few of my colleagues who also are recent alumni of Juilliard’s historical performance program — had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in Thiré, a small town near the western coast of France. The eight of us were there to rehearse and to perform at a festival with members of Les Arts Florissants, a Baroque musical ensemble that specializes in early opera. The group is directed by its founder, William Christie, in whose massive and elaborate private gardens (seriously, the stuff of royalty) many of the rehearsals and performances took place. The entire trip was We starry-eyed New Yorkers stayed our nights in the nearby town of Sainte-Hermine, and we slept in a sprawling 17th-century château. There were huge, dusty tapestries, original oil paintings, massive spiral staircases, and trophy boars’ heads mounted above a grand fireplace. From reading a description of the mansion in a brochure, we discovered that our temporary home was quite definitely haunted (or so we convinced ourselves, since the notion made us giddy). At some point in the mansion’s history, a woman had murdered her husband and subsequently been sequestered at the top of a tower for seven years.

For the two weeks we were present, the eight of us were the only inhabitants of the mansion. During the day, our experience was one of non-stop rehearsing and performing, mostly outdoors and largely of operas. In the second week of the festival, the major project was Actéon, a late-17th-century opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. (If you haven’t yet heard the music of Charpentier, you might want to check it out. It’s beautiful.) The opera’s libretto is based upon a tragic story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which a hunter (Actéon) accidentally lays his eyes upon the goddess Diana while she bathes in a woods. As punishment, Diana transforms Actéon into a stag; and his own hunting dogs chase after him, eventually tearing him apart. Sad, no?

Here’s where the theme of improvisation weaves into this tale. I was playing viola in the opera, alongside two of the violists from Les Arts Florissants: Galina Zinchenko and Simon Heyerick. Our role in the opera was an unusual one. Why? Because Actéon has no viola parts. Instead of playing parts that had been written out for us beforehand, we rehearsed and performed from a slightly modified basso continuo part. There were a few passages in C-clefs in which we played along with the vocal alto and tenor parts during choruses, but most of the time we had only the following in front of us: a bassline (which was already being covered by some combination of cellos, bassoon, string bass, theorbo, and harpsichord) and figured bass symbols (again, the chords already being played by theorbo and harpsichord). Almost everything was notated in bass clef.

What I had to do that week was completely ordinary for someone who plays basso continuo lines for a living, but the experience was eye-opening for me and has made me think differently about the role of the viola as an ensemble instrument (and how its role might be fulfilled by a performer). Galina, Simon, and I spent some of our time playing the written bassline an octave (or two octaves) higher than notated, with a gentle tone that blended into the sounds of the other continuo instruments. This practice likely has precedent throughout the Baroque. The three of us also spent some of our time harmonizing above the bass, aided by the figured bass symbols. Since I’m not a seasoned thorough bass reader, I tried my hand at harmonization with great caution. That week, I had more than one nightmare in which I played a bogus note during a tender, highly exposed part of the opera, eliciting the frothy contempt of all present. I managed to avoid that fate in waking reality, but I still hope to sharpen my skills over the years so that I can accomplish more sensational feats of harmonization. There’s nothing cooler than hearing a continuo team confidently lay down thick swaths of chords in groovy rhythmic patterns.

Postlude

As someone who is beginning to specialize in early viola performance, I’ve come to enjoy being given very little information on a page of sheet music. I now view such a lack of ink as an opportunity to spice a piece of music with my own flavor as I see fit. In a pre-19th-century world where viola parts to ensemble works are sometimes written out by the composer’s students or underlings — a simple counterpoint exercise, true “filler” — a violist can’t always take the part he’s playing from too seriously. A d could have been an f, a quarter-note could have been two eighth-notes, et cetera. Almost nothing is too sacred to alter. In our own way, we violists are as liberated as the basso continuo section, free to improvise as we wish, as long as what we conjure up makes some amount of harmonic sense. The fun that I had with my basso continuo part in Actéon is in the same spirit as the liberties that the London Haydn Quartet members take with their bowings. The common thread is a sensation of musical freedom, and that’s what I wanted to share with you today. I look forward to a lifetime of evermore daring ornamentation and deviation from the ink, and I hope that you’ll join me.

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.

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.