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Archive for the ‘Friday’ Category

Thoughts on Bach’s Second Solo Suite Prelude by Sergein Yap

I have had the opportunity to study the Bach Cello Suites with many different teachers, from Romantic interpreters to ones that insist on a more historically informed style. Regardless of what performance style you subscribe to, I think a very useful resource to have is a copy of the Anna Magdalena manuscript (perhaps aided by a magnifying glass). Though not Bach’s original manuscript, it is the closest thing we have to his own.

When trying to figure out suitable bowings, it’s important to take the time to hash out the bowings yourself with the manuscript. There are times when it’s quite difficult to decipher where slurs begin and end. When you find yourself in this situation, referencing an edition of the suites edited using the Anna Magdalena manuscript can be helpful. I have used the Bärenreiter cello edition (which comes with facsimiles of the various sources) and Anner Bylsma’s book, Bach, the Fencing Master (which includes a transcribed edition for the viola of suites 1–3).

Ivo is fond of using a metaphor about reflections and symmetry relating to bowing patterns. He sees this prelude as one walking about the inside of a large space, such as a cathedral, observing the architecture (arches, pillars, etc.) for symmetry. One lesson that I have taken from this metaphor is that one should choose bowings that add variety and avoid making extended patterns sound overly repetitive or belabored. More importantly, bowings and the execution of them (bow speed, amount of bow, contact point, and where you are in the bow) should serve the music and one’s interpretation, highlighting important points of tension/release in the harmony.

Something that I have recently been asking myself is if at points of release where I linger and take time, do I always need to give time back? My issue is that I tend to sound as though I am rushing and falling a bit forward when I give time back. Using rubato without feeling the need to arrive at the downbeat of the following measure in a metronomic manner is something I am working on incorporating much more.

Examples:

• mm. 10–12 into the arrival at m. 13 (III)

extended pattern of 1 separate, 3 slurred with beat 3 of mm. 11 and 12 breaking from the pattern with separate bows.

0124a first example

0124b first example continued

• mm. 21–23

1 separate, 3 slurred pattern for 3 measures. Slight decrescendo into m. 23 to highlight the g-sharp, which creates the vii07/V harmony.

0124c second example

• mm. 44–48

On beat 2 of each measure, play as 3 slurred, 1 separate—The slur on beat 2 emphasizes the A Major pedal up until m. 47, where the harmony changes to g-sharp viio4/2/V

0124d third example

However you decide to play m. 48 regarding the length and speed of rolling the chord, it is the climax of the movement and is a dramatic exclamation on the vii06 harmony.

• mm. 59–63

In the last 5 measures, do you want to treat the chords literally and play them as the dotted-half-note value, simply arpeggiate the chords, reference gestures from previous sections (m. 30 for the realization of m. 59), or improvise new material based on these chords?

0124e fourth example


Making the Most of Competitions by Milena Inés Pajaro-van de Stadt

One may say that I’ve experienced both success and failure in competitions throughout the last fourteen years of my life.

If that’s the way you want to look at it.

In my opinion, any true learning experience is a success, no matter what. Especially in an artistic field like music, where 99% of our life is rejection (or feels that way). It is so much more about the journey than the one small moment in which we discover whether we’ve “won” or “lost” (horrible words to use, but you know what I mean!). I’m just as thankful for the experiences in auditions and competitions where I’ve been eliminated or just plain rejected from the first round as I am for the big exciting wins that seem to jump-start or even make a career. In truth, the times I have actually learned the most have been those times when it didn’t go my way and I was forced to take a step back and “reality-check.” Those are the events that help one develop a tough skin, discipline, and a positive attitude. I mean, let’s think about it—playing music is a personal, intimate, soul-exposing experience, so what could be more humiliating than to put everything you’ve got out there, with all your heart, only to be rejected for just doing what you love?? Just the idea of a competition for playing music seems cruel and unusual . . . so we have to learn how to make it fun, rewarding, and meaningful.

Preparation:

This part of the process is incredibly valuable. I know for a fact that some of my largest leaps of improvement in technique have been in those month-or-two-long stretches of preparing for a competition. Not only was this true of my preparation before the Tertis Competition but also this past summer as my quartet (The Dover Quartet) prepared for Banff!

The biggest difficulty when preparing for a competition is the amount of music one needs to prepare, usually anywhere from 5 to 8 pieces. The system I used in preparation for Tertis was to break down my practice week so that I had a goal of hitting every piece by the end of the week and accomplishing some clear goal each day. I took out my planner and wrote out a practice schedule (more like a guideline). It said things like, “Tune second page of Walton,” or “work on phrasing in last movement of Brahms,” or even something as mundane as “do fifteen minutes with metronome of measures 56–90.” It helped me plan out each week, with broader goals as the competition got closer, so that by the last week I was performing through pieces for friends and thinking about the big picture. I never had to worry about running out of time and missing a piece, because I knew I could just trust my plan. It kept me focused (I have a tendency to jump around from piece to piece distractedly when I don’t have a plan).

The quartet and I developed an entirely new (to us, at least!) rehearsal method when we were at Banff this past August. It is by far the most efficient rehearsing we’ve ever done. What the method entails is to play through an entire piece without stopping. Then everyone sits there silently writing a list of the things they wished had been better or different, movement by movement. No one speaks. Then we have a break, whether it be a long break for lunch, a short coffee, or even going to bed for the night. Nobody speaks about it until the next rehearsal, in which each member gets a chance to go through his or her entire list. Item by item, the other three of us sit in silence and listen to the points of that one member. We try out and work on everything that member requested, then move to the next person. The first time we did this it was a revelation to see how many things we actually agreed upon. It gave us a chance to rehearse without arguing about the way someone worded this or that, and it gave everyone a chance to have their opinion heard and tried unanimously. This all happened because we didn’t want to rehearse too much and we wanted to save energy . . . which brings me to my next point . . .

Having fun!!!:

I am a HUGE FAN of not overworking myself when I need to perform (or any other time for that matter). This is why I think it is so important to RELAX and give yourself a lot of down time when you are at a competition. Don’t practice 5, 6, 7 hours a day. If you can’t stop thinking about the pieces, do mental practice. It works—sometimes even better than practice with the instrument. This seems so obvious, but people forget to have a good time at competitions! Read a book (I brought A Song of Ice and Fire with me to Banff this summer), watch TV or netflix or movies (I got hooked on Breaking Bad while at Banff!), go out and explore your surroundings (I went hiking 4 times throughout the week we were at Banff—ok I know that’s a special circumstance because it’s so beautiful there, but honestly, getting out and having exercise and fresh air is fun and healthy anywhere you go!). My quartet and I made it a priority not to rehearse more than we needed to each day and to have a lot of personal relaxation time. I know it did so much for our morale and mental health. When you’re already at the competition, the time for stressing is over. It will do no good!

Finally . . . move on!:

It’s always great to self-reflect after something like a competition, but up to a point. Think back to the preparation—what techniques worked? What wasted time? Then move on. I learn so much about myself from the competition process. I remember one competition when I was antsy in my hotel room, so I practiced all day long. Well, lo and behold, I had shoulder problems by the time I got to the finals! Take what you learn from the process and be glad you have a new experience under your belt. No matter what, you’ve gained invaluable knowledge, understanding, and experience, and maybe a new roadmap for the future.


How to Practice: Take a Break by Lynsey Anderson

Scenario 1:

Inspiration in the Practice Room

When we string players find ourselves in a practice room and “on a roll,” as the familiar phrase goes, there is satisfaction and even enjoyment from the sound that is being produced. We all know how liberating it is when that really difficult passage is finally comfortable at the proper tempo or when that solo being resurrected is not nearly as hard as it was the first time it was learned (because, often times it is). There are many factors that contribute to such productive and self-esteem building practice sessions. For example, a lot more music might be learned than is one’s usual pace and/or there might be noticeable improvement in overall technique since the instrument was first taken out of its case a couple hours ago. We musicians live for these particular practice sessions—sessions that don’t come nearly as often as we wish they would.

The Cake Analogy

Good practice sessions are relished, indulged in even. One hour, two hours . . . three hours go by, and the concentration does not falter and the stamina does not cease. The hardest thing to do in this situation, where things are feeling good mentally and physically, when you are virtually feeling unstoppable, where all hopes of having a career in music are elevated to absolute certainties, where even your passion for music itself is renewed . . . the hardest thing to do is to stop practicing. It is easy to ignore that little voice of conscience that says, “Take a break—those arms need it.” It is the same little voice that is easy to ignore when it whispers somewhere back in the remote corners of sensibility, “Don’t go back for a second piece of chocolate cake, it might add extra dimensions to your thighs.” Yeah, the voice is heard, vaguely, but the cake is there in all its glory mesmerizing you with its insatiably sweet decadence. Far too often we squelch the little voice and go for the second piece of cake . . . like we continue to practice, and practice hard, playing over and over those incredibly beautiful notes, drowning in the irresistibility of being the source of something elite or virtuosic. The consequences are not always noticeable either. If you put on an extra pound, your trousers will still fit. If you strain your tendons a tiny bit, your body will heal itself relatively quickly (especially with the aid of a little Ibuprofen).

Every once in a while, however, there are drastic consequences that are not expected, because they are not felt instantly. For example, to continue with our cake analogy, food poisoning can be contracted hours before the dreaded symptoms appear. Likewise, many performance related injuries, including more serious damage to nerves, may take hours or even days before the pain starts to push through our comfort bubbles. The only way to prevent drastic consequences from our indulgences, whether our indulgences involve caloric intake or the repeatedly successful execution of parallel 10ths with a vigorous and rapid detaché stroke, is to exercise restraint. Take a break. It is not unreasonable to take a break even as often as every hour.

The Love Cliché

Taking breaks may seem like the most “common” of common sense, so why is it that so many people still power through their physical limitations? There is always the possibility that some people simply have no regard for future ramifications, but I think this is a very small percentage of people. From my observations, musicians tend not to be naïve and, on the whole, will actually knowingly practice in a harmful way. This is especially true if the practice session seems to be breaking new ground for the foundation of perfection. The risk is huge, but the instant gratification is very powerful. Much justification for the decision to practice too hard, like, “I just want to relish the one time in my life that I can actually do this . . .” resembles the old cliché, “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all . . .” It is romantic, isn‘t it? Imagine applying that kind of hindsight to the long term about past musical endeavors: “I haven’t had feeling in my left hand for twenty years, but I remember a time when I played that G-major arpeggio in Don Juan better than the seasoned concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic! Sure, it was in a practice room where nobody heard it, but you know, it was totally worth it . . .” Of course, that last example is silly and unrealistic. Nobody would actually think in this manner . . . right?

Presumably, however, the love and lost philosophy is true, but, dare it be said, only if the love was perfect. Love is never perfect, though . . . and neither is Don Juan. It is worth bearing in mind that twenty years of depriving oneself of making Don Juan better (or that beloved concerto, or whatever else) because of an injury sustained from over-indulgence in a practice room is an utter shame. “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” is a saying for people who live in denial. The saying exists for those who are clinging to a love that was seemingly perfect (because they have “forgotten” the imperfectness of it) in order to make the present agony bearable. You do what you have to do, though, and surely there is nothing wrong with a sense of gratitude (the saying does embody that virtue when looked upon in that light), as long as the gratitude does not lead to complacency, for love can always grow stronger—just like one’s playing can always get better. Take breaks. Take breaks so that you may never have to be left wondering what your full potential could have been if you had taken better care of yourself.

Scenario 2:

Frustration in the Practice Room

So, if your practicing is too good to be true . . . you’re probably right. Okay, that point has been driven home already, but what about the other 95 (or more) percent of the time when practicing reveals just how bad a string player actually is? Certainly we would not be tempted to over indulge in a practice session that sounds like a moose in heat, right? Does this mean that string players are less likely to suffer performance related injuries when they sound bad? On the contrary, it is very stressful for any musician to maintain that they sound bad. In fact, it is generally the number one motivator to keep practicing at dangerous lengths. Now imagine the stress of sounding bad coupled with the stress of a performance deadline; “Oh yeah, there’s an orchestra audition tomorrow that includes a certain excerpt that I forgot to practice . . . Oh yeah, my recital is in three days, I guess I better start trying to play the Bach Chaconne all the way through . . . Oh yeah, my playing test on Friday includes melodic minor thirds in every minor key—I only know thirds in major keys.” Practice, practice, practice . . . too little time, too near of deadlines, and the body gets sacrificed.

Listen, take a break because this is how injuries happen. And when injuries do happen, it is this kind of stress that makes them worse to the point of jeopardizing a musician’s career: for string players, if the whole upper half of the body is tingling while jabs of knife-like pain accompany every bow change, or if the throbbing in the neck and shoulders intensifies with every measure of Bruckner tremolos, Mahler crescendo, or Schostakovich ostinatti . . . or if you are oozing on your chinrest . . . then, it is time to cancel that upcoming performance. Take a break. Take a break to prevent dramatic performance-canceling situations. If breaks are ignored, however, and an injury does start to plague your life, then stop playing altogether and be patient while the body recovers (because it should recover if you let it).

Summary

Whether a practice session is encouraging or discouraging, we should always be mindful of taking breaks, because injuries can happen under both circumstances. In fact, it should be noted that the really encouraging practice sessions are probably more dangerous. Think about it; if you’re at the summit of Mount Everest, you are more likely to be enjoying the scenery than worrying about losing your footing and falling down a very, very long way. Not thinking about it, though, doesn’t make the danger any less real. Whereas, in a horrible practice session, you already feel gross and incapable, and chances are that you are at least more aware of every little ache and pain, because it’s just one more thing on top of everything else that is causing your world to collapse around you in shambles (it is only fitting that a musician should express herself in writing so dramatically; we are an emotional bunch after all). Remember the “love and lost” discussion from earlier on? Well, if the extremes of life must be experienced (because, let’s face it, some people will take plenty of breaks and abide by every recommendation and still end up with an injury), wouldn’t it be preferable to lose first and then find love? Who is to say that it couldn’t happen in that order? Okay, so there are those who might have been a little over confident, overzealous, over indulgent or just plain ignorant in their practicing and have suffered the consequences. If mistakes can be learned from, though (where taking a break finally proves itself worthy), and if patience and determination can be acquired, than a musician’s career can conclude triumphantly (Beethoven’s 5th comes to mind as a good analogy: anxious beginning, happy ending).

Through the good and the bad, always hang on to a bit of perspective. Try not to lose your head when the pressures of conservatory life start to weigh down on you. Likewise, don’t allow yourself to be completely carried away by the current of inspiration that tends to appear in a practice room at the most unlikely of times. Take breaks even when they feel unnecessary. For so many of us, we only think about our health when we do not have it anymore. It is vitally important, though, for musicians to think about their health all of the time. If an injury does occur, be patient and let the body heal—even if it takes longer than you think, you have time to wait. The idea, though, is that injuries are prevented, and for most performance related injuries that happen to most people, prevention is obtained by something so common-sensical, so over talked about, and so irritatingly easy as . . . taking breaks.


The Application Process by Ashley Pelton

As I am approaching the halfway mark of my senior year, I have begun to reflect on the past four years of my life. Each and every one of us has had a wildly different journey at Rice and can share a handful of stories highlighting our experiences. The Owl Chronicles will be a series of posts exploring the lives of Rice undergraduate violists and their growth as musicians and adults since having matriculated at Rice.

It wouldn’t be fair to begin the Owl Chronicles without a post about the application process, especially as application deadlines approach! Before moving to Houston, I too went through the long and arduous process of applying to college. Unfortunately, I would be lying if I said it got easier after April 1. However, with a little self-reflecting, hours and hours of research, and many pros and cons lists, you can make the decision process a little smoother and simpler.

In selecting colleges to apply to, and in April mulling over your acceptances and rejections, I would suggest asking yourself these questions:

• Am I looking for a conservatory, a dual-degree program, a university with a music school, or a university with a music department?

•To what extent are academics important to me, and how much can I honestly balance? How much time do I need and want to practice?

• What kind of extra-curricular activities interest me?

• What qualities am I looking for in a teacher, and will they help me achieve my short- and long-term goals?

• What kind of environment will challenge me and allow me to thrive most?

•Location: How far is it from home? If visiting home is important to you, what is the cost of travelling back and forth? To what extent are the surrounding areas important to me? (Food, cultural events, other schools, work opportunities, etc.)

• What scholarship opportunities and kinds of financial aid are available?

• How much of an emphasis on solo/chamber music/orchestra is important to me?

• Will I be motivated by my peers and the environment around me?

• Could I see myself fitting in here?

• What kinds of resources are available to me?  (Career services, health services, counseling services, physical therapy, etc.)

• Living accommodations? Food? Will I need a car or bike to get around?

This last question is difficult to answer, and I can assure you, how I may have answered this question four years ago is certainly different from how I would answer it now. For most of us, this answer will change and will continue evolving as our lives go on. However, if you have the courage to answer it or already have some ideas in mind, it is worth taking in to consideration:

• What are my long-term career/life goals, and where do I THINK might be the best place to help me achieve these goals?

Most importantly, if you have the opportunity to visit a school, whether it is during an audition or just an ordinary visit, GO!!! I cannot emphasize this more. Your visit to that conservatory or university will tell you infinitely more than any website or brochure you read. At the least, you will be thankful for the insight you gain purely from walking on the campus and interacting with faculty, staff, and students.


Entrepreneurship by Dawson White

I entered the “real” world after my Master’s at Rice only a couple of years ago. I remember feeling anxious, scared, and excited to get out of college and put my skills to work. Since high school I have been on the orchestral path, dreaming of an orchestral career every day, but what I eventually realized was that there are very few classical musicians who focused their energy on only one facet of the musical world. I took a class at Rice called Professional Development, which solidified this thought, as it focused on entrepreneurship and diversification of your musical career. This class had a huge impact on my career thoughts and was the impetus for several programs around Houston including the Cypress Symphony, which I helped to start. In essence, my scope broadened over time to the point that I graduated from Rice with a new mindset.

In 2013, orchestral auditions are extremely competitive, and teaching jobs are scarce, so how do we survive? We get business savvy. These are no longer the times of a bygone era of polished performance skills and no interpersonal skills; today you can craft your own professional image, network, and run a successful classical musician business, all from your computer or tablet.

Here are some pointers to get you started:

Mission Statement

Remember the first few years on your viola? It was invigorating to make a good sound, to nail that shift, to play with friends and to learn about this amazing wooden box. What drove us at that age was fun; what drives us as we grow older is usually money and success. The great thing about a music career is that you can make a living from your passion, but remembering why you started (or kept) playing is essential to drafting your mission statement. Simply, it’s a one-sentence description of your purpose in the music world. Think of what skills you can bring to the table and what you want to get out of it. When you’re at your lowest level of inspiration, think back on this mission statement, and it will get you back on your feet.

My mission statement:

To contribute beautiful and thoughtful ideas to the world through music and use those ideas to capture lasting, positive effects on the people I perform for and the students I teach.

Perform at the Highest Level, Always

Hone your craft, perfect your technique, and learn how to teach it. With competition in every corner of our musical world, performing at the highest level is a given and is expected. Whether you are performing at Carnegie Hall or a wedding, the connections you meet in those situations could help further your career in some way. Instilling optimal performance at every gig will ensure that you are known as a good violist and that you’ll get work in the future.

Cultivate a Professional Image

When I moved to Houston I was asked by five people for a business card in the first couple of months; when I didn’t have one to give them, I quickly realized that my professional image was lacking. In the following months I crafted a professional website, updated my bio with help from teachers, reorganized my resume, and created a memorable business card. All of these things helped create a professional image to potential contractors, audience members, and parents of potential students. The success of this improved professional image led to contracts with a number of the organizations around town and a quick surge up the higher education ladder in a very short time.

An even more important item is realizing what your personality strengths and weaknesses are.

As a very introverted person, I realized my musical ideas didn’t shine through as well as they could, so with the help of teachers and years of practice, I became a much more confident teacher, performer, and person. One of my strengths is that I have an easy-going and generally optimistic attitude, which lends to being easy to work with. Consider what your own strengths and weaknesses are and realize how they might help/hinder your job opportunities and professional image.

Networking

The act of obtaining and retaining valuable job connections is absolutely essential to the cultivation of a successful music career. You’ve just moved to a new town or graduated from college, first step—get in contact with local violists and musicians. If possible, try to play for them and ask for feedback, or if you have an audition coming up soon, have them listen to you.

Not only are you gaining insightful information about your playing, you are also creating a relationship with that person that could lead to work down the road. If they are not able to hear you play, an informational interview is helpful to gain other leads in seeking out jobs. All of this could be done via in-person meeting, phone call, or even Skype. And as a reminder, when contacting very influential and respected teachers/performers around the area, be prepared to pay a lesson fee; you can write it off on your taxes as a business expense later.

In some situations, networking may come across as using others for your own benefit . . . this is the last thing you want your contact to feel about your relationship. A way to help with this problem is to offer them something in return for giving you information or listening to your playing. It could mean that you refer to them a private student or a gig down the road when you’re unable to take them on. It’s the gesture that counts, and it’s also a great way to remind them you’re working hard and making progress.

Lastly, never burn a bridge! The musical world is outrageously small, and those burned bridges could have helped you move further up the classical musician ladder.

Long-Term Thinking

Long-term thinking is a constant evaluation of how each decision you make will affect the future, and it is a mindset that will pay huge dividends if implemented successfully. Think 1, 5, and 10 years in the future: Where do you want to be? What will it take to get there? Who will you need to meet that could help propel you in that direction? If you make the decision to answer these questions today, think of how much closer you’ll be to reaching your goals. Make a habit of calculating decisions with a forward and long-term focus throughout your professional life, keep an open mind, treat every person with respect, and enjoy what you do. That’s the key to a successful entrepreneur.


10 Tips for Optimizing Summer Lessons by Ashley Pelton

Each year we spend hours and hours agonizing over which summer festivals to apply to, rerecording movements for audition tapes, and then anxiously awaiting admissions results. Not only is it important to consider what focus we would like the festival to have (solo, chamber, orchestral), but also the teachers we may study with, the amount of time there will be to practice, and what environment will be the best for us to thrive in.

When summer finally comes around and we arrive at festivals, we are so relieved to have been accepted, ecstatic that it’s summertime (and the livin’ is easy), and we cannot wait to meet new people. But don’t forget, your main purpose there is to grow musically and violistically!

It can be difficult to make the most out of one lesson, three lessons, or if you are lucky, five or six lessons with a summer teacher. It takes time to settle in to their teaching style, incorporate their feedback, and learn all of your repertoire. But you may say, “Ashley, everyone says they get so much better over the summer! How can I do that if I only get one or three lessons with a professor?”

Fast forward to summer 2014 . . . what are YOU going to do to get the most out of your lessons? (In no specific order)

1. Think long and hard about your main summer goals before you arrive at the festival. Work with your year-round teacher to come to a consensus on the areas you would like to improve upon.

These goals should be realistic, challenging, and much more specific than “learn a ton of rep.” Be sure to have bigger picture, long-term goals, as well as short-term goals.

2. If performing at the festival is a priority for you, come with repertoire that is already at a high level.

In my experience, I have found that new teachers will always want to delve into new details and show you a new perspective. If your rep. isn’t at performance level, your performance date will often get pushed back.

3. Record your lessons and take detailed notes. Be sure to listen back and watch yourself.

In an unfamiliar teaching situation, it can be extremely helpful to listen back to your lessons. Maybe you didn’t catch everything the professor said the first time around, or you want to hear the impact their suggestion had on your playing again. Maybe they completely confused you! Which leads me to my next suggestion:

4. Ask a lot of questions.

Come to your lesson prepared with questions and be honest if you do not understand a concept your teacher is sharing with you. It will show that you care and that you’ve taken the time to process and ponder thoughts from your previous lessons.

5. Have an open mind.

This applies especially to the physical aspect of playing the viola but to musical and technical ideas as well. Every violist is built differently, every viola built differently, and everyone’s setup is a little different. If you aren’t at least open to listening to another professor’s suggestions, then you are doing yourself a disservice. Only your body can tell you how it feels, but you never know when a new idea could be the solution you’ve been looking for.

6. Take advantage of any technique classes or studio classes your summer teacher may offer.

The more exposure you have to their teaching and playing, the more you will be able to apply and understand the principles they are teaching you in your lessons.

7. Realize that you may only have three lessons, and prioritize what you’d like to work on in that short time.

I hate to break it to you, but you won’t be getting through your whole sonata, whole concerto, and whole Bach suite in three hours. Think wisely about where you need the most guidance and how you can get the most out of your time with that professor.

8. Learn your piano scores before you get to the festival.

At festivals, collaborative pianists often have hectic schedules. Do them and yourself a favor and make the most out of the short rehearsal time you have with them. Be sure to know your entrances, know how your parts fit together, and have the courage to discuss and debate musical ideas you would like to implement.

9. Use your peers to your advantage.

Sometimes teachers bring their year-round students with them to festivals. If you don’t understand something from your lesson and you don’t feel comfortable asking the professor, ask your peers who are familiar with their teaching style and techniques. They can often shed light on confusing concepts and give you tips for getting the most out of your lessons.

10. Insist on practicing in a comfortable and productive practice space.

If you are a person who likes to practice with a mirror or you are working on adjusting your setup, insist on having a mirror in your practice space. If the festival doesn’t provide them, purchase an inexpensive one so you can make the most out of your practice time. If you need a special chair or bench, make sure you bring it with you or find accommodations. There is nothing worse than a practice space that is uncomfortable, hinders learning, and creates bad postural and practice habits.


Coffee, Conversation . . . Careers in Quartets . . . The perspectives of quartet violists: Ivo Van der Werff and James Dunham by Lynsey Anderson

There are two main reasons I am writing this article: Having spent 7 years in college between my undergrad and grad career in music, most of my dearest friends are fellow musicians. At least some of them have a curiosity, if not a full blown passion, for a career in chamber music. So, I thought it would be relevant and interesting to interview two wonderful, successful, and accessible violists about their experiences, thoughts, and advice from their long careers in professional quartets. Secondly, with the dawn of my own career on the horizon, I feel that what I learned by talking to Ivo Van der Werff and James Dunham is very applicable even beyond a career in chamber music. Whether you are interested in how to make it with your up and coming quartet, or if you are merely somebody who is curious about the qualities that make for being a great person and will affect anything you do for the better, I would encourage you to continue reading.

When I was brainstorming questions for the interview, I had this preconceived idea (based on nothing except my own naivety) that Mr. Van der Werff and Mr. Dunham, having come from quartets on opposite sides of the Atlantic, would have a lot of contrast in experience and opinions about certain matters of quartet playing. What I discovered though, to my surprise, is an amazing continuity in their responses. Though they had different quartets, knew different people, lived in different countries, and lead different lives, I think it is significant that they both ended up in the same place: teaching at Rice University. They also have a genuine and honest demeanor in common; what you see is what you get with these guys along with a mutual respect for each other.

Getting Started

Mr. Dunham’s background includes having gone to the Interlochen Arts Academy for high school. I remember Interlochen. I did not experience Interlochen in the same way as Mr. Dunham, of course, because I never went to school there, but I remember distinctly the cool breeze through the pines of northern Michigan . . . and the fact that the town of Interlochen itself has a smaller population than the Arts Academy it’s built around. Inside the walls, young people from all over the world share the same classrooms and get intensive, vocational training in classical music. Outside the walls of the Academy, Interlochen lives up to the stereotype of small-town, in-the-middle-of-the-boondocks Michigan. The people might not know the difference between a violin and a viola, but they know the Academy is something special . . . and they will tell you that as well as epic stories of how to survive blizzards . . . and they might give you tips on how to spit a cherry pit, chop firewood, or how to get that dog-sized raccoon out of your attic. So yes, Interlochen has quite the dichotomy of culture, and yes, young Mr. Dunham got a head start on his career in this unique place playing violin.

Mr. Van der Werff, on the other hand, who was raised by a Dutch family grew up in Letchworth (a small English town near London) and participated in a Saturday morning music school where he played 3rd violin in the orchestra (because there were no violas). It was here that he had chamber music coachings all the way through his teens with their resident quartet. Mr. Van der Werff remarks how his little town also had a remarkable chamber music concert series where practically every month a major professional quartet came to perform. Hence, from an early age, Mr. Van der Werff was exposed to the likes of the Amadeus, Kodaly, Hungarian, and Aeolian Quartets regularly, and the idea of wanting to be in a professional quartet was sort of always present.

It is lucky for both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff that they had childhoods immersed in music. Music was just a part of their lives growing up, and it is only in hindsight that they both recognize how influential their youth was in the direction their lives would take. Music for them wasn’t like a kind of conversion where they suddenly and unexpectedly were enlightened to the fulfillment of a life in music . . . but nonetheless, both men were not deprived of a conversion-like experience when it came to switching to viola.

The Viola Just Fit Better . . .

Now “conversion” might imply a stronger, more significant experience than what is truly representative for Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff. Maybe it was more of an “aha!” moment. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I am slightly jealous, though. I started on viola, and so I don’t know what it is like to play violin and then fall in love with the richer undertones or the special harmonic role that a viola offers. I’m also of a small stature (five feet tall, hands that barely reach an octave on the piano, feet that don’t always touch the ground when I’m sitting all the way back on my orchestra chair . . . ), so I also don’t know what it feels like to discover that there is a stringed instrument that not only sounds better to me, but also fits me better physically. At the same time, though, I have had affirmations that I made the right decision about playing viola even if I was an uninformed sixth grader in my public school string orchestra program. Transcending the desire for lower tones and/or the added maneuverability that comes from extra spacing between the fingers as compared to the violin (which, again, is something only people like Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff, who are both over six feet tall with large hands, can appreciate), the viola is a match made in heaven, as they say, when paired with the right personality.

What is a typical viola personality type, anyway? According to Mr. Dunham, the personality that many violists have (there are exceptions—I must make this disclaimer) mirror the role that the violist plays in the quartet: a sort of supporting role that has the power to liberate the solos happening around them. It is akin to a social situation where a successful conversation takes place between two people where the violist is the one who asks the right questions to inspire answers from the 1st violinist, so his personality and cleverness can shine through. It is a supporting role, with the sporadic moment of spotlight (but not too much spotlight). It is perfect for someone who is independent and confident, but also has a natural tendency to be a bit more shy or reserved. Yes, violists have a desire to be recognized just like anybody else, but . . . occasionally is often enough. My orchestra director in high school used to say that violists held a role in the quartet that people only took notice of when it wasn’t there. The viola part is subtle like that, and it gives violists a slight thrill. It is knowing a secret, like a magician, that we are an integral part of musical “tricks” or artistry. If everybody knew the secrets of viola playing, some of the magic would disappear. Mr. Dunham’s analogy is that the violist is the filling of the quartet “sandwich.” It is so true in many ways: for example, the violist’s part is usually somewhere between the bread slices of melody and chord root. Another aspect of Mr. Dunham’s analogy is that the viola is the middle voice between the top slice of the treble realm and the bottom slice of the bass realm.

The role of the viola in Mr. Van der Werff’s terms is “facilitating” the happiness and comfort of other people. Mr. Dunham takes this idea and has come up with whole workshops about what it means to be an inner voice player. Using something like the octaves in the Ravel Quartet in F (first movement) or the second movement of the “Trout” Quintet, he is able to demonstrate how the viola, with a keen sense of musical anticipation, can liberate a soloist. It is basically a fine balance between being too careful about what the soloist is doing and not being careful enough. It is both an art and a science in a way, which has consumed the drive and passion of Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff in their many years of professional quartet playing; but how did the viola come into the picture for these two in the first place?

For Mr. Dunham, it was his summer at Tanglewood after his freshman year of college that convinced him that he wanted to be a violist full time. During his senior year at the Interlochen Arts Academy, he studied the viola as well as the violin and continued on both instruments during his freshman year at Carleton College, a Liberal Arts college with a fine music department. When he applied to Tanglewood that year, he offered his services as either a violinist or violist. Of course, when he was accepted to come as a violist, Mr. Dunham didn’t even have a viola of his own and had to buy one quickly! Mr. Van der Werff also has a great anecdote about his humble viola beginnings. When he was about 13, a violist was needed to play in a quartet at his Saturday morning music school, and everybody pointed to him because he was “the biggest fellow.” He said that he played an early Mozart quartet that day with somebody sitting next to him telling him what finger to play on what string as the notes went by. He said, “The rest is history. I never looked back after that, and a couple years later I was a violist exclusively.” The circumstances in which Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff found themselves in professional quartets have about the same amount of happenstance.

It’s not all happenstance, of course: if you’re a violinist, you’re bound to discover the viola, and if you’re trained as a musician, you’re bound to have a connection to a professional string quartet somehow; whether or not you were tutored by one or have an acquaintance—perhaps a classmate in a quartet—or maybe you simply have autographed program notes from a concert. The point is, as a musician in a music school, it’s hard to not have looked a professional quartet member in the eye at some point—and that’s a very important networking phenomenon that comes about naturally, seeing as the music community is rather small. But . . . not every musician has the same doors of opportunity open, and not every musician is at a point in their careers/lives where they can actually step through that door when it opens. So, both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff would say their careers in quartets came about by . . . happenstance.

In the right place at the right time . . .

Mr. Van der Werff was different than Mr. Dunham in that he knew he wanted to be in a quartet before he was actually in one. He actively tried to put a quartet together while he was a student at the Royal College of Music, but for various reasons that had mostly to do with people not getting along, it never worked out. “A quartet works by being able to resolve conflict,” remarks Mr. Van der Werff, who attributes this important quality as the reason why student quartets rarely stick together for more than a couple semesters and consequently why professional quartets are relatively rare. He explains that besides being able to resolve conflict, as only one member of a quartet you have to find three other people with the same passionate dedication to making great music in order to “make it” as a professional group. Those two qualities rarely coincide among a group of four people, let alone with the right instrumentation. For Mr. Van der Werff it was literally a call out of the blue from the Medici quartet, which was already 12 years established, that set in motion the next 25 years of his life. “It was a dream,” he said “and the timing was perfect.” What Mr. Van der Werff meant by the timing was that he just happened to be finishing up his studies in Germany, and any questions he had about what the next step was going to be had suddenly been answered.

Another part of the perfect timing, however, had to do with the quartet’s repertoire and undertakings. Any professional string quartet wants to do the Beethoven cycles, but one piece of advice that Mr. Van der Werff passes along is “that doing the Beethoven cycles is like climbing Mt. Everest. You shouldn’t do it until you have at least 10 years of experience.” Well, since Mr. Van der Werff stepped into a 12-year-old group, he got the chance to play the Beethoven cycles as a young man only a few years after he officially joined. Playing Beethoven, he says, provided the most incredible musical experiences he can recall to date: “In 27 years of quartet playing, there might have only been two or three occasions where I felt we really did justice to the music. But one of those occasions happened for me when I was playing the Beethoven Cavatina [Quartet No. 13, opus 130, mvt. 5] . . . something happened, and the memory of it still gives me goose bumps.” Mr. Van der Werff asserts that just having one indescribable experience like that is worth his whole performing career, and it established a kind of unique closeness to the other members of his quartet.

I can see the significance of this, because I sat there and was tempted to offer words like “unworldly” or “spiritual” to help categorize what he felt that night. Though his experience might have been those things and more, it’s not a simple matter that can be understood by anyone who wasn’t there. Indeed, it is those inexplicable moments that give musicians a hunger to keep plugging away whether or not there is monetary compensation and often (especially if you’re a quartet member) at the expense of time that could have been spent with the family (Mr. Van der Werff’s wife often referred to herself as a “quartet widow,” and Mr. Dunham added up his travel time for tax purposes to realize that he was away from home literally 6 months out of the year).

Mr. Dunham’s out-of-the-blue phone call came from the Cleveland Quartet. This phone call happened after 15 years of playing with the Sequoia Quartet as the founding violist. “Quartets don’t usually ‘raid’ other quartets—the chemistry is too intimate for such an overt move. Corporations and orchestras commonly seek out members of competing organizations, but string quartets must be more cautious.” Mr. Dunham ultimately went on to be in the Cleveland Quartet for nine years after that phone call. Again, the timing was right. While the Sequoia Quartet had won great acclaim—including the Naumburg International Chamber Music Award—and produced many recordings, after replacing two members who left the quartet it became clear that another chapter was opening. It was at this point that the Cleveland Quartet dared even give an exploratory phone call! Of course, it is hard to imagine not accepting an offer from a quartet that can boast of so many accolades, and the final proof of the chemistry was the group’s Grammy Award, won with Mr. Dunham in its final season. It just goes to show, however, that any independent career move on the part of a quartet member is a really big deal, because it directly affects the future of three other people. Depending on the circumstances, it can be a little like deciding to abandon your marriage. Mr. Dunham chuckles as he explains the joke about how “a quartet is like a four-way marriage with all of the disadvantages and none of the advantages!” It is clear, as Mr. Dunham looks back on that phone call, that he is thankful the opportunity came about and that he took it.

Since Mr. Dunham was a member of the Cleveland Quartet and the Sequoia Quartet for a combined total of 24 years, it is hard to say that he identifies himself more with one than the other. I noticed, however, much of his practical advice for up and coming quartets came with anecdotes from his time touring with the Sequoia Quartet around the Western side of the country. The Sequoia Quartet formed when the new, young faculty of the recently established California Institute of Art, where Mr. Dunham went to college, freely collaborated with students. The group just sort of popped out of the mix, and Mr. Dunham considers himself lucky that he happened to be a part of it, “In the right place at the right time.” Again, the success of the quartet is something that Mr. Dunham credits to the desire of the group to share the experience of great music making. Mr. Dunham explains that in the beginning, they didn’t even have a manager. They went to a friend who agreed to act as their manager so they could say, “This is ‘so and so,’ and I represent the Sequoia Quartet . . . hire them,” as opposed to, “We are the Sequoia Quartet . . . hire us.” This seems like a minor detail, but according to Mr. Dunham, it makes a big difference when you are pounding the pavement for the first time and trying to arrange concerts. He went on to say, though, that “real” management and good management is very important because, as Mr. Dunham points out, “Otherwise there are tons of people who will always take advantage of the fact that your groups just want to play and so they can get away with paying next to nothing [or not paying at all] . . . free isn’t good.”

Having said this, though, the flip side is that being in a quartet can’t be about the money. More often than not, a professional quartet will be lucky to eke out a living. The way Mr. Dunham breaks down the income, based on a Chamber Music America survey, is that for any professional touring performance, 20 percent off the top goes to the manager, and after travel expenses you might end up with 40% to be split up between the four members of the quartet. Obviously, 10 percent of any income will rarely amount to very much, and that’s the reality of it. Basically, the quartet’s combined income, if you’re successful, will put food on the table and pay the bills. Playing in a quartet looks like a very glamorous thing because the performances are what get publicized, but there is also the strenuous amount of rehearsal time that gets put in on top of busy teaching schedules. (Most professional quartets have to supplement their income by teaching at a college. Mr. Dunham says, though, that both of his quartets were very dedicated to teaching and believed profoundly that they learned a great deal for themselves by doing it.) The reward and return when it comes to quartet playing then comes back to the music, where we started. Dunham quotes Lionel Tertis, who said, “Just play everything!” In other words, play the classics, play the new stuff, play the high paying/high brow concerts to a full house at a fancy hall, and play the volunteer concerts to a handful of people at their local community arts café series. I asked Mr. Dunham to put into words the best part about being in a professional quartet. His reply came without any hesitation: “If you stay with music long enough you’ve made decisions about every 32nd note. But then you go past this stage, and when a new idea comes along—it’s easy to catch and respond to. And so in a way—it’s very liberating and rare, because you have to read each other so intimately. It’s an incredible experience.”

Muß es sein? Es muß sein . . .

Both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff are as busy as ever at the Shepherd School at Rice University, corralling the program’s 25 or so student violists and coaching several chamber groups a semester, participating on student recital panels, being involved with faculty recitals, as well as a whole host of other creative endeavors that professorship allows. Mr. Van der Werff, for example, has published his own book on viola technique, and both professors teach at various summer schools/festivals. My point is that it’s hardly accurate to say that I was interviewing two guys that are even close to retirement (besides, I’m not sure “retirement” ever really happens when you’re a musician). No, they are still in the full swing of their careers, but . . . they both have seen a major chapter in their careers (and lives) come to a close—that of playing in a professional quartet. It is this closure in combination with their quartet playing hindsight that makes them a dynamic and well respected team at Rice. Plus, like icing on the cake, they both happen to be very open and inviting people who hope to help and inspire the next generation. So, their closing thoughts are put forth in the next paragraphs. Some of these thoughts are specific to quartets that want to embark on an exciting career in chamber music, and still other thoughts are pearls of wisdom that can be used in any scenario:

What sorts of things are going to give an aspiring quartet an edge in such a competitive field of performing? Networking, of course, is key and being able to reach a broad scope of people. Mr. Dunham says he’s amazed at the incredible resources now that were not available when he was young, such as e-mail or online social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Also, there are great networking opportunities and resources available through the organization Chamber Music America, which Mr. Dunham brought up several times during the course of the interview. Besides networking, a quartet should also be in tune to what audiences want. Mr. Van der Werff explained that he came from a generation where people wanted to go to a big concert hall to see a chamber music performance, but that trend is starting to change. He said, “You look at some of the young quartets, and they are ‘bringing the music to the people’ in a sense by lining up performances in all kinds of weird and wonderful venues where you wouldn’t expect classical quartet music [like in jazz clubs, bars, parks, museums, office buildings, etc…]” Above all, Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff agree that there has to be an intense dedication to the art. It is one thing to invent new performance venues, but both caution against abandoning the traditional repertoire:

Mr. Dunham: “Symphonies are great and grand and there are favorite players. But chamber rep . . . it’s much more personal and accessible to an audience. My advice for maintaining an ‘edge’ would be to find new ways to mix music and talk to audiences. They love that sort of thing now.”

Mr. Van der Werff: “Never lose sight of the core rep., because that is what makes a good quartet for 10 years, which is 1000 hours a year, which is about 3 hours a day . . . all this in order to achieve higher art.”

Last, but not least, a quartet must have a group enthusiasm that reflects itself within its sound. Mr. Van der Werff insists that a great quartet is always alive and always listening to each other and always with a heightened awareness that you are taking care of your own playing in terms of the other members. He emphasizes “trust” as the main component of the relationship among your quartet mates: “It goes way beyond just getting along with each other.” There is also the awareness that group enthusiasm has to be nurtured despite financial obstacles or personal hardships. Mr. Dunham says, “There will always be people that will backstab. Life isn’t fair like that. But as a group, you find the people that don’t backstab, and you hang out with them!” It is the group enthusiasm that will fuel the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that is absolutely crucial for getting work because, as Mr. Dunham puts it, “The sky is the limit depending on your imagination as a quartet, but you can’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring.” I like that last quote, because of course it’s true that neither Mr. Dunham nor Mr. Van der Werff were sitting around waiting for the phone to ring . . . so in a way it is ironic that it was that unexpected phone call that played such an important role in both of their . . . how should I put it . . . quartet destinies.

In closing, both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff have special moments associated with their last concert with their respective groups. For Mr. Van der Werff, it was a very sentimental and emotional experience walking out onto the platform for the last time to a thunderous applause. The concert had been planned with pieces that the Medici Quartet had specialized in and made their own over the years, and there were lots of friends and family in the audience. The last official Medici Quartet concert was a special memory for Mr. Van der Werff for many reasons including that their guest pianist who performed the Elgar with them was a good friend who has since passed away. The concert went by in a flash, but Mr. Van der Werff vividly describes his feelings as he left the stage at the end: “My first reaction was that, 25 years of my life just [snaps his fingers] gone like that? It’s extremely weird. You realize the things you’ve done and accomplished, but it’s still weird.” Mr. Dunham’s last performance with the Cleveland Quartet took place in the Reinberger Chamber Hall at Severance Hall in Cleveland, where the quartet originated. I was able to picture the space vividly from having spent four years attending preconcert lectures for the Cleveland Orchestra there while I attended the Cleveland Institute of Music for my undergrad. I remember most the cozy lighting and the paintings on the walls that made it look like you were looking through windows out into beautiful, sunny, pastoral scenes (a particularly comforting and beautiful distraction from a typical Cleveland winter day along Euclid Avenue). Mr. Dunham said they played an encore that he really liked. It was his favorite movement from none other than Beethoven, his quartet in F Major, opus 135. He tells me this and looks over at Mr. Van der Werff with a certain gleam in his eye. That quartet has the famous epigraph rather fitting for a quartet’s final concert I suppose: “Muß es sein? Es muß sein,” which is translated, “Must it be? It must be.”


Networking by Yvonne Smith

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Yvonne Smith and the viola section at the 2013 Grant Park Music Festival

 

Making connections and networking is a huge part of any musician’s career, and the process begins as soon as we begin our musical education. However, the art of networking is rarely emphasized until college or later after we’ve already had (or missed) several professional opportunities. I have been fortunate to have opportunities to perform in professional settings while a student as well as many knowledgeable mentors (including my parents) to offer advice in several professional situations. While I still have lots to learn, I thought I would share a few of my thoughts about networking as a professional while still a student.

Work hard

People who have loads of natural talent may get the attention at first, but the people consistently called back for work are the ones who work hard. Hard workers don’t have to broadcast that they work hard. Their high level of preparation and attention to detail speaks for itself. Which brings me to my next point . . .

Keep your mouth shut

Both my parents are professional musicians, and “work hard and keep your mouth shut” is somewhat of a family motto when it comes to playing music. Harsh? I don’t think so, because remembering this phrase has been key for me in fostering healthy networking relationships. In general, nothing good comes out of excessive talking, especially in a business where everyone knows someone who knows everyone. Not only is it important to refrain from gossiping and complaining about each other/the gig/the conductor/your stand partner, it is also important to avoid talking about yourself and what you’ve done in the past unless someone asks you directly. Those who talk at great length often do so because they feel they are lacking validation from others. We all need validation, but save those long conversations for your friends, family, or significant other. In professional situations, be courteous and friendly, but keep your interactions positive and short. You’ll garner more respect automatically because you aren’t giving others the impression that you need them to validate your musicianship or your existence.

Be prepared

People who come prepared to gigs are much more likely to be invited to do other things. Make every effort to listen to the music and/or study the score before the first rehearsal, whether you are sitting principal or last stand. No matter how “involved” your part is, people notice when you take time to learn your part and how it fits in to the rest of the group before the first rehearsal, even if it’s just your stand partner who invites you to sub for him on a gig he can’t make.

Be happy to be there

A positive attitude goes a long way. No one likes to be around someone who doesn’t want to be there, and therefore, that person usually doesn’t get asked back for gigs. What kind of person do you like to be around? Who makes you feel the most at ease? Strive to be that person when you are in a professional situation, and people will take note.

1025b Be nice - Yvonne Smith

A view from an opportunity I had this summer

Go the extra mile; be patient

Networking takes time because people are involved. Just like it takes time to build a friendship, it takes time to build a network. Take the time to invest in others—this can be completely away from the music. Thank them for being a great stand partner or for sending a gig your way. Be genuine. Treat people how you would love for someone to treat you. People like knowing that they are valued, and they will remember that you treated them well. Your kind actions may seem frivolous, and you might think that no one notices. However, patient, consistent work pays off. This past summer I was given the opportunity to travel and play in a festival with all expenses paid as a last minute sub by a person I had met at a festival the previous summer. I was extremely grateful for this opportunity and for networking in general, and I hope that I can do the same for someone else in the future. Music is such a wonderful way to make lasting friends and impressions, so make the most of your opportunities!


Thoughts on Transcribing by Jill Valentine

 

Every year someone in the studio catches an aggressive variety of repertoire illness; maybe just by breathing in the same air or touching the same doorknob or sharing a straw, it spreads like the plague and the entire studio is playing the same piece. Studio class becomes a death march of the first movement of Clarke Sonata, Bach 2, Arpeggione . . . you know the repeat offenders.

The obvious solution is to take the road less travelled and not play the piece. But if you just need a vacation from the entire small core repertoire we have—perhaps some inspiration from abroad that will help you get back to the core rep with fresh ideas—may I suggest transcribing something. Violists glean some of our core repertoire from this method as it is, and it’s becoming more popular than ever to transcribe and test our humble viola’s limits.

It always begins for me with loving a piece as leisure listening and then trying it out as I mess around between *serious* practice sessions. In this way I arrived at my first transcription experience, preparing Piazzola’s Le Grand Tango a few years back. I studied a Chopin Nocturne the following year and then tried the Bach D-minor Violin Partita, which gave me a thorough reality check regarding what translates well and not-so-well from violin to viola. I got an even better lesson on what (not) to do in studying Sarasateana the following year. I hope what I, my peers, and my teachers have observed might be of some help to you if you plan to do any violin transcribing, which you should, because nothing kicks your technique in the pants like some violin music.

 

Violin-specific observations:

  1. Violin music is hard. If it isn’t fast notes that don’t respond in time, it’s triple stops that just don’t sound as clear 5 tones down, a giant shift to somewhere nobody should ever have to go on the viola, or right-hand nonsense like up-bow spicatto. Be prepared for intonation work on a bigger instrument than the music is meant for and for exercising skills—10ths, fingered octaves, etc.—that you normally don’t have to deal with.
  2. Your allies are a slightly slower tempo and dense, clear sound quality. If you get one, the other will follow. Make up for the response time by giving yourself that time; it actually sounds faster in the end if you can hear all the notes (copyright Ivo, every lesson).
  3. Pick your battles with the bowings. Our bows are heavier and longer than theirs; the fancy things aren’t always a direct translation. If it doesn’t work after a week of practicing it, it won’t work in the concert. Oh, and don’t bother with up-bow spic. Not worth it.
  4. Go for a piece that doesn’t spend much time in the highest register; a direct transcription usually works just fine.

Once you’ve torn your way through the violin repertoire and are bored again, you might consider cello rep. In my experience, transcribing cello rep is more problematic. Given the similar structure of a violin and a viola, it’s easy to just take everything down a fifth and call it done, but almost any cello piece will give a violist problems with handling the octaves. There’s technically only one octave that the cello has and we don’t, and much of the “high” range cello music sounds great on the middle range of the viola, so why not keep all that at pitch?

Because suddenly you’re looking at a piece with half the octaves untouched and half 8va to avoid the pitches we don’t have, and good luck piecing octave changes together not only coherently but also in a way where character isn’t lost. What sounds bright and soloistic on a cello could be kept at pitch on viola but sounds much more introverted. One must be careful not to go transcription-crazy: we should not sacrifice what the composer intended the piece to mean to make it playable on an instrument that, despite the similar range, is twice as small and half as able to project.

Besides the “Arpeggione” and the Piazzola, which were transcribed already, I have also transcribed Manuel De Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole myself. It’s a charming set of dances that gives you freedom for octave choices without much consequence. It fits well on the viola, is in a friendly key, and shows off lots of colors, giving a recital program a nice Latin flair. Currently I’m putting together the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata, which has been tougher. There are more detrimental consequences for octave choices, and the lack of depth in low-range passages is more apparent.

Cello-Specific Observations

That said, here are some cello-specific tips, compiled from Ivo-isms, peers, and my own observations:

  1. When in doubt, it seems to work better to choose color over pitch. I initially tried the beginning of the third movement of the Rachmaninov at pitch, up on the C string, but the sound quality was so different than the bright, generous cello opening. I struggled to keep a warm and brilliant sound in that range, so 8va was my better choice.
  2. Try a direct 8va transposition first and see what happens, then change as necessary while retaining a line that makes sense. Try not to switch octaves in the middle of a phrase; either keep the whole phrase at pitch or 8va all of it.
  3. I find that an extra rich sound is the most important thing overall in adapting cello rep. Wide vibrato, heaviness in the bow, and maybe some nice slides on shifts with bow changes when appropriate (or just everywhere, since it seems like cellists can’t get enough of that).

All things considered, we don’t need to borrow repertoire and try to sound like the instrument it was written for. If that were the case, we’d listen to the original version and save ourselves the effort. Instead, transcribing is a great way to test my knowledge and intuition about my craft and forces me to get to know my instrument’s range of expressive tools. We find the viola’s distinctly melancholy, vulnerable, but rich sound very relatable; perhaps in some ways more human than the acoustic perfection of other instruments. And seeing what that could add to the integrity of other pieces is an exciting project to take on.


Learning to Teach Toddlers by Rachel Li

Toddlers photo

As college students, we are consistently surrounded by an environment made up of our fellow peers. When confronted with the likely possibility of making a living that includes teaching young children, reactions may reasonably range from hesitancy and fear to the sense of being personally under/over qualified. Because the musical education of a child is so important, it is our responsibility as current/future teachers to teach them in a way that is wholesome and beneficial to their overall wellbeing.

I met with Rachel Buchman recently, and we had a wonderful discussion regarding teaching music to young children. Ms. Buchman is the head of the Young Children’s Division, which is part of the preparatory program that occurs every Saturday at the Shepherd School of Music.  The program focuses on ways to develop musical skills through eurhythmics, and the classes are non-instrumental.

The rest of this post is based on what we discussed during our meeting.

“Something very important to note about teaching young children today is that we continue to teach instruments as if we live in the first half of the 20th century, but the musical experience we have now is not as it was back then.” Ms. Buchman goes on to say that in those days, the majority of the people owned pianos, and singing and dancing were inevitably a part of everyone’s lives. Rhythms to dances were second nature, and music and singing were unquestionably part of the school curriculum. We seem to have grown into a society that doesn’t appreciate music the way we used to, therefore creating a more difficult environment for young children to naturally have exposure to skills that used to be innate and a part of daily life.

With that being said, it is even more crucial now than ever to hone those skills that are lacking, such as memory, finger muscle development, musical instincts in rhythm, melodic movement, etc. Often parents are so ambitious that they do not realize that in order to get ahead, you need to go back to the basics instead of pushing a child toward an instrument without first having a solid foundation of music itself. For instance, there are many traditional finger games that aid in the dexterity of individual fingers, as well as the simple activity of singing songs that are accumulative to help build memory, like the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Ms. Buchman was also very adamant about the use of improvisation in teaching young children.  Improvisation is so significant in children because not only does it allow you to see the children’s potential, but it also develops their musicality and teaches them to trust their own musical instincts. Music is naturally so subjective that a black and white approach can be counterproductive in helping children engage in music to their full potential.

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Basic Tips for Teaching Toddlers:

Lessons should be fun. It should be joyful and not mechanical. To accomplish this, you can incorporate activities and games related to music. It is more important for children to have a depth of understanding than for them to simply do the motions of what they have been taught. The process is much more important than the overall performance, especially for young children.

Improvisation should be included. There is a joy in music that can be brought out by the simple act of improvising. Improvising games can teach you the talents of a child. Improvisation will expose many things that the child can do musically that you cannot attain from them solely playing the instrument. Kids are incredibly gifted when they are younger and tend to naturally trust their musical instincts.

Spend time singing. Ms. Buchman believes that “a child’s fingers will follow their ears.”  Singing is so essential to refining the ears of a child and introduces the child to phrasing in an organic way. Instruments are essentially an outgrowth of the voice.

Listening is so important. We should invent games that will get the children to start listening. Once the child starts using music, the visualization of the music will inevitably dominate the ear, and listening loses the full focus necessary. Once you train them to listen, the next step would be to have them make their own choices by ear. This trains them to anticipate musical structure melodically and harmonically.

Focus on musicianship. When starting a brand new student, the main area to focus on should be musicianship and keeping their love of music alive.

Spend time exposing them to all types of music. In this current society, children’s exposure to classical music is minimal at best. Try to expose them to other genres that they can relate to such as American folk songs, jazz, and opera. The goal is to expand their minds to see that music can be produced in so many different ways and that there is not only one way to play music.

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Game/Activity Ideas:

Reason for Games: Playing musically relevant games teaches you a lot about the child. You can see what they get and what they don’t get without giving them the pressure of being right or wrong. Playing games challenges the children to tune their ears and also gets them to focus.

Improvisation Games: Teachers should invent improvisation games. While the teacher plays something a little more sophisticated, have the student play open strings and maybe add just one finger and let them play whatever they want. This helps develop the child’s own music-making skills as well as having the child listen and intuitively react by ear.

Clapping Games: The teacher and student clap beats together. For younger children, if clapping is difficult, they can simply do it on their laps. First the teacher establishes a beat, and then you have the child do the same. The teacher will then switch to another beat while the child is still clapping the same beat. This will give the child a sense of relation between the two beats without overthinking it. Then you have the child try to switch to the other beat and see if he/she can switch back and forth. When you expand beats, what you can do is to physically expand your hands away from each other in a circular fashion after they make contact so that your hands are constantly in motion, even when you are in the middle of a beat.

Instead of mathematically teaching them rhythm, you are showing them and helping them visualize the time, space, and energy.

Copycat Games:  This is a very common procedure for games with young children. You can buy a little hand drum and have them copy the rhythms you show them. Singing games are also very good. If you sing a melody, have them sing it back to you. This will show you how accurate they can be with intonation as well as rhythm and phrasing.

Fun Stories: It is good to have or create stories that you can use to teach a melodic or rhythmic pattern.

Have them sing in response: Sing a song and see if they can finish the line on their own. The purpose of this is to see if they have the musical instinct to end with a proper cadence.

Sing Nursery Rhymes: Nursery rhymes are inherently rhythmic. This teaches the children to be in time. To make it more challenging, you can also have them respond by leaving out a part of a line.

Audiation: Refining their inner hearing is very crucial. For instance, using the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star melody, see if you can sing the first line together, then have the child sing the next line silently in his/her head. You continue to do this every other line. In the end, this shows if they can sing the tune in their heads. You can also incorporate clapping the beats as you do this exercise and ask them how many times you clapped before you started singing again. You can learn a lot about the child through this activity.

Listening Activity: An example of this would be for the teacher to play an open G and D string while you have the child fill in the chord by finding the note, judging by how good or bad it sounds together. If they play the wrong note and it sounds awful, then have them try until they find the third of the chord. This will give the children their chance to experiment by trusting their ears, and as a result, they will hear how nicely the note they found harmonically blends in.

 

Challenges:

Educating Parents: We often have to break the ideas of the parents. Because we are musicians, we know what is best for nurturing future musicians. To develop true musicians, we need to focus on what is best for them as a whole, not what is best for them to win a competition or get into the best school possible. We have to not be afraid to do things differently and not be controlled by what the parents expect from us.

Finding children who actually have time and energy to engage: In this day and age, children are so scattered and have no ability to focus for a long period of time. Moreover, parents are overly ambitious, and it is a balancing act for their children to get through the week of ballet classes, music classes, art classes, sports, etc.

I ended my discussion with Ms. Buchman by asking her what was most rewarding about teaching young children. She responded: “Every single child is different, and every one is a challenge. However, it is a wonderful thing to see them open like a flower.” What Ms. Buchman loves about teaching is the ability to create a personal connection with the child and offer an opportunity to aid in the process of developing the child as a whole person, not just as a musician. Teaching young children has its challenges, but the rewards are far greater.

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Fine

 

Applause