Archive for the ‘Wednesday’ Category

Community: Why It Matters by James Dunham

As Ivo, our two studios, and I near the end of our participation in Year Two of the AVS Blog, I have been thinking about the role of “community” among all violists:

• Between ourselves in Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music;

• With our sister conservatories and universities in the U.S. and abroad; and

• With our respected and admired colleagues throughout the world!

In the larger sense, we violists are a resilient few, and to a degree we are often underappreciated for all we can and do accomplish. It is quite true that no one can fully understand another without “walking a mile in their shoes.” As such, the role of the viola and the violist—frequently a subtle, understated one—is easily misunderstood and even overlooked. As violists, it is our responsibility—to our instrument, to our role, to each other—to support one another and carry our message to the world with a unanimous energy and sense of purpose. Within a university or conservatory setting, it is easy to feel that a few years’ difference in age is a considerable chasm, but in “real life” that difference wanes to nothing: we are all truly in this together! The friends and colleagues you meet as students and young professionals will be with you throughout your career. Now is the time to nurture that relationship for the future! To those of you who are still “studying” in school, please continue, as I have, to “study” for your entire life. And believe me, I am already welcoming you as my new colleagues in this great world of music. Please join me: let us unite to carry forward the beauty of the viola, its repertoire, and all music!

I invite you to explore the following short list of organizations—and please consider joining them! There are many more groups, often at the State level (TMEA: Texas Music Educators Association, among many!) but these are a good start. They each make incredibly important and diverse contributions to all that we hold dear as performers, students, educators: lovers of the viola and music!





I wish you all success!

Organization Helps by Daniel Wang

As far as I can remember, I have always been a very disorganized person, and I know that there are a lot of people like me out there. Growing up, I drove my parents absolutely crazy by losing or misplacing things all the time. I remember being scolded by my teachers and parents countless times for forgetting homework assignments either at school or at home. Even now, I still have trouble with simple things like finding where I park my car every day. I somehow always managed to get by, so I figured why should I change?

The truth is, organization is very important to us musicians. For me, it took failure after failure (after failure) to realize that my lack of organization was killing me. For any musician who is struggling to be more organized, here are a three pieces of advice that have helped me greatly in the past few years.

1) Keep track of important times and dates. Nobody wants to work with or hire anyone that is unreliable. For me, it helps to keep a schedule/calendar and multiple back-up schedules of upcoming events, such as rehearsals, lessons, recitals, and auditions. For me, I have a schedule in my phone, post-it notes all around my desk reminding me of things I need to do, and a calendar on my wall with important dates circled. Good friends who will remind you of other important events is also a plus.

2) Plan ahead; have goals. If you have a performance, audition, or recital coming up, it helps to have some sort of game plan on how to prepare for it. For me, I like to create spreadsheets on excel where I can keep track of tempo markings, repertoire, and dates in an organized fashion to check my progress.

3) Be organized in your practice. It helps me practice more efficiently when I  think about the music and my technique when I wake up (brushing my teeth, showering, eating, driving), at random times of the day, and reflecting on what I accomplished before I go to sleep at night. Another thing that helps me to be more organized in my practice is to try and understand the music by listening and analyzing it, knowing precisely how I want to sound, knowing what fingerings and bowings I want to do, and being honest with myself in what aspects of my playing that I need to fix.

Viola Studies in Germany – Rebecca Gu

As an undergraduate, I spent a semester studying abroad at a “Hochschule für Musik” (conservatory) in Germany.

I wanted to share some observations on the differences between my experiences studying the viola as an American student in Germany versus the United States. Though subjective, I hope some of these thoughts may be of interest to any violists out there thinking of studying at a German school, whether for an exchange semester or a complete degree program.

  U.S. conservatory/school of music German “Hochschule”
Time • Student schedule more structured

• Curriculum more strictly prescribed

• Generally, must be on campus Monday–Friday

• Greater flexibility  = greater independence and responsibility

• The average student will have significantly more “free” time to accord to his/her practicing needs

• There are fewer frills involved with being enrolled at an institution.

• Some students also work part-time as paid “Akademisten” – often out of town

• Can be at school as little as once/week – though most stay to practice

Teacher-student relationship Closer, from my perspective Sense of greater distance – not emotional, but in terms of authority
Cost • Tuition before any scholarship

• Cost of living more expensive (housing, groceries)

• State-funded – free or very little tuition

• Cost of living less expensive (housing, groceries, government-subsidized student meals in the “Mensa” (student cafeteria))

Academics • Heavier academic load (often, distribution/core credits; papers, exams and homework assignments)

• Greater number of courses required for degree

• Lighter academic load

• More realistic correlation of credits and actual time spent – for instance, lessons earn  approximately 7 U.S. credits


Type of academic instruction • Theory, history courses taught through lecture classes with emphasis on written work

• Scale step theory/roman numeral analysis

• Theory taught through private or semi-private lessons (groups of 2-3) with emphasis on practical application at the keyboard

• Function theory (“Funktionstheorie”)

Musical curriculum • Some emphasis on orchestral excerpts

• Chamber music tends to be a built-in part of the program, with planned performance classes and recitals

• Orchestra tends to a regularly recurring class meeting 2–3 times/week

• Chamber music is self-organized and performances are initiated by the group

• Orchestra is assigned by project, rehearsing daily/intensively over a 2-week period in between longer periods of rest

The private lesson… • … is an hour long

• tends to stay private, not observed except occasionally by friends

• … is an hour and a half

• is often observed by students from the same or other studios and visitors (and one of the most valuable learning experiences for me was traveling to listen to lessons with different teachers!!)

Sound concept – emphasizing here that this is extremely subjective! • darker timbre

• use of weight to achieve expressivity – more condensed bow

• brighter timbre

• use of full bows and bow speed to achieve expressivity

Musical opportunities • I found gigging opportunities limited as an exchange student.

• Ease of train travel for sight-seeing, out-of-town lessons, or auditions

• Stronger sense of classical music culture in community – better audience turnout and appreciation

Interaction with other violists • Studio class as performing opportunity

• More casual camaraderie

• No studio class; instead, frequent studio recitals

• More professional interaction

School social culture • Planned social events involving entire student body

• Students dress casually – usually/there is a looser dress code

• No planned events for school community

• Students tend to dress professionally – for example: most female students wear heels/nice boots to their lessons or just to practice (to be casually dressed may have been considered rude to the teacher)

Culture: beyond the conservatory walls… • “Telling culture” – generally, more information than necessary is given to you, such that you are prepared to sift out what you need when the time comes

• Ask yourself… what can I learn about my own culture? How do I contribute?

• “Asking culture” – if you need help or information, you must ask for it.

• Prepare yourself for culture shock.  If the ethnic demographic of the culture you’re visiting varies significantly from that of your own, try not to take acts of prejudice or discrimination too personally. As a non-Caucasian American in Germany, I initially interpreted acts of discrimination as personal assaults, before learning that while not correct or excusable, these acts tended more often to be a result of obliviousness than malicious intent.

• Ask yourself, what is this new culture teaching me? How do I interact with this culture while I’m a part of it?

Every school is unique. In my (limited!) experience, there are pros and cons to consider for both systems. With the chart above, I’ve sought to make some observations that might be helpful or thought-provoking to fellow violists, rather than argue that one system is better than the other.

Taking your instrument abroad and investing through your playing an environment that stimulates you can be an extremely enriching and formative experience. Beyond exposure to a new musical culture, you will improve your language skills, develop a heightened sensitivity to different perspectives, and build lifelong relationships with people from a different background who share your passions and worldview.

Playing with the San Antonio Symphony by Blake Turner

As a music student, I’ve naturally found that much of my time is spent working in the practice room. In recent years, a large portion of my practice sessions have been focused on orchestral excerpts for orchestra repertoire class and either summer festivals or professional auditions.  Individual practice helps us as players to reach our goals, but it can’t teach or prepare us for everything. And for myself, I’ve found this holds true for orchestral playing. In the past, I’ve worked on excepts with the intention and hope of eventually joining a professional orchestra, and while practicing excerpts helps us to single out and perfect important portions of major works, nothing can replace the experience of playing with a professional symphony.

0402a SA symphony

Me, with the viola section of the San Antonio Symphony

One such opportunity for me occurred this past January, in which I got to play in the viola section of the San Antonio Symphony for winning the AVS Orchestral Excerpts Competition. Having been raised in the San Antonio area, I grew up attending concerts and watching the symphony, so it was very surreal for me to be on the same stage with musicians that I had idolized as a young violist. Apart from enjoying myself and soaking in the whole experience, I took notice of what a professional orchestra like the San Antonio Symphony did differently or better than the other orchestras that I had played in.

Something that really impressed me during rehearsals was everyone’s focus and attention to detail. The fact of the matter is that professional orchestras do not have the luxury of many rehearsals and the time to spend combing bit by bit through the music. This means that more of the responsibility falls on the musician, not the conductor, to bring out the subtleties within the music.

Again, something else I noticed that was tied to good musicianship and efficiency was how closely the symphony musicians listened to each other. If there was a section that didn’t go smoothly or was out of tune, everything was usually fixed the next time we ran the passage.

These are all aspects of orchestral playing that I understood were important, but they gained an extra degree of significance for me after that week. The whole experience was just another reminder to me that a large part of our growth and development as musicians comes not just while in the practice room, but from sharing and performing music in the real world.

Business in Music by Carey Skinner

About a year ago, I decided to officially pursue a minor at the Jones School of Business at Rice. It was a difficult decision to make considering the extra workload and its affect on my time at the Shepherd School, but, after talking with Ivo about it, I realized it was the right decision for me. Out of the many ways I plan on applying this degree, there are two topics I will focus on in this article. One deals with networking and marketing yourself, specifically in writing e-mails. This is an underestimated utility in making a strong impression. The second is informing yourself on the provisions made for musicians by our government in regards to your taxes. First, we’ll start with e-mails.

Part One: Business Communication

Often as a student or freelancer, we have to send e-mails to potential professors or employers. In one of my communications classes, we spent two weeks just on the topic of e-mails under the wider scope of business writing. Here are some important guidelines to follow when writing an e-mail:

1. Subject line: Make it concise and meaningful. If it is relevant, it will be more “searchable” in their inbox.

2. Purpose: Assume that your reader is busy and will need to skim the e-mail for quick, important details. Define and state the main point up front and clearly.

3. Format and Organization: Create a visual structure. Opening an e-mail that is one long paragraph will not only make it difficult for the reader to extract the important information but might also cause them to ignore parts entirely. Create the structure by:

a. Surfacing key points (names, dates, etc.); and

b. Signaling topic shifts with white space or meaningful headings. Now step back

and make sure that you can literally see the structure of the e-mail.

4. Closure: Specify next steps or a “call to action.” You can’t expect a response if you don’t close the e-mail by making it clear to the reader what their part is in the conversation. Even a simple statement such as: “Thank you for taking the time to read this, please let me know if you have any questions,” goes a long way.

Key points to remember: Consider “need to know” versus “need to tell.” The more relevant and concise your e-mail is, the more likely they are to respond with the information you’re looking for.

Tip: Don’t type out the e-mail address until you have finished writing and proofreading your whole e-mail!

Part Two: Accounting and Taxes

One joke I keep making to my friends about the financial accounting classes I have to take next semester is that I need to learn how to do my own taxes, because I’ll never be able to afford a CPA . . . which is probably still true. All jokes aside, though, there are a lot of benefits to learning the details of accounting for musicians, especially for freelancers and students. In addition to the economics course that I’ve already taken, I’ve been preparing for those upcoming classes by looking through the “Accounting for Dummies” book. Even though I feel pretty silly about it, learning the basics of bookkeeping will make it even easier to keep track of and correctly organize my earnings and expenses come April 15. In addition to inexpensive books on general accounting practices, there are a lot of online sources with tips and instructions on musician-specific tax deductions.

Below are some common deductions relevant to musicians to investigate on your own and familiarize yourself with. This list is not exhaustive or complete; it is just a starting point for your research. Before you go through the list, however, know that for the IRS, all deductible business expenses are those that are: 1. Incurred in connection with your trade, business, or profession; 2. Must be “ordinary” and “necessary”; and 3. Must “not be lavish or extravagant under the circumstances.” Keeping those guidelines in mind, here are three common deductions that might be useful to you:

1. You can deduct expenses associated with overnight travel for performances, auditions, or other work related trips. This includes a percentage of your meals that are “business” related, and in some cases, hotel stays.

2. You can keep track of the mileage from using your car for work, rehearsals, etc., as well as details about the trip to report at the end of the year as an expense. There are a few different acceptable formats for mileage reports, so research all of the options and find the way that will be most accurate for you.

3. Here’s a tricky one: equipment. There are a lot of rules to deducting equipment, because the title covers such a wide range of things. From strings to shoulder rests to the instrument itself, depreciation is taken into account, and there is also a limit on how much you can deduct. But when you’re spending $100+ on strings and shopping for a professional-level bow, it’s worth the extra effort to learn the details behind these deductions.

Key points to remember: Keep detailed records of anything you plan on deducting and be able to prove its relevance to your work. Make sure it is always necessary and not extravagant—an ordinary purchase or expense. Educate yourself and do extensive research. A few hours now can save you more than a few bucks in the future!

Tip: Visit GSA.gov for more detailed information on things like mileage reimbursement rates and guidelines.

Ideally, before writing this kind of article, I would first finish my business classes so that I could then develop this into a longer series with more detailed advice. But, the main point of this post is to get you thinking about the ways that you can broaden your knowledge about every aspect of being a musician. You can spend all of your time in the practice room, but you still have to do normal day-to-day things (like taxes) to aid your career, and at some point you will have to interact with other people in order to get a job, start a new degree, etc. That is when this information and experience—developed outside of the practice room—is invaluable.

NTSO Music Festival

by Rebecca Lo

I had a wonderful time and experience when I attended the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Festival in Taiwan over the summer of 2013. The NTSO Festival is a two week orchestra training camp. Students had opportunities for private lessons, orchestral and wind band training, as well as participating in public master classes during the camp. The faculties are renowned musicians from the NTSO and different orchestras from all over the world. The faculty members from the US whom we may know include Mr. Cho-Liang Lin from Rice University and Juilliard school; David Chan, the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and faculty at Juilliard school; Brian Chen, viola professor at USC; and Ben Hong, assistant principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic.

The location of the camp was in Wu-Fong, the suburb of Taichung City, my hometown. The transportation system is convenient in Taiwan, so that it usually takes only around 30 minutes by bus to get into the center of the city. We stayed at a 3-star musical-themed hotel attached to the NTSO concert/rehearsal hall. This is a government-funded festival, so it only cost around $330 USD, covering the tuition, hotel stays, daily meals, and all other transportation and fees.

When we first arrived, we were required to do an orchestra seating placement audition. The two-week intense orchestra training was to prepare for our tours around Taiwan. We gave three concerts in three different cities, including a performance at the National Concert Hall in Taipei City. All of the faculty were with us during every orchestra rehearsal. They would stand by us and coach us at any time during the rehearsal. This is one of the most unique experiences that make it different from other summer festivals.

0319a massage chairs

There are massage chairs on every floor in the hotel; what we musicians need the most!

0319b musical themes

Different styles of musical themes on each floor, including classical, Chinese traditional, pop, disco music.

0319c hotel room

Our room in the hotel

0319d music museum

There is a little Music Museum in the hotel as well

0319e meal

Our typical meal at the festival

0319f faculty concert

Faculty Concert

0319g master class

Mr. Cho Liang Lin’s master class

0319h group photo

Picture with Ben Hong and Cho Liang Lin

0319i concert hall

The national concert hall in Taipei

In conclusion, I would highly recommend this camp for anyone who is interested in going to Asia or will be in Asia during the summer time. The age group is a bit younger; however, you can still learn a lot from the camp and meet a lot of awesome people. If any of you are interested, feel free to contact me for more information!

Work Hard, Play (Less) Hard

by Bailey Firszt

When you’re injured, or recovering from an injury, it can be difficult to practice all the music you have to prepare because you simply cannot play the number of hours necessary to learn all of it. During my junior year at Rice, I was still not completely recovered from my playing injury, and I had to come up with ways to learn my music away from the viola to preserve my precious playing time. Using these strategies allowed me to pull off a recital and play in orchestra without re-injuring myself.

Orchestra Music

The best way I’ve found to prepare for orchestra rehearsal is to listen to a recording while I follow along with my part. (Shocking, right?) I make sure that I can count everything correctly, and I write in lots of cues since I lose count half the time anyway. As I listen, I mark the spots that I need to practice—usually soli sections and really high stuff—and that way I don’t have to practice the whole piece. I also like to mark in fingerings; that way, when I do practice my part, I’ve done a lot of the preliminary work away from the viola. Even though I usually end up changing those fingerings, they give me a preliminary guide, even if they ultimately show me what does not work.

Orchestral Excerpts

I put excerpts in a category of their own because they do require a lot of physical playing time. My friend Yvonne wrote an excellent blog post about learning excerpts, which you should read as she is much more experienced with excerpts than I am! I will only add that I have found it difficult to get an excerpt up to tempo when my arms are really hurting and I’m cramming for an audition (which I usually am). Norman Fischer, one of the cello professors here, said something that has guided my practice when I’m trying to increase the tempo of an excerpt: “If you can’t do it in your head, you won’t be able to do it on your instrument.” So when I’m working on getting something up to tempo, I turn on the metronome and just go through the excerpt in my head. It seems silly, but sometimes I find that I can’t even think the excerpt at that speed, let alone play it. Once I can go through an excerpt in my head at a certain tempo, my chances of playing it are much greater. This method doesn’t replace physically playing the excerpt, but it does cut down the time I spend playing through it.

Pieces with Piano Accompaniment

When I’m learning a new piece, I completely fall apart when I rehearse with the pianist if I don’t know the piano score front to back. (It’s a special trait of mine.) So I make sure to spend a lot of time with the score and a recording before my rehearsals, marking in lots of cues. When I’m rehearsing with a pianist, my first priority is ensemble; if I play poorly in the rehearsal, I can fix that on my own. (My apologies to the pianists who have had to hear me hack through our music.)And you can get twice as much out of your rehearsal if you record it rather than relying on your memory of the rehearsal. Plus, you can count the time you spend listening as practice time!

Listening to professional recordings gives me inspiration for what I want to do musically—as well as ideas of what I don’t want to do. Even if I really dislike someone’s interpretation of the sonata I’m playing, listening to his or her recording helps me understand my own musical voice better. It’s helpful for me to make deliberate musical decisions away from the viola and then try them out when I’m practicing. Just like putting in fingerings before I practice orchestra music, making these decisions gives me a starting point that I can either continue with or change when I’m practicing.

Solo Bach

Dear old Bach has a category all to himself when it comes to practicing. The way I practice Bach reminds me of driving to school: the route is so familiar that sometimes I arrive at school and have no recollection of how I got there. If I’m not absolutely focused when I play Bach I just go on autopilot! The best way I’ve found to practice it effectively is to sing instead of to play. When I sing, it’s easy to hear the shaping of a phrase, which I can then translate into my playing. If I can discover my musical intent while I’m singing, then the time I spend physically playing will be much more productive.

I also developed a strategy for memorizing Bach when I played the First Suite on my recital last year, which involves, you guessed it, singing. I would sing through a movement from memory while someone else followed along with the music, prompting me when I forgot a section. Eventually I could sing through the whole suite with repeats, which was, as you can imagine, very pleasant for my roommates. Memorizing it this way forced me to use more than just muscle memory, and I spared my very tired arms from having to play as much. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I memorized the entire suite in this way the night before my recital preview; the first time I actually played it on the viola from memory was on the preview! (It turned out alright, but I wouldn’t recommend that level of procrastination.)

Even though I’m back to full-time playing now, I still use these methods to make my practicing more productive, with less mindless playing. In fact, I practice much more effectively than I did before I was injured, so I’m thankful that my injury forced me to get creative. My hope is that these strategies help you as much as they’ve helped me—and that your singing voice is better than mine!

Inspiring Yourself

by Daniel Wang

When studying the viola in school, it is easy to get overwhelmed and burnt out. How do you juggle trying to learn music for multiple summer festivals, rep class, recitals, orchestra, chamber music, and multiple professional auditions all at the same time? There’s so much that each individual wants to accomplish and learn while they are in school, but expectations will usually fall short because there is too much to learn and too little time. Compounded with additional stress that inevitably comes from classes or social situations, and it is easy to fall into despair!

When life gets you down, that means that it is time to pick yourself up and inspire yourself! Being inspired has many benefits to the violist. It can remind you why you love music. It can increase your efficiency in the practice room. It can make you more convincing on stage. It can help you play with more understanding, creativity, focus, and passion. It will help you deal with the stress of being in school. Being inspired makes you a better violist.

There are so many ways to inspire yourself, but it can be a challenge to do when you are busy at school all day long. Here are some super easy ways to inspire yourself while you are busy at school:

1) YouTube—easily accessible from any smart-phone or computer, if you try, you can find something on YouTube that will inspire you. For a start, look at videos of your favorite artists and orchestras;

2) Listening to your favorite music and all types of music;

3) Looking out a window or taking a walk. Breathing fresh air. Enjoying nature’

4) Reading books’

5) Social activities—chilling with friends over lunch, coffee, bubble tea, or beer and having conversations with them can be inspiring. What you learn in classes, lessons, coachings, and orchestra can inspire you.

Good luck!

From Suzuki to Conservatory

by Edward Schenkman

I am a Suzuki kid. I started violin lessons at age 5 and continued with a Suzuki teacher until graduating high school. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Suzuki method and the pros and cons of different styles of teaching, but I would like to share my experience of going directly from a Suzuki program to a major conservatory/school of music.

My Suzuki training wasn’t completely traditional; my teacher had me leave the books early in high school. Among conservatory students, although some started on Suzuki, most people changed while still fairly young. Some believe Suzuki is not the best way to go about musical training, but while there are some minor flaws in its preparation for conservatory I truly loved the Suzuki environment, and I believe it is a perfectly viable option for music education.

Suzuki works on building music appreciation from a very young age and doesn’t just focus on technical prowess. Starting at such a young age is, for the most part, a wonderful thing. The Suzuki method is all about opening up musical education to everyone, not just the select few who will go on to become professional musicians, and so the teachers tend to emphasize the love of music—maybe at the expense of rigorous discipline and technique. This creates a good learning environment, especially for the younger students; I never came out of a lesson in tears.

The Suzuki method focuses a lot of attention on students learning pieces by ear, which is an invaluable skill to any musician. However, many people complain that Suzuki kids lack sight-reading abilities. Many teachers have begun to counteract that by supplementing with extra sight-reading practice. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who gave me weekly sight-reading, and I attended chamber music camps from a young age, which helps enormously in sight-reading.

Suzuki tends to lack almost any competitive edge, which is something that I really loved about it. I don’t think that  would be at a music school if it weren’t for Suzuki. Music, in my opinion, shouldn’t have a competitive aspect. There’s always some kids asking, “What book are you in?” as if Suzuki volume directly correlates to musical skill, but in general it’s a friendly atmosphere. Part of that, I think, is that not everyone—in fact most kids in Suzuki—plans on becoming a professional musician, which is great. But when you go to a conservatory and are surrounded by high-powered, extremely talented musicians, it can be a little intimidating. And because most of them do, indeed, wish to become professional musicians, it’s hard for there not to be a competitive aspect.

One thing that Suzuki definitely did prepare me for was the performance aspect of my music education. Suzuki emphasizes frequent performances to make the students comfortable with performing. Not only did I get a lot of practice performing, but I also had to memorize everything, and memorizing pieces has never been difficult for me. Of course, I still get a healthy amount of nerves before I perform, but it’s something I’ve been doing multiple times a year for thirteen years. It is, however, a slightly intimidating experience going from performing for parents and young children to professors and graduate students; but that’s life.

In short, I think Suzuki does a wonderful job of fostering an appreciation and a philosophy of learning with love. Although, I certainly think supplementing Suzuki with études and technique as well as sight-reading is essential to developing the necessary skills for a potential music career.

The Musical Spectrum by Megan Wright

There is no such thing as worthless music.

Any work of music, of any genre, by any artist, can help you become a better musician. All music has a use and benefit.

Being aware and listening to all types of music not only makes you a better musician but also makes you more marketable. The more knowledge obtained about various genres of music, the more “tools” a musician has in his or her “belt.” A musician should strive to be a “jack of all trades.”

Some musicians may consider work by pop, country, and “mainstream” artists to be trash. Instead of disregarding these works, keep an open mind. You don’t have to like what you hear, but know that what you hear can be useful. Try turning on your radio or online listening app and look for variety—things you aren’t familiar with. Listen to the “top 10,” to country, Latin, jazz stations; anything of variety you come across.

Use these popular songs to sharpen and refresh your aural skills. For example:

• Brush up on hearing harmonic structure, chord inversions, solfège, etc.;

• Practice hearing intervals;

• Use the metronomic precision of Latino and rap beats to hone your rhythm . . . develop a “groove”;

• Practice melodic dictation in your head.

However simple, repetitive, boring, or unfamiliar songs may seem, use them to your advantage. Someone else out there in the world appreciates them, and it will be beneficial for you as a musician to be aware of them too.

Life is full of surprises and little unexpected windows of opportunity. A musician should be prepared for any opportunity presented to him or her. A gig is a gig, and you should never turn one down if you can take it. You are not “too good” for a gig. You are not above playing for any group of people or above any music that cannot be cataloged as “classical.” Experience is experience. Money is money. You never know whom you might meet and what he or she may want to hear you play. Being versatile, flexible, and proactive is key to being successful in any musical situation.


You have an opportunity to play for a wealthy donor who wants to contribute to your arts cause. This donor initially has no experience with classical music. What if the donor makes a song request, maybe a favorite show or fiddle tune, and you just look at him or her and say, “Uh . . . sorry, don’t know that one . . .” That won’t look too impressive on your behalf.

From personal experience, I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to visit my grandparents over the holidays, and my grandmother, wanting to hear me play, asked to hear Orange Blossom Special or Ashokan Farewell instead of the Bartók Concerto or a Hindemith Sonata. You may not know every popular song that exists, but you can start broadening your repertoire.

How may one increase his or her awareness of all music? Start with an open, proactive mind.

• Go through the iTunes top 10 every now and then;

• Buy a book for keyboard with classic songs of every generation. Look through it, learn the melodies, and get the harmonic structures of the pieces in your ear;

• YouTube

• Listen to mariachi groups; observe them and their style the next time you’re at a restaurant;

• Ask grandparents and elderly friends what songs they would like to hear you play some time. Listen to and arrange these songs;

• Research popular show tunes, Broadway, Disney, Latino music, Jazz, Asian music, American tunes, Hymns, Irish, Folk, Rap, Pop, Indie music, even commercial jingles; anything imaginable that someone could ever ask you to play;

• Take a class in improvisation

In order for our typically narrow musical field to survive, audiences need to be “hooked in” again. This may not be achieved through performing exclusively classical music. Having a musical awareness to create an initial crossover between musical worlds may be the key to connecting classical music with every facet of society. All that society needs to cross this musical bridge is a bit of positive, familiar exposure with instrumental music. Once you’ve given the “outside audience” something they are comfortable with and enjoy, people may be drawn back into the traditional concert halls out of curiosity, to perhaps eventually again appreciate classical works.

So to all those YouTube-orchestral instrumentalist-cover stars and violinists playing love songs on city-street corners: thank you. You give society the key to the gateway into a rare and masterfully crafted form of music; the music we practice in our universities and conservatories, “common practice period music,” music of the great masters, and works that will open the eyes, take the breath away, and bring hope into the world. It’s our duty to give back to society the kind of music we make as classical musicians. Enhancing our own awareness of every element of music is the most effective way to share the beauty that we create with the world.