Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tonight's CPO concert features Natalie MacMaster, who is noticeably pregnant but still dancing and fiddling up a storm. The program features several arrangements of Cape Breton fiddling tunes, with a helping of fruitcake on the side in the form of Rudolph, a Christmas medley, and the Londonderry Air, 'Danny Boy'.

I wasn't aware of just how big a scene fiddling is in Canada -- there are Irish bars here in Calgary where you can go hear traditional fiddlers jam every week, and several CPO violinists are experienced fiddlers as well. The bass parts to these tunes can be spectacularly boring, with the same three-chord progression repeated dozens of times, but the better arrangements will usually have some clever variations and a nifty modulation or two. This morning's rehearsal was largely spent getting the balance and levels right, since fiddling over a live orchestra takes a certain degree of amplification.

Monday, December 08, 2008

schedule for Dec. 8 - 14

This week, the CPO delivers crossover holiday cheer with celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster, singer Steve Bell, and the Traditional Christmas program; while the Bach Society presents an Advent Concert of Bach (Wilhelm Friedemann, also Johann Sebastian), Telemann, and Schütz. See below for details, and follow the links for ticket info.

Christmas with Natalie MacMaster

Pierre Simard, conductor
Natalie MacMaster, fiddle

Tuesday, December 9th at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall

Steve Bell's Christmas
Rei Hotoda, conductor
Steve Bell, vocalist

Wednesday, December 10th at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall

A Traditional Christmas

Pierre Simard, conductor
Allan Monk, baritone
Calgary Girls Choir

Friday, December 12th at 7 pm
Saturday, December 13th at 2 pm and 7 pm
Grace Presbyterian Church

Advent Concert
Calgary Bach Festival Society Chorus and Orchestra
Terry Riley, conductor

Mystery Sonata No. 1 "Annunciation" - Heinrich von Biber
Sei gegrüsset, Maria (Ave Maria) - Heinrich Schütz
Magnificat in G - Georg Phillip Telemann
Adagio and Fugue in D Minor, Fk 65 - Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Cantata BWV 36 "Schwingt freudig euch empor" - Johann Sebastian Bach

Sunday, December 14th at 3 pm
Scarboro United Church

Monday, Dec. 8
7:30-10 pm rehearsal: Bach Society

Tuesday, Dec. 9
10-12:30 rehearsal: Natalie MacMaster
8 pm concert: Christmas with Natalie MacMaster

Wednesday, Dec. 10
10:30-1 rehearsal: Steve Bell
8 pm concert: Steve Bell's Christmas

Thursday, Dec. 11
7-9:30 pm rehearsal: Traditional Christmas

Friday, Dec. 12
10-12:30 rehearsal: Traditional Christmas
7 pm concert: Traditional Christmas

Saturday, Dec. 13
9-12 rehearsal: Bach Society Advent Concert
2 pm concert: Traditional Christmas
7 pm concert: Traditional Christmas

Sunday, Dec. 14
3 pm concert: Bach Society Advent Concert

Monday, November 24, 2008

schedule for Nov. 24-30

The Ultimate Beethoven Festival
Roberto Minczuk, conductor

Symphony #4 and "The Fifth"

Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, op. 60
Symphony no. 5 in C minor, op. 67

Thursday, Nov. 27 at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall


Symphony #6 and "The Pastoral"

Symphony no. 6 in F major "Pastoral", op. 68
Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 82

Friday, Nov. 28 at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall


Ode to Joy: Symphony #8 and #9

Symphony no. 8 in F major, op. 93
Symphony no. 9 in D minor, op. 125

Saturday, Nov. 29 at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall


Calgary Bach Festival Society
Advent Concert
Terry Edwards, conductor

Heinrich Biber: Mystery Sonata No. 1 "Annunciation"
Heinrich Schuetz: Sei gegruesset, Maria (Ave Maria)
Georg Phillip Telemann: Magnificat in G
W. F. Bach: Adagio and Fugue in d minor, Fk65
J. S. Bach: Cantata BWV 36 "Schwingt freudig euch empor"

Sunday, Dec. 14 at 3 pm
Scarboro United Church


Monday, Nov. 24
7:30-10 pm rehearsal (CBFS Advent Concert)

Tuesday, Nov. 25
10-12:30 rehearsal (Beethoven 5 and 6)
7:30-10 pm rehearsal (CBFS Advent Concert)

Wednesday, Nov. 26
10-12:30 rehearsal (Beethoven 5 and 8)
7-9 pm rehearsal (Beethoven 9)

Thursday, Nov. 27
10-12:30 rehearsal (Beethoven 5 and 4)
8 pm concert: Beethoven 4 and "The Fifth"

Friday, Nov. 28
10:30-1 rehearsal (Beethoven 6 and 7)
8 pm concert: Beethoven 7 and "The Pastoral"

Saturday, Nov. 29
10:30-1 rehearsal (Beethoven 8 and 9)
8 pm concert: Ode to Joy

Thursday, November 20, 2008

if it bleeds, it leads

An article in the Calgary Herald today, "Bleeding for Beethoven", includes some quotes from a phone interview I did with the reporter, Bob Clark:

For 31-year-old bass player Matt Heller, meditation will be part of the prescription.

"Think of the beginning of the Fifth Symphony. It's like never has there been a more strongly accented rest than that "Ba-Ba-Ba--Bum!"--where you have to feel that music so deeply in your body, in order to play it with the conviction it really deserves."
When I was talking to Bob on the phone, I did make a very emphatic eighth rest before saying "Ba-Ba-Ba--Bum!", though he doesn't seem to have transcribed that pause into the published quote. Oh, well.

The rest of the article is very amusing as well, especially Michael Hope's theories about Beethoven and psychotherapy:
"In terms of the physical preparation, the hardest thing about it is the fact that, well, Beethoven was a tormented guy," says Hope. "It was a pre-Freudian era before there was any kind of therapy, and he had to get all his frustrations and emotions out on the page--which has resulted in music that is really highly strung."

And that, in turn, Hope says, "is taxing for musicians, because it's passionate, and it's intense--all the time."
I suppose that music was an essential therapeutic tool, back in the pre-prozac era, along with lobotomies, literature, nature, rest, alcohol, leeches, and tight clothing, not necessarily in that order.

The print version of the article has another section with pictures and more quotes by musicians, myself included.

schedule for Nov. 17 - 23

"The Ultimate Beethoven Festival"
Roberto Minczuk, conductor

Symphony #1 and the "Emperor"
Angela Cheng, piano

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72b
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1, op. 21, in C major
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, op. 73, in E-flat major, "Emperor"

Thursday, Nov. 20 at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall


Symphony No. 2 and the "Eroica"

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2, op. 36, in D major
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, op. 55, in E-flat major

Friday, Nov. 21 at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall


Carnival of the Animals
Mountain View Connection

Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals

Sunday, Nov. 23 at 7:30 pm
Eckhardt-Gramatté Recital Hall, Rozsa Centre, University of Calgary


Tuesday, Nov. 18
10-12:30 rehearsal: Beethoven 3, Beethoven 1, Leonore

Wednesday, Nov. 19
10-12:30 rehearsal: Beethoven 3, Leonore
2-4 rehearsal: Beethoven 1, Beethoven 2
8-9:30 rehearsal: Carnival of the Animals

Thursday, Nov. 20
10-12:30 rehearsal: "Emperor" concerto, Leonore, Beethoven 1
8 pm concert: Symphony #1 and the "Emperor"

Friday, Nov. 21
10:30-1 rehearsal: Beethoven 3, Beethoven 2
8 pm concert: Symphony #2 and the "Eroica"

Saturday, Nov. 22
10:30-1 rehearsal: Beethoven 4, Beethoven 7

Sunday, Nov. 23
2-4 dress rehearsal: Carnival of the Animals
7:30 concert: Carnival of the Animals

I'll write a separate post or two about the Beethoven festival so far. It's worth noting, though, that Tuesday, Nov. 18th was also the day of two CPO auditions: for principal trumpet and section cello. That was a very long day for audition candidates as well as committees -- the cello audition finished just after 9 pm, while the trumpet audition concluded at 10:30. Both auditions had a winner and some very competitive finalists, and we look forward to welcoming two new musicians into the orchestra very soon.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Joel Quarrington master class

Before the National Arts Centre Orchestra's tour date in Calgary last Friday, bassist Joel Quarrington gave a master class at the University of Calgary School of Music. Three young bassists played for Joel: two of Charles Garrett's students at the U of C, and a 13-year-old student of Sheila Garrett.

Joel's approach to teaching, like his playing, is irreverent, inventive, and joyful. After the first student played the first movement of Hindemith's Sonata, he suggested that maybe she could have more fun with the bow -- a clever way to talk about technique without being pedantic about it. He demonstrated an exercise for starting notes distinctly, playing a scale with 4 notes hooked on each bow, and encouraged the student to play it with a solid core sound without pressing. Joel had his own bass there, a 17th-century Maggini, and the student's sound production seemed to improve just from hearing him play a few notes.

Since Joel plays German bow on a bass tuned in 5ths, it wasn't always easy to imitate his playing. He was very accomodating to the players' individual preferences, though, and tried to adjust his own technique to better match what they were trying to do. "Excuse my French bow," he said after playing some fast off-string strokes. He showed the first student, who was sitting on a high stool, how she could better access the upper register of the instrument, by sliding back on her stool and getting more weight over the fingerboard -- Joel's physique is completely different from hers, but she still seemed to find some benefit from the adjustment.

The second student was the 13-year-old, playing the first movement of the Dragonetti Concerto. Joel got him working on fast, fluid shifts and demonstrated the infamous shifting drill - I learned it as "vomit" - to improve accuracy. This raised some set-up issues again, and Joel discussed why his own preference is to sit on a stool for solo performances, while still showing the student how he could manage the shift better while standing.

With all three students, Joel emphasized the need for consistent scale and bowing studies. At one point, he noticed a stack of papers in a bookcase nearby -- the master class was held in a crowded little violin teaching studio room -- and found a sheet with various bowings attached, "like a ransom note" he said. He encouraged everyone to get a set of bowing variations like that one -- whether from an abandoned violin studio, or an actual bowing method -- and work on producing a quality sound with all sorts of articulations.

The last student played the first movement of Bottesini's 2nd concerto very impressively. Joel asked her if she had any issues she wanted to bring up -- she talked about off-string strokes, which again brought up scales and bowing variations. Joel helped her clean up the end of the cadenza, a dizzying whir of 16th notes.

Monday, November 10, 2008

week of Nov. 9 - 15

Carnival in Prague
Simon Streatfeild, conductor
Cenek Vrba, violin

Dvořák: Carnival Overture, op. 92
Smetana: Ma Vlast: Vltava (The Moldau)
Smetana: The Bartered Bride: Three Dances
Smetana: Z Domoviny
Dvořák: Gypsy Songs: No. 4, Songs My Mother Taught Me
Dvořák: Humoresque
Suk: Meditation on the Old Bohemian Chorale Saint Wenceslas, op. 36
Dvořák: Symphonic Variations, op. 78

Saturday, November 15 at 8 pm
Jack Singer Concert Hall

for opera and education program info, click here

Tuesday, Nov. 11 (Remembrance Day)
10-12:30 am rehearsal (Carnival in Prague)

Wednesday, Nov 12
12:15-12:45 Lunch, Learn and Live
(discussion of 'Carnival in Prague' program with Pierre Simard and Simon Streatfeild)
7:30 performance: Calgary Opera's Faust

Thursday, Nov. 13
10:15 am performance: The Orchestra Games
1:15-3:45 pm rehearsal (Carnival in Prague)

Friday, Nov. 14
10-12:30 pm rehearsal (Carnival in Prague)
8 pm performance: Calgary Opera's Faust

Saturday, Nov. 15
10-11 am SMATS (Saturday Morning at the Symphony): "The Art of Strings"
11:05-1:35 pm open rehearsal (Carnival in Prague)
8 pm concert: Carnival in Prague

For our last program before a marathon Beethoven cycle, the CPO has one of our crazy Czech grab-bag concerts. I'm hoping people won't overlook this one, though, since it has some of the interesting music we'll play all year, especially the Dvořák Symphonic Variations. It sounds like Dvořák's take on the Brahms Haydn Variations -- a deceptively simple theme transformed into weird and wondrous new forms, then reconstituted for a stirring finale.

Last Friday's Tchaik 5 with the NACO gave a lot of people new respect for the excellent acoustics in Jack Singer Concert Hall -- with proportionally immense string and wind sections and a sold-out audience, it felt like the room was resonating at its true full capacity. Here's a picture of our bass section, 12 members strong, including the inimitable Joel Quarrington (more on him later!)

l to r: Matt Heller, Theo Chan, Trish Bereti-Reid, Marjolaine Fournier, Vincent Gendron, Sheila Garrett, Murielle Bruneau, Jeff White, Joel Quarrington, Hilda Cowie, Charles Garrett, Graeme Mudd (hidden)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

discussing "Getting Musicians Involved"

Adaptistration blogger Drew McManus wrote a post this week under the title "Getting Musicians Involved" which addresses concerns I raised last week, in a post on orchestra websites which offer "contact a musician" features.

Drew very thoroughly outlines the steps that management and website administrators could take, to make this a meaningful and useful feature to patrons, and not an unwelcome burden to musicians. I actually think it might empower some musicians to communicate with audience members.

It's worth reading Drew's post as well as its comments, which raise some other interesting questions about this idea. In matters of audience communication, I think, it's not a question of whether we need to do more, but how to do it well -- Drew provides some excellent answers, and as always a forum to discuss them.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

unprecedented victories

The CPO and Calgary Opera are opening a new production of Gounod's Faust this Saturday; this past Tuesday, we were in the orchestra pit at Jubilee Auditorium, about half-way through the 3rd act when news came that Barack Obama had won the presidential election. It actually came from Rob the violinist's cell phone, which was picking up a news website, and Jeff the bassist passed the message on to me.

It's difficult to really celebrate in the midst of playing a long French opera, but it was still an amazing moment. As much as I'd wished and hoped this would happen, it was such a validation to hear it become reality. Last night I watched both McCain's concession speech and Obama's victory speech, and I was impressed by both of them. However serious the problems we face in the US -- and I know they're incredibly serious -- for at least one wonderful day, nothing seemed insurmountable any more.

I haven't written much this week, since I started November with a short-lived attempt to write a novel for NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month -- and then quickly became too busy to even contemplate such a massive undertaking. It felt a bit like trying to run a marathon without any training, long, tiring, and increasingly painful. I have new respect for writers of fiction or any long form, which seems to involve a miraculous combination of imagination and discipline. Perhaps I'll try again next year, if I've written some pieces longer than a blog post by then. Everything seems impossible, I suppose, until you actually see it happen.

Monday, November 03, 2008

week of Nov. 2 - 8

"The Orchestra Games"
an education concert for kids

Pierre Simard, conductor
Jan Lisiecki, piano
Jonathon Love, narrator

John Williams / arr. Riggio: Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Chopin: Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise, Op. 22
Gregory Smith: Orchestra Games

performances on Nov. 6 and 13 at 10:15 am

at Jack Singer Concert Hall


East Meets West
National Arts Centre Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano

Alexina Louie: Infinite Sky with Birds (NACO only)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 23, in B-flat minor (NACO)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5, op. 64, in E minor (CPO and NACO)

performance on Friday, Nov. 7 at 8 pm

Jack Singer Concert Hall


Faust, by Charles Gounod
Calgary Opera
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor

all performances
at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium:
Saturday, Nov. 8 at 8 pm
Wednesday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 pm
and Friday, Nov. 14 at 8 pm

Sunday, Nov. 2
7-10:30 pm rehearsal (Faust)

Tuesday, Nov. 4
10-12 pm rehearsal (The Orchestra Games)
7-10:30 pm rehearsal (Faust)

Thursday, Nov. 6
10:15 am performance: The Orchestra Games
7-10:30 dress rehearsal (Faust)

Friday, Nov. 7
1-3 pm rehearsal (East Meets West)
8 pm concert (East Meets West)

Saturday, Nov. 8
8 pm performance: Calgary Opera's Faust

Friday, October 31, 2008

emotional precision and Fauré's Requiem

Rehearsing Fauré's Requiem for this weekend's CPO program, guest conductor Joseph Flummerfelt repeatedly asked for more emotional precision: "You're just giving me a generic forte sound, folks. That's not enough -- you need to breathe with intention, and sing out the meaning of those words. You need to be crying out to the heavens -- you're begging for rest, begging for peace. That's what this music is about, and it's never been more relevant." (I'm paraphrasing, of course -- I don't actually memorize a whole speech by a conductor!)

It got me thinking about the nature of our profession, and how a large part of our job description is to invest those seemingly generic markings -- forte, allegro, legato, decrescendo -- with a very specific, emotional meaning. We have to do more than just data entry -- reading off those instructions and plunking down our fingers at the right moments -- we have to form a purpose and an intention behind every mark on the page, and re-enact those gestures in space and sound.

Whereas a stock analyst's job is to separate emotion from information, to parse out longing, panic, hope and disappointment and determine the objective value of a holding, ours is perhaps the opposite. We need to imagine the fear, joy, or disillusionment that inspired someone to compose these precise sounds, and then play them as though we felt those same emotions just as strongly.

Then again, perhaps a stock analyst needs some emotional insight as well; and I'm sure that as musicians we often need to step away from our emotions. Especially when those emotions override our ability to listen receptively and adjust appropriately to those around us. It's an incredible challenge to play with passion and sensitivity at the same time. In a piece like Fauré's Requiem, and the songs by Mahler and Strauss which make up the rest of tonight's program, that emotional sophistication is what separates a great performance from an average one.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Joe the Cellist

I've been planning to write a "Joe the Orchestral Musician" post for a while, but last night Yo-Yo Ma beat me to it -- announcing on The Colbert Report that he was "Joe the Cellist":

for Canadians, watch the clip here
Colbert: How does it feel to be the #1 at something in the world?

Ma: Well, for people who watch Arthur, you know Mikey the 8-year old cellist? I'm a superstar, because I'm in his show. And so he probably thinks of me as -- "Joe the Cellist."

Colbert: Are enough candidates addressing the concerns of Joe the Cellist?

Ma: Well, you know, I think it could take a while.
That sounds like a side-step to me. I thought maybe I would pick up the subject and ask, what are some of Joe the Cellist's concerns?
  • arts funding (so he'll keep getting paid to play)
  • music education (so kids will keep wanting to take lessons)
  • safe and lively urban centers (so people will keep coming downtown to see his concerts)
  • affordable health care (in case he gets tendinitis)
  • public transportation and infrastructure (so he can make it to his gigs on time)
  • floors made of penetrable materials (so his endpin doesn't slip)
Those are just off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are others. On all of these issues, though, I prefer the solutions offered by Barack Obama. (Note: Obama hasn't yet proposed to install slip-proof floors everywhere, but perhaps in his second term.) That's why he has my support in this election. If any actual cellist (or Joe) wants to give your take, please feel free to comment!

And please visit Drew McManus' blog Adaptistration to watch more Stephen Colbert interviews and vote for your favorite classical music interviewee -- Yo-Yo, Alex Ross, or Lorin Maazel.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Drew's comment

Drew McManus replied with a very thoughtful comment on my post about orchestra websites offering musician contact info. He also asks for more opinions and discussion on this issue. Please feel free to comment here, or visit Adaptistration and write to Drew directly. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

rating and writing to orchestras

Drew McManus published a ranking of US and Canadian orchestra websites last week at his Adaptistration blog -- here's his post summarizing the Canadian results, and below is a chart showing his scores for the Calgary Philharmonic website. The blue middle column shows this year's scores:

The one category of Drew's with which I take exception is "Orchestra Information". Here's Drew McManus' explanation of this category:

Category 4: Orchestra Information - 15 points maximum

  • Learning about an orchestra and having easy access to contact information and educational program information is crucial to an orchestra’s ability to establish meaningful connections with its community.
  • This category contains five sub-categories covering biographical and contact information for music directors and musicians. Staff and board listings with related individual contact info were also considered essential as well as providing copies of institutional transparency documents.
I personally don't think providing contact info for musicians is a meaningful or desirable feature for an orchestral website. I would like to see better-written, more standardized musician pages. Those who choose to provide links to a personal website or e-mail address could be given that option. However, many musicians simply prefer to keep their e-mail addresses private.

I don't think playing in a professional orchestra should obligate anyone to publish personal information on a website -- some of us may do this by choice, but it does come at a certain sacrifice of privacy, and sometimes sanity! The Calgary Philharmonic website does feature a series of video clips with members of the orchestra, which I think is an appropriate vehicle to showcase musicians. For visitors trying to know an orchestra better, I think this feature is far more useful than giving out e-mail addresses.

Monday, October 27, 2008

teach the blogger

My idea was that I would post a short practice video -- in this case, I'm working on the intro to the Bach 5th Suite Prélude -- and then people could give me comments, suggestions, etc. Then the following week, I could record the piece again and maybe post it for a little before-and-after progress report.

This idea was inspired by an incredibly useful comment from Ira after a video post I wrote back in March. I seem to have never acknowledged all of Ira's great comments -- thank you so much!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

week of Oct. 26 - Nov. 1

Classics # 2: Fauré's Requiem
Gustav Mahler: Rückert Lieder
Richard Strauss: Five Songs; Ständchen, An Die Nacht, Wiegenlied, Cäcilie, Morgen
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem, op. 48

Joseph Flummerfelt, conductor
Erin Wall, soprano
Philip Torre, baritone
Calgary Philharmonic Chorus

Performances: Friday, Oct. 31st and Saturday, Nov. 1st, 8 pm at Jack Singer Concert Hall

Tuesday, 28 October
10-12:30 rehearsal
2-4:30 rehearsal

Wednesday, 29 October
10-12 rehearsal
7-9:30 rehearsal

Thursday, 30 October
10-12 rehearsal
7-9:30 rehearsal

Friday, 31 October
8 pm concert

Saturday, 1 November
8 pm concert

This is one of the programs for which I wrote a blurb in the season brochure. Here's my original copy:
Savour Faure's exquisite Requiem, a transcendent meditation on life, death, and the beyond. Faure envisioned death as "a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above." Grammy Award-winning conductor Joseph Flummerfelt leads the CPO, chorus, and distinguished soloists in this stirring autumnal masterpiece.
When you have a 40-word limit, every word has to be well-chosen. It was probably a mistake to use the word "death" twice, though I may have been going for a Halloween tie-in. Note also my use of the Canadian spelling for "savour", which also did not clear the editing process.

Here's the final, much improved version:
Fauré's exquisite Requiem expresses the feeling of human faith in eternal rest. Grammy Award-winning conductor Joseph Flummerfelt leads this stirring concert of vocal splendour with soprano Erin Wall and baritone Philip Torre.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

the practice room cyborg

Jason Heath wrote a post recently called "Nine Dynamite Practice Room Accessories." He starts with some basics everyone should have: metronome, tuner, a pad of paper -- and then moves on to some more high-tech stuff: iPods, notation and editing software, a laptop computer.

Personally, I don't want a laptop computer anywhere near me when I'm practicing. It's just too much of a distraction visually. I can see how certain functions might be useful, and I know some people who can incorporate computer technology into their practice very effectively; I just don't see the point.

My deeper philosophical argument with all this stuff is that it makes you practice like a robot. If you constantly have a metronome, tuner, or computerized MIDI-file playing along in the practice room, you're training yourself to sound like an electronic device. That might mean more precision and clarity, but I think it's inevitably going to compromise the things a computer can't simulate:

  • a warm, rich, resonant sound, with a varied palette of tonal colors
  • a sensitivity to inner lines, and harmonic voicing
  • a sense of bulding phrases, dynamic contours, and the larger architecture of the piece

You might make a case that these aren't so important, within the specific skill-set demanded to win an audition. I think they matter very much to anyone hoping to have an enjoyable, extended career, because these are some of the main qualities that make orchestra playing enjoyable and fulfilling.

So while I appreciate Jason's suggestions, my own contrarian advice to anyone looking to tech out their practice room is this: give it a try, but don't go crazy. Don't think you can't have a worthwhile practice session without plugging into ever power outlet in the room. And at least one day a week, turn all the gadgets off and just remember the simple joy of drawing sounds out of a big, resonant chunk of wood. No accessories required.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Anne-Sophie's Mozart

Anne-Sophie Mutter's early recordings of the Mozart violin concertos are already legendary, and her recent concert films are just as good. In 2005, Ms. Mutter launched "The Mozart Project Story," in conjunction with the worldwide celebrations of Mozart's 250th birthday; the two-disc DVD set I recently watched, which contains the 5 Mozart concertos with the Camerata Salzburg led by Mutter, is only one element in the project. This music has clearly been a life-long passion for her, and the Camerata Salzburg plays with equal passion and grace. These recordings are a great curative if you've heard (or played) these pieces for too many auditions and grown bored with them -- they sound and feel like much-loved music, made with freshness and spontaneity among friends.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mrs. Sweet's pedagogical method

They had all been instructed by Mrs. Sweet, a soft-bodied woman with a petulant smirk who was very deft at smacking hands without actually interrupting the performance of a scale or an etude. She sat on the bench beside them, reeking of lily-of-the-valley, and turned an injured look at the keyboard. Alert as a toad, Hope said, and quick as a toad, too. Whack! when a note offended, and then the return to sullen watchfulness, then again Whack! ... But Grace actually liked piano. She practiced more than she needed to and learned more than was exacted of her. Once she told her parents, weeping, that the hand smacking distracted her, so their mother went to speak to Mrs. Sweet, who asked, indignant, "How else will she improve?" But from then on she restrained herself, barely, when Grace played and vented her pedagogical method on Glory.

-- from Home by Marilynne Robinson, p. 54-55

We've probably all had a Mrs. Sweet at some point: a teacher whose method of correction was to whack us, whether physically or verbally. Those spoken, emotional "whacks" might actually be the more hurtful, and the more lasting, since we tend to remember and re-enact them long afterwards.

In effect we internalize the punishment, and adopt our own inner "Mrs. Sweet" -- who delivers her whacks much more deftly than any external teacher! Watching a player with this condition, you can sometimes see a sudden grimace -- whether or not the offending note is apparent -- which makes it clear, Mrs. Sweet has just delivered another whack.

Obviously, this is distracting -- for the audience as well as the player. In most cases, it quickly ceases to be helpful, and can become a real impediment to progress. I think it's important for us as teachers, and in our own practice, to check the impulse to punish mistakes with violence and recriminations. It's almost always more productive just to note them, make sure they're understood, and then encourage ourselves to try again. We can progress much faster if we have an intrinsic need to get better -- if we're driven by a hope of improvement, rather than fear of punishment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

keeping score at the symphony

I have a dream: it's the end of the 2nd period at a Calgary Flames home game in late November. Some people in the crowd start to get up to stretch or use the washroom, but they stop and turn as the scoreboard lights up with a huge logo:

People return to their seats as a voice announces: "We now take you live to the Jack Singer Concert Hall, where the Calgary Philharmonic under Roberto Minczuk are midway through the 3rd movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony..."

The sound of a somber A-flat chord rises on the PA system, as the screen goes to video of a violin section playing a hesitant figure, then the conductor sculpting a questioning phrase. There's a palpable air of suspense, as the screen moves to a close-up shot of the timpanist's hand, playing a repeated low G. Hockey players from both teams are skating onto the ice to get a better view, as the harmony shifts to a dominant chord and with an incredible swell, finally arrives at a big beautiful C Major chord -- the finale has begun! -- the crowd is on their feet, cheering wildly, as all the hockey players exchange high-fives.

Okay, so it's not very likely -- still, it's nice to fantasize. Orchestra concerts inevitable go head-to-head against major sporting events, and so we face a conundrum: should we announce the score from the stage, and risk alienating the people who came to the concert specifically to avoid hearing about sports? Or should we ignore the big game, and let the sports addicts pull out their BlackBerries and portable radios?

I personally don't mind if a conductor wants to give the score after intermission, though I'd rather not hear updates after every piece. Members of the orchestra are often just as interested -- I've heard anecdotes about musicians playing with ear-bud headphones in, or radios attached to tuning pegs, and whispering across the stage after a home run or goal. I hope I never get that obsessive about a sporting event, though I can't begrudge others their addictions.

What I would really like to see, though, is some equity -- why not give hockey or baseball fans a little taste of what they're missing, or a preview of what they could hear tomorrow night? I think Beethoven could hold his own against one of those silly mascot races any day.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jeff Weisner on brand loyalty

We each have a "brand" to our playing - a basic set of sound and style characteristics that hold true through everything we play. That brand is created from our core technique elements, the influence of our most important teachers and mentors, and our most basic musical preferences. I make the type of sound that I do on the bass because at some level I like it - it feels right to me, for reasons that I honestly can't even define exactly. It developed through my early years of study and my student days. Even as I have developed a more diverse palette of tone colors and styles in my playing, I still keep one foot (or at least a toe) in this core sound concept that I bring to my musical work.

-- excerpt from "Know Your Brand" by Jeff Weisner, Peabody Double Bass Blog

Drawing analogies to bass playing is a favorite pastime of mine, so I have to take up this recent post by Jeff Weisner. Jeff shares some very intriguing ideas about schools of playing, which he likens to political branding. He concludes that even the strongest players might benefit from an honest assessment of their own "brand", and might focus on projecting those qualities in auditions.

Jeff draws a careful distinction between monotonous, one-style-fits-all playing -- perhaps you could call the Steve Forbes school, taking one issue and hammering it mercilessly -- and playing with no real sense of integrity or authenticity, which he likens to John "Flip-Flop" Kerry. That's still a bit of a sore spot for me personally, having really believed in John Kerry in 2004. What we Kerry supporters called "nuance", many others labelled spinelessness -- though I guess we now have the satisfaction of saying, "I told you so."

The kind of playing that Jeff advocates is neither Forbes nor Kerry -- it can have sophistication, style, and nuance, but it never strays from an essential core sound. It's about playing to the audience, but not about saying, "I'll do anything to get your vote." It all comes back to integrity -- of sound, belief, and intention -- and integrity that comes from one's own highest standards, not the standards of some committee we know only from rumors and hearsay.

Jeff doesn't offer any political endorsements of his own -- maybe he's keeping his blog non-partisan, since it's the official mouthpiece of the Peabody Double Bass Department. I wonder how he judges the brand-salesmanship of these two presidential tickets, though. We have one candidate, Obama, who has worked to broaden the appeal of his party's brand, refining their historically polarizing positions on taxes, foreign policy, and social issues. The other styles himself as a "maverick" -- originally a term for un-branded cattle, it's become political-speak for someone willing to buck his party -- and yet he's run a rambling, divisive campaign that's alienated many independent voters as well.

In a year when the Democratic party brand has so many advantages -- largely because the Bush administration has tarnished the Republican brand, as well as the brand of the nation as a whole -- perhaps McCain's best strategy is to run with the brand of the maverick. As Jeff makes clear, though, there are certain advantages to a clear, recognizable brand -- you know what you're selling, and people know what they're getting. When it's a question of security, a clear and confident brand is sometimes enough to carry an audition or an election.


Monday, October 20, 2008

pointing out the obvious

Rehearsing the "Flying Music" from E.T. last Friday, conductor Richard Kaufman stopped the orchestra at one point and turned to the bass section. "This is a bass soli," he told us, which was rather surprising since we weren't playing much more than pizzicato downbeats. He went on, "For John Williams, the bass section is the engine of the orchestra!"

This is always nice to hear, though from the bass section's perspective we're pretty much always the engine of the orchestra. If a conductor makes a point of it, we'll play louder and more assertively, and maybe further to the front side of the beat. As in most things a conductor asks for, there's no major transformation -- just a shift in emphasis, a heightened sense of importance. Maybe that will project to the audience, maybe not; in any case, the other sections of the orchestra will probably be more attentive to what we're doing, and so we'll be better able to contribute.

An analogy in last week's New Yorker caught my attention on a similar subject:
In his acceptance speech at the Convention and in the first debate -- his two big-audience occasions on foreign policy -- Obama mentioned cooperation but emphasized aggressive action much more strongly. In that way, the Obama campaign is like a symphony orchestra, with the need for international cooperation as the string section and the necessity for aggressive action as the horns. Both sections are always playing, but usually one or the other is playing louder. During the fall campaign, the horns have dominated the strings.

- "Worlds Apart," by Nicholas Lemann, October 13, 2008 issue of The New Yorker
As an orchestra musician, a lot of things about this analogy bother me -- the strings and horns are always playing? why is it just "louder", what about differences of articulation, tone quality, expression, etc.? and how about the different voices within the strings, not to mention the brass and percussion and woodwinds, what do they represent?

All that is just nit-picking, though, since I think it's a very effective analogy for what the point Lemann is making. We do balance our messages, and we'll change our focus, wording, and content for different settings and audiences. It's one of the most basic elements of human communication, so essential that we might not give it much thought. And it's also a good explanation for what a conductor does in balancing the orchestra -- he or she draws our attention to certain things, or minimizes certain others. Within any musical score, be it John Williams or Beethoven, there are countless details and possibilities for what might happen -- the conductor gets to imagine those possibilities and, with the cooperation of the orchestra, bring out the details that make the imagined real.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

week of Oct. 19-25

Alberta Ballet
A Midsummer Night's Dream / music by Felix Mendelssohn
Peter Dala, conductor

Performances Oct. 23, 24, 25 at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium

Tuesday, 21 Oct
10-12:30 rehearsal
2-4:30 rehearsal

Wednesday, 22 Oct
7:30-10 rehearsal

Thursday, 23 Oct
7:30 performance

Friday, 24 Oct
7:30 performance

Saturday, 25 Oct
7:30 performance

I decided to borrow/steal a feature from Michael Hovnanian's Bass Blog which I really like -- every week he'll post a schedule of what he's currently doing. Beyond the obvious value to stalkers, it's a neat way to show what day-to-day life as an orchestral musician is really like. I'm definitely not going to post any practice schedules here, though.

As it happens, I'm on stand-by for this week of ballet performances -- they'll use only 4 bass players for ballet as well as opera, since the Jubilee has a rather small pit. This means I almost certainly won't play any of these services, unless someone in the section is seriously sick or injured.

That means I probably won't be writing here about Mendelssohn or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Do stay tuned though, and please let me know if there's another subject you'd like me to write about!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

the well-tempered political candidate

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.

-- David Brooks, "Thinking about Obama", NY Times Oct. 16, 2008
For some who oppose him, his equanimity even under the ugliest attack seems like hauteur; for some who support him, his reluctance to counterattack in the same vein seems like self-defeating detachment. Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.

-- The New Yorker, Oct. 13, 2008, Comment by the editors
I've been reading a lot of political commentary lately, and the question of temperament seems to be on a lot of people's minds. Even in the testiest exchanges, Barack Obama projects an air of coolness and centeredness, an even temperament that contrasts with John McCain's manic shifts and gestures. Even before the substance of their arguments is assessed, many people find Obama's bearing and composure more "presidential".

It's not just about posture, tone of voice, and gestures -- I also had the impression that Obama focused more on the larger issues, worked towards compromise and understanding rather than petty bickering, and returned the conversation to issues of real importance. When you think back over those debate performances, though, the contrast in temperament serves as a useful shorthand for all the other differences between the candidates.

Variations in temperament can also determine an orchestral audition, I think, and not just in the sense of playing in tune. Audition committees want to hear someone who is collected, confident, and centered, who plays with a sense of inner calm -- without being boring. It's a tricky balance to maintain, especially under conditions of pressure and nervousness.

Among musicians I know who have used enderol (a beta-blocker), most have said that it helps restore this state of equanimity. They're able to sail through excerpts without any wild surprises or reactions -- things affect them less, and so they feel more like themselves. Personally I prefer not to use enderol, and have worked to accustom myself to that nervous hyper-sensitivity. Also, I find tools like focused breathing and meditation can help to restore a natural sense of calm.

Don Greene, the psychologist who has pioneered a technique to maintain performance under pressure, uses the analogy of a race-car driver. At the speeds they're moving, even the slightest twitch can throw their steering out of control; a normal correction back to neutral might instead throw them far in the opposite direction. Like a political or audition candidate, they need to tune their mental responses -- their internal temperament -- to the conditions under which they operate. They need to moderate their reactions and impulses, even while driving with extreme boldness and confidence.

There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine.

-- David Brooks, from the same article quoted above

As spectators, we might not be able to appreciate the internal forces they're having to manage -- we merely see a musician, politician, or race car driver performing well. It's a peaceful sport played with tremendous internal violence, as Don Greene likes to describe golf. Only when we watch a less successful performer -- or try to perform as well ourselves -- can we really appreciate the power on display.

Friday, October 17, 2008

words vs. music in film

A couple of weekends ago, I got to hear a fantastic concert by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, presented by Calgary Pro Musica -- their concert began with the gorgeous string sextet from Richard Strauss' Capriccio, featuring two former members of the quartet on the second cello and viola parts. Violinist Geoff Nuttall introduced the Capriccio sextet with a brief synopsis of the opera, the story of a poet and composer hashing out the classic debate of words vs. music, and trying to court a rich countess in the process.

Geoff wasn't going to give away the ending of the opera -- which plays coy with the countess' decision, in any case -- but the rapturous music of that string sextet already seems to settle the issue, as far as I'm concerned. No one would remember Capriccio except for the music; the libretto tries to mock its own irrelevance, self-importance, and excessive length, but the joke seems to be mainly on the listener. For someone foolish enough to watch the whole thing (as I did last year, on DVD), the only consolation is that at the end there's a bit more of Strauss' gorgeous music, uncluttered by any silly text.

I suppose it's nice when music gets its just recognition, setting the distraction of words aside for a moment. The CPO has been playing a heap of film music these past few weeks: first the Lord of the Rings Symphony by Howard Shore, and this weekend a program of "classic" movie music called Symphony on the Silver Screen.

For most people of my generation, few of the films on this weekend's program make much of an impression. I can recall a line or two from Casablanca, I saw the first Godfather, and of course I remember watching E.T. as a little kid (and eating the breakfast cereal, which had lots of sugary peanut butter flavor.) Even without knowing the films though, each of these scores makes an immediate impression -- it's music engineered to trigger a strong emotional response, and fast.

For my taste, it's sometimes a little too much like that sugary breakfast cereal I ate as a kid: quick to reach one's pleasure centers, but not too much substance. Then again, there are some themes that won't leave your head for hours, maybe days afterwards. I thought Lord of the Rings might never leave my head, until it magically segue-ed into some music from Wagner's Parsifal.

When it comes to movies, it's no longer just words vs. music -- in an updated Capriccio, the poet and composer might be contending against cinematography, special effects, marketing tie-ins, celebrity actors, etc. With so many suitors, our senses tend to get overwhelmed, if not downright cynical -- and yet really great music still manages to cut through all the b.s. At the end of the 2.5 hour Lord of the Rings Symphony, I found myself genuinely moved, as I rarely have been lately when playing concerts -- and more so than I was when watching the films. Perhaps music still has the upper hand, even with all our advances in entertainment technology. Or maybe I'm just terminally biased.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wagner and the financial crisis

The other day I watched Das Rheingold, the first opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, and I think it has some important lessons about our current financial crisis. After all, there aren't many operas more obsessed with housing, contracts, and mineral resources, not to mention lying, greed, and theft.

I won't go into a full synopsis here, though you can find one elsewhere easily enough. At the beginning of the second scene, Wotan and Fricka have just awoken to find that their new home is completed -- the fortress that Wotan will later name "Valhalla" glimmers in the distance, as Fricka frets about how they'll pay for it. Two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, have built Valhalla for a price that Wotan has no intention of paying -- his sister-in-law, Freia. It may not exactly be the mortgage crisis, but there's clearly been some speculation and malfeasance happening.

Wotan has a financial adviser named Loge, who has promised they'll have no problem changing the deal at the last moment. They're just big dumb giants, right? Unfortunately, Loge hasn't shown up yet, so that when the giants arrive an irked Wotan has to stall for time. First he pretends the deal was a joke, and then he wonders why they'd want poor Freia anyway, and then he offers them anything except his sobbing sister-in-law. For all his fantastic powers, Wotan has a problem -- he just can't break a contract. He's actually the god appointed to defend contracts, so he's responsible for regulating against his own interests. When Loge finally arrives, he hasn't got any good compromise either -- Wotan will have to steal the infamous Ring of the Nibelungen, since that's apparently the only acceptable substitute for the love of a good woman.

And so thievery, deception, and operatic mayhem inevitably ensue. It's easy to fault all of the characters: Wotan is trying to cheat the giants, while they're trying to kill Wotan and all the other gods (Freia's gardening skills, it turns out, are essential to the gods' survival). Alberich, the ruler of the Nibelungen, himself stole the gold to make the ring, then forced all his people into slave labor to amass some more gold. Clearly no good will come of any of this -- just a lot of yelling, weeping, killing, and bombastic opera music.

This might not be helpful if you're already trapped in a bad mortgage or lousy investments. It seems like so much of this could have been prevented, or at least minimized, if only Wotan and Fricka had lived within their means -- just enjoyed being gods and munching Freia's magical apples, without always wanting a bigger house, fancier weapons, complete domination over every corner of the world and underworld, etc.

A contract needn't be a bad thing, after all, as long as both parties are acting in good faith, and can afford to keep their promises. When they don't, and can't, that's when people start getting cursed, transforming themselves into dragons, and then the entire world goes up in flames.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

putting El Salón in context

Speaking of politics in music, this week the CPO will be performing El Salón México by Aaron Copland -- a piece written in the early 1930's, during a phase Copland's career when he was actively promoting leftist and socialist ideals through his music.

Nowadays, the piece is most often programmed as a splashy, dancing burst of Latin color. That's how it fits into our program, which is titled "Tango Nights" and features several pieces by Piazzola, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and El Salón México. Until I read Alex Ross' new history of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, I wouldn't have noticed any deeper meaning to the work either. Ross puts El Salón into the context of the period, and explains the political intentions of its creator, in a way that sheds a fantastic light on this quirky, tuneful little piece.

I'd recommend The Rest is Noise to anyone who thinks they just don't get 20th century music -- who finds it confusing, intimidating, or exasperating -- or who just wants a deeper understanding of music like
El Salón, and how it relates to the political and social upheavals of our time. I guess that means I'd recommend it to just about everyone.

Monday, September 15, 2008

music under a bell jar

The Berlin Philharmonic, virtually alone among German cultural institutions, continued playing right to the end of the Second World War. Even after their hall, the old Philharmonie, was destroyed by bombers, they continued performing in the Admiralspalast downtown, and at makeshift hospitals around the city. It's understandably not a period people in the orchestra are proud of, but a remarkable new documentary by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, The Reichsorchester, chronicles and records the memories of the last two surviving orchestra members who played in the Berlin Phil during that time.

One of those members, violinist Hans Bastiaan, describes that time as "like being under a bell jar" -- the orchestra was protected and sheltered by the Nazi ministry of propaganda, performing a regular concert schedule and touring widely to boost morale and to symbolize of German cultural might. Bastiaan and double bassist Erich Hartmann, the other surviving member who speaks at length in the film, both understood that they were serving an evil regime -- yet they both claim the Berlin Philharmonic was never a Nazi orchestra, even if certain members were party loyalists.

The vast majority kept playing out of dedication to their craft; out of allegiance to their music director, Furtwangler, and to their colleagues; from pride for the stellar reputation and musicianship of their orchestra; and, in the final days, for sheer survival. Orchestra members were given an exemption from military service -- and their family members offered special protections and allowances as will -- and so from the beginning they were tied to the regime and its continued stability.

Only in the last few months, playing before audiences of severely wounded soldiers and civilians, did Bastiaan, Hartmann, and their like-minded colleagues recognize the shame of their role as state-supported artists. Other members, such as violinist Bernhard Alt (who earlier composed of a double bass quartet, written for his Berlin Phil colleagues) committed suicide. Still others died amid the chaos of bombings and occupation (this was the case with the interim conductor Leo Borchard, who died by American gunfire in a tragic accident). One violist, dismissed by Furtwangler for missing a concert early in the war, had his exemption revoked and died on the front -- just one terrible story among many that Bastiaan and Hartmann have to tell.

It's fascinating to hear them tell it, even though they still seem to struggle with the moral quandaries of that time. Among the musicians, Bastiaan notes, their understanding of politics was often "child-like", and they only wished to keep performing great music under the best conductors -- and yet the harsh realities around them wouldn't disappear, or be vanquished by sublime concerts. In the end, they were given a perfect opportunity to witness the crumbling of the Nazi regime, from within the protective 'bell jar' it provided, and to take part in the rebuilding efforts that followed.

The documentary includes extensive footage of the orchestra performing, mainly Beethoven and Wagner, including a complete performance of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger, recorded in a German factory in 1942.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

hidden talents

The Calgary Herald today features an article on CPO clarinetist Jocelyn Colquhoun, who will be dancing along with other guest artists at next week's tango-themed concert:

"Sensual struts will set hearts aflutter"

Besides the sort of bizarrely poetic title, it's a clever article with several funny quotes and stories from Jocelyn. One of the CPO marketing department's goals is to get individual musicians' talents, interests, and abilities into the spotlight, and out in the media, so hopefully more people will keep stopping Jocelyn at the shopping mall to tell her how great she is. Then maybe she'll keep her ballroom tango posture, with the head held back all the time, as though to signal that the rest of us all smell really bad.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

on practicing practically

When it comes to learning long audition repertoire lists, we bassists don't have it nearly as bad as percussionists. I used to manage mock auditions at the New World Symphony, and for most instruments the excerpt materials would be about the thickness of a Time magazine, 40 to 50 sheets at most. When one of our percussionists was playing a mock, though, he would hand me a book the size of the Miami telephone directory, which I would flip through in a daze before handing it to another percussionist to pick out a few excerpts.

Still, there have been some comparatively long lists at recent bass auditions, and even a shorter list can wear you down if you don't budget your practice time intelligently. How many pieces can you expect yourself to practice every day, and really benefit from that work? How much time should you set aside for technique and scale studies, solos and repertoire for your job or school -- not to mention listening to recordings, visualization exercises, and other useful work away from the instrument? And how much should you set aside for rest, recreation, and having a life outside the practice room?

Those are questions we all need to answer for ourselves at some point. It's interesting to hear the approaches other people have used with success, though. I published a series of posts a while back on the audition advice of Cleveland Orchestra percussionist Tom Freer:

audition habits of a highly effective percussionist

and it's worth revisiting some of that advice, even for the person who wrote it!

I've experimented and adapted that advice somewhat since then. I base some of my practice structure on ashtanga yoga, in which the challenges are similar: you learn a lot of poses, each of which demands consistent and detailed work to maintain and develop. Sri Pattabhi Jois solved this dilemma by dividing the practice into several series, practiced on different days of the week, following an opening sequence of postures which does not vary. And at least one day of the week (Saturday) is set aside for complete rest.

So if I were taking this audition (you can download the repertoire list here) I might divide my practice into several modules as follows:

1. Opening sequence: long tones, scale studies, etc.

2. Excerpts: practice one series a day; spend 10-20 minutes on each excerpt, taking breaks every 45-60 minutes (should take 2-3 hours each day)

A series
  • Mozart 40.I
  • Bach Badinerie
  • Brahms 1.II
  • Mahler 2.I
  • Ein Heldenleben #9, #77
  • Mozart 39.II
  • Brahms 2.I
  • Pulcinella
B series
  • Mozart 39.I
  • Mendelssohn 4.IV
  • Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet
  • Mussourgsky Pictures
  • Beethoven 5.III
  • Ein Heldenleben #15, #40
  • Brahms 1.IV
  • Haydn 31 solo
  • Lt. Kije solo
C series
  • Mendelssohn 4.I
  • Mozart 40.IV
  • Otello soli
  • Beethoven 9.IV
  • Brahms 1.I
  • Mahler 1 solo
  • Ein Heldenleben #61-70 (battle scene)
  • Brahms 2.IV
  • Variaciones Concertantes solo
Audition solos: alternate Bach and concerto mvt. (25-30 minutes each day)

Recording: at the beginning or end of practice session (or preferably both) record a mock audition on that day's repertoire

Other repertoire: for work, gigs, or school, or other solo Bach (45 minutes)

After practice: listen and review your own recordings, listen to commercial recordings of the repertoire, do visualization exercises (1-2 hours)

Choose one day of the week to rest completely -- get away from the bass, go outside, and remind yourself that you're a human being
This is just an outline, and would probably need a fair amount of tweaking. As to how you should practice each of the excerpts, where you should focus, what you need to accomplish, that's another complicated and somewhat subjective question. It will probably need to wait until another post!

Please feel free to comment with your suggestions or questions.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

all that wax

I've been living in Calgary for one year as of today, and just a couple weeks ago I moved into my third apartment during that time. I thought I was going to settle down and start living a normal life, but I seem to be just as nomadic as ever.

The bag of cotton swabs shown here was purchased, I believe, in a dollar store somewhere in Chicago in 2003. It has now resided at 11 different addresses, by my count -- that's including 5 different rooms at the New World Symphony's Plymouth Hotel, where people tend to swap frequently. Still, that's a lot of moving for a bag of cotton swabs. According to MapQuest, they've traveled at least 5,000 miles. And it still looks like about half the bag is left.

I'm determined to finish off those cotton swabs before I move again, though. Even if it means I have to clean my ears five times a day. Tina suggested I get some glue and build some cotton-swab architecture, bridges and buildings and stuff, and I think this is a good idea. Just as long as they don't leave this apartment, except covered with ear wax, glue or other gunk.

I think it's a worthy goal -- I'm not sure what the reward will be, other than a new (smaller) box of cotton swabs. Meanwhile, I'm also hoping to use up a bag of 100 "Glimma" tea lights from IKEA that's followed me for the past two moves - just 84 more to go!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Ben Levy and the Glass phase

The thing I would just say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it felt short, and some of us can admit that to ourselves and some are a little less able to admit that to themselves. But we knew that it didn't have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing that I would say to you is that everybody goes through that, and for you to go through it -- if you're going through it right now, if you're just getting through that phase, or if you're just starting off and you're entering into that phase -- you've got to know that it's totally normal, and the most important thing you could possibly do, is do a lot of work.

-- Ira Glass, from a discussion on YouTube. Watch the original here.

I wanted to transcribe a bit of Ira Glass' little sermon on creative work and the disappointments of the learning phase -- though I recommend you watch the clip on YouTube as well. One thing about Ira Glass: he's kind of hard to transcribe. He speaks in long, run-on sentences, and rather than pausing between them, he actually seems to speed up into the next thought. It's very natural to listen to, it just doesn't always look like it on the page. I wonder if that was part of the reason he seemed so stiff and dry in his early days on NPR -- he hadn't yet learned to sound like himself.

Listening to those early tapes is a great reminder that every artist, even the ones we most respect and admire, went through similarly maddening struggles. Every orchestral bassist at some point wondered if he or she would every play Mozart 35 as fast or as well as that other guy; we all had to humble ourselves the first time we went into a lesson with a Bach Suite.

Having good taste, as Ira describes, may actually make this phase more difficult to work through. We see how badly our results have failed our expectations, and we wonder if it's even worth the effort of trying. Someone like Ira Glass -- by showing how his idiosyncratic style needed a lot of time to develop -- can show that it is worth the effort, that patience will pay off.

At the beginning of my third year at NEC, I encountered an incoming freshman bassist named Ben Levy. He was already a strong player, but I don't know that anyone would have guessed that he would join the BSO at the age of 23. He still had a lot to work on when I first met him, and he was incredibly determined to work on it. He was almost always in the front practice room on the lower level, working on his scales and intonation when I got to school. He practiced compulsively, putting in a lot of hours, as many of us did.

What set him apart, I think, was that he had a very keen sense of how he wanted to sound, and was phenomenally determined to realize that sound. Even in his first jury, in which I think he played an easy baroque sonata transcription, Corelli or Vivaldi, he played it with such a sense of style and detail, it was really a convincing performance. He certainly still had a lot of work to do, and he would have been the first to admit that. But I think he was already laying the groundwork for the success that would come a few years later.

I found out that Ben had won the BSO in May 2003, when I overheard some gossip at another audition. At first, my stomach sunk -- as much as I liked Ben, I would have wanted to be the first to get a job, and this was a huge job. In retrospect though, I think that watching someone like that can only have a positive effect on you, if you realize that it wasn't magic. He did the work, as Ira Glass urged, even when the result may have been far short of what he'd hoped for. He didn't let the results diminish the hopes, and he kept his determination. That's the only sure-fire recipe for success that I know.

Friday, August 01, 2008

bass at the Folk Fest

Seeing the Calgary Folk Music Festival last weekend got me curious about playing in a band again -- I briefly played with some friends in high school, but the decibel levels were a bit too much for me and I quit. Earlier this week I even checked out the used bass guitars for sale on Craigslist. I'd probably better not make any major purchases until I'm drawing some income again, though.

There was a whole lot of great bass playing at the festival -- I won't try and name all the bassists I heard, since I'm not really up on that scene, but they were definitely shaking the island. One of my favorite bass guitarists, Meshell Ndegeocello, made an appearance playing blues with James Blood Ulmer.

There were quite a few upright basses around, too -- I saw one sitting on the lawn when we got there Sunday morning, and it must have found its way to a stage somewhere. We really do play an incredibly versatile instrument, and you could hear upright basses in almost any sort of style and combination over the course of the weekend. Todd Sickafoose joined Ani DiFranco's folk rock band for the closing set on Sunday night, and laid down bass grooves as catchy as anything I heard all weekend, and even drew out a bow at one point. With the right pick-up and amplification, an upright bass can do just about anything a bass guitar can do.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

made in Tacoma

I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington -- a city not known for too much, really, though you may have heard of the "aroma of Tacoma." That was the sulfur fumes from an old paper mill that's been shut down, and I can proudly say that Tacoma no longer stinks. Or at least I can't smell it anymore.

My point is not to rain on Tacoma, though (the city is also known for getting rained on a lot), but to share a discovery I recently made while researching acoustic bass guitars. Some of the best acoustic bass guitars are being made right in Tacoma, by a shop called Tacoma Guitars. It's a subsidiary of Fender, but the company's founders are Tacomans, and apparently proud of it.

I haven't tried out a Tacoma acoustic bass guitar yet -- which is officially known as the Tacoma (R) CB10C Thunderchief Bass Guitar -- but the photos look intriguing. They have done away with the traditional f-hole design, and instead use a large comet-shaped opening on the upper left bout.

You can also watch some guy playing one on YouTube, though the audio quality is not so great:
Still, that's pretty impressive compared to an average bass guitar. (I was always better at producing splunks and splats than actual pitches.) Maybe all that rain is good for basses.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

bass blog links

Hella Frisch has been hibernating, I guess, or perhaps outside enjoying Calgary's few months of warm weather. I've been taking a look at some other bass blogs I though, hoping they will get me inspired to write something original soon:

  • Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog has a fresh clean look for the summer -- probably this happened months ago, but I usually read it through Google Reader, and so didn't notice. Jason has always been the king of bass-related content, it's just been difficult to wade through it all.
  • PBDB, the Peabody Double Bass studio blog, links to a great video by Ira Glass which is relevant to anyone doing creative work. Playing the bass is creative work, right?
  • Michael Hovnanian reports on a week of contrasts at Ravinia -- and how video screens tend to draw the audience's attention away from the action on stage:
    The Sunday concert was a weird amalgamation of the Schreker Chamber Symphony... and Lang Lang playing a couple of warhorses, the entire lurid spectacle projected onto huge screens. As my attention inevitably wandered, I caught sight of audience members in the center section craning their necks to look at the screens rather than focusing on the stage straight ahead.
    There's definitely something to this. I observed the same thing at the Calgary Folk Festival last weekend. Of course, most of us spend a lot of our time watching screens -- you'd think we'd want to take a break at a concert. But there's something instinctual about watching a performer's face, seeing how the expressions change with the music, that you often can't get from 50 rows back. (Though Lang Lang does his best to emote all the way to the back row.)

Monday, June 30, 2008


drop.io: simple private sharing
Originally posted at The Seattle Times, this video shows some footage from the Hammond Ashley Double Bass Workshop, where I played on a faculty recital last Tuesday. Speaking on the audio is workshop organizer Todd Gowers, while my friend Miriam Chong makes a brief appearance around 20 seconds through.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

flicks, 'toons and Mario

This afternoon I played a movie-themed concert with the Players Chamber Ensemble -- frequent readers might remember I wasn't going to play this one, but then I ended up playing it after all. Instead of no, I said "Yes I'd love to, but..." which gradually morphed into "yes".

Anyway, it was a fun concert to be involved in. The afternoon began with some Loonie Tunes cartoons on a big screen, with soda and popcorn available in the lobby. Then we came out and played Rossini's Barber of Seville (after a slight delay for me to get my stool untangled from all the power cords.) The most challenging piece came next, music arranged from the 1931 cartoon "The Village Smitty". I've actually always wanted to play cartoon music, but never had before today.

There was the inevitable John Williams (Star Wars and Schindler's List) along with Mascagni's Intermezzo from Cavaleria Rusticana to accompany scenes from The Godfather. The Lily Quartet performed Astor Piazzola's Tango Por una Cabeza as used in Scent of a Woman, which is a really beautiful scene. I suppose playing live music to a pre-recorded film is a bit odd, and has its drawbacks, but it does encourage you to watch with renewed attention.

The concert finished with music to the Super Mario Bros. video game -- the "Overworld" theme described by wikipedia as:
The famous main theme; a Latin jazz score that matches the bright, cheery and fast-paced nature of the majority of the game's levels.
This was also a first-time performance for me, though I played that game enough as a kid that the music was already ingrained in my cortex. Probably much of this afternoon's audience now shares that condition, for better or worse.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

tassel-tossing at Epcor

Like a lot of Calgarians, the CPO can't afford to own a home. Instead, we rent space in the Epcor Centre and perform in the Jack Singer Concert Hall. This can lead to some occasional space crunches, when the hall is booked for other things -- last week, for example, we had a cello audition displaced to a nearby church, since the hall was rented for a Tom Jones concert. (Sort of like getting kicked out of your apartment because your roommate has a hot date.)

I tend to practice at the Epcor Centre too, usually downstairs in one of the dressing rooms. The Epcor crew is pretty nice about letting me do this, and only occasionally tell me I have to leave because Queen Noor or the Kids Fest needs the space. Lately, it's been high school graduation season, and my practice sessions have been accompanied by disembodied voices reading off names, following by whooping and applause. All the names seem to get some degree of acclamation, which is nice to hear, though you can easily distinguish the really popular ones.

Hearing these ceremonies makes me remember finishing high school -- how grown up I felt, and how confident I was that I'd soon be far away. When my jazz band director John DePalatis asked me where I'd be in ten years, I think that was my answer: "Somewhere far away." And the week after graduation, I found myself beginning a sentence, "Back when I was in high school..."

I guess in retrospect, I wish I'd enjoyed that time more, and been in less of a rush to get to the next thing. It's now more than ten years, and I'm somewhat far away, but lots of people I knew in high school still matter a great deal to me. Next week I'm going back to visit Tacoma, and playing in a recital at the Hammond Ashley Memorial Double Bass Workshop with my friend Miriam, who was my mentor and stand partner in the Tacoma Symphony. She's now in Victoria, playing bass, teaching, and coaching music and lots of other subjects.

I suppose my cliche commencement speech sermon, if I were asked to give one, is that we can move far away, but we don't really change that much from the people we were in high school. If we were shy and dorky, we'll probably stay that way, just hopefully get more comfortable with ourselves and find people who like us for those qualities.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

rained out in the Badlands

Yesterday's concert in Drumheller was cancelled due to the weather -- always a huge disappointment, especially since it was to be the last concert of the season, and the last concert of their CPO careers for retiring violinists Alana Gralen and Susan Light, and cellist Yuri Gindin. Also, Jim Scott was going to perform a trombone concerto by Launy Grondahl -- that will hopefully be rescheduled in the fall. I shot some video while waiting to see if the thunderstorms would clear. Finally, management decided it was unsafe to proceed with the concert, so I also have a shot of some audience members heading home. Hopefully we can make it up to them next season.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

correcting Beethoven

Certain composers seem to be more error-prone than others -- lots of missing accidentals, bars with extra beats, etc., whether it's their own fault or the copyist and editors'. Then there are the composers who tend to write notes that look like mistakes but aren't -- I'm thinking of Stravinsky, who made 'wrong notes' part of his style, especially in neo-classical scores like Pulcinella, which he revised from material by Pergolesi and others. If you tried to fix all the wrong notes, you'd be left with nothing nearly as interesting.

Then there's Beethoven, who was famously sloppy (and deaf), but he was such a genius that it seems almost sacrilegious to tamper with his scores. We're playing his 2nd Symphony today, using the new Barenreiter 'Urtext' by Jonathan Del Mar, which still has a lot of problems and questionable stuff. My stand partner Graeme Mudd pointed out a whole slew of inconsistencies in the second movement: repeating figures with different note lengths and articulations, dynamics apparently displaced by a measure, or just missing entirely. Two hundred years after he wrote this symphony, Beethoven may be our most famous and universally admired composer, but we still have to spend a lot of rehearsal time correcting him. Or did he mean to write it like that?

My teacher at NEC, Donald Palma, made a very memorable argument one day that he did mean exactly what he wrote, at least in terms of the cello-bass octave transpositions. Beethoven's cello and bass parts are traditionally printed together -- a tradition broken by that new Barenreiter edition -- and a lot of bass players will jump down an octave when they see the cellos are playing in our register, figuring that Beethoven wrote for instruments that either didn't have the low C or weren't able to use it with much facility. There's a long passage like this in the first movement of the 7th Symphony, and also in the 9th. Don's argument was that deaf or not, Beethoven was an extremely precise orchestrator, who never cared much about the technical limitations of the instruments of his day. When played in a true unison, with the basses and cellos at the same octave, those passages have an eerie, spectral quality that may have been exactly what he was going for.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rossini in the rain?

"Dress for tomorrow's concert will be white jacket, black bow tie, for men; white blouse for women; rain jackets, and umbrellas. And bring a sweater, and some extra warm clothing,"

orchestra manager Tim Rawlings said at the beginning of the rehearsal this morning. Tomorrow the CPO plays the annual "Beethoven in the Badlands" concert in Drumheller, and the forecast calls for rain, cold, and bluster.

The weather in Alberta rarely seems to cooperate with outdoor concerts -- already this season, we had a "Mozart on the Mountain" concert which was freezing and dismal, with a huddled mass of patrons likely yearning to go home. This past Wednesday the clouds stayed away miraculously, and we had a beautiful evening for Pops in the Park -- too bad I forgot my camera -- reminding me how glorious an outdoor concert can be. (Or semi-outdoor, since this one was under a tent in the middle of the park.)

Outdoor concerts might not be among orchestral musicians' favorite things, generally -- even when it's dry, there's often wind to contend with, or bugs, or seam-busting heat and sunshine. During my summer at the NRO in Breckenridge I learned to be very adept at securing the music to the stand with clothes-pins, since a gust of Colorado wind might easily blow the whole folder off the stand. At Spoleto Festival USA, there's an annual finale concert, loved by audiences and dreaded by musicians -- it's outside Charleston in a swampy plantation site, with enormous mosquitoes swarming and occasionally crawling onto music, clothing, and instruments. That one's coming up soon too -- it's this Sunday, June 8th.

For all their horrors and discomforts, outdoor concerts still can be sensational -- think of the Boston Pops on the Esplanade, the New York Phil playing Central Park, or the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, all of which attract larger and more diverse audiences than any of their indoor concerts. Calgary has a great outdoor performance site too: Prince's Island Park, which is right in the center of the city. But the CPO hasn't played there in a while, mostly due to complications of weather and scheduling. In a town hall meeting this past week, violinist Steve Lubiarz suggested we should give that venue another try, now that "Mozart on the Mountain" has been shelved and "Beethoven" will likely get poured on as well. At least on Prince's Island, no one would have far to go to get away from the rain.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

bread and butter Beethoven

This Saturday's Beethoven in the Badlands concert in being conducted by CPO resident conductor Pierre Simard -- but the parts for the main piece on the program, Beethoven's 2nd Symphony, were heavily edited by our baroque series conductor, Ivars Taurins. I've written about Ivars' markings before -- some might criticize him as overly fussy, but they tend to get him what he wants, right away. The main ones are as follows:

/ -- Ivars calls this one a stress
u -- a 'de-stress', a saucer shape often confused for an up-bow
^^^^ -- a squiggly line meaning 'do something interesting'; I like to call it a schmearando
After reading through the first movement, Pierre quickly realized that he was working with a pre-installed interpretation, and a bit of rehearsal time was spent cleaning up some of the squiggles and dashes. Most of them make sense musically -- a lot of them would probably be done automatically, without being marked. But having them in the part leads to a bit of an exaggerated effect, as though I were to write my BLOG with all the IMPORTANT words marked for EMPHASIS!!

Pierre remarked that he was going for more of a 'bread and butter' Beethoven, which quickly got turned back at him with all sorts of variations -- after he suggested some ornamentation in the opening Adagio, a bassoonist said, "I thought you wanted meat and potatoes," then others suggested rice and beans, beer and pretzels, black and tan, etc. I would have preferred lox and schmear, though that might be the Ivars markings talking.