My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Don't leave home without it - performing for your own community

Sometimes the most satisfying performances come without admission fees.

This past weekend, my husband, daughter, and I drove out to Newport News, VA, so that I could accompany a very talented young saxophonist, Greg, at a recital in his hometown.  He has just graduated from Virginia Tech and is about to start a graduate degree in music in Minnesota - a big move for him and especially for his family. When I heard that his mother was having a difficult time with this next step about a month ago, I suggested that we could give a little performance in his hometown.  He took me up on the offer and I am so glad that he did.  

Many of the people in attendance had never heard Greg perform classical music.  Sure he had played at church services now and then through the years, but they were usually hymn arrangements.  And even though he gave recitals at Virginia Tech these last two years, both occurred in the middle of huge snowstorms which made it impossible for most to make the trek to Blacksburg.  The other night, I could feel the excitement in the air prior to the performance.  Folks were so appreciative,  supportive, gracious,  attentive, and so curious - it was infectious and made performing a no-brainer and an absolute joy.  It was also a great reminder to me that I need to keep performing for those around me, for folks that aren't necessarily classical music aficionados, for the people that make up my daily life; that music-making and music itself is a gift to share with everyone; and that I always have an audience with those that are nearest and dearest to me.  It's easy for me to fall into the habit of performing simply because it's the next gig in the calendar.  I need to leave room in that calendar to perform simply because I want to share music with those around me.

Now some of you may know that I am very interested in the debate going on in regards to the future of classical music.  If you don't, let's just say that I am very passionate about finding ways to ensure that classical music is an option when anyone goes searching for a music-making or listening experience.   One of the ideas that gets tossed around is that it's important to not give away musical experiences all the time for free.  I think the thought is that doing that will devalue our art somehow and that people tend to attach more significance to things that they have to pay for.  Here's where I stand; I know that many musicians feel like they can't perform without pay - that's a personal choice that each person must make for him or herself and I am not critical of those that can't since there's so many factors involved with making those decisions.  For me personally, making money or breaking even for every event at which I participate is not a necessity so I often choose to perform for little or no charge at all.  Why?  Because of my mission, because of my concern for the future of classical music.  There are many people that either can't afford or won't go to a concert that they have to pay for, especially if the music being played is not something they are familiar with or is not their first choice in genre.  So if I know that I can play for a room full of these people, some of whom might not claim to like classical music, I usually seize the opportunity.  And yes, sometimes playing performances in one of these settings means playing on a "bad" piano, or an upright (gasp!) or a clavinova (double-gasp!!), or it means playing in a less-than-perfect setting, but in the end does that really matter?  To me, no...the good far outweighs the bad.

Am I sucker?  Perhaps...but suckers are sweet, right?  If me being a sweet sucker attracts a few new ears to listen to some classical music, than it's worth it to me.

If you liked this blog post, you might also like:
A no-budget idea for making classical music more accessible to more people

Putting classical music in its place

It takes more than individuality to keep the arts alive

Monday, June 21, 2010

Musical synergy that will take your breath away

One of the reasons I like to be a musician is because playing music gives me social experiences that would be difficult to encounter in one's average, everyday life.  Sometimes these spine-tingling moments occur for me at predictable times - during a chamber music performance, accompanying a choir, working with a young musician who is experiencing joy in music for the first time, performing alongside my husband - but other times I am caught completely off guard.  Yesterday I had one of those moments but it wasn't just with a handful of people like it often is, it was with a church full of people.  

I play piano at our church on a fairly regular basis, but more often than not, I am either accompanying a youth choir, playing a solo for a special music slot in the service, or playing alongside the organ during the hymns.  During times of congregational singing, I love the feeling of being able to subtly alter the mood of a congregation just by adding a new timbre.  Yesterday, because our organist was on vacation, I was taken out of this solely supportive role and given the opportunity to be a facilitator between the music and the people in attendance.  Whereas the congregation usually feels more like an audience to me, this time they were active participants in a completely magical experience in which all of us took flight on the wings of sound and word.

Synergy.  It was truly a moment of synergy; a moment when the notes coming from the piano and the voices of the church community mixed together to produce an energy in the air much more powerful than either musical instrument alone could ever have created.  At one point I moved the hymn up an octave so that the voices could take the lead.  The sound coming at me from the congregation when I did this completely took my breath away.  I had to remind myself to keep playing the piano.  Now that I think back, I probably could have just stopped altogether and maybe I should have.  Doesn't matter much now but it does show how powerful that moment was.

So why write about this experience?  Why spend an hour writing about a moment that lasted, at most, a minute or two?  Because I think it's important to remember, as musicians, as performers, how magical, how enchanting, how spiritual music can be.  And I think it's important to acknowledge the intense musicality that is inherent in each and every member of one's audience and the powerful experience their engagement can produce.  Although I am actually not a "believer" in the traditional Christian or religious sense - I am thankful for spiritual moments such as the one I experienced this past Sunday.  I will never forget the feeling I had when I let go of being a performer and chose to ride on the wings of the congregation's voices instead.  

Synergy.  Beautiful, spectacular synergy.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thoughts from a "Podunk" musician after chewing on Teachout's Wall Street Journal article

Last night I spent several hours on twitter discussing an article that was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal titled, "The Zero Option: Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense."  I sense that the author, Terry Teachout, was looking to stir the pot a bit in regards to the future of American orchestras and he definitely succeeded.  Bravo!  

Wait, bravo?!?  Why am a shouting an accolade in response to an article that made me bristle for hours on end yesterday?  How could I possibly be happy about such a degrading, close-minded, big-city elitest article (that's just in my opinion, of course)?  Well, because that article was the spark that seems to be serving as a catalyst for musicians and supporters of the arts to band together and to think through the points Teachout raises; this one article has inspired an outpouring of comments and blog posts that clearly demonstrate our desire to have live music around us, even if the quality of music-making is beneath the level of, say, the New York Philharmonic.  If I was wondering if folks felt the same way I did - that we need to move away from the expectation of note-perfect performances, that we need to make music-making fun again and more of a community affair, that classical music might fare better if we just relaxed a little bit inside and outside of the concert hall - I now seem to have an answer.  And that answer is one that truly gives me hope and encouragement.  Here are just a few sites on the web where people have voiced their opinions about the article:

Wall Street Journal - original article and comments

Orchestra R/Evolution - blog post and comments

NobleViola blog - blog posts and comments

Adaptistration blog - blog posts and comments

Horn Matters blog - blog posts and comments

So what are my own thoughts and reactions from all of this?  Here they are...not that I've thought about them a lot, of course...

  1. Mr. Teachout compares over and over again, the regional symphony orchestra to art institutions and drama companies but this is a faulty comparison, in my mind.  "Podunk" towns most often don't have art museums or professional drama companies so there is no choice.  Having a regional orchestra, either made up of community members and/or professionals, is therefore a crucial opportunity for a community to enjoy some culture and to reap the benefits of having something artistic to be engaged in whether as a musician or as an audience member.
  2. If regional orchestras were to disappear, how would people living in "Podunk" towns have access to live music?  Would we be expected to drive to the nearest major city in order to hear a live performance of Beethoven's 5th?  For me, that would mean hauling myself and my husband over 5 hours away to Washington D.C.  And what would we do with our 5-year old?  Hire a babysitter to stay with her?  How expensive would that be?  Or would we bring her with us and raise the ire of audience members that would rather not share the experience with a bored pre-schooler?  Perhaps Teachout would recommend me just downloading the symphony from i-tunes but that's not a live performance - I want a live performance!
  3. So if podunkers can't make the needed pilgrimage to a classical music mecca, we have to stick to recordings.  OK, but then our young musicians only experience note-perfect performances as being acceptable.  They won't even realize that all musicians have bad intonation at times, run out of breath, play a piece too fast...I already see a high level in obsessiveness in young musicians.  Some obsessiveness is OK because after all, that's what gets us as musicians to constantly improve, but I see the current level as being way too high and too detrimental.  And another thought, if young musicians don't watch live performances, how are they going to be inspired to perform themselves?  There is so much energy and passion that can only translate in the flesh.  And performing really can be thrilling, both for the musician and the audience.  You can't get those experiences plugged into a sound system.  A result that I see from taking away live performances is a leeching of joy from music-making, especially classical music-making.  If we go down this path then will we even have very many musicians or audience members in the future?  
  4. Without live performances, there is less of a sense of community when it comes to music-making.  Where else are musical podunkers going to play together?  Sure they can play chamber music and there are always town bands, but strings don't play in bands. And in  "Podunk" town, how are musicians going to have the opportunity to do things like play a concerto with an orchestra?  I'm a little biased here, I realize, because I was given the opportunity to perform with Virginia Tech's orchestra this past season. I had a great time trying to create a mutually magical experience in preparation for the performance and I appreciated the orchestra members' talent and hard work even though the end-result was not what anyone would find via recordings and Teachout-approved ensembles.  And I do believe that the orchestra members enjoyed getting to tackle one of Beethoven's great symphonic works.  
  5. I am in no way stating that the top symphony orchestras aren't exceptional and aren't inspiring.  They certainly can be and I have burned into my mind memories of many life-changing performances that came from their halls.  But those orchestras are facing many of the same problems the smaller orchestras are facing.  Everyone should be asking many of the same questions.
  6. What would folks say if we decided that no more funding should go into sports, for instance college sports, and that community sports teams should be eliminated?  I have a feeling that might not go over well but in my mind, they offer similar advantages and disadvantages.
  7. In regards to funding, in today's economy it doesn't seem like most podunk orchestras receive much funding from the government so why should wasting funds really be something for him to worry about?  Shouldn't that be up to each individual community?  Besides, money gets wasted all the time, on much worse things...I don't think of spending it on community, education, and culture as being corrupt or wasteful.  
I really could go on and on here, but I'll stop for now.  I also want to acknowledge that Teachout states that he isn't actually promoting the idea of dissolving regional orchestras, but rather that he was creating a "thought experiment" in writing "The Zero Option."  Therefore I apologize if this post comes across as being overly critical.   Like I said in the beginning, I am actually grateful to have read his article and hope that many others read it so that they too can be inspired to really think about what he's saying.  There is always room for making changes to how we do things so I figure let's make some lemonade from this sour lemon.

Many thanks to my twitter friends for all of the good conversation last night on this subject.  There's an example of a great benefit of twittering.  In closing, all I want to say is...

"Play on, proud podunkers, play on!"

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fugues, glorious fugues!

Fugues fascinate me.

I do believe fugues fascinate lots of other folks too, perhaps because at their best, they unite an ordered, formulaic world with emotion invoking music - they bring beauty to order.  I think I connect with that concept in a personal way because I tend to feel most comfortable when my life follows a routine.  I love order.  I love putting together a plan for the day, the month, the year.  I love it when all of the pieces fit together.  I love the feeling of euphoria that I get when it all works out in the end.  And as with fugues, even though my life might go through some detours and episodes in the process of carrying out a plan, I always know where I'm headed and I take great comfort in knowing that I will at some point, return once more, to my original thought.  And that because of the journey that preceded, that original thought will be even richer in meaning and in emotion.  

I came across an interesting video as I was on one of those detour-inducing quests on youtube.  I can't quite figure out its origin, but I want to share it with you here because I feel that it is a fantastic way of showing what it is about fugues that make me love them as much as I do.  This visual representation of what is going on during the course of the fugue adds so much whimsy into the performance and helps to balance the more intellectual side of this music form.

With videos like this one, I think fugues could be entertaining and understandable to just about anyone.  Which leads me to the question, do fugues need to be understood in order to be enjoyed?  My personal opinion is no.  I feel that there is something innately evocative about these musical puzzles and that even without consciously understanding how the puzzle is put together, anyone can sense the magic behind the music.  I find that incredibly awesome.

This past weekend I had the honor of attending a live performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations in the home of a local harpsichord player.  This is a long piece made up of a theme and 30 variations, many of which are fugal and canonic (think of them like a gourmet, "Row, row, row your boats.")  I have to admit that I wasn't quite sure how I'd feel sitting through it, especially in such an intimate setting but there was no reason to be concerned.  Sitting there on the floor in a bean-bag chair,  I closed my eyes and immediately felt myself transported to a place of intricate beauty.  There were only a handful of other people in the room, all of them non-musicians, but they too seemed to be absorbed in the magic of this music.

I love it when music is magical.
I love it when beauty is combined with order.
I love fugues!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Music - a healthy addiction?

"Hi.  My name is Erica Sipes and I'm addicted"

This post might seem like a it's a bit off the beaten path but I feel like I need to write it...for myself, but also for anyone else out there that might find themselves in a similar place.  

I feel like I am two different people - Erica the musician, and Erica the mother.  There's nothing original in this concept - we all find ourselves stepping into different hats on a regular basis but I am struggling right now because I keep throwing off my mother hat and not wanting to put it back on.  This became painfully evident this past weekend when my daughter celebrated her 5th birthday.  Most mothers I know and read about approach such a milestone with incredible sentimentality, pride, and unrestrainable joy.  I, on the other hand, spent much of the weekend going through the motions of being such a mother, but feeling an overwhelming urge to ditch everything and run to the piano to practice instead.  Perhaps some would say that I was just in denial...that I was avoiding my true feelings about my daughter growing up...that I was just stressed out by the whole birthday scenario.  But that wasn't it.  As the weekend dragged on and Monday (the actual day of her birthday) was upon us, I slowly began to feel that part of the "problem," if you can call it that, is that I am addicted to making music.  Making music, especially performing music, makes me happier than anything else and I have to tell you, as a mother and a wife, this is one scary realization, feels a bit unhealthy, and makes playing my "mother" role quite challenging.

So a question I had when I came to this shocking revelation was, "Is it really possible to be addicted to something like music?" To find out the answer, I pulled out my handy-dandy copy of Daniel J. Levitin's book, This is Your Brain on Music-the science of a human obsession, and discovered this on page 189: 
In the landmark study in 1999, Anne Blood, a postdoctoral fellow working with Robert Zatorre at the Montreal Neurological Institute, had shown that intense musical emotion - what her subjects described as "thrills and chills" - was associated with brain regions thought to be involved in reward, motivation, and arousal: the vental striatum, the amygdala, the midbrain, and regions of the frontal cortex.  I was particularly interested in the ventral striatum - a structure that includes the nucleus accumbens - because the nucleus accumbens (NAc) is the center of the brain's reward system, playing an important role in pleasure and addiction.  The NAc is active when gamblers win a bet, or drug users take their favorite drug.  It is also closely involved with the transmission of opioids in the brain, through its ability to release the neurotransmitter dopamine.  (Italics added by me.)
Levitin then goes on to describe some further research he and Vinod Menon had conducted.  In the end, they were able to determine exactly what was going on in the brain while people were listening to classical music.  I am assuming that these same findings also apply, if not more, to people that perform classical music.   In fact, I would venture to say that performers can get even more addicted since music-making and performing can increase our self-esteem, serve as an intimate social outlet, and serve as an emotional release.  How could this not get addictive?  And another question, "So what's wrong with being addicted to music?"

With most mothers I know, there is an innate addiction, an incredibly wonderful addiction to one's own offspring.  Although many people might not believe me, I haven't experienced those maternal, rock-you-to-the-core feelings with my daughter.  I won't dwell on examples or explanations, but I will say that I have dealt with post-partum depression and severe anxiety ever since she was born and have been on medication to ease these problems.  She was never cuddly and still isn't, I couldn't soothe her when she was a baby, she is a clever girl that likes to constantly and intentionally challenge boundaries, she has always had a difficult time trusting us... Our daughter is a beautiful, loving girl but we've been through a lot since day one and I still feel like I never bonded with her in the way I see other mothers bonding with their children.  That said, my experiences with motherhood might explain why I would rather be practicing than playing or taking care of my own child.  Yes, it explains it at least partially but I have to tell you that it makes me feel like an absolutely horrible mother.  

So where do I go from here?  I believe in making lemonade out of lemons so armed with these acknowledgements, I'm going to trudge ahead.  I won't give up my music - that's impossible.  But maybe I can find a way to make my passion for music form a bridge between my daughter and myself.  I had a glimpse of this being a solution the other day when my daughter and I were spending some time in the music room together.  I sat at the piano (surprise, surprise!) and began improvising.  She, dressed in a new mermaid costume, immediately started acting out and choreographing a dance based on what I was playing.  She is a very sensitive, creative girl and she responded to every nuance in my piece.  During that time, which lasted about twenty minutes, I felt a glimmer of connection between us and therefore a foretaste of what can be, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Oh, and for the record, I really am a nice, loving person!  At least I think I am.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A spiritual and scientific look at Creation: Bach's C-sharp major Prelude and Fugue

I can't forget the first time I learned Bach's C-sharp major Prelude and Fugue from book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  With the prelude, I was immediately drawn in and captivated by the incredible beauty and simplicity of the writing.  With the fugue, I was completely and utterly perplexed by the disjointed nature of the writing.  In more simplistic terms, I fell in love with the prelude but fell into frustration with the fugue.  As with all of Bach's works, however, I have grown to love both and have managed to build a bridge connecting the two.  For me, and keep in mind that this is really just my imagination that has conjured up this image, this set of pieces gives me a glimpse of how Bach saw Creation - the prelude shows us a spiritual view and the fugue, a scientific one.  

In the prelude, Bach has yet again found a way to suspend time through music through a gentle harmonic journey.  The first section, which takes up most of the piece, is a 4-voice choir, each voice with a different purpose.  The bass lays the foundation while the tenor rides along above it with a constant eighth-note motor.  It is this tenor voice that seems to motivate the rest of the voices, with the alto and soprano voices' alternating sixteenths gracefully ornamenting the slow flow of harmonies.  After a gradual increase in intensity, the prelude then launches into a short, quick finale, with three voices imitating one another until we reach the end.  I hear the first section as a representation of Life as it is being created by a creator - a weaving of beauty from nothingness into glory.  The closing section serves as a celebration of this new creation - an act of unrestrained joy.

The fugue takes a more scientific look at Creation.  Here we start with a few single cells, the 5 notes of the subject or theme being represented by 5 short eight notes.  The three voices enter in rapid succession and without much regard to convention since the third entrance already turns the subject upside-down.  After the initial statements of the subject, Bach begins to use these "cells" to create larger, more complex organisms, at times dissecting the subject into even smaller units, and at other times, expanding them and ornamenting them beyond recognition.  Once we start to see these more complex creations, Bach inserts the subject in an augmented form, doubling the duration of each note so that no longer is the subject small particles of matter.  Now the subject is a self-sustaining creation whose presence cannot be ignored underneath the other voices that surround it with increasingly ornamented flourishes of life which race on until the triumphant end.


A lesson learned in the garden about practicing

Sometimes we learn important lessons from the oddest places.  In this case, my lightbulb moment occurred in our garden while doing my least favorite chore, weeding.*  First, some background...

I have a bit of a history of weeding.  My mother taught me early on the value of weeding, conning me into doing this dirty work by offering to pay me 5 cents for every weed I pulled that still had its roots.  Even though it was hard work, I ended up making quite a bit of money with this deal.  And my mother?  Well, she didn't have to pull weeds for at least several years - smart woman!

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Now fast-forward 25 years or so and picture this.  I'm kneeling in the dirt, gardening gloves on the ground next to me, and I'm faced with entirely too many weeds because, well, I kind of procrastinated.  Anyway, at first my technique is flawless...I take my handy dandy tool and carefully dig around the weed, being careful not to cut the stem.  Every couple of seconds, I gently hold on to the stem near the ground and pull with a small wiggling movement back and forth.  If I sense that I've dug down far enough I continue this action until voila! - out comes the weed, roots and all.  I do this with about 4 or 5 weeds and then what happens?  My oh-so-careful weeding technique begins to evolve into more of an impatient activity rather than a delicate science.  After a few minutes of improper weeding something occurs to me - that if I continue down this path, I will have completely wasted my time.  In a few weeks those roots that remain in the ground because of my impatience and laziness, will sprout yet another weed that will need to be pulled.  I will have accomplished virtually nothing except for a few days of weedlessness.  

Hmmm...the dilemma I faced in the garden, confronted with all of those nasty weeds, is somewhat akin to what we as musicians face when we are practicing and hit upon a problem spot.  We can either choose to carefully analyze what is going wrong and then thoughtfully solve the problem, pulling the weeds out with their roots intact so that we are less likely to ever see them in that exact same spot again.  Or we can just reach in and yank the weeds out at the surface, solving the problem for a little while, but setting ourselves up for a garden still full of weeds.  Hmmm...

So here's my summertime question for you: faced with a flowerbed full of weeds, what would you choose to do?  Pull them roots and all, which might take a bit more time, or just yank those suckers out and be back in your cozy house in no time at all?  Or perhaps I should put it this way: when it comes to performance time, would you rather have a clear flowerbed of a mind, or one full of potential weeds?


*What's with the term, "weeding"?  It has bothered me ever since I was a wee one.  I had a good laugh while reading Amelia Bedelia Helps Out to my daughter the other day.  Amelia decided that weeding meant planting weeds in a bed of flowers.  Very funny!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

So how did it go?

A twitter friend tweeted me yesterday, asking how the performance went on Sunday so I thought I should do a quick self-review for anyone that is interested.

I had an absolutely wonderful time performing the Lukas Foss Capriccio!  I was hoping to have at least a little time to warm up on the cello and to play a couple of sections slowly since I hadn't had any time to play it on Saturday.  But that didn't really happen.  In spite of that, however, the performance went very smoothly, with only one slightly significant blip where I started a difficult passage on the wrong string.  I always expect mistakes, though, so I think I got through it pretty smoothly.  

Most important is that I did have fun and I was delighted to be able to share the piece with everyone.     I also thought it fit well into the "evocative cello" theme since to me the piece conjures up images of a cowboy on his trusty horse.  Although I don't typically use props in my performances, we did decide to use a few in this situation, especially since there were lots of kids in the audience.  I had purchased a Sesame-Street-like cowgirl puppet at the local store and I put her on my scroll at the top of the cello, for the performance.  The pianist, Martin, wore a big black cowboy hat and cowboy-style tie, up to the stage.  It brought a few laughs and smiles which to me, is precious.  

But I'm relieved, I must admit.  I don't recommend learning pieces at the last minute like this but every once in a while I figure it's good to test my practice methods!  So test on to the next project.

Happy practicing!