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.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Another "only in the hills" performing experience

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Back in March of 2011, I blogged about an incredible experience accompanying a young violinist and her friends and family virtually on top of the world, on a ridge in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia.  Thanks to this same family, I was back in their neck of the woods right before Christmas, and was given yet another set of musical gifts.  Not quite on top of the world this time but close, this most recent performance was given at the Country Store in nearby Floyd, Virginia.  

Some things you might not know about Floyd and its Country Store...

  • Floyd is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most spectacular drives in the Unites States that I've ever been on.  
  • Floyd is also located on the famed "Crooked Road" that weaves throughout towns where Bluegrass, Old Time, and Traditional Country Music are part of the lifeblood of the people. 
  • The Floyd Country Store is 100 years old and is the place to be and is officially a heritage music venue for the Crooked Road.  On Friday nights it's home to the "Friday Night Jamboree" but there's music and dancing going on other times as well.  In the summer you can drive by and see bands just jamming in the streets, one band right in front of the store, another down the street...it's a crazy and fun place to be, especially for a straight-laced gal like me! 

With all that said, when I found out we were going to be playing a recital in this incredible community venue that oozes American music history, I was thrilled, excited, but also a bit nervous.  Floyd has recently started to open its doors to classical music thanks in part to the National Music Festival that had its start just this past summer, but it is mostly known for the fiddlers, the banjo players, and the cloggers.  I found myself wondering how a Suzuki book recital, plus a few other classical add-ons, would fare in such a non-classical venue.  

As I sat waiting in the store for the young violinist and her family to arrive and as I contemplated what I would perform on since there was no piano in sight, I amused myself by trying to guess how the evening was going to go and how it would be received.  Silly me.  I should have known that was a big waste of time and that music, no matter what genre, would always be well received there.  

The evening was, not surprisingly, different from my standard performance.  There were the external differences - the more informal venue, playing on an electric keyboard (although that's not so rare anymore), and the audience members, many of whom I guess frequent the Friday Night Jamborees.  What stuck with me more, however, were some of the musical interactions that took place that night, specifically those with the local fiddler and mandolin player, Mike Mitchell.  Mike decided to play on his fiddle Bach's famous "Air on a G String" and he did so playing solo, without me accompanying.  It was interesting to hear him play, especially since I had never heard him before and I had no idea what to expect.  He sat down on a beautiful wooden stool to play and introduced me to a completely innocent, simple way of playing Bach.  And then, as his last note started to die away, he evolved that one tone into the start of an upbeat, wonderfully free fiddling improvisation.  As he got going Mike's whole demeanor changed and his body and sound opened up, transporting me as a listener from one musical land into a completely different one.  It was fantastic!

And if that wasn't enough, we followed that with a performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's double violin concerto with Mike on the mandolin and a friend of mine on violin.  This was an on-the-spot performance since the three of us had never rehearsed together, but that made it all the more thrilling and it's exactly the kind of experience that I thrive on.  In the course of 6 minutes I got to play one of my favorite pieces while getting to know another musician through music alone, and I got to experience classical music as seen through the eyes and ears of someone that lives and breathes bluegrass and mountain music.  I think it was a new experience for him as well.  As we finished our acknowledgement of the applause, he said quite audibly to all, "That's the first time I've done anything like that!"  He said that with a beautiful smile on his face so my hope is that he was feeling the same way I was feeling - thrilled and moved by yet another new musical experience. 

The audience was small that night but they were all there with a desire to hear some good music and to watch some talented young (and a few old) people play.  They spoke in between pieces and shared with us what impressed them and what moved them.  One audience member, who struck me as looking like your stereotypical mountain man complete with long white beard and gnarly walking staff, reminded me to never judge a book by its cover, by piping in now and then with facts about the composers whose pieces we were playing or about the instruments themselves.  In the end, I walked out of the Floyd Country Store feeling still a little out-of-place, but blissfully aware that classical music is just music and can be played and enjoyed everywhere.  I also walked out plotting when and how I could perform there again.  

I think that's a good sign.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jury lessons from your friendly neighborhood collaborator

Image from Wikimedia Commons
The last several weeks of my life were spent reaching for a new record I had never intended to reach -  I played for over 40 different juries within the course of one week.  I realize I could spend quite a bit of time just exploring the sanity of such an endeavor but I already know I'm a bit nuts sometimes so I'd rather not go there. 

What I do want to share is what I learned through sitting through so many juries in a concentrated amount of time.  I tweeted these this past week as a way to capture all the thoughts that were floating around in my head so here are my 140 characters-or-less words of observation about something that might not normally seem very tweetable.  Hopefully they will serve some purpose in the years to come as the next round of young musicians make their way through the world of juries. 

And if anyone has any jury lessons they would like to contribute, feel free to do so in the comment section!  

  • One semester is really not a long time to have to prepare for a jury.  Lesson to learn from that fact - plan ahead!
  • The jury itself is not the time to sing from memory for the first time.  Really.
  • If your teacher gives you a new piece a week or two before your jury and says it's for your jury feel free to say, "no thank you."
  • If you're using photocopies for your jury - a) make sure you have all the pages & b) tape them together! *
  • You really, really don't want to start your jury with your least successful piece just because you're avoiding another one you can't really play or sing. 
  • If you're a singer, it's highly recommended that you actually know what the songs you're singing are about.  They know if you don't. 
  • If you have an accompanist/collaborator, it's a good idea to - a) give them the music beforehand and b) rehearse with them.
  • It's a good idea to know the name of the piece you're playing/singing, the composer, and how to pronounce it all.  They may ask!  Plus you should know!!
  • Singers, especially...don't forget the the music a pianist reads goes all the way to the bottom of the page.  No notes = creative improv.
  • When playing scales, sightreading, or other hoop jumping, take your time and think before you begin.  That usually helps.
  • If they ask questions about your repertoire for which you have no answer, don't make something up. They'll know. 
  • These days, there is no reason to ask a collaborator to transpose.  Get the music to your pianist in the right key, please!  
  • If you're playing a piece in 3/4 for your jury, make sure what you deliver is really in 3/4. **
  • Know in advance if you're going to need to fill out any forms and whether or not you need to provide music to your jurors.  That's the last thing you should be thinking about.
  • Remember this is not a time to prove yourself.  If you've done the work during the semester, it will show.  
  • Try to avoid having a jury time that is crammed between exams or immediately after a particularly demanding one.  
  • Make sure you and your collaborator know when and where your jury is.
  • Don't have your jury be the first time you perform something.  Even if that means performing for a bunch of elephants at the zoo (Glenn Gould did that!), perform for someone.  First performances are rarely comfortable and are not often good representations of what you can really do.  
  • It may be a jury and not a typical performance but go out and perform anyway.  Everyone will be thankful.  

And from a twitter friend, @TammyEvansYonce :
  • Dress appropriately, and don't bring your cell phone to your jury.




* I am not supporting the illegal photocopying of music.  I believe photocopies should only be used if the person owns a purchased copy of the music.

** For more about troubles with 3/4, please see my post, A note of sympathy and apology to a time signature .


Saturday, December 3, 2011

A note of apology and sympathy to a time signature

Image from a phenakistoscope by Eadweard Muybridge
from Wikimedia Commons
Dear 3/4,

I want to start by telling you that personally, I like you a lot.  You're a great time signature - simple yet elegant.  2/4 and 4/4, they're ok but they're just too square for me sometimes.  Then there are those tricky little meters - you know, the ones with odd numbers on top, or big numbers on the bottom - 7/8, 5/8, 7/16, 15/4, 59/48.   Those can be entertaining, intriguing, and wonderful exercise for a musician's mind, but sometimes they can be, well, a little much.  When I'm in the mood for something else, you're there with such grace at times, or with a flair that makes me dream of twirling on the dance floor in the arms of my dear husband.  So thank you for that.

It has come to my attention, however, that you are sorely neglected and abused and I wanted to take a moment to express my sadness and sympathy to you.  I first discovered the dreadful state of your neglect this past summer as I was working with a group of talented high-school singers that had gathered for a month of intense study.  In the middle of a string of individual rehearsals I realized that I was getting weary of having to correct the singers' rhythm and of constantly adjusting the accompaniment when it dawned on me that the majority of the time the problems occurred when the song was in 3/4.  As I continued rehearsing it then became clear that it wasn't just sometimes that problems occurred, it was every single time - no exaggeration.  That same night we had a student recital that was a mixture of both vocal and instrumental music.  As I was waiting for the program to start I leaned over to one of the voice teachers and told him about my odd findings.  At first he looked slightly dubious but I said in a hushed whisper as the lights were dimming, "Just listen."  

That night, every single piece in 3/4 had major rhythmic instability.  Beats were being added or omitted everywhere, I suppose in an attempt to make your wonderfully unsymmetrical meter more symmetrical.  Vocal...instrumental...it didn't matter.  It sounded a bit like the kids were trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  And ever since that night, things haven't changed.  I'm sorry, 3/4, you just seem to bamboozle a lot of folks, especially the younger ones.  When I got to thinking about why this might be, it's really no wonder.  After all, how much popular music (rock, pop, rap, etc...) is in 3/4?  Especially music that's being written and performed by bands today?  Hmmm...not a whole lot, if any!  6/8, yes.  That pops up from time to time but 6/8 isn't 3/4.  To me, 6/8 is the same as 2/4 - symmetrical but with a little lilt.  

But in spite of all this bad news, I want you to know that I'm on a mission - a mission to preserve who you are.  And I'm getting others on board to help me.  They say that knowing is half the battle and now we know.  We just need to figure out how to help people understand you and to feel you.  Here are some thoughts I've had and some things I'm already trying:
We can help musicians to hear and understand what makes you so wonderful.  I often take a piece that's giving a student problems and purposefully alter it so that it becomes a piece in 2/4 or 4/4.  I then ask the student how doing that affects how the piece sounds and feels.  More often than not their face cringes or they shake their heads in disapproval at the newly arranged version.  It's a good way to get them to find some determination to fix the problem. 
We can teach them how to waltz.  I'm showing my age here, but I admit that I've known how to waltz since I was a little girl because I had to go to dancing school when I was in elementary school.  But I'm pretty sure that most kids today don't even know what a waltz is, much less know how to do it themselves.  So with every student that I encounter that's having trouble feeling the meter, I teach them how to do the steps and we dance the waltz together, eventually singing the music along with our dancing.  I make sure that on each downbeat the leg we are on bends a bit so that we can really feel the weight of your downbeat.   And yes, I often feel silly and awkward doing this and yes, they feel even more silly and awkward, but I do think it's worth it.  
We can show them how to conduct in three.  This can be tricky for students too and takes some practice but it's another great way to help students see and feel what you're all about - that you're not symmetrical and that there's really only one beat that is assisted by gravity.   
With some examples, we can encourage them to play fast enough (as an exercise) to allow them to feel two measures together in 6/8, with the first measure being the first beat and the second measure being the second beat.  I have found that doing this sometimes helps students as an intermediate step since it gives them the symmetry they often desire.  When they can do this without any hesitation and with ease, I gradually slow up the tempo until the music is back in 3.   
We can make sure that they are truly understanding every rhythm within each measure.  This is actually something I stress with students regardless of meter but I think it's worth mentioning here since I think it's really important.  Most students spend a majority of their time guessing how rhythms go even though rhythms have a clear mathematical solution.  Another mission of mine is to prove to young musicians that it is worth the time it takes to figure out a rhythm because with true comprehension and internalization comes the freedom to fully express musicality. 
We can be merciless in our expectation that everyone can learn to love 3/4 and to be able to play this wonderful music with ease and comfort.  Need I say more?
So in summary, 3/4, I just wanted you to know that someone out there is thinking about you and that many of us appreciate all that you do for the classical music world.  You may not be as popular in other genres, but you have a place.

You have a friend in me.   After all, what would this world be like without "Amazing Grace," "The Blue Danube Waltz," and "Bist du bei mir?"

Hang in there, 3/4.  We're working on it.

Respectfully yours,
Erica


If anyone else has any other suggestions about helping students with 3/4, please do share them here!  I'm obviously on a mission and could use all the ideas I can get!  And if you know of any "cool" music in 3/4 that is not classical I'd love to know that too and I'll add it to a playlist I'm going to get up on youtube soon.  Thanks!