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.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Digging deeper to facilitate learning thorny passages

© PLen -
I feel I need to start with a warning - my husband, upon hearing my excitement about the contents of this post, declared to me, "You know you're a big nerd, right?"  If you're a music nerd like I am, feel free to continue reading.  But if you're not, you may want to reconsider.  I have a feeling my husband won't be adding this post to his reading list.

The piece in question for this little musical investigation is the last movement of Mozart's F major piano sonata, K. 332.  In the development section there is a passage that is thoroughly entertaining - a whirlwind of sixteenths and winding, chromatic eighths that I had a sneaking suspicion might be a bit tricky to memorize because of the tiny differences between each of the repetitions.  

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with passages like this; I can get overwhelmed with all the details but at the same time I take great interest in tackling a challenge such as this one as if it were a puzzle or a game.  I thought it might be interesting for some to see my process.  Keep in mind no two minds are alike so what I see in this passage may not resonate with or make sense to anyone else.  I do believe, however, that it's the process that is most important.  It gets us one step closer to being in the mind of the composer and that can be a very exciting place to be.  

One of the first things I noticed is that in measures 98 and 110 the figuration in the left hand on the first beat is a triad in the first inversion.  If you look at the excerpt above, all figurations that are in the first position are marked with a green line.   All of the other figurations that are similar throughout this passage are in root position and marked with a red line .  It is a discrepancy like this that can often irritate me, making me want to scream at the composer saying something like, "Why must you do that to me?!"  Actually, I do end up asking that question, only a bit more politely, which then leads me to asking other questions that help me make some sense of what the composer was doing.  In this case, I noticed that in the preceding two measures in both cases, the left hand's eighth-note chromatic figuration also starts on the same note - the third of the root position triad.  My next question is, "So what would it have been like if Mozart had chosen to start those initial figurations on the root of each triad, just as he has the right hand in the next beat?"  First of all, if he had done that, the right hand and the left hand at the beginning of measures 98 and 110, would be playing the same note - "D" in measure 98 and "F" in measure 110.  I played it that way a couple of times and to be honest, it's pretty thin and uninteresting, at least to my ear.  Now I get it!  Now I don't feel like throwing the music across the room.  

This prior experimentation led to another observation and question.  In measures 96 and 108 the left hand starts on the 3rd while the right hand starts on the root.  In measures 100 and 104 the left hand starts on the root while the right hands starts on the 3rd.  After experimenting a bit with the alternative, making the left hand consistently starting on the 3rd and the right hand on the root and vice versa, I realized that alternating it creates much more interest for the ear.  The voices take on much more of a conversational nature.  Again, Mozart seems to have known what he was doing.  Fancy that!

With two annoyances transformed into "aha" moments, there was only one irritation left to soothe.  I noticed that the figurations in the right hand in measures 107 and 111 are the same yet the ones in 99 and 103 are both different in the middle.  You have to look carefully to detect the difference but it's there.  Did he really have to do that?  Couldn't he have used the exact same figuration for both?  I believe so.  And it sounds ok.  Time to dig deeper again.  I noticed that both of these figurations, unlike the other two, are in harmonic minor so there's that interesting augmented second to play around with.  By changing the figuration Mozart seems to be playing around with this fact.  In measure 99 he places the augmented second at the end of the figuration which to my ear helps propel the ear forward to the downbeat of measure 100.  In measure 103 the second is right before the second beat which serves to emphasize the middle of the measure, not propelling us forward as much as he did in the previous instance.  Hmmm...interesting!  

At this point I want to re-emphasize that I have no idea why Mozart did what he did.  I don't know if he even knew.  But going through this little dialogue with him, experimenting with what could have been versus what is actually there and coming to the conclusion that what I need to play is really pretty cool makes it a lot easier for me to face the passage over and over again.  

So the next time you find yourself growling at a composer, I encourage you to grab a trowel and try this exercise.  Digging deeper can get you much more than just a handful of worms.   

Happy digging!

PS - Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comment section.  And if you want to just let me know that you too are a music nerd, I'd love to know that I'm not alone!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twitter? In the concert hall??

I almost always play the role of the "good girl" but a few weekends ago I found myself in a position where I was being glared at with obvious distaste and disgust within the confines of a concert hall. At least I wasn't alone.

There we were in the back row of the balcony, with black canvas totes on our laps in which we
Students and faculty members at Virginia Tech's Tweet-seat
event, photo courtesy of Virginia Tech
could conceal our typically illegal mobile devices.  As audience members walked in to find their seats some were visibly distressed to see us up there, obviously up to something that couldn't possibly be good.  They stared.  They whispered.  They pointed.  And when it came time for the announcement for everyone to turn off their mobile devices with the exception of us tweet-seaters? That made me feel like a rebel.

So why were we in this somewhat unusual and typically unacceptable classical music world scenario?  Believe it or not, I was invited by Heather Ducote, the Director of Marketing and Communications at the venue to co-host what they call a "tweet-seat" event at a performance given by the Sphinx Organization's "Virtuosi" touring group. Ducote remarked about the concept,
"We were eager to try an educational slant on Tweet Seats at the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, so we scheduled this experiment for our second performance in the new Moss Arts Center. We are interested in finding inventive ways for our patrons to make connections and discoveries with the arts, and thought Twitter presented an interesting opportunity for a new spin on a master class." 
Tracy Cowden, a professor in the music department at Virginia Tech, and I were asked to engage students in an educationally based discussion as an experiment.  I have to admit I could understand the audience members that were initially wary of what we were doing since I was a bit skeptical myself beforehand.  I was concerned that we would be distracting to others and that we would distract ourselves resulting in us not being able to pay attention to the performance.  I was also not sure what we could tweet about that would be deemed as "educational."  In the end, I think all of us were surprised at how successful it ended up being, including the staff at the Center for the Arts.  According to Ducote,
"Tweet Seats Master Class was a great success and we look forward to continuing the conversations across disciplines!" 
Tracy and I had split up the program, with each of us taking responsibility for researching half of the pieces beforehand so that we could provide program notes in 140 character or less during the course of the concert.  For example:

During their performance of some of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Tracy tweeted:

My partner in crime and I had also put together a list of questions that many of the orchestra's members graciously responded to before the concert.  We asked about some personal things - what they enjoyed about touring; which pieces on the program were their favorite and why; and how they made the arrangement of the Goldberg Variations among others.  We incorporated many of their answers into the twitter-stream which I feel helped make an instant connection between us and then musicians.

For their part, the students contributed interesting comments and questions of their own, about different string techniques, how a conductor-less ensemble puts pieces together, the process of rehearsing, and reasons behind various ways of positioning the musicians on stage.   Their enthusiasm for the ensemble, the repertoire, and the composers was tangible.  While hearing Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, several of them declared a desire to have a Britten listening party.  During the Goldberg Variations it was decided that the piece worked really well as a string quartet since the voices were so clear and defined.  In D' Rivera's Wapango they were able to pick up the changes in meter and to sense the rhythmic vitality that they brought to the piece.   As an educator, it was exciting to see the students applying what they were learning in school to a live performance and to sense their excitement about what they were seeing and hearing.  And yes, we all did end up having plenty of time to really take in the performance - none of us were tweeting all the time.  

One of my favorite aspects of this experiment was having the chance to meet with the musicians afterwards and sharing the twitter stream with them.  Heather Ducote and the staff at the Center for the Arts had set up a special reception for us where they had a large monitor set up to show our tweets.  The musicians eagerly read them and seemed to enjoy getting instant, and sometimes colorful feedback.  They too could pick up on the excitement and enthusiasm we all had for their performance.  Several of them mentioned how unusual it is for them to have any real contact or discussion afterwards with audience members and we enjoyed having the opportunity to ask them questions that had come up during the performance that only they could answer.  It was a wonderful experience - one that was tweeted about later that evening by some of the orchestra members themselves.  You can view an album of photos that were taken by the Center for the Arts staff by clicking here.

As for the students, I asked several of them at the end of the event how they thought it went.  The reactions were all positive, with one student mentioning that because he was trying to find things to tweet about he ended up listening more intently throughout the entire performance.  He said he remembered more about each piece on the program than he typically does.  I have to say that I felt the same way myself.  Even though I had the extra responsibility of co-leading the tweeting, I feel I was much more attuned to the whole performance, not only in its details but also in the overall effect.  

So to the folks that glared at us when they walked in and saw us there, to my older friends that were apparently "appalled" by our "twitter invasion," according to an e-mail I received after the fact, rest assured what we were doing up there in the back row was really not so bad.  And if you would like to join us next time, we've got a seat ready for you and I'd be happy to give you a crash course in twitter beforehand.  Who knows, you may enjoy the performance even more! 


If you're interested in reading the whole twitter stream from the event, please click here.  

P.S. - In case you're wondering, the Sphinx Organization's "Virtuosi" ensemble is absolutely amazing and inspiring.  I encourage you to catch their show whenever they're on tour next!