Wednesday, November 19, 2014

embrace your challenges

So I've fallen behind on blog keeping again. So I would like to share a little snippets from my life outside of NJSYO again to keep the topic fresh!

A violinist friend (a very fine violinist too) of mine recently took up conducting. He has taken very serious seminars in conducting, and seems to be studying very hard every day. But a conductor needs an ensemble to conduct, so with a help from a mutual friend of ours, who organizes concerts, theater productions, competitions, and music festivals, which I have participated in myself numerous times, he has gathered up some of his fine musician friends (myself included), and started a string orchestra!

We just had our first rehearsal the other day. What is nice about this group is that many of us have known each other for years. We may not be the closest friends with each other, but most of us have met each other in numerous and various occasions through random and not so random gigs over the years, so the rehearsal just felt like friends hanging out and playing music together for fun. My favorite part is that I don't have to be so "proper" to speak with the conductor. And because he is still new to conducting, we get to help him improve by making suggestions, and listen to his concerns. All of us are serious musicians who play professionally so that the rehearsal is extremely productive, but also humorous and super fun at the same time. I've done many gigs like this in the past where friends come together and play at professional level, in fact I was one of the first to do so among my friends, but without financial help, things can turn really tricky really fast, and most of these "fun gigs" never last very long. But since this group will be presented by a larger organization, it has a potential to last long. And my friend has slightly more business oriented mind than I do (I have zero...), and is creative in that sense, which is another promising fact.

But like in anything the first time is exciting, but really tough. Musically too. The first rehearsal, to me was more about getting to know my fellow players than getting to know the pieces. We can play the notes, but the toughest part was playing those notes tightly together, as a unit. And also musicians need to get used to his conducting, which like in anything, when you are just starting out, you don't have a sense of style, and nobody, no matter how talented, can skip that phase. When you don't have your own style, it is very hard for the audience, or in this case, the ensemble members to get to "know" you.

When a person develops his/her "style", in whatever medium, we will see it, and then the question becomes the matter of getting to know and understand that individual's "style", and then everything becomes much easier. In essence I felt like I spent almost all my energy in learning everybody's (all thirteen of us, including the conductor) "style" in our first rehearsal. A daunting task, but I didn't feel overwhelmed. I was instead filled with joy and excitement and curiosity about how this group will come together in the end. And by "in the end" I mean it in many ways. I am excited to see how this group develops. I am curious about how we handle each step of the way. I am extremely curious about how we are going to sound in the next rehearsal, I am eager to find out how our first concert will go. And I look forward to our evolution in the long run.

And by the way, this is how I feel about both CYO and Chamber too. I'm always curious about the developments. I always look for improvements. Improvements are things that keep me going, in any aspects of life. Every time I am given a new role to play, or given new members for me to lead, I focus on improvements, developments, and evolution. I believe in challenge. I believe that successfully overcoming obstacles is what makes you a better person. I don't enjoy things that doesn't offer any challenges. Those easy things make me wonder why I am even alive.

So I am very happy for my violinist friend who is starting his new journey as a conductor. I admire, and fully respect him for that. One must reinvent himself/herself once in a while. The more often you do, the more difficult it gets. but the more often you do, the more you learn, and the stronger you get. I am still too young to put in words why exactly I think these things are important in one's life, but I feel and know that it is, and I for one, cannot live happily without having a goal.

So I guess my point I wanted to make in today's entry is, "embrace challenges and set backs". they are what make you stronger. Even enjoy them if you can. I usually do. Try to enjoy your workout exercises, or practicing, or studying (only what you are passionate about. If you start to enjoy things that are forced on you, you start loosing yourself, which I think is a dangerous way to live for many reasons). See the benefit in overcoming of obstacles, which should be rather easy to do if you can see or imagine what's on the other side. Dream, then walk, climb, swim or crawl, whatever you have to/choose to do to get there, and LOVE THE PROCESS!

Monday, November 10, 2014

why leaves change colors

(This entry was started on Sun. Nov. 9th)
So today, I took an excursion to Boston to see a concert. A legendary cellist Natalia Gutman was to appear with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra led by Benjamin Zander, who's passion and dedication to education and arts is second to none, and has been someone I admire and look up to, so as an educator and a cellist, I just had to go check it out. 

As I looked out the car windows on my way to Bean Town, I was mesmerized by how beautiful the leaves have changed their colors. Fall is magical. The leaves' colors maybe beautiful enough as they are, but the fact that these leaves are on their way out adds a hint of sadness to it, and that sadness gives pungence to the beauty. I was so taken by them. It inspired me to read up on "why" leaves change color (I was also just a bit bored during the four hour long drive...). I kind of knew the answer, but I wanted to read about it anyway. 

To summarize, leaves change colors because they can't effectively photosynthesize during the dark, dry, and cold winter, so they lose the green color which is the product of a chemical that let's them  photosynthesize, when they no longer need it, and what appear underneath the green is their (in a way) real colors. So they only get to display their true selves right before they dry up and fall off, to make way for the new green buds in the coming spring. It's kind of heart breaking when you think about it. They too, like humans, work and work and work just to survive, putting on the public mask all their lives until the retirement, when they can finally let go of the mask and enjoy being themselves.

The concert was impressive to say the least. The program was a kind of program any professional group would put together. There was nothing in there that screamed "youth orchestra". The program included Shostakovich's Festive Overture (one of the only few "happy" pieces ever written by this composer - written after Stalin's death), Dvorak's masterwork and king of all cello concertos, his Cello Concerto in B minor, and the heavy weight, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, a 20th century masterwork, that is, as the name suggests, "difficult" in more ways than we can count it for all instruments involved - from the maturity of the music, the language used (modern musical language that is on the verge of having no tonal center, or no key), the technical demand, the philosophy behind the notes, the ensemble. There is nothing in there that is "easy" for any musician, not even for pros, definitely not for amateurs or youths.

Yet each piece was delivered with precision, maturity, and soooo much energy! Youth orchestras always have a very different kind of energy than pros, and that's one of the things I love about working with youths. It's that particular energy of youths that we adults can never ever recapture even if we try. And it often gives the music a fresh air, when performed by youths. The music always seem to re-live every time it is performed by youths.

Natalia Gutman was not a cellist I closely followed, but was somebody I was always aware of and check out from time to time, as she is a Russian cellist, just as all my past teachers and my all my idols, and heroes. I've always enjoyed her puristic approach to music. She does not have one of those personalities that entice others to follow her around. Her talent, yes, but not her personality. Definitely respected, but definitely not a celebrity. There is not a gimmick in her stage presence or performance. And her playing is void of any fancy frills, or unnecessary physical, or musical expressions. And now that she is getting old, there seems to be even less of the frivolousness. Didn't think that was possible... 

On the review that I read the next day, it said that she "led" the youth, but to my ears, I think she was following. She led the group perhaps by her sheer presence, but musically, she was following, like a good parent nudging her young kids to walk ahead of her. With super slow vibratos and sure-fingered shifts, she chugged on like an old dog who knew her way back home much better than the owners kids leading her. At times, she would take charge and appear in front when she wanted to suggest a very particular path, but for the most part, she let the orchestra find their own way.

Mr. Zander, in contrast, was definitely a leader. But leading in such a way to spawn more leaders. It was somehow clear to me, that he was manufacturing more leaders like him, in his own factory/orchestra of his. 

Natalia Gutman, age 71. Benjamin Zander, age 75.  Average age of the BYPO members,16? Maybe? The youngest (Mr. Zander told me privately after the concert, as I had a chance to speak with him briefly) was 11! 

I kept thinking back about the leaves. Gutman and Zander both display very different colors. Yet their purpose is the same. When they are gone, it is these young ones that will be shaping the life of the tree that both support them, and is supported by them. The tree (arts/music) must go on living, and live well. The old display their true colors to inspire the young, so they may find their own bright colors within themselves, so in the future, they will be the ones that brighten and beautify the tree with their own unique colors.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Soft spots

I am really happy with the progress we are making in CYO! You guys sounded great last night. I was speaking with the custodian of the MAC about you guys and how I was pleased with you, and he suggested that maybe you had more time to practice this week because of the breaks? Is that true? In any case, whatever you did, keep doing it. You must have heard the difference yourself.

Your forte sound is nice, fat, and rich. If you can take the edges off of the attacks, it would sound even better.
I do think your piano sounds can be much more dramatic at parts and much more gentile and delicate at other parts.

I think playing softly is a thousand times harder than playing loud. It tests your overall control of your instrument. If you can play a long sustained sound super softly while maintaining nice steady tone without any "flickerings", you know you have great control of your instrument.

And if it is harder, guess what, yes that means you have to practice it harder. I think it is funny that we don't normally associate quiet parts of the music as the "difficult" spots. When we think of "difficult" music, we tend to think "loud" and "fast" as a default, when soft and delicate parts are actually so much harder to play well.

Just remember that it always takes a lot more energy to play soft!

Super late chamber post

Hey Chamber,
Sorry for the late post. I just had to finish the arrangement work I was asked to do this week. My boss/colleague at the summer camp I teach at wanted me to arrange a pop song from the 70's for a string quartet for a concert later this month. I wanted to finish it before the first rehearsal, so I spent a couple of days solely on that project. The concert is a morning concert series hosted by the aforementioned boss/colleague of mine, Khullip Jeung. He manages several educational programs, including an international music competition. I don't know how he does them all... Anyway, this concert series takes place in the mornings, which I think is a great idea. What better way to start a day than listening to live classical music? Although I just wrote about how I love coming to this coffee shop in the morning that plays Nirvana, Offspring, and the likes.... But yeah music can really help kick start your day!

They should have had the first rehearsal yesterday. I'm kind of nervous as to whether they liked my arrangement or not... I hope they did...

Anyway, so I think we are making improvements. Mozart is more rhythmically steady, and everyone seems more comfortable with the process of learning A song by ear for Down On a Corner. But they are many more steps ahead and less and less time left each day till the concert, so we should all turn up the gear a notch.

Don't forget to learn the vocal harmonies for the choruses. I will try to come up with ideas for personalizing the song by tomorrow. So we can start practicing performing it soon.

See ya tomorrow.

Friday, October 31, 2014

the foot-tapping business

It really does feel so eerie to be in a gallery without any paintings... It sure is one way to heighten the halloween spirit... I did however, got to check out the secret room where paintings that are about to be hung on the walls are stored, after the rehearsal. I think we have something to look forward to next week! From what I saw, the next batch looks pretty darn good!

Anyway, I noticed today that some of you, esp. in the winds section, are tapping your foot. I do realize that many teachers and even some conductors encourage that, but I don't. To be clear, I'm not saying those people who do are wrong. In fact they are correct, to an extent.

The way I'd put it, it is an excellent place to start (to solidify your own rhythmic stability), but a terrible place to be. When you rely on your own foot, you are only trying to sync your notes with your toes, that may or may not have anything to do with what is actually going on in the ensemble. I want you to listen, and not just being able to do two different things at once.

Yes, foot tapping is easier, so why am I telling you to do things that are harder? The same reason why halloween candies seem much more appetizing than sticks of celery. But celeries are better for you.

In order to graduate from M&M's to celery, I would suggest moving your toe movements to where your ear is, namely your head. You don't need to head-bang like the punk rockers from the 90's - you can just very lightly bob your head up and down. That way you are ensuring that you are reacting to what you are hearing.

And I hate to tell you of this trick (because I really want you to not rely on your feet) but, if you find that you MUST use your feet in certain sections of the piece, then what you can do is, instead of raising your entire foot and slamming it back down on the floor, making loud tapping noises, you can just wiggle your toes up and down inside your shoe. Then no one will know :)

Have a happy halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 27, 2014

down on the corner chart

I expect you to be able to play arpeggios throughout the entire song from memory by next week!
This is the only "sheet music" you are going to get for this song!

C major - C, E, G
F major - F, A, C
G major (7th) - G, B, D, (F)

Progression (two chords per measure)
F F  C C


Intro (verse)
Verse 1
Chorus 1
Verse 2
Chorus 2
Instrumental verse
Chorus 3
4 measure bridge (first two lines of verse)
Verse 3
First Line of Verse

Friday, October 24, 2014

no such thing as an easy part in orchestra

I thought we had an excellent rehearsal yesterday. we concentrated and focused on just a couple of tricky spots. These spots were tricky for they both involve some awkward notes to play, and extreme dynamic ranges.

But by the end of the rehearsal, I thought both spots became comprehensible and manageable. I hope you guys keep working on those spots on your own though, because these are NOT something that will stick with you after just a couple of hours of work.

We still need to work on listening to each other. Certain things can become manageable just by listening to your fellow section-mates play, or listening to other parts of orchestra to see how your part fits in in relation to them. I did notice these things happening a little bit. But I want this kind of thing to be second nature for everyone in this orchestra. Continue your practice with a metronome.

My thoughts that were inspired by yesterday's rehearsal is this:

In an orchestra situation, often times, the easiest part that you have can easily become the hardest part for the whole orchestra. When you have a long held note, or a bunch of repeated notes in the same rhythm, or just quarter notes on every other beat, or even a rest(!), it is soooo easy for us to zone out. And when we zone out, we are not listening, and we are not concentrating, and not thinking about well, anything, and certainly not about playing together with the other players. We think it's easy, therefore we think we can afford to zone out. When we have rests and long notes, and we zone out, we are not able to come back in with accurate rhythm. When we have easy notes, and we zone out, we get off from one another, and you won't even notice because you are not listening.

I am saying this because we were getting off every time someone had an "easy" part!

Unfortunately, there is no "easy part" in orchestra. There is no such thing. It does NOT exist. I believe that in most educational environment today, and especially in this country, there is not a whole lot of emphasis on group effort, and how to work as a unit, a team, and it is so easy for us to look at our own part and say "my part is easy" and dismiss the whole effort. But the way it SHOULD work is that, if you have an easier part to play, then you should be more responsible for unifying the group. You should be the one leading the group in rhythm, balance, sonority, articulation, and intonation. You should be the one "listening" the MOST.

I've only encountered musicians who complain about how easy their parts are in educational environments, and never in a professional setting. I believe that is because those people who do so in professional environments do not last very long as a "pro".

When we make music, our intentions are to make "good" music. And that means always listening and thinking "what can I do better to make this orchestra I belong to, sound better".  Repeated eighth notes can be played in one-hundred different ways, which one is best suited for this particular moment of this particular piece, am I providing a good rhythmic foundation, am I in tune with ____ (a section of orchestra), is my sound providing the right character for this piece, am I too loud/soft, etc etc etc.... These are questions you can always be asking yourself.

And I hate to say it, but it is quite obvious for a listener to know whether this person in the orchestra have practiced this "easy" spot or not. So you must practice everything, no matter how easy it may seem. And when you practice easier spots, you can practice them at a higher level!

Next week, we will have another sectionals! Again. come in with full of technical questions!