Monday, December 8, 2014

even the greatest genius needs our help - the proper tone

Now that we added some dimensions in Mozart, I think it sounds 100 times better. Playing a music is much like sculpting. Not that I know anything about sculpting, but I'd imagine chiseling away at a rock until it becomes something recognizable and further until it becomes a work of art that would be admired for centuries, is similar to the process of plainly playing the notes on page, to creating grooves, shadows, peaks, angles, breaths, plateaus, valleys, rifts and lifts to make shapes and stories out of those notes.

But they must be done. Just because the piece is written by one of the most brilliant geniuses ever stepped foot on Earth, it doesn't mean that we can simply play the notes and expect magic to happen. 

Mozart was a composer. Composers write ideas. But ideas require voices so they can be uttered and heard. So long as there are musicians, Mozart will always have voices. Right now, we are one of his voices. And the voice will have a better effect on the audience, if the tone of the voice properly reflected the tone of the idea. Therefore, the voice always needs a brain. Obviously we have one in each of our heads. But we have to use them to understand the music. Who was Mozart? What was his ideal? What were his values? What was his philosophy? What was the world around him like? What was he influenced/inspired/fueled by? Who did he want to be? Who was his audience? What/How did he want us to think?

These are the things we need to know, and mix it in with our own imagination inspired by his notes on page, and only then, we can have the "proper tone".

Obviously, this goes with any piece of music you will ever play. So no, Mozart does not get a special treatment, ever. Every music has characters and ideas. Some deeper than others, but nevertheless they all require some degrees of understanding and imagination. From J.S. Bach to Busta Rhymes, from Ravi Shanker to Dean Martin.

For Down on the Corner, I'm glad many of you found the recording I made helpful. Decide on EXACTLY what you will play for each section, then all you do is practice going through different sections (take a couple at a time, then eventually the whole song). I'm so glad it's coming along!

Friday, December 5, 2014

yin and yang - things to improve and things to be proud of

Two conflicting thoughts.

1) Just as a warning, from now on esp. starting January, I will have less tolerance to in-rehearsal ill behaviors. We meet less than two hours each week. Just to put in in prospective, ALL professional orchestras meet every single day for two and a half hours to four hours, and these are old geezers who have been playing their instruments for decades. It is inexcusable for us to have to waste the little time we have, on me yelling at you to stop talking, and stop playing while I'm talking. Just not acceptable.

2) That being said, otherwise, I'm so proud of you. I am. I did not write an "easy" arrangement for you for Viva La Vida. I gave you a challenge. You accepted it, and you are about to own it.
It is incredible how much progress we made since the end September, and that's just basically two months. You have potential, and you have proven yourselves that each and every single one of you do.

Now, imagine, if you could just focus during rehearsals...

Next week, we will have a run through of the whole program. That means we are just going to run through things including the two pieces we haven't done in a while. Please don't forget that they exist, and make sure you practice them extra hard this week, so you don't come back rusty. the best way to prepare yourself is to make time for listening to recordings, as well as for practicing.

We will have Rockit! kids come and join us next week. Let's try to impress them!


Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Final Spurt

Happy post-Thanksgiving and Black Friday! I hope everyone is enjoying your holidays.
Me, I had an awesome Thanksgiving at my own place. It was my very first time hosting a family get together. It was a great time, except, I was and still am pretty sick...
I really would've enjoyed the turkey I helped cooking, but I could only take a few bites of it for I just didn't have the appetite. And not having an appetite on a Thanksgiving day is a pretty sad affair. I didn't eat anything yesterday either so I still have lots of turkey meat left in the fridge ready to be eaten. At least there is food "if" I want it. I can only eat soup like stuff right now, so I will attempt to make some turkey soup today.

I got sick immediately after a fairly important concert I had to play in, which is actually a pattern that I see myself fall into every year. It was our debut concert for this new string orchestra that my friend founded -  one I briefly mentioned I think in the last post.
I'm glad that I got sick when we are on break though. We didn't have to miss a rehearsal because of it, assuming I will be back in good health by Thursday, which I'm pretty sure I will.

It's kind of crazy to think that there is only two more rehearsals till the concert! I think that it will be a great concert, but just because I said that, it doesn't mean you can stop thinking about it. In a two hour long marathon, runners generally spend all their remaining strengths and energy in a burst at the very last moment. It is called the "final spurt". Like in anything, you always want to finish well (and this may very well be the reason why I get sick after concerts all the time...).

Most of you should be having a nice relaxing break right now which is great I think we all need it right about now. We've been working hard since September. So if you haven't already, take this long weekend to really relax your muscles, nerves, bones, minds, spirit etc, eat well, get your energy level back to 100 percent (and those of you who already started, keep doing so). But come this Monday, we are back in the race. And this time, it will be time to start your final spurt! Give it ALL you got. I mean no, I don't want you to get sick, so don't overdo it like I apparently do, but I want you to be satisfied with your own work. But that can only happen when you cross the finishing line at full speed, or as fast as you can possibly go at that moment.

I'll see most of you on Thursday, and the rest of you on Saturday! Looking forward to seeing you all refreshed and ready for the final spurt!

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.