Friday, October 17, 2014

how to be friends with your metronome (How to become a good orchestral player: step 2)

It was so nice to see you guys all dressed up yesterday. I only wish I had known about the picture day too...

So we had some rhythmic issues yesterday. My father was a drummer, and I had been fascinated with rhythm and beats ever since I can remember, and I often think like a percussionist, and think of rhythm A LOT. And after years and years of contemplating on this subject, I've come to a conclusion that having a good rhythm is about, again, "listening". Surprise surprise. Now, that statement may not apply to every single musical situation there is on earth, and in some cases, it is more philosophical than practical, but for us, it is definitely true.

We play with each other, not with a metronome. Therefore time is relative. Relative to each other. We fix our paces referring to what others are doing, and we must constantly be referring to others because there is no such thing as an "absolute time" when we are the ones creating "the time" out of the blue.

The only thing that ever gets close to such a thing is what happens when every single person in the orchestra focuses on playing together with each other. The more we focus on each other, the more rhythm becomes stabilized. When everyone's will come together, everything seems to just fall right in their places. Rhythm will be the first thing that comes together for an ensemble that is making a progress. After that, things will seem to become easier, much easier. Things will feel lighter, you will notice needing less effort. And that's when the magic happens. Without rhythm, other things such as intonation, and sonority, and actually everything else will feel impossibly difficult.

And a note on metronomes:
So I told everyone to practice with a metronome. But I said so so you can practice playing while listening to "something" and so you can try to play along with "something". You can play with a recording or a metronome all day long, but if you are not listening to it, it won't help you one bit. A metronome does not teach you to have good rhythm simply by turning it on. A metronome is there for you to listen to while you play, and so your beats have something to line up with. Therefore rhythm is about listening, and that is what it teaches you.

So even though we don't perform with a metronome, and neither should we, nor should we EVER perform "like" one, we must use it everyday to train your EAR. So when you play with real people, you can listen and adjust to them with ease. And of course, because metronomes are mechanical products, they can only produce beats that are mathematically even, they CAN help you with having very steady internal rhythm. Having a good internal rhythm is of course a good thing, but for now, treat it as something you get as a by-product of doing something else (listening). So listen to what it has to say, and try to agree with him/her, and be friends with your metronome!

And in an orchestra situation, I am your general guide that you must follow as a default, but the fine tuning must be done WITHIN you guys. If you don't listen to each other, no conductor can help you. And the only thing I CAN do to help you, is to tell you to "listen". And so here we are...

How to become a good orchestral player: Step #2 - again, Listen (this time for rhythm and ensemble)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

focus - the hunger games

So I am performing at the UN tonight to premiere these two new pieces, so I had been rehearsing with this group this past week. It is a pickup group of about ten people, but the composer is conducting us. The problem with that is, he is a composer, not a conductor.... The big issue is actually not that he doesn't know how to conduct (most composers know basic conducting), but it is that he does not know how to rehearse... What is even worse perhaps is that he doesn't seem to know how to behave in front of a bunch of smiling instrumentalists staring at him waiting for his order - I am sure we look ferociously intimidating with our deadly instruments that produce pretty notes.  He hardly looks at us, he never says anything, we never discuss, we just play, silently....

The music is film music. It is plain to see that the music offered no significant philosophical meaning or artistic statement. So the rehearsals should focus on technical issues like articulation, tonal character, style, the groove, balance, unity, sonority, intonation, and rhythm, especially in a pickup group situation like this. But no, he is a composer, not a conductor, nor a performer, and therefore does not know what we need. At least he could have a sense of humor, but that doesn't seem to be included in the menu either.... (sigh)
I never felt this bored during rehearsals ever before. 

It is quiet, I mean dead silent, when we stop playing, so we may seem like a very well behaved and focused group if there were to be an onlooker from outside, but the truth is, our minds are drifting. By the second hour, I am convinced that no one in the room is thinking about the music that they are playing AT ALL, and the ensemble suffers from that. Nobody seems to notice, or care, if we are not perfectly together. And I thought, what an interesting side effect of bad rehearsal techniques....

In our chamber group, we may find ourselves having "discussions" about perhaps too many various topics, some are actually related to what we are doing, but at least no one is staring at their wrinkles in their fingers and thinking about how they kind of resemble the folds of dumplings, and then start thinking about what can go inside a perfect dumpling. And I am thankful of that.

During last rehearsal, we played our own version of the Hunger Games. No, we did not try to kill each other. Instead, we were to play the base notes of the chords to "Down on the Corner" without repeating two same notes in a row. When there are two or more of the same chord in a row, we were to switch octaves. Those who failed to switch octaves, or play an entirely wrong note had to drop out. The game was to see who could last the longest. 
We focused just on the bass notes because this was our first time trying this game out, but it proved to be difficult enough. Imagine extending this to all chord tones, and then ornaments, to non-chord tones... Things can get astronomically complicated real fast!

This teaches us how to be creative within a small confine, and the effectiveness, importance, and the difficulty of having VARIETY. If the bass notes hit the same exact note every time for each harmony, music will sound stifling. But it is not easy to do, especially when doing from memory.
I could write a whole book on this, but I believe in practicing this. It makes you focus on harmony, which is important and not enough classical musicians do, it stabilizes your rhythm, it teaches to get to know your instrument like nothing else, it teaches you how to form patterns, it teaches you "how" to be creative, while giving you a structure you can always fall back on, and if nothing else, it is a really nice, effective workout for your brain.

We also talked about how to listen to classical recordings. Will write a separate entry on that, so please check that out as well!

Friday, October 10, 2014

technique is always musical, and sometimes, music can be technical

In sectionals, we get to concentrate on technical aspect of playing, which are usually too specific for the instruments that we don't really get to talk about in regular rehearsals.

I enjoy this (sectionals) over discussing techniques in private lessons. In private lessons, the technical aspect of the playing can get taken out of the context a lot. We shift positions here because that's what this etude fingering says. I need to practice this rhythm with this articulation because that's what my teacher says, and there is no other reason. Depending on the teacher, these things can happen sometimes, or all the time. And when the technique is taken out of context, it ceases to make sense.

In sectionals, technical discussions arise from the needs, and therefore we cannot avoid mentioning the context. At any rate, there is always a good reason to be technically proficient in orchestra, and that is, so you can play perfectly well together with your colleagues. You don't want to be the only person in your section who is not able to play a certain passage in a certain way, and kind of sticking out from the crowd in a negative way, right? Which alone, I think should be a good enough incentive to make one practices their technique. You also want to contribute by mastering the techniques, and lead your section by inspiring them and showing them that it can be done better. So the leaders push their sections limit, while everyone tries to catch up to the speed as best as they can. And sectional is a great way to find out and clarify what your individual roles are at each given moment. You can be a leader in some sections, you might have to be the one running after everyone else in others, and playing both roles are expected from everyone.

And the greatest thing about sectionals is that, when we discuss technique, we almost never discuss it for the sake of technique, but we discuss it with clear musical, artistic, creative, poetic, and aesthetic reasons and intents. And even if it is a small thing that does not seem like a big deal, like playing at the tip of the bow, when it is done together with a group of people, the effect is magnified exponentially, and makes a huge difference in overall sound. In fact that already did happen once yesterday. I'm not sure any of you string players caught it, but in Spanish Dance, when we started playing from mm. 52 with very little bow at the tip and gradually increased the amount of bow as we went on, we were able to create a very controlled, and extremely long crescendo (32 measures of crescendo!!), perfectly paced, perfectly coordinated, and perfectly effective. I wish I had recorded that. But there are hundreds of more chances for me to do that I guess, and each one will be even better than the previous ones!

So for the most part, any technical discussion should occur after a musical, poetic, philosophical one. Thereby being able to choose appropriate technique for each given sections. However, I do love talking about techniques, even out of context, because I think it opens the doors to so many different possibilities - if I can make this sound doing this way, what happens if I do it this way? Once you discover new sound, you can practice it and master it, and now you have that sound as a part of your vocabulary, a part of your palette, a part of your own expressive voice. And where you use such sound becomes your art, at an individual level. And if we can do that as a group, well, then we would have a pretty amazing orchestra!

I tried to go over everything in both pieces for the strings yesterday, so I didn't get to hear the winds, but I trust you guys had an awesome sectional with Mr Luckenbil, and I look forward to hearing your newly improved sound next week!

Continue to be curious. Continue to explore!

Monday, October 6, 2014

videos for chamber

So here is my favorite rendition of Mozart's Divertimento. no. 1

This is performed by Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. It is a Baroque orchestra, meaning they use period instruments and period performance practices, all of which are quite different from today's, even down to tuning! (you might notice that they sound about a half step lower than our modern "D major" and sounding instead more like "C# or D-flat major")

You will notice their complete lack of the use of vibrato (many believe vibratos did not exist until much later, some say until late 19th century, some say not until 20th century...). The resulting sound is that of pure unadulterated, sine wave like sound. Yet there is so much expression and variety in their sound, executed only by their right hand techniques - control of bow pressure and speed. I think this is one of the best examples in both interpretation, and the execution of the piece. I hope you enjoy and learn a lot from this.

Listen to the most minute details: the swellings and the decays of their sounds, their attackes, how each sound develops before moving to the next note, sound between each notes, their capturing of the  different moods, etc etc etc. Maybe think of some adjectives that fit their "sound" to help keep focus on your "listening".

Mozart - Divertimento No. 1 in D major (Ton Koopman)

And here is the video for Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner"
In our last rehearsal, we talked about the structure of the song. Those of you who were not there, listen to this, and write down on a piece of paper the order of each sections like Intro - verse - chorus etc etc etc.

also enjoy the lyrics :)

Creedence Clearwater Rivival - Down on the Corner


Just a reminder, this week we are having a sectional rehearsal! We will divide ourselves into two groups: winds and strings. Strings will rehearse upstairs in the gallery with Mr. Lin and partly myself, while winds will go into one of the classrooms downstairs with Mr. Luckenbill (I will also come by once in a while).

Please practice your parts especially hard this week, and come to this week's rehearsal with lots and lots of technical questions you will most likely have accumulated by then. This will be a chance to get more personal attention to your personal problems which are hard to be addressed during "tutti" (everyone) rehearsals. Don't miss this chance!

Also, it was pointed out to me that the uploaded videos weren't viewable by some, so i posted the url's here so you can either click on them, or copy and paste them to your browser. Again, studying these videos are important. I expect you to have viewed these by this coming rehearsal!

Tchaikovsky - Spanish Dance

Bizet - Les Toreador

Friday, October 3, 2014

How to become a good orchestra player - Step 1

I thought we had a good, productive rehearsal yesterday. No we didn't get to rehearse Les Toreador, but we did get through the whole Spanish Dance (kind of) :) And we did get a lot done with that piece. Good fundamental stuff that can be applied to all other pieces like how to catch the tempo, feeling the beats within, etc. etc.

The difficulties we face when playing in an orchestra is quite different from those of when playing solo. In fact, it is much more difficult. Not only do you have your notes to worry about, but also you have so many other things you have to be concerned with. Not only do you have to know your notes perfectly, but you have to be able to play them perfectly together with your section and the rest of the orchestra like a huge synchronized swimming team. Not only that, but be able to play your notes in a very particular way so every stroke, every breath, every attack, every release, every tone color, and every pitches sound as one. That is our goal anyway.

How can we manage all this? The very first step is to listen. People who have studied with me in the past might be sick of me saying this again, but I cannot stress this enough, you must listen. You must listen to your colleagues, so you can match each other's sound and timing - you must listen to professionals play as often as possible so you have those great sounds pounded in your head, so you always have a goal within your sight - and lastly, listen to yourself very carefully to see if your sound matches to those of your colleagues in orchestra, or those of your favorite performer(s). Music is something one listens to, therefore it is only logical to start there.

You cannot even begin to pronounce a word in a foreign language if you've never "heard it" before. So if you start visually, how do you know if your notes "sound" right? Music is one of those arts where reference must be at your core. Without references, you will be lost like a tiny boat drifting in the middle of the Pacific ocean. And the references come from listening.

Music is an art of sound, as you know. We must shift our focus on to our ears. Not our fingers, not our brains, and definitely not our eyes. Listen carefully to the smallest details. That is how to become an excellent ensemble player, and and a superb musician.

Practice your listening skills by watching the video I posted of the Spanish Dance in the previous entry, and this:

Monday, September 29, 2014

relationship with perfection - on Mozart

When I was a kid, I was slightly a troubled one. The only thing I ever enjoyed then was going to the rehearsals of this string orchestra I belonged to. They met on Saturdays too. Our conductor, Mr. Yamazaki, was an ex-principal cellist of one of the many major professional orchestras in Tokyo, and was then the owner of a string instrument shop that traded and repaired instruments. He was tough and mean. At every rehearsal, someone got sent home because he/she wasn't prepared enough. Rehearsals were more like military drills. We would have "competitions of shame" where each person had to stand up and perform the most difficult part of the piece in front of everybody else, alone. Each taking turns. In retrospect, all of this goes against every grain in my body, but at the time, I loved it. I loved every second of it. It was the only thing that offered me something meaningful. It offered me a personal goal, and also a common goal among my comrades and friends. It offered me a role, where in school I had none. In school, teachers chose to ignore my talents and intelligence. They didn't seem interested, and I was only confused by that. Being half white in the early 90's in Japan was hard enough, and to have (what seemed to me then) my only redeeming qualities ignored was crushing. So I found my solace in what some would describe as "hell". But since nothing else in my life offered any real meaningful challenge, and if they did, they would have ignored me entirely anyway, I welcomed and accepted the super rigorous rehearsals as something you just have to go through to attain something that is more profound than numbers on your report cards. That was real, and it was only natural to me.

The three and a half years I belonged there, I was not sent home once, and was always given the principal position, a leader. Even though I was one of the youngest and had no social skills what so ever. But I belonged there. It made me feel that way anyway. I was not ignored.

We would get good enough to perform in front of Mr. Shinichi Suzuki himself (the creator of the now internationally acknowledged pedagogue system in music education, "Suzuki Method") at his hometown of Matsumoto, Japan. And we would perform difficult pieces such as Resphigi's "Ancient Airs and Dances", a rarely performed gem of a piece called "Idyll" by a Czech composer Janacek, the entire Four Seasons by Vivaldi with our own kids performing the solo parts, and others.

It was one of those days while we were getting pretty comfortable performing those pieces, a new piece was handed to us, and Mr. Yamazaki made an announcement at the beginning of a rehearsal. I looked at his face, and I was shocked. He actually seemed content! He says to us, "you are finally ready. I had been saving this piece until you were ready, and now you are". I looked at the part that was handed to me. All I saw at first was just a bunch of repeated eighth notes, and I remember thinking, I could have played this when I was three years old, in my sleep... It was Mozart Divertimento no. 1 in D major, the same piece we are working on in chamber. At the time, I didn't quite understand the depth of the music, and how deeply profound it is underneath the seemingly simple and casual melody, standard form, and semi-predictable progression. I thought he was joking.

But as soon as we started rehearsing it, I quickly realized how difficult it was to sound remotely close to "good" in this piece, and I could not figure out why.

It was too pure. Too innocent, too happy. It was divine. Could a work of genius be performed by a bunch of ordinary school kids? Suddenly those repeated eighth notes seemed unplayable. I think most of us simply took it as just another piece to learn, and to me that was exactly why it was so difficult. It couldn't be played like the other pieces. Maybe in reality, it was not a better piece or anything, but it sure was "different". The other pieces were slightly more "tainted" (in my own way to describe them) and were closer to home. This piece was less humane, less natural, more divine, more super-natural.

To be honest, at the time, Mozart was not one of my favorite composers at all. His music seemed too happy, and was so far from the reality I lived in, and was hard for me to relate to. It was only later when I was already close to an adult that I started to think, well, music is sometimes NOT about the reality but more about the ideal, or just about being in the moment. While this music is going on, nothing else matters. It is there for us to enjoy what is not, and to experience what we cannot otherwise. It is there for us to enjoy actual perfection, which is not accessible anywhere else. It is only possible in Mozart's music, and nowhere else on earth. Music often times is used as an "escape". It was often so among some of the greatest composers throughout history, and for some of the greatest performers as well, and perhaps it is true for many of the listeners too, if not most.

At any case, I was more than happy and proud to be working on that piece, even though the cello part wasn't as difficult, exciting, or even noticeable for that matter. But it was definitely a challenge, in the highest form. An honor, to even have a relationship with perfection.