Friday, March 29, 2013

On "performance"

Wow, I really fell behind on this. Blog keeping is tougher than it seems...

I just want to say a few words about performance - what kind of thoughts would make you nervous, and what it really is that we do when we perform - in reflection of chamber's last performance, and in preparation for CYO's upcoming performance.

Let me start off with quickly saying that I thought the chamber performance went very well (!) considering we had to make some last minute adjustments due to our certain circumstances. And I'm very happy with it! Great job, everyone! Let's talk in details about it tomorrow.

In general, as a teacher/coach, I still struggle to make students feel relaxed on stage... I still have much to learn... One thing I'd like to say is that, it is hard to enjoy anything when you are nervous. But the thing is, the audience will have a great time, if YOU are having a great time on stage. The irony is, if you are only thinking about how "you" want to sound good, and/or worry about how/what the audience might think of you, you WILL get nervous. And by that logic, the audience might appreciate how cute you look, being nervous on stage, but we may come out a bit short in making them "truly" impressed.

When you are thinking of how others might feel about you, you are being passive. When you are passive, you are being the recipient of whatever feelings and thoughts your audience may have of you, and you are in mercy of your audience members, no matter how hard you try.

As a performer, you cannot ever forget that people are letting us play, and they are willing to listen to us. So we must always be thankful to the people behind the event and every member of the audience. BUT at the same time, you are also "providing" them a service, an entertainment, maybe even an enlightenment. You are not the receiver, but the provider. They should be the ones receiving whatever it is you are expressing VIA your music.  I started to think that it's slightly selfish to only think of how "I sound" on stage. So I shifted my thoughts, first towards "what can I do for them", then eventually to "let's just enjoy this moment together". But it did take me about 30 years to get here, so I do understand your struggles, believe me...  but it didn't really come with time. It came with shifting of thoughts. My focus is now on "how can I make my students feel that way about their performances" :)

Together, let's try to break down this wall and make a transition from being passive performers to those of good service providers. And that is NOT done by just playing the notes well, but by acting the notes out. Don't only play those notes that have the meanings, but act those notes, characters, and meanings out with sounds and gestures!

Here's a good example:

For all we know, some of them can be having the crappiest day of their lives when this performance took place. But they know their places and their roles, and they are quite serious about it. Be governed by the notes and the harmony, and DON'T be governed by the audience!

Friday, March 22, 2013

major, minor, diminished, augmented... they are all beautiful

Date: 03/21/13
Orchestra: CYO
Attendance: very good :)
Coaches present: Mr. Lin and Jennifer (thank you!)
Repertoire rehearsed: all but Gounod
Little things I noticed: or rather  there is something that I hadn't noticed before, and that is, there is this little bosai tree on the platform of the Middletown station, where I take the train from every week. I'm slightly ashamed that I didn't notice it until today...

Another thing (and it is not a good thing). Some people are leaving without helping putting the chairs away after the rehearsal! If each of us all put away the one chair we sat on, then each of us would only have to put one chair away and the room will be clean in matter of seconds (maybe a minute)! A lot of times I see a handful of nice people putting everything away, while many leave without doing anything. Please don't think cleaning up is not your responsibility. If you use something, then it IS your responsibility to put whatever that is back where it was, whether you are at home or in a public place (actually especially in a public place).

Once again, congratulations to Olivia for making it into the All-State Orchestra! That's a big deal! Proud of you!

With Mozart, we worked on making differences between major key sections and minor key sections. The first step is recognize them (by LISTENING). At this point, I believe every single one of you is comfortable enough with your own parts to listen and pay attention to what is going on outside of your own parts. Listen to the music, that we are making together, and see what kind of character it is. With Mozart, and especially in this particular piece, he just doesn't give us a break. He constantly goes back and forth between major and minor. So be on your toes!

I'm happy now, because this orchestra has finally (or I should say, "already"!) evolved into a group of "musicians"! We are no longer a bunch pitch producing machines! I'm extremely excited about it, so keep listening and keep singing (with your instruments)!

It made me really really happy when a bunch of you started dancing around while playing Jessel. I loved it, and you guys sounded great too!
Music is most beautiful when the performers themselves are "feeling" the music. Thank you guys!

So what I was trying to say (when my little comment kept getting side tracked, and I had to abandon the thought in the end) is that like in many other cultures that embrace duality of things, where two opposing aspects and characters are viewed as equal (America NOT being one of them), in music, major and minor are opposite forces that compliment each other (you've all heard of "yin and yang", right?).  And no, they do not compete. In fact they rely on each other. Without the dark, you wouldn't recognize the light. Without the light, there'd be no shades. Opposites are necessities. These opposing forces give shapes to music, and these shapes create stories. And as musicians, we are story tellers (very vague stories, but stories nevertheless).

Next week, we WILL have a rehearsal, and I was speaking with our favorite janitor, and he said we are welcome to use the theater! I'm thinking of (once again) trying to utilize the projector for our purpose, which didn't go so well in our December concert... But I think I know how to use it better this time, and hopefully they will let us use it, so we can do something fun with it :)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

beats of the world - really it's just one

So most of you know that I am a classical music fanatic (obviously), and also a rock n roll nut. But you may or may not know that I am also a HUGE sucker for world music.

And I wanted to share with you an experience that I had earlier this week, that had a profound effect on me.

On Monday night, I had one of the most exciting, and EXTREMELY rare opportunity to hear and see two completely unrelated music and dance of two cultures from two completely different parts of the world in one evening! One the Breton, a Celtic culture from a small region of Northwestern France, and the other was Garifuna, a Carribbean culture originally from St. Lucia, but was chased away by the British, and eventually took refuge to countries such as Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras etc, etc, etc.

I said these two cultures have almost nothing in common with each other, but there is one thing they absolutely share. That is, they are both "endangered" cultures, and are at the blink of extinction. Their languages are forgotten and only a handful of people speak them. And with their languages, their music and dance will probably disappear, if we don't do anything about them (which is another reason why I went, so I can contribute in some way - even if it's the smallest donation).

I was gonna go with a friend of mine, but she couldn't make it, so I went all by myself. I didn't care. I wouldn't miss this no matter what.

They started the evening off with poetry written by people from those cultures. These beautiful poems were not only recited in their original languages, but they also made translations of each others poems and recited in their languages. It was symbolic and touching.

Then they started the music and dance! the Bretons went first.

In this particular clip, the music is performed on modern instruments, so you may not get a flavor of the real deal, but at some points during the night they brought out their own bag pipes (that are slightly different from the Scottish version), and some other reed instruments I have no idea what they are called. Most of them had a nasal quality to them. I can talk about why they were nasal (both acoustically and aesthetically), but that's not important enough for me to mention here :) The dance is always a round dance, just like in other Celtic cultures. And by the way, in cultural events like this, no audience member is a spectator. There is no such thing. EVERYONE joins in (whether you know the steps or not)! I shot this clip at the beginning of the night when a few New Yorkers (including myself) were still way too intimidated to join the circle. Don't worry, I joined them later.

Then the Garifuna guys!
Sorry for the shaky video. You know what I was doing...
I'd say, it was fairly typical of the Carribbean beats and sounds. But I just can't get enough of this stuff!!
After these guys started, things just got super wild. There were no more inhibition, no more cultural differences. We became just one group of beings that were simply enjoying ourselves. We no longer knew where we were, or who we were, and those things just didn't even matter. You can see here that even the New Yorkers, and the Bretons were singing along to this song we've never even heard before. We didn't know what we were saying, we didn't even know if we were saying it right. But who cares?

And in the end, you guessed it, the two cultures jammed!

Two groups of people from different parts of the world, who met for the very first time that night, playing and dancing together. It was so heart warming

Throughout the course of the night, I made a couple of friends, who were also there by themselves. One a journalist, the other, an elderly folk dance instructor. Once again, I felt the immense power of music and dance. How they can bring people together - people, whose paths would never have crossed otherwise.

At one point, I felt that if I didn't leave then, I never would. So I suddenly grabbed my jacket and stormed out. It was midnight, and Monday night was turning into Tuesday morning. But I have a feeling that the party went on all night. When I stepped outside, I almost immediately started talking to a passerby, a complete stranger. Then I felt the quietude (compared to what was going on inside), and the cold. I was reminded that I live in a city where boundaries were definite, and most people are strangers, who for the most part, do not recognize your existence. Is this what it means to be civilized? I am not sure.

I thank my parents for letting me do what I love the most. In arts, I don't just appreciate arts. I appreciate life, and people. Even people I have never met, or will never meet. At every event like this, my heart is touched, and every time, I feel that I grow smarter, more mature, and kinder.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bang on a can (like a hamster)

Date: 03/16/13
Orchestra: Chamber
Attendance: good
Repertoire rehearsed: everything!
Little things I noticed: well, because students arrived shortly after I did (yay!), I didn't get to explore much today. It's a good thing :)

It's my favorite kind of day, when I get to bang on a trash can.
I also appreciate goofy rehearsals like this one we had, so long as we get things done, and I we did! Remember, we "play" music (that is, we play "with" it). We don't "scrutinize" it (not on stage, anyway).

So we basically ran through all of the pieces in preparation for next week's concert, which we decided that I'll join in with my djembe. This is going to be fun. But we also fixed a couple of things, and improved great many things!

I feel sorry that some have to miss this concert. Everyone worked very hard for this, and to have to miss the chance to present what you've been working on so hard for the last three months is unfortunate. I'm really sorry.

Those of you who will be there, I want you to know that just because some of your colleagues will not be there, that doesn't all of a sudden make you "unprepared". Each and every single one of you is ready for this. I know. You don't have to do anything differently. Just get up there, smile, and "play"!

Those of you, who were there at our very first concert (since I started, that is) three years ago, or those of you who've seen us then, know that there were only six of us at the time. But we still rocked. We will have nine people for this concert. That is 50% MORE than what we used to have. It's gonna be just fine.

The subject of "hamster" came up as we were packing up at the end of the rehearsal. So I want to end this entry with this metaphor (which reveals my teaching philosophy) - Students are like hamsters. They are curious beings, and sometimes they need a hand. But if the hand comes from above them, they will be frightened by it. They will feel oppressed and inhibited, and will most likely end up hiding somewhere underneath a darker, and a smaller place. But if you were to lay your hand out softly, underneath their feet, only slightly higher than where their feet currently stand on, they will gladly, at their own initiative, climb up onto the hand. And so if the teacher's hand always lay beneath the students feet, they will continue to be curious of what is sill above them. Without a hand casting shadow over them, they can see the boundless sky and they will know that there is nothing blocking them to get up there. They just have to find the right hands that they can use as stepping stones, and hands that will not all of a sudden flip over. So they will continue to get out there and explore.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Say it with those notes!

Date: 03/14/13
Orchestra: CYO
Attendance: good!
Coaches present: Mr. Luckenbil and Mr. Lin
Repertoire rehearsed: the two "dark" ones
Little things I noticed: my blog app on my cell phone is not that great... Besides, typing with the phone is not fun. I'll just write my blogs on my computer at home...
Today's Seating:

Band Style!!!

Things are starting to come along!
Gounod is a funny piece. It's a comical piece that is in a "sad", or "scary" key. Kind of like one of those "horror comedy" shows like the Adams Family, but I guess you are WAY too young to know what that is...
Anyway, let's keep that piece nice and bouncy.

In Star Wars, even within the loud sections, there are different characters. The subtle differences can make a huge difference, but we must MAKE those differences by playing differently.

I'm starting to hear a glimmer of "expression" in your playing, which is great!!
But remember, music IS expression! So always try to think about what it is that your music may be trying to express. You may never know the "right" answer - actually to be more precise, there may not be an answer at all sometimes - but having an image, inspired by the music, and trying to express that with those notes, will help you transform your notes into something magical.

Also remember, "it takes more energy to play pp than ff"!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jimi for fun!

So I had a little bit of spare time today, and I wanted to do something fun (for me), so I decided to record myself playing some rock n roll. And I thought, I might as well do something that will potentially benefit other people. So I recorded myself playing "Purple Haze" in the same manner I arranged it for the chamber group.

Now, I did record this without ever practicing, so please excuse some of the roughness :) (This was primarily for my own entertainment!) By posting this however, I'm hoping to show an example of what we CAN do with our instruments, and that we CAN rock out even on our multi-century old instruments that were invented to entertain stuck-up aristocrats :)

I'm also playing the djembe (an African drum) in this for an added effect.

Also, if this is the first time you are hearing me play the cello, I wanted to tell you that no, I don't usually produce sounds like this when I play classical music :) In this recording, I'm trying to imitate the sound of the distortion of the electric guitar by combining some tricks NOT used in classical music, and some things you are "not supposed to" do in classical music :)

I'm hoping that this helps somewhat (for you kids in chamber)!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

time, time, time, and space, space, space - create your own

Date: 03/09/13
Orchestra: Chamber
Attendance: less than spectacular
Repertoire rehearsed: Bach and the Lion piece
Little things I noticed: there were two "bowling balls" made out of styrofoam in the kitchen, that looked very real, but I didn't mention it to anyone so you don't get distracted by them. I thought of throwing one of them at one of the students to surprise him/her, but I decided not to... I didn't want any harm done to the balls...
One concern: So I'm thinking of moving the rehearsal time fifteen minutes earlier (ending fifteen min earlier too of course). Everyone is arriving later and later to the rehearsals. Normally I wouldn't mind. I'd just extend the rehearsal for however much we lost due to kids' late arrival. But I can't do that on Saturdays, because I don't want to miss my train, which I often do anyway. And when I do miss a train, I stand outside for another hour, and it's really inconvenient for me. I mean I don't usually book things on early Saturday evenings, but sometimes I have to. Also, please keep in mind that it takes two hours for me to get there, and two hours to get back home. That plus another unproductive hour is just sheer annoyance. I'm hoping fifteen minutes change won't make a huge difference to most of you, but it would sure make a huge difference to me. But even if we decide to move 15 minutes earlier, please try to come BEFORE the rehearsal time. "Rehearsal time" indicates the time when the the rehearsal starts, NOT when you are supposed to arrive.
I took these pictures on the train back home (which had really dirty windows)

And of course, me being me, I start thinking about how universal this beauty is. Everyone on earth understands this beauty, and for the most part (I would think) they would agree that these images are "pretty". (Of course, it looks much much better if you were actually there, rather than looking at these terrible photos from my three year old cell phone...)

I don't think anyone understands "why" humans think sunsets are pretty. There doesn't seem to be any logic behind it. And universal beauty is not limited to sunsets, but also lakes, mountains, or smell of the rain, woods and flowers, sounds of the river, birds, and waves, and even thunder (if they are far enough). We understand that everything in nature is beautiful (as well as sometimes dangerous). It also occurred to me that there has never been a competition among these. There are no sunset competitions, or thunderstorm competitions. We don't look up at a night sky just to determine which star is the prettiest. We look up to enjoy the sky as a whole. Competitions simply don't apply because that very concept is worthless when talking about beauty.

Art in a way, (or the way I see it) is humans' way of trying to connect to these things. These things that are universally and eternally beautiful. Trying desperately to be a part of that beauty.

Now, I consider myself as an artist. That is to say, I'm an artist by choice, not chance. I'm a self-declared artist, and didn't happen to become one by other people's decree. And that simply means that: I choose not to pay attention to commercial things, I choose not to label things black or white. I choose to believe that nothing is ever certain and everything is replaceable. I choose to stare out the windows and ponder these things, rather than playing with my cell phone, or booking my next gig. These are choices that I make. And artists are simply those who make similar choices. And by the way, I despise the term "artist". It sounds fake to me. I use it here simply for the reason of convenience. Really, I'm just a dude, who makes these choices.

That being said, when the students don't play music musically, I just think of it as a matter of choices that they are making. Sometimes, they don't care enough to allow themselves to make different choices, or they are too scared to. But for the most part, the cause is that they don't give themselves enough time and space of their own.

By the nature of the choices, an artist needs his/her own time and space. LOTS of them. He/she needs time to meditate/reflect, to get lost in the wonders around them. To be creative is to be free. Free from conventions, and expectations. And to be free, he/she needs to get away, not necessary physically, but definitely needs a space and time for him/herself, even if the space is a "mental" one. To understand art, one must enter the realm of artists. And you do that by choice. Everyone is born to become whatever they want to be. No one on earth is unable to become anything. He/she just simply must be willing to make certain choices. Sometimes it's just about courage, sometimes it's the environment that you are putting yourself in. If anyone says "No" to you, you must know that that is NEVER true. i just worry a little because so many schools, teachers and parents just simply don't let the kids have any time!

So many adults say "no" to kids these days. Most likely, (and I dare to say this) these adults are driven by convention, and have no imagination of their own.

I was allowed to play with knives and fireworks since I was about four years old. I have never hurt myself, nor have I ever hurt anyone else, accidentally, or on purpose. The experience did give me the knowledge and skill of hurting others if I ever wanted to, but I have a gentle soul, the thought would never occur to me :) Besides, because I was allowed to play with them, I knew of their destructive powers and knew that no one deserves to be hurt by such force.
A different kid was allowed to play with chemicals since he was a toddler. By age 14, he built a nuclear fusion reactor in his own garage. By 17, he travels around the world giving talks to groups of college professors, and government officials, including the president of the US. His name is Taylor Wilson (no, I do not know him personally, but you should look him up if you doubt me). And no, he did not build a single bomb. If he wants to, he can potentially destroy a whole nation!
And who knows what Gillian Lynne would have become if the local child psychiatrist did not tell her teacher and her parents, who thought she had a learning disorder because she couldn't stay still during her classes, "She does not have a learning disorder. She is a dancer!". For those of you who don't know who Gillian Lynne is, she has one of the most successful career in the history of musical theater production. With Andrew Lloyd Weber, she created Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera, and many others. And she is also a multi-millionaire (in case you happen to measure success and human achievements by the money that they make).

I believe that saying "no" only limits the potential. It teaches them that they "can't" do things, even if they wanted to, and makes them think that they "cannot" make certain choices. Of course there are bad choices, but unless you think your kids are intellectually challenged, you don't need to teach them that. They will figure that out themselves.

So if you are ever taught or ever made to think that somehow, you cannot be imaginative or creative, then I am here to tell you that that is not true. You do not have to worry about which Suzuki book piece your stand partner is working on, or what concertos can your friends play. In the realm of beauty and joy, those things mean absolutely nothing. So be free!

Friday, March 8, 2013

'cuz this is thriller

Date: 03/07/13
Orchestra: CYO
Attendance: Good, but I guess a few of them had to leave early
Coaches present: Mr. Lin
Repertoire Rehearsed: bits and pieces of things
Little things I noticed: Yes! The paintings are back! I think these ones are student paintings. I'd say there are about 70 pieces of works up on the wall, and among the 70, I noticed that about 10 of them had birds in them. But NONE of the birds were flying... They were either perched atop a branch, or walking on the ground. I really hope whatever the assignment was, it called specifically for birds at rest, and that it is not a reflection of how kids feel these days... BE FREE! please

And thanks Ben, for coming early and help me set up the chairs. I really appreciate it!
Also thanks to Broc for gathering everybody back to the room after the break!

So during my two week hiatus from blogging, I've accumulated so much material that I would like to share with you on this blog, but I can't possibly write them all. So for now, I'll stick with the rehearsal notes of the day. Maybe in my spare time, I will write up some short entries reflecting on those occurrences throughout next week.

So here's how we sat for this rehearsal:

There are many reasons why I chose this particular arrangement, but I don't want to have to explain everything (or this entry would be super long...). All in all, I got out what I wanted, so it was a success!

We worked on small sections of the pieces. We didn't play through any of the pieces from the beginning to the end. This rehearsal/practice technique by the way, should comprise at least 95% of your own practice routine. Have small goals for each practice session - like getting all the notes of a particular passage and bringing it up to tempo - and FOCUS. If you have different small achievable goals every day, you will improve really really really fast! Just playing through the piece from the beginning to the end many many times, does not constitute as "practicing". It may be more fun, but it may not take you anywhere. Of course, playing the pieces through is also very important (especially if you have a very particular purpose for doing it) but it doesn't have to be done more than a couple of times in one day.

I guess I just have two main points to go over as reminders.
One is that there are two different ways of playing grace notes: playing them before the beat, or playing them on the beat. I would say that it is generally done the first way (playing them before the beat). But like in the Mozart we are doing, I may ask you to have the grace note right on the beat. But for the Gounod, please make sure that the grace notes are played before the beat. This is very important for this piece (for rhythmic clarity).

The other point is simply that as you may or may not have noticed, I'm starting to "shape" the Jessel piece by doing things not written in the original score (or at least the score I used to arrange this, which was a piano score...). By the way, we don't always have to play a piece the way everyone else does. We all have the artistic license to play any piece however we like, so long as you keep the character of the piece and don't disrespect the composer. It's called "interpretation". So please mark those spots, and watch me when you get there.

Which brings me to another reminder. Bring your pencils to every rehearsal please! Pencils are a MUST for musicians. In a professional setting, I have NEVER seen anyone come to a rehearsal without a pencil. I mean, what would be the point of coming to a rehearsal if you are not going to remember what was said there, right? I've never seen this happen, nor have I ever heard such incidents, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone gets fired from a job because he/she didn't bring a pencil for the rehearsal, or at least, never hired back because of it. Sounds reasonable to me.

To end this entry on a brighter note, I want to share with you a bit of good news. I woke up this morning to an email saying that one of my original pieces will be performed in April by two of NY Philharmonic artists (it's a clarinet and double bass duet). It's good way to start a day!

Also, I saw THIS on my way back home from rehearsal last night:
I appreciate impromptu performances like this :) When somebody is having a grand ole' time with music and dance, it makes others happy too.