Monday, December 22, 2014

Trust and Gratefulness

"Grateful" - is the first word that comes to my mind when reflecting upon last week's concert. I am grateful for the students who worked hard and did their best on stage, grateful for the Rockit kids and staff to come join us for this concert in the midst of their busy schedule, grateful for the audience members who showed appreciation and support, grateful for the board members and the MAC staff who did everything they can to help the event go as smoothly as possible.
Overall, I am extremely grateful for every single one of you who had anything to do with this concert at all, for supporting me, and above all, trusting me to let me do the things I wanted to, no matter how ambitious, unusual and experimental they might have seemed in the beginning.

I decided to give it a go for these ideas for I trusted in your openness and that students' capacity and talents to handle them. I trusted in the parents and the coaches that they would welcome my ideas. I trusted in the materials themselves, for them to possess educational values, while being entertaining at the same time. And you in turn, trusted me. And I am tremendously grateful for that.

And it starts from the smallest thing. Letting us have a run-through on our last scheduled rehearsal day was tremendously helpful. All small concerns I had such as chairs and music stands setup and striking before and between the groups, the microphone situation, knowing exactly how the concert will begin, etc. were all met with calmness and professionalism.

As one of the characters from a show I was binge watching on internet (an old show I'm too embarrassed to name...) defined, "trust" is "believing and following someone you do not know that you can trust anyway". It is a leap of faith. It always involves risks. But somehow, your faith in the positive outcome, your positive outlook, seems to scale the odds towards your favor.

To be honest, in previous years, many of these things did not happen, and I always felt rushed and slightly panicked during NJSYO concerts. I often felt that I couldn't do things at my own pace and was always adjusting to situations someone else had created, and felt that the performances suffered from all the "accommodations" I had to make. Running around tuning students' instruments, discussing concerns about their dresses, music stands and sheet music, setting up the chairs for both groups myself, rehearsing, deciding/practicing what to say on stage (as many of you know, public speaking is THE worst nightmare of mine), having concerns about my own instrument for when I perform with the chamber group, trying to give students pep talk while I myself was panicking and being rushed to be on stage, while not knowing exactly how and when things were to happen, just wasn't working.

But this year, none of that happened, or if they did, they happened in the most controlled manner. Partly because I was determined and vowed to myself that I'd do things at my own pace, but more importantly, it is because you let me. All of you. You trusted me. And each and every one of us communicated our concerns to each other, and each of those concerns were taken care of calmly by all of us .

This is a good team. And by team, I mean to include all of us, the students, board members, coaches, parents, the staff at MAC. This works, and I am very proud to be a member of this fine team.

Thank you all. And I wish you the happiest holidays and a happy new year!

See you all next year!

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.

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!

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.

Friday, September 26, 2014

some extra layers

So yesterday in rehearsal, we talked about what a "toreador" is. It is a term for a bull fighter. And we also started a new piece called "Spanish Dance" by Tchaikovsky.

In CYO concerts, I try to always have some kind of theme going on. Can anyone guess what the theme for the concert may be? Perhaps it is too early. We haven't even started working on or even talked bout the other piece we have, and I am planning on adding one more piece to this program with total of four pieces.

I believe having a theme is beneficial for it forces us to think and talk about the background of each piece, which gives us an extra layer of information and knowledge. It allows us to step back to look at a piece from distance, enabling us to see the context of the music, the world surrounding the composition, and not just the composition itself. And at the same time, gives us a more powerful magnifying glass to look deeper into the meaning of the notes that we are playing.

We must remember that notes are never about the notes. Every note that we play represents something in our, or the composers' lives. To play music well, we must understand them first.

The bowing technique required in the Tchaikovsky piece is called "ricochet", a french word that means "bounce" or "skip off the surface". And we use it in literal sense.  In this case we must bounce the bow three times, while going in one direction (down bow in this case). this means that you must LET IT (your bow) bounce. Yes, you control it but only eventually. If you have never tried this technique, it is essential to first learn how your bow bounces off the string. Let the bow drop on to the string and just observe, see what happens. And then see if you can apply changes to it's behavior by doing certain small things manually like tightening up the grip and not letting it bounce too high off the string. Once you start to see how the bow behaves and how it reacts to what you do, then the rest is practicing it so that you get three even beats in the speed you desire. We will go over this in details when we do our sectional rehearsals.

By the way, I made a rather embarrassing mistake... I wrote on your music of Spanish Dance, that it i from the Nutcracker Suite, but it is NOT! It is from another ballet, Swan Lake. I knew it, but somehow I typed in the wrong ballet... When you get a chance please cross out my mistake and write in the correct ballet please.

In the meanwhile, here's a video of the Spanish Dance performed live. Not sure who these people are but this is a very good performance. I hope this video excites you.

(In rehearsal I said to be on the upper half of the bow for the ricochet, but in this video, I noticed that the lower string play the ricochet on the upper half like I suggested, but the violins are using the lower half of the bow. Maybe that is better for the violins. I will ask my violinist friends and let you know in the next rehearsal)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The CYO Guide

An orchestra is where people from all different backgrounds, and personal history to come together and work with each other to achieve one common goal. Unlike team sports, our primary goal is NOT to be "better than" another group, but to be as best as we can both as an individual, and as a group, and then share our achievement and the joy of music with the rest of the world. 
If you are more advance than others in your group, then it becomes your responsibility to help out the others, not frown upon them. If you are falling behind, it is your responsibility to seek help from those that are more advanced than you, so you can too make positive contributions to the group.
The reward in this endeavor does not come from stepping on someone else to make you appear taller, but from sense of belonging, and how much we can accomplish as a group. We are to stick together and collaborate and become a single large entity like a school of small fish that can look like one huge animal from afar. In order to do that, we need to figure out how to use our own unique individual qualities to help the group out, and as a result, become less of an individual. Because people achieve so much more when people work together than alone. And that's why we have rehearsals.

That being said, attendance is crucial. Everyday, we try to make progress. And every time someone is missing, we go backwards, for those that were missing didn't make the same progress the rest of us did, and we won't sound as good as a group, the next time we get together.
So I'd like to setup a guideline here:
1) Three unexcused absenses and you will not be allowed to play in the next concert. It is only fair that way for the others that do show up every week. Each concert will renew the count, so you will still have a chance next time.
2) Unless it is an emergency, I will expect at least a 24 hour notice for the absence, or I will count as an unexcused absence.
3) Depending on the case, I might count certain lateness, or a number of lateness as one absence (unexcused).

If nothing else, simply "showing up" shows a sign of respect, and make the environment much more pleasant, and other members in the orchestra will be much happier to see you than not.

Seating (for strings)
In many youth orchestras, string students compete with each other for certain seats. To me, this is counter productive. When you compete, sometimes you find yourself trying to be better than those who are already more advanced than you, which is practically impossible. The more practical thing to do is to learn from those more advanced than you, rather than struggling all by yourself. And when you don't get the seat you want, you'll just be grumpy for the rest of the season.
So in CYO, there will be no seating auditions. Seating shall be determined by me and the section leaders, which will be discussed in the next topic. The democracy in the orchestra is that everyone has a chance (we will rotate seats for every concert), and that section leaders, are not necessary (although most frequent) the one that sits in the most prominent seat.

Section Leaders
Starting from this year, I would like to implement more prominent roles for section leaders. I will chose one person from each instrumental section (only if there is more than three people in the section) to be the section leader. And again, they do not HAVE TO sit on the front-most seat. The section leaders will be responsible for basically his/her section: including  the unity of the section, allocation of divisi parts, seating, bowing (for strings), preparedness, behavior, etc. They will also act as a spokesperson for the section, so should any concern arises for the section or someone in the section (musical or not), section leaders should be the one to try to communicate that with me or the coaches. That is not to say, non-section leaders shouldn't talk to us, of course. Of course, I'd like to have good communication with every single person in the orchestra. But if it has to do with this orchestra, I'd like the section leaders to be involved as often as possible, unless it is a very private matter.
I will see if we can acknowledge their leader status on the concert programs so each leaders can have their role actually documented. It is an honorable position that you should put down in your resume, but of course, the trade off is that there is a little bit more work involved.

Now, on to more practical stuff

What To Bring To Each Rehearsals
1) your instrument(s) (obviously)
2) music stands. Please don't rely on the stands at MAC. There are three orchestras there on Thursday nights, and only maybe ten stands at the MAC. And please don't rely on your stand partner, no matter how reliable he or she maybe. It is always better to have more stands than necessary than not enough.
And lastly, but perhaps more important than you imagine,
3) PENCILS!! Bring two or three, bring several. If you don't write down what was mentioned in rehearsals, you will not remember them all, and you will not retain, and therefore not improve. In the professional world, one can be fired for not bringing a pencil. Why would anyone want to perform with someone who doesn't care to get better?
4) a good attitude. Try to be prepared for each rehearsal, but if for some reason, you don't feel too prepared, come with a good attitude anyway. No one in this orchestra is here to judge or be judged. Only to improve oneself and the group. Not having a good attitude will only hinder that process, and THAT might be judged by all who are commited to make this a better group.

For CYO, it is less common for us to be working on a piece of music "exactly" as the composers wrote, therefore we will mostly be using non-original sheet music that are published. Instead we will mostly be using music that I have made certain corrections and arrangements to. Which means that you will be mostly using sheet music printed out of a home printer. And that means lots of loose single sheets of papers. If it is a multiple page sheet music, please please tape them up together. Taped up music will be much harder to lose, and much less likely to fall from your music stand.
Additionally, please do not put them in a clear plastic file/binder. If you do, you cannot write on it, nor will you be able to see the notes properly from all the glare of the stage lights. Please just keep them in your folder that was provided by NJSYO.

Concert Dress
Generally the dress code for the concert will be up on the NJSYO website prior to each concert. I will do my best to communicate my intentions to the board members so that it is reflected on the website, however, there may be times in which my request is not (perfectly) reflected on the website. Please keep checking this blog, and pay attention during rehearsals so you don't end up being the only one wearing white in the sea of black dress.
And yes, it will generally be standard white and black or all black formal wear. Details such as jacket, ties, and other accessories will be discussed during the rehearsals.

And lastly, 

I'm not a mean conductor, and I try to be as understandable and flexible as possible, while still maintaining the integrity, and discipline of the group and our dignity. As I mentioned, I really appreciate good communications. I feel that what could become an ugly situation can almost always be prevented simply by having good communications. Please don't just assume things. Please make sure that you make sure. If there is a concern, please talk to one of us. And if you have a praise, please say it, to your fellow musicians, to your coaches, board members, or even me :) We all appreciate that don't we? Good thing, not so good thing, whatever, it is always best to talk about it in a civil matter. I treat everything, and  I mean everything, including attendance issues, musical issues, behavioral issues, etc. case by case. This guide line is a "guide line". Not an absolute, follow word-to-word kind of thing. It is only an approximation of the rules to help you understand how I'd like this orchestra to function. In the end, everything shall be determined by what it was communicated to me. And the more you communicate, the better understanding I will have, and the fairer I can be.
Also, if you have good thing to say about the orchestra, please spread the word to your friends, families, and communities outside of us. This orchestra has grown a lot in many ways in the last couple of years, and I'd like to see it keep growing. We are on this journey together. Let's be proud of what we do here, and spread the good vibe, and create a great cycle. 

Looking forward to working with all of you this year!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Welcome to the new season!

Welcome to NJSYO 2014- 2015 season, everyone!
It was really nice to have met all the new students and some of their parents, and of course, to see all the familiar faces again.

In a way, I like being away for the summer vacation (besides the obvious reason) and returning back from it, because it really teaches you how much you appreciate what you have during most of the year. I mean I think we all appreciate it, but I don't think we think about it (the appreciation) that much when we are in the midst of it.

Anyway, for those of you that are new this year, the primary objective of this blog is to act as an intermediary between me, students, and most importantly, the parents. And to strengthen this community through conversation. By reading the blog, I am hoping that it instigates some conversations about the orchestra between parents and the students "outside" of the rehearsals, which help to strengthen the level of commitment. Because most parents do not get to see the rehearsal process, I think it is nice for you (parents) to know what goes on in that gallery for those one hour and forty-five minutes, and maybe talk about it with the kids. Comments directly on this blog would also be much appreciated, that way, I can also be involved in this conversation.

I usually treat my very first rehearsal as just an intro for the kids, and an opportunity for me to gauge and assess how much can be done this year. And my verdict for this year is.... A LOT! And I'm quite excited about it.

Before we delved into the music, we spent some time talking about certain expectations, both what I expect from you, and what the students should expect from me, the orchestra and NJSYO.

Writing everything down here will make this entry a bit too long, so I will start a new entry for what I call "The CYO Guide", which will talk about rules, what to expect, what I expect, what to bring, what to and what not to do, how certain things work, etc, etc, etc....

Once that is up, please go over it carefully. If that is not up by today, it should be up within the next couple of days.

This blog will mostly be for CYO rehearsals, but since I am in charge of chamber as well, I might be writing entries for that group just as often. You can tell which group I am writing about by the tag(s) I put on each entry (but of course, you are more than welcome to read and comment in any entry, whether it is for your group or not).

In this entry, I just wanted to say welcome (back), hello, and that I think, from what I saw yesterday, this will be an excellent year!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Simple Symphony and and it's Alluring Alliterations

Hey chamber,
So let's not worry about the Sentimental Sarabande. We will concentrate on the Playful Pizzicato.
It was coming along quite nicely towards the end of last practice, so I think we can do a pretty good job with it in the concert.

Now, the movement does have a cute title, but I think it can use a little more help. Let's add these words to it.

Fierce Fingers
Dramatic Dynamics
Intensely Inspiring
Powerful Performance
Colorful Characters
Happy Happenings
Sparkling Sounds
Levitating Lightness
Creating Connections
Exquisite Ensemble
Emitting Excuses
Persistent Practicing
Practically Perfect
Positively Profound
Definitely Dance
Drastically Different
Sonically Spectacular
Casual Creativity
Pretty Pretty
Cuddly Cuteness
Ridiculously Resilient
Never Negative
Fearlessly Feisty
Pure Passion
Tremendous Teamwork
Alarmingly Attractive
Affectionately Addictive
Irresistibly Intelligent
Enormously Entertaining
Contagiously Confident

and the last three

Truly Talented
Always Awesome
Great Group

These ARE words that also describe you. 
Let's prove it.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

mystery in Erik Satie (hmm didn't quite rhyme...)

Hey guys,
So as promised, I wanted to post the poem that was the inspiration for Satie to write the Gymnopedies.
But before that, I guess I never mentioned to you that these pieces (there are three of them, and we are only doing the "first" one. Actually the order of these three pieces are not exactly standardized but we will call it the first one because that's what it says in our printed version...) are originally written for piano solo, and as far as Satie was concerned, he would've been happy with just the piano version.

It is thanks to his friend, Claude Debussy, who took it upon himself to orchestrate these pieces, that us orchestra musicians can enjoy them. And we should be especially thankful for Debussy was of course, one of the best orchestrators (and a composer), to ever walk the face of this Earth. Of course for our purpose, I had to fiddle around a bit with the orchestration, so our version is slightly "tainted" by me...

Anyway, here's the poem:
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d'or sur la dalle polie
Où les atomes d'ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
(for those who know a little French)
Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy
Trickled in gusts of gold on the shiny flagstone
Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves
Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia

by J.P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926)

Pretty image, right?
Was this close to what you had in mind?

It is interesting because the music, to me, reminded me of snow falling, rather than fire flickering...
But the slow dance ("sarabande") part is the same. In my imagination, those snow flakes would twirl around in a happy slow dance before it hits the ground and melt away.

So the poem compares the flickering of the light to that dubious word "Gymnopedie". I guess, in a way, that is another reason why they are beautiful (both the music and the poem),Becuase we don't know what the word means, everything is entirely up to our imagination.

Now do this. Read the poem and listen to the piece at the same time.
See if it changes things. See if it (either the music or the poem, or even both) has a clearer image.

One more rehearsal to go! Let's do this!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Reflections on Chamber's concert last week

So I thought the concert went really really well last week. You should all be super proud of what you accomplished.  I hope you gave yourself some kind of small reward for it for you deserve it. I did :) (I treated myself with good food while listening to good music)

I thought the way we opened the program (by starting Prokofiev without waiting fir the applause) was pretty effective and cool. It was a tad faster than I really would've liked it (completely my fault, as I was affected by the adrenaline), but it wouldn't have made any difference to the audience.  Maybe it was a good thing,  for I thought we sounded energetic and impressive.

Bravo to the quintet! You guys pulled it off amazingly despite of the almost impossible circumstance. All the technical stuff were there.
But a small ensemble like that needs to be more intimate, and more personal. In order to achieve that, a group really needs to spend a lot of time playing together.

The Bulgarian Song was awesome. Good energy, good ensemble (despite the unusual meter), first violins nailing the high notes,  great various sound effects through out, and great tempi (that's plural of "tempo", just in case you are confused...), I think the audience was quite impressed by that number!

With the Ravel, I realized that I just can't play solo comfortably in a tight physical space... I need more room... But that's a good thing to realize so I can tell you that, next time you need to take a solo for anything, make sure you have enough physical space around you, so you can be physically comfortable :)  Other than that, the change of pace seemed effective, so that was nice, but I think we need to pay more attention on starting and ending the phrases together. It is way more noticeable when the music is slow.

I do love collaboration of any kind. It just spices things up and give new inspiration and unique experience to all parties involved. I think those Rockit! kids were really cool. I just love their willingness to be involved with things. It is perfectly ok to be impressed by kids your own age. I am positive we impressed them tremendously too. Let's keep this good cycle going!

And yay! to the Brandenburg! I loved your focus during this piece! A little scary moment the day before,  but I figured that it really was just the acoustic of that dance studio that confused us. I noticed that every time we are in that space, our ensemble is weaker. Same thing happens to CYO too. So I might have been a little scared at that rehearsal, but in the end, I decided that it was nothing for us to worry about.  I hope you weren't too scared playing it. I don't think you were. The experience we had the day before was probably a good thing, for it seemed to me that we were all focusing super hard on staying together, which is what we should be doing all the time anyway!  And that piece is always just super fun to play. I'm really happy we are doing it. And we get to do it again in June! Let's shoot for even a higher level of performance then!

Great job, guys.

P.S. And thank you and good job to those who volunteered to do the MC's! 
I really appreciate your willingness to do extra for the good of the group! 

P.P.S. And Bravo! to Chloe and Anna who played every single piece in the whole concert (with Chloe on two different instruments), and double Bravo! to Anna who learned all 7 pieces of the chamber program in just TWO days!! Way to go girls!

Monday, May 5, 2014

the magic

Dates: April 24th and May 5th 2014
Orchestra: CYO

I am so glad that you guys find reading through a brand new piece for the first time with your friends in orchestra, "fun"!
Does that mean that you can now include "sight reading music" in the list of "fun activities to do with friends? I think you should! Next time your friends come over, put your video game controllers down, set your computer to sleep, put your cell phones away, and pick up your instruments!

Finding the music for The Sound of Music downstairs in the storage room among tons of filing cabinets, felt a bit more than a sheer chance to me. At first I wasn't sure, but when we started to read through it, I realized that this indeed was the exact same version I had played when I was nine years old as one of the first pieces I have ever played in an orchestra, along with the Beethoven Egmont overture, the L'Arsienne Suites (Bizet), and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (which we did last year). These are the pieces that gave me the biggest impact on me, and I remember the whole experience to this day.

I had not seen the sheet music for The Sound of Music since that time, but something led me to find it that week. For me to revisit it, and share it with people again. After contemplating on the whole event for a week, I decided that it was meant to be, and so I decided to put it in our program for this year's last concert.

I hope that this magic catches many of you. Let it affect you. Let it transform you. The magic of sound, music, and joy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

the agony and the freedom

Date: 04/16/14
Orchestra: CYO

CYO members are a dedicated bunch. We rehearse during spring break, while others are napping :)
I like the mid-break rehearsals. The number of people are few, but I feel like I get to be a bit more personal with each of them.
Since the big orchestra wasn't there to occupy the theater, we took the opportunity to take an advantage of the situation in moved in there. I love using that room, because of the projector and the sound system.

I arrived an hour early to give myself time to remind myself how the system worked (I used it last year too, but wasn't sure if I remembered how to operate all those machineries), but when I got there, Maggie and her assistant were moving the curtain forward. I asked them if they had some big event going on, but to my surprise, they were moving it so they can get better lighting, just for us (the lighting situation in the theater had always been less than ideal, and I guess they had been trying to figure out what they can do to help us). Of course upon hearing that they were in this theater one hour before our rehearsal, moving big things, climbing up on the ladder, testing each lights, I had to drop my bag and help them. They are such wonderful people.

During the rehearsal, we basically just ran through the Bizet and Beethoven for the first half, and then all went outside by the pond during the break (it was a tiny bit chilly, but nevertheless a gorgeous day), and came back and watched a portion of the original Fantasia (1940). Of course we watched the Beethoven (6th Symphony) portion of it.

I was really impressed with your observations, comparing Beethoven's 6th symphony to the Egmont overture that we are working on. Even pointing out certain pitches and melodic phrases that appear in both pieces. Really great observations!

We also briefly talked about Beethoven's 3rd Symphony and how the disappointment he experienced through it sparked the birth of the Egmont overture.

Beethoven had been so impressed with Napoleon for leading his fellow country men against oppression, during the French Revolution, that he had composed a super massive (larger than any piece that had ever been written) and heroic masterpiece and dedicated it to Napoleon. On the title page of the third symphony, he inscribed Napoleon's name on it, giving the symphony a subtitle, "Bonaparte" (Napoleon's sir name).
But when Napoleon crowned himself as an emperor, Beethoven was so infuriated that he took a pen and scratched over Napoleon's name so vigorously that he tore a large hole in the title page. By the time of it's premier, he had named the symphony "Eroica" (Hero), instead of the original "Bonaparte". Beethoven must have been such a hot headed man. I love it!

But he needed a real hero. And so he found count Egmont, a Dutch nobleman who died while taking a stand against oppression. Beethoven was a true advocate of freedom.

Now that we know the story, I hope the drama within the overture start to make clearer sense. The unpredictable nature of the battle, the worry, the suspense, then the battle itself, the pain, the anger, the sacrifice, but then the victory, the joy, and the FREEDOM. You can almost hear the music, just by talking about it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Not just a bunch of rumbling low notes

I had a revelation the other day. As i was going through and studied some scores this week, (including the brandenburg concerto), I realized something I feel like I always knew, but needed countless of reaffirmations to hit me in the head as a knowledge. Pieces of music that are considered as great compositions, or music that are fun to play, all seem to have, unique, interesting, and melodic bass lines. I'm thinking especially (but not exclusively) of music by the three B's: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms (of course one can add the fourth B, Bartok too if one likes). And it is definitely not surprising that Bach and other B(s) that came before them was one/some of the major influences on the later Bs. (However, all of their sir names starting on the same alphabet is purely coincidental.... Or is it????)

Their basslines are derived of a process we call "counterpoint", meaning these baselines are treated not just as support and the foundation of the harmony, but also act as independent melody lines, operating under, or with, or oftentimes against the main melody and other melodic lines.

Even if only the baselines of the pieces by those composers were rewritten in such a way that the only thing they did we're supporting the harmony, I guarantee you that you would not have heard of any of these composers, ever. I don't mean that their baselines were the only great things they ever wrote, but it is the intricacy of the involvement of their baselines within each particular contexts, that is truly remarkable.

If you've never paid attention to baselines, next time you listen to a piece of classical music (esp. pieces by one of these composers), I strongly suggest that you do. It could change your whole experience, and give you a whole new or way deeper appreciation to the art!

I also received a great news from Bruce of Rockit! that two of their kids will be joining us on the concert at the Middletown Library on May 4th! I'm very excited about that! We probably won't be rehearsing those two songs on our own, but please keep those songs in mind, and pick them up on your own, individually, outside of the rehearsals.

And here's a link to a funny video that Annabel found :) enjoy!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

listen, watch and be inspired!

Date: 4/3/14
Orchestra: CYO

So, As I wrote last week, I was going to give you a little homework on Beethoven, by just listing up some questions that you would answer, but I decided that that would be boring, so instead, I decided to ask you to watch a couple of videos. I decided that nothing is more educational than actually doing whatever it is that you are trying to get better at, and the next best thing is to observe some of the best ways in which it is done, and always remembering those great performances. Live is of course better, but the great thing about Youtube is that, you can do it at your own time, and can also watch it as many times as your heart contends. So Youtube it is.

I would like you to watch and observe two different performances of the same piece. One footage from a long time ago, possibly before even I was born, but still think is one of the best, and one of the more recent performances. I can't tell when this was recorded but looks like it could be from within the last few years.

You know, one thing I can't stand about modern music listening experience is that it has become nearly impossible to know when the performance was recorded. Without the knowledge, it is very difficult to understand the historical context of the performances, and in my opinion, takes a lot away from the listening experience.

Anyway, without further whining...

The first one I want you to watch is the performance by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Despite his inability to accept and appreciate cultures and peoples that are different from his own, when it comes to the interpretation of German music, especially those of Beethoven, I can't think of anyone else that is as special as him, from the past or today.

Now, as you will see, Karajan has a unique conducting style, especially when he is conducting the Berlin Phil, which was practically "his" orchestra at the time. He will not cue. He heavily relies on the ensemble skill of the orchestra members, which he can do because this orchestra at the time was consisted of some of the best of the best performers from all over Europe, if not the whole world. He is only concerned with the musical intent, and will conduct WAY ahead, to make musical gestures which the orchestra will follow while letting the orchestra stay together all on their own. It is a wonderful approach for it gives the performers a bit of freedom (but a LOT of work for the concertmaster, and other section leaders, but I think it makes it a lot more fun to play, hence you always see the musicians of this orchestra really getting into the music!) Talk about conducting ahead of the orchestra, though...

I remember hearing an interview from an orchestra member of this particular orchestra from relatively the same time (It was the principal bassist, but I don't think it was the same guy from this video), in which he said that every single member of the orchestra is subdividing the beats in their heads (meaning they are consistently aware of the smallest rhythmic values. In this case, the eighth notes and the 16th notes.) He said that it would be absolutely IMPOSSIBLE, if even ONE of the orchestra members did not subdivide his/her beats, to stay together.

Interesting, right?

Now watch this, and please note:
Their sound (aggressive, or delicate? impassioned, or casual?)
Their body movements
What they are looking at
Their bows (esp. if you are a string player)
and lastly, their BREATHS

Karajan with Berlin Phil

The other video is a performance of Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela, which is a YOUTH orchestra, just like us :)

In contrast to the Karajan clip, this is a performance of one of the greatest young talent of our time, conducting a group of young and talented, but not necessarily the best musicians (especially compared to the first video).

I would like for you to note the differences and similarities between the two performances.
How's the tempo?
What about the sounds?
Their body movements?
Dudamel's style vs. Karajan's

Dudamel with Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela (sorry with this one, you'd have to copy and paste the url...)

Also while watching these videos, please pay attention to some of the instruments you never paid attention to before, and learn something from them!

Happy listening!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

WebMD and war

Date: 03/29/14
Orchestra: Chamber

So I was finally able to get my hand looked at by a doctor yesterday. It was great that I found a clinic a block away from where I live. I showed up at 10:30 for a 10:45 appointment, but of course, I don't get the honor of seeing the doctor until after noon. It is as if I was waiting for the audience of a great king. I kept wondering why it had to be a 10:45 appointment, but I could not find the answer, other than letting the patients be "patient" and make it seem that they are busier (hence more important? ) than us.

My great nobel king looked at my hand and my body carefully enough, but then turned around and went on google... Of course, he had much more expertised knowledge than I had on that matter, so he was looking something specific up, and was very good at finding what it was that we needed to know than I had been in the past three weeks or so... but still..., I couldn't help but to be slightly disappointed...

I was hoping my mighty king would have asked me questions until I had no ear, and utter some strange words of knowledge to answer my answers I provided and give me some magical potions... I mean I felt like I waited enough to be treated that way...

I mean he wasn't mean or anything, and was very helpful, and gave me something useful. Just a bit plastic. And of course I was once again treated like the 156th peasant that came asking for a piece of bread at the pharmacy. And they would tell you anything, a complete lie and utter random nonsenses just to get rid of you if you dare ask them a question.

Anyway, in the end I got what I wanted, and I think it is already working quite well. But their attitude is making me hard to appreciate them from the bottom of my heart.

I guess I learned that, a human being is appreciated by not what they provide, but by how.

Anyway, I kept thinking back at our chamber rehearsal when we started it off with a conversation about WebMD, and war (at least my mighty king did not go onto webmd and diagnose it as cancer...)

And war of course can only happen when there is a complete lack of respect and appreciation. Hard to be sincere when you are so busy, but one must always try his/her best, because hate can spread rather quickly.

A rehearsal that starts off with random conversation topics are my favorite kind :)

So the Bach is already coming along, but obviously we just started it, so we have much much more work to do, namely crafting it for dynamic effects, chiseling out technical imperfections, and shaping it like a sculpture. And once we have the shape down, we can express it, SINCERELY, because it will be OUR product, and no one elses.