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!