Monday, February 23, 2015

Bobby's wisdom

Date of rehearsal: 02/21/15
Orchestra: chamber
Repertoire Rehearsed: America (or at least what we have of it so far...)

As I anticipated myself, I was not able to complete the arrangement, but I think I was able to come up with enough stuff to keep you a little busy for the week :)

I have a bit of experience with the music of West Side Story. I have performed the whole Symphonic Suite (which is rather similar in the epicness and complex rhythmic structures to, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and just as difficult) three times, and coached the World Peace Orchestra perform it in Avery Fischer hall two years ago. The first time i ever played it, our orchestra was being coached by Bobby McFerrin! One thing I will never forget that he told us was that, when you practice music like this one (Jazz influenced music, or music in Jazz style), you must practice putting the metronome beats on the back beats, instead of the down beats as we always do in classical music. When I tried it, it immediately put me in a different world. I felt the music differently. At the time, I had zero experience in non-classical music, but just by feeling the rhythm differently, I felt like the door to the non-classical world became unlocked, opened, and I took a step into this whole new world. to this day, I am convinced that you cannot play music correctly, if you don't understand the rhythmic treatment of that particular style.

I have enough jazz musician friends to know that they really really hate it when the audience claps along with their playing on the "on" beats. It ruins their vibe, groove and style. To them, it must feel like playing a waltz while the bass plays only on the second or the third beats of the measures.

Now unfortunately, we cannot apply this method (metronome on the backbeats) in our particular scenario, for this particular number we are working on is in a meter that alternates 6/8 and 3/4. Neither meter has what we call the "back beats". And back beats emphasis obviously is not the "style" of this particular number anyway. But I am mentioning this, because practicing the method (not who taught me about it, but that didn't hurt) gave me one of the greatest impact I ever had on my musical life. And I think that it is applicable in the sense that one must understand and feel the groove and style to play correctly.

This piece may not have back beats but is nevertheless rhythmic in nature. It is it's main feature. So pay attention to this rhythm. I'd like to invite you to be fascinated by it. Tap it with your hands and feet. Feel all the eight notes, and feel the alternating accents. There is both lightness and heaviness to this rhythm. See if you can feel both at the same time.

This is a dance. Dances are generally fun and graceful and this is not an exception. Yet there is an element of conflict (poetic) to this song.

The grace notes in this piece are really something that emphasizes the rhythm, not the melody, and also add lightness to it. So play the grace notes gracefully, while keeping your internal clock of eighth notes unwavering, and solid as rock.

So my suggestion for practicing the piece would be to set your metronome to the eighth note beats and accenting the appropriate beats with a sense of lightness. Do not pound the accents for that is not the style. Just remember to dance. Always sing and dance.

push and pull

Date of Rehearsal: 02/19/15
Orchestra: CYO
Repertoire rehearsed: Waltz no. 4 & 5

We had a sectional rehearsal during the first half, where we separated winds/brass and strings so each group can work on our own unique issues and are able to address more technical issues in more depths.

In both sectional and tutti rehearsals, all of us concentrated on just two of the waltzes (actually, strings didn't get to the 5th waltz in our sectional, but we intended to anyway). I think concentrating on a small section is very helpful. We can really solve (or at least begin to) many of the issues within the section, and by learning how to tackle a specific issue, gives you a tool to tackle another issue, and every challenge we will face from then on should feel a little bit easier each time.

And I started from the most difficult of the waltzes. No. 4 has the biggest contrast both in tempi and characters, and the first half (the slower section) also requires us to be flexible with timing, which is very difficult to coordinate between the 35 of us. No. 5 includes an intro (Eingang) that is a bit schizophrenic in character, alternating between piano and forte every two measures, and the second half of the waltz is the loudest of all, and requires us to be dramatic and exciting, while still remaining graceful at the same time.

We also listened to a recording of it together, and discussed different things that we discovered just by listening to it. we also talked about push and pull of the tempo that is prevalent throughout this piece, and briefly discussed "why", which I think is a very important question to ask. I think you all know the general idea why such things need to happen in music, but I would like each of you to think about "why" in each specific places where we take certain liberties with the tempo. Why there at that particular spot? Why do we do what we do at that spot? What would that do to the music? What is the effect? What is the image?

Strings, please practice your bowings. It is so important that we get our bowings down for two big reasons: 1) a sense of unity. When everybody does the same choreographed movements, we are tighter together, and each of you should find a stronger sense of duty and pride for your own section, when you are so together, down to your physical movements and eventually breath.
2) the correct articulation and sound. I design the bowings, not based on looks, but so that you are more likely to use the right amount of bow, and play at the right part of the bow, to get the maximum effect for each passages. Oftentimes, changing the bowings can make ALL the difference: from impossible to play to "Oh, this is easy", and vise versa, if you have the "wrong" bowings.

Next week, we will work on the intro and the outro (Coda II)!! Please be ready to play those sections for this coming rehearsal!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

world of uncle Leos

Rehearsal Date: 02/14/15
Orchestra: Chamber
Repertoire rehearsed: Stand By Me and a little bit of Nirvana

I'm an uncle now!
My sister was in labour as we were rehearsing on Saturday, and the baby girl was born right around the time we stopped rehearsing! I still haven't been able to meet my baby niece yet, but I plan on seeing her today! So exciting!

I always knew I'd be an uncle one day, because it seems to me, all uncles are named Leo... I can think of two different uncle Leo characters from two different sitcoms, and even the person I am named after was my father's uncle Leo...

Anyway, we went over the chord progression of Stand By Me again, this time with more complicated patterns. Faster arpeggios in different order of notes, adding non-chordal tones, double stops, etc. I am convinced that you really get to know your instrument better in a more complete way when you learn a song this way. We learn not only how the progression goes, but how to play them while understanding exactly what you are doing harmonically, and what that means to your fingering patterns. Also working on the progression with arpeggios, scales, and double stops also act as technical exercises. At faster tempo and adding more notes, you can really get a nice workout for both your left and right hand, especially when the notes within the arpeggios are randomized and non-chordal tones are added. So please keep working on it. I really believe in this.

Next week, I promise we will have some version of Leonard Bernstein's (possibly another uncle Leo??? I know he had two daughters himself, but I don't even know if he had any siblings...) "America", from the West Side Story. I intend on doing the arrangement myself, so I will bring in something to get us started on the piece, even if I don't finish it completely.

As a bit of an excuse, I am playing in an opera right now, and it's taking up a lot of my time with so many rehearsals...

In the meanwhile, please familiarize yourself with the song esp. if you don't know it at all/well.
Here's the clip from the film. Music starts around a little after the 2 minute mark, if you want to skip the dialogues that lead to the song.

Amazing music, and great lyrics.

it's all Greek to me...

Date of Rehearsal: 02/12/15
Orchestra: CYO
Repertoire Rehearsed: Strauss Jr.

Yay, we finally got through the whole piece! This piece is a bit long and somehow complicated when all the waltzes are strung together.But each section is quite simple. Each waltz has two contrasting sections, and each sections are repeated twice before moving on, and once the second section is repeated, they go back to the beginning of the waltz to play each sections again, this time, just once through (A-A-B-B-A-B). And that's the formula for each waltz (except for the fourth one since we are ignoring the "dollar signs" for that one).

Now that we have went through every bit of the piece, I hope that you all have a better idea as to how the piece goes in general. I think it's very important to know what we are shooting for. In fact, I think it is rather impossible to accomplish anything, if we don't have an idea as to what it is that we are trying to do.

In the past, I have met and talked to many music teachers that don't believe in students listening to recordings. They believe that students should come up with or develop their own ideas as to how the music goes (by looking at the sheet music???). I vehemently, and violently disagree. For many many many many reasons. Just to mention a couple of those reasons, first of all, classical music, is deeply rooted in tradition, and a very particular culture. We all say "music is universal". that statement is misleading. Yes, "music" is universal, but a specific genre of music is not universal at all.

Who here listens to ancient Vietnamese music, or Indian ragas, or Japanese Gagaku, or Bulgarian instrumental folk music, or African ritual music on a regular basis, who here understands them perfectly, and can strongly relate to them? And IF you do understand and relate to those music, can you then, also relate to hiphop, country, and techno music? If you don't/can't relate to all of these these different styles, why would you assume that EVERYONE on Earth understands Western Classical music, which is one of the most eccentric, and complicated forms of all music.

Telling students to learn the music without letting them listen to how it is supposed to go, is like going up to a random child among a nomadic tribe in the middle of Mongolian plains, and expecting him/her to read and understand Latin, or Greek, or Victorian English.

Each style of music is based on it's own extra-music cultures and history. Each has it's own purpose, style, aesthetics, symbolisms, philosophy, and "language".

But since music is something designed for us to "listen" to, the easiest way to start understanding the music is by start listening to them. Not just once or twice, but as often as you possibly can. You must surround yourself in that sound, and that culture.

It is also very helpful to understand the background of the music, so I also strongly encourage you to read a little about it. For our purpose, we can start by reading a little but about Johann Strauss Jr. Even a little Googling can help you out tremendously.

Speaking of Mongolia, I just recently found this video. So interesting.  This shows a style of music emerged out of different environment, needs, culture, aesthetics, and purpose from any music we are used to listening to (Although, this instrument is tuned similarly to the cello with D and A strings, and I think he is using a viola bow......)

Keep listening to the music!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

identity crisis

Date of Rehearsal: 02/07/15
Orchestra: Chamber
Repertoire Rehearsed: King and Weber

So I am liking "the unison" as our name a lot! We can spell it "the UNIZON" to be cool.
But I was just thinking, the reason why something didn't quite agree with me when calling our group "Chamber" is because it is like calling an orchestra, "Orchestra". So I had only been looking at the word just as an adjective, and always felt so incomplete.

But I just realized, if I thought of the word "Chamber" as our actual name of the group, as my own name is Leo, I'm kind of ok with it :)

This thought was inspired by Anabelle's brilliant suggestion.

We are Chamber. I kind of like it, hahaha!

We should keep brain-storming for now though.

So we went over how to form harmonic "pads". This makes the song sound richer and more dynamic.
And started "arranging" the song. I really like our little "triangle" effect. I think it works quite well. An arco harmonic A and a pizzicato E.... Hmm, next time we should reverse it to see what that sounds like.

I was hoping to get the arrangement of "America" done this week, but it doesn't look like that is going to happen, so we will continue our work with Stand by Me and Phantom this week!

tough questions

Date of Rehearsal: 02/05/15
Orchestra: CYO
Repertoire rehearsed: waltz no. 1, 2 & 4 (Strauss)

Thank you all for a focused rehearsal that night. I do believe in having fun, but I also believe that making music with your friends is much more fun than doing many other things, and you only get to do it so many times a week. So here in our CYO rehearsals, I'd like us to really get into the music and forget about everything else.

To get into it, you must hear the music, and see the painting in the head. You must see the image. What is happening in the background? What is happening in the foreground? When and how often do the scenes change from one picture to another? Are the scenes similar, or different? Is there a story? and finally, what/where are you in these pictures? Are you a tree in the background, or are you one of the shiny teeth in someone's smile? What role must you take?

These are the questions we need to answer. Tough questions, but there are many of us. I believe we can find our answers if we stick together.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

what is an orchestra?

Rehearsal date: 01/29/15
Orchestra: CYO
Repertoire rehearsed: Waltz No.1~3

I have always been a member of some kind of ensemble/orchestra ever since I was 8 years old.  But it wasn't always great.

In college, I hated orchestra. In college, orchestra was there for the promotion of the schools, not the promotion of the well-being or the training or education for the students. In college, orchestra was required for all students who studied an orchestral instrument. In college, your private teachers, and all the classroom teachers thought their lessons/classes were more important than the orchestra. In college, we all "learned" that orchestra wasn't important, yet we all had to do it, three times a week at 9 in the morning. Often the very first thing we did in the day. In college, we had seating auditions, and if we did poorly, we were ashamed, and people looked down on people sitting in the back. In college, orchestra was more about the status than the music. But didn't someone say orchestra wasn't important? In college, we were getting mixed message. In college, we were all confused. In college, we learned absolutely nothing in orchestra. In college, I despised being in the orchestra, because I loved orchestra in general, at least how I remembered it to be.

After I graduated from school and started playing in ensembles and orchestras around the city, I learned that there were nice orchestras, and not so nice orchestras (whereas, before college, it was always always great). And the difference between a nice orchestra and a not-so-nice orchestra seemed to me, depended on the leaders, and the other players - do they really know what orchestra is about, or did they only have the kind of experience I had in college?

I would suspect that if you don't "get" it, it must be super boring to play in an orchestra. And your attitude shows, and that's what creates bad experience for the others.

So here are some tips for you (in order to help you understand what orchestra is really about).

The most important thing about being in the orchestra, is that you must treat it like a group project, or like a sport team.

As a unit, we have a common goal.

You practice your part, not for yourself, but for others in the group. If each of you sound incredible, the orchestra would inevitably sound better. That's why you practice your part. Like being very good at your position in a sport team. If you are a good goalie, the other team won't be able to score as much, and your team would likely win more often. That's why goalies practice getting better at defending their goals.

Each individual part therefore is very important, and they are important that they are played well, BUT (!) all of that would mean nothing, if we can't work as a team. It doesn't matter how good your goalie is, if your defenders lack coordination and strategy, and won't listen to the goalies direction, your goalie can't help you, esp. against the coordinated attacks of the other team.

The most important part that determines how good the orchestra is, is how well we rehearse. You can have all the best players in the county, but if they are not paying attention during rehearsals, you can also have the best conductor in the world but still be the worst orchestra in the county.

If we can't work as a team, if there are people who just don't get why we are there to rehearse, then we don't have much hope.

It is more difficult to be in an orchestra than being in a sport team, because our goal is less clear. What exactly is our goal? We don't have any other teams to beat, nor are there any scores or points that we can gain. But that is precisely why I love orchestra, and why I think it is extremely important for our growth.

Orchestra is non competitive. It is supposed to be anyway. Orchestra is cooperative. We look at the pieces as a challenge. The challenge is to try to figure out what those black dots and lines actually mean. We are, as a team, to decode the secret messages hiding behind those symbols, and make it come alive. We give birth to ideas and statements. Each piece is a challenge, a puzzle. We work together to solve these problems. Orchestra has never been just about playing the right notes at the right time. NEVER. It has always been about ideas, statements and stories, and messages, and will always be so. To tell these stories, to deliver these messages, to understand, and share. That is our goal.

So we need team players, who would work hard for the team. We need players that are proud of the group that they are in and respect their fellow members. We need players that take each rehearsals seriously, and players that want to solve these problems together with other players in the group.

Orchestra is not for your personal status. It will not help you in that regard. Orchestra is unkind to selfish and shallow people. And if you are selfish and shallow and are there for the wrong reason, you disturb others that are not, and ruin the group. So try to be educated about what you are doing. Try to understand what your roles are in the context of this particular group.

Orchestra will only help those that help the orchestra. You would gain only if you participate. And it is fair, for the more you put into it, the more you will gain. That is another reason why I love the orchestra.

So let's be a team player, and make ourselves proud by improving the group, shall we?