Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reading, listening, thinking, about Bach

We have a backlog of books at our house, waiting for someone to read them. A couple of weeks ago I was perusing the shelves after finishing the excellent Island at the Center of the World, a history of New Amsterdam.  After slogging through decades of Dutch politics I was looking for something completely different and picked up Arnold Steinhardt's Violin Dreams. I had read his Indivisible by Four, a memoir about the Guarneri Quartet, several years ago and really enjoyed it. Violin Dreams is another memoir, this time about Steinhardt's musical education and his violins. He is an excellent writer, and I enjoyed this book as much as his first. A significant part of the book is about his teachers and how they taught and about how he worked on a number of solos. The Chaconne, from the Partita in d minor, by J.S. Bach, is a continuing theme through much of the book. Steinhardt worked on this piece throughout his career, each time approaching it with different questions and new ideas. For me, this was the best part of the book. The book includes a CD with two performances by Steinhardt, on different violins, separated by about 20 years.

Back in the early fall, I had signed up for a Coursera class from the Curtis Institute titled "From the Repertoire: Western Music History Through Performance." This was my first experience with Coursera, which offers free online college classes in all kinds of subjects. At the time I signed up, the school year was not yet in full swing and neither were my music groups. I also thought I could handle this class because I took several music history courses in college, so I had a head start! I successfully completed the first two weeks (out of 7) and then became overwhelmed by real life and threw in the towel. It was a demanding class, in a good way.

Week two of the class was on the Baroque and focused on the Bach Chaconne, the same piece featured in Violin Dreams. This included a video lecture, listening to a video recording, and an assignment to pick a variation in the piece and discuss the affect and how the variation fit into or differed from the variations before and after it. The lecturer had discussed the three big sections of the piece - major, minor, major - easy to see and hear! - and also that the variations were short - each being about 4 bars long. The challenging part for me was figuring out what was going on in the variation I had chosen, as well the ones before and after. This is a piece for solo violin and the harmony and melody are woven into one line. It's not like looking at a composition from the Classical era, say, where you hear a nice, clear melodic line. This is what I ended up submitting:

The variation I have chosen to write about is from measures 80-83; by my count this is variation 19.

I picked this variation because it has a plaintive, nostalgic feeling. In addition, the affect could be described as a sad longing, or a pensive melancholy. After the fireworks of swooping runs and arpeggios from measure 63 through 75, the melody begins to slow and calm in variation 18. Then in measure 80, the violin ritards even more and leaps into its upper register, then descending in sighing couplets. The last measure, 83, has an overall ascending line leading into the next variation. Though the rhythm is written in sixteenth notes, the tempo has slowed. The dynamic also gets softer, to piano, also lending itself to the contemplative, pensive mood.

As stated above, this variation comes after an bravissimo section, with fast tempo and note values of sixteenths and thirty-seconds. At measure 76, the tempo becomes slower, marking a change and a new section. This variation, 18, has a repeating melodic figure that begins with an upward inverted arpeggio, then descends and once again ascends with a 7th chord. Variation 19 breaks this pattern with a leap from the ostinato pitch up and octave and a half, then followed by descending thirds or seconds, slurred. The following variation again has a different melodic structure, with groups of 4 thirty-second notes running up and down in groups of 4. Variation 20 also sounds faster because of the shorter note values, changing the mood with its quicker sounding pace.

Variation 19 is toward the beginning of this section, which I think begins with variation 18. The texture here, in both 18 and 19, is a single line, with no double stops, while the rhythm in 19 is sixteenth notes slurred in pairs with an occasional thirty-second note figure added. This section is still in d minor. The harmonic progression is quite different from the opening statement of the theme. We now have a number of accidentals cropping up, making analysis much more difficult. The ostinato holds the section together, as the descending progression can easily be heard on the downbeat of each measure from 80 to 83. I hear variation 19 as standing apart from the technical fireworks that come before and after. It is a moment to step back, take a breath, and feel the longing in the line before we come to variation 21 with its impressive arpeggios.

My homework was successful. I got a good grade from my peers.

Skip to January 2014. The music groups I am a member of all take breaks starting sometime in November or December and continuing into January. In January our Chicago weather caused some cancellations of rehearsals. Therefore I had no ensemble music that I needed to learn, so I decided to tackle the Bach Cello Suites, adapted for horn, as a challenge. They are a major challenge. I am working on the first and second movements of the first suite. The first challenge is purely technical - this was definitely written for a string instrument. It's not hornistic. Working out the runs and jumps has been a good challenge. But I also want to make music with these (even though I have no intention of ever playing them anywhere other than my practice space). It would be very easy to make them sound like etudes instead of a musical masterpiece. Bach didn't write much for horns, so I haven't played much except for the chorales, which aren't at all like the cello suites. It's such a different kind of music than what followed it -- Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler and on into the 20th century. I don't really know how to interpret the piece in a way that makes music and makes sense. I bought a recording of the Suites played by Yo-Yo Ma and have been listening to it. He makes it sound so natural and easy, though I know it's not easy even for cellists. I think I also need to read more about Bach's music to understand it on a deeper level.

Which brings us back to books! John Eliot Gardiner's new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, has gotten great reviews. I bought it and have started to read it. I'll report back in a later post.

Why all this work for a piece I won't be performing? It's much more fun to push to learn new things and test your limits than it is to remain exactly as you are. I expect to grow as a musician, with more ability and knowledge, which will make playing all kinds of music that much more interesting.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Double Tonguing

Somehow I never learned to double tongue. Actually, I know how this happened. I had, and still have, a very fast single tongue, so for most of the times when one might double tongue, I single tongued.

For the non-brass playing readers, brass players start notes with a "ta," "tu," or "da," using the tongue against the top front teeth. When the speed of the notes is too fast to keep up by single tonguing "tu-tu-tu-tu," brass players switch to double tonguing, "tu-ku-tu-ku" etc., using the tongue for the tu, then pulling it back and saying ku for the next note. It's a very useful technique.

My teacher in college, Milan Yancich, assigned me double tonguing exercises, which I did half-heartedly. So I continued through grad school and Civic Orchestra single tonguing, occasionally faking a passage that was too fast for me to single tongue.

I have learned along the way that I'm not alone. A number of musicians have told me how difficult they find double tonguing. And I recently read that Rafael Mendez did not need to double tongue, because his single tonguing was incredibly fast. Mine is not that fast.

Fast forward several decades and I find myself playing first horn in an excellent band in my community. Several pieces on the program this past fall demanded double tonguing, including the Maslanka Symphony #4. The time for faking was over. So I pulled out the Arban book and started working on double tonguing, very slowly, every day. Progress was slow. If I tried to increase the tempo of the exercises too much, they would crash and burn. I thought I would never master even one page - Arban page 175. I really didn't know if I was going to be able to play the passages that needed double tonguing by the band concert date. There's the popular theory now that a person can become an expert by spending 10,000 hours of focused practicing. I have certainly spent more than that much on horn playing overall, and I really hope I don't need to spend 10,000 hours just on double tonguing. But focused practice is the answer, whatever one is trying to learn.

I did get better. I was able to use double tonguing on the concert, though not at full volume. For me, the experience of trying to learn something new that required both physical and mental effort was very fulfilling. Though I learn new things all the time, this particular technique was challenging in a way that most things in my life are not. It required concentrated effort, patience, and weeks and weeks of practice. And no, I have not mastered it yet.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Alexander Technique

Over the years, studying music and knowing musicians, I learned about a number of methods that have helped musicians, and other people, with physical problems. Most are methods based on learning to move correctly or naturally, including the Alexander Technique. I was interested, but there were various roadblocks to trying either -- scheduling, lack of practitioners in my area, cost.

Then the youth symphony that my daughter had belonged to sent out a notice that they were sponsoring a free demonstration of the Alexander Technique. My husband and I went. The Alexander teacher worked with several young musicians, including a pianist, a singer, a clarinetist, and a cellist. He worked with them one at a time, starting by having each play something of their own choice. It was clear they were all fine young musicians. He then worked with them - adjusting the way each stood, having them stand up and sit down, and walking each around while he gently guided by holding the nape of the neck. He suggested in a few cases that the young man or woman should be more still when playing -- that is, not bob around. Then he had the individual play again, the same piece as before. Every the difference was striking. Musicality improved, as did tone, and these were young people who already played extremely well! It was a very impressive demonstration.

I again thought about trying the Alexander Technique, but again put it aside because of my busy schedule.

Then some time ago -- maybe two years? -- I started developing a pain in my right shoulder when I played horn. It grew from annoying to "this really hurts" status over time. It also began hurting at other times, like when I used the computer mouse. Then I irritated my rotator cuff -- same shoulder, different spot, excruciating pain -- and went to the orthopedic doctor, who sent me to physical therapy. I told both the doctor and the therapist about the non-rotator cuff pain, but of course everyone' main goal was fixing the rotator cuff. Both thought maybe the same exercises might also fix the other problem. My rotator cuff got better (hurray!) but there was no change to the other problem.

So this past summer I decided that there was no better time than the present, and I contacted the teacher we saw do the demonstration. He is not close by; it is close to an hour's drive to get to his studio. However, he is an excellent teacher and a musician himself. I don't think I could have found a better teacher for myself.

So what is the Alexander Technique exactly? It's hard to explain. At my first lesson, my teacher asked what my goals were. I said I'd like no pain, or at least less pain, and maybe better posture. He replied that the Alexander Technique doesn't work on posture per say, but I could expect my posture to improve. The American Society for the Alexander Technique explains what it is in part as a way "to change faulty postural habits" and therefore enabling "improved mobility, posture, performance, and alertness and relief of chronic stiffness, tension, and stress." Many people learn it to reduce pain, but others, including actors and dancers, use it to enhance their performance. The technique was created by an actor who was having problems vocally. He began observing how he stood and adjusting to try to reduce tension, which solved his vocal problems. My teacher likes to call it "learning to leave yourself alone." You will feel much more relaxed at the end of a session, somewhat like you may feel at the end of a yoga class, though without the physical workout.

In a session, the teacher guides the student with hands-on adjustments in standing, sitting, and walking. There is also table work, in which the idea is to relax and get all body parts in balance. There are no exercises, like in physical therapy, to go home and practice. It took a number of weeks before I could keep the gains I made in sessions throughout the week, but it does happen. A bonus for me was having not just a musician, but a brass player, as a teacher. He gave me specific advice on holding the horn, breathing, and so on. I haven't finished with lessons, but the pain is mostly gone and usually controllable when it does appear, and my playing has improved in some keys ways, including breath control and use, phrasing, and less tension. All together this results in less nervousness, something I didn't expect. In addition, I usually just feel more comfortable, not just pain-free, but in balance.

It's not a fast fix and it's not cheap, but it really works! If you're interested in how the Alexander Technique helps musicians, take a look at this site. This site also has information and links to blogs and videos that will be useful to anyone interested in the Alexander Technique.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Memorable Listening

A few months ago I got an email from ArkivMusic, publishers of Listen magazine as well as being a wonderful online source for classical recordings, asking me to participate in a survey. When I clicked on the link, the single question was "Please share with us your most memorable experience with classical music. This could be the greatest live performance you have ever seen or the most inspiring moment with a piece of music, a musician, a teacher or a place. If there is a single experience that stands out for you, we would love to hear about it."  I closed the window. It's a great question. After thinking about it, I decided I couldn't answer it - there were too many memorable experiences to choose just one. I decided to write here about some of the many memorable experiences I have had with classical music.

Their question is really open-ended, but I decided for now to limit it to a few live concert listening experiences that made an impact on me.

The first concert that I remember going to was in the high school gym of my town, Neenah, Wisconsin. Rafael Mendez gave a concert. I was about 10 years old, sitting in the bleachers with my family. I was blown away by the sound of his trumpet. I was so focused on the music that I was oblivious to everything else. Shortly after that, when it was time to sign up for a band instrument, I started trumpet. Amazingly, I still have the program from that concert.

When I was 15 or 16, my high school band/orchestra director organized a trip into New York City to hear the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell. By this time, my family had moved to Connecticut and I had switched to horn. The concert was in Carnegie Hall, my first visit to this wonderful hall. I don't remember the details of the concert anymore, but I remember the feeling of hearing this great orchestra, sitting at the top of the beautiful hall.

The summer after my freshman year at Eastman, I went to the International Horn Symposium at Indiana University. This is more than one concert, but the week-long symposium is one experience in my memory. This was the 4th IHS Symposium and there were a lot of big names of the horn world there, all of whom I had only heard on recordings (LPs!). Hearing the Chicago Symphony horn section, Dale Clevenger, Tom Howell, Richard Oldberg, and Norm Schweikert, playing the Schumann Conzertstuck with piano accompaniment in a recital hall packed with a totally silent audience of horn players was an unforgettable experience. I had never heard playing like that -- so perfect and exciting. I was also wowed by Alan Civil in recital, a completely different style than the CSO hornists, but equally exciting and very impressive. One of the pieces he performed in recital was Hunter's Moon by Gilbert Vinter.  It's a novelty piece, very fun to listen to and play. At the time of this symposium, it was not well known, at least in the U.S., and was out of print. Now it's back in print and you can find performances of it on Youtube. No one plays it like Alan Civil did, though. Everything I heard him play was full of life and good humor. He also performed with a quartet made up of his wife Shirley Civil, Jim Buffington and Martin Morris, on a program that included a hilarious medley incorporating Der Freischutz, Jingle Bells, and a jazz improvisation by Buffington.

Jumping forward three years, I graduated college and moved to Chicago to study with Dale Clevenger, having convinced him to accept me as a student. (Go here for that story.) There were lots of great reasons to be in Chicago in the mid-1970s, including the Chicago Symphony. It was the Solti era and the renowned brass section was amazing. Just listen to recordings from that time. As a member of the Civic Orchestra (the training orchestra of the CSO) I could buy tickets to Friday afternoon concerts for one dollar. The tickets were almost always for gallery seats, often in the last row, but that didn't matter. For reference, the regular price of the gallery seats was $6. The first Chicago Symphony concert I went to was conducted by Claudio Abbado and included Brahms 3rd Symphony. What I remember best, of course, is the horn solos, which were beautiful -- intrinsically musical, with an ease that made it seem easy (which it is not!). I have gone to many. many outstanding CSO concerts over the years, but this first one still stands out in my memory. You couldn't ask for a better introduction to the symphony.

I wondered what other people wrote in response to Listen's question. There are some wonderful stories in the winter edition of Listen, of concerts attended, recordings heard, and interactions with great musicians. You can read them  here. How would you answer?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mozart and ... Vampires?

While I was searching online for yet another Mozart book, the novel Mozart's Blood popped up on the screen. It's a vampire novel! With Mozart as a character! How bizarre and ridiculous! I thought.

Then I started reading the reader reviews and many people liked the book. They complimented the historical and musical details and the interesting story. So I checked it out of the library.

I am not a reader of vampire novels. I read the first Twilight novel, mostly to see if it was appropriate for 4th graders (it isn't), and I was a fan of Dark Shadows when it was on TV long ago. But I haven't been interested in the avalanche of vampire novels and television shows that have appeared in recent years. As I read Mozart's Blood, it sometimes seemed to me that the vampire story was an awkward addition to an interesting story of a young soprano trying to succeed in the 18th century. This might be due to my own disinterest in vampires.

The historical details of 18th century Europe, as well as 19th century San Francisco, ring true and are a highlight of the novel. There are abundant musical details of the 18th century, too. I learned more about castrati than I realized there was to know. Author Louise Marley, who is a former opera singer, has also captured the essence of what it's like to perform in an opera and also the way musicians see and hear music, whatever the century. The main character, soprano Teresa Saporiti, was a real person and did premiere the role of Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Mozart is an important part of the story, though he only appears briefly, and his music is also important to the entire novel. And there's also a werewolf!

When I was reading this outside of my house, I kept trying to hide the cover. No one ever commented on it, but I felt somewhat like I did two summers ago when I was reading Shades of Gray by Jasper Fforde, which is a wonderful dystopian novel set in the future. Everyone who caught a glimpse thought I was reading 50 Shades of Gray and wanted to know how I liked it.

Author Louise Marley has written a number of novels, several of which are about musicians. You can find out more on her website: Louise Marley: Words and Music.

If you want to check out the bizarre worlds of Jasper Fforde, he also has a website:

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Talent: Nature or Nurture?

Some time ago I watched this video on the Horn Insights blog. It irritated me, even though I agreed with some of the ideas. The ideas come from a book titled Talent is Overrated by Geoffry Colvin. I haven't read this book, but I did eventually read The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyne, which argues the basic idea, that the three things anyone needs to become an expert at anything are an excellent coach/teacher, 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice, and the practice must be focused and meaningful. I do agree with the idea that whatever you are born with as far as potential, without those three elements it is unlikely that a person will become extraordinary.

But Mozart was extraordinary from the time he was a very young child, before he had had time to amass 10,000 hours of practice. He also surpassed his teacher, his father Leopold, as a young adult. Then, just this week, I read this article, Studying the Science behind Child Prodigies from NPR. It looks at cellist Matt Haimovitz, a former child prodigy whose mother played piano and took him to concerts, but there is no one else in his family with his kind of talent. Ellen Winner, a psychologist who studies child prodigies, argues that the brains of such children are different than the ones the rest of us have. Haimovitz was mentored by outstanding musicians, like Itzhak Perlman, and is today a successful adult musician.

Both the video and the NPR article are too short to do justice to this debate. There's truth on both sides.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why was it more fun?

If we think that maybe at least some people did have more fun in the 18th century than we're having in the 21st, we naturally wonder why that would be, and maybe even how we can have more fun now. There are several good theories, in my opinion. The Mozarts' fun was generally centered around getting together with their friends and acquaintances to play games, talk or make music, so I
'm considering what is different now that stops us from having that kind of experience.

We've all heard that electronics in general and the Internet, Facebook, etc. are stopping us from having live interactions with our friends. Certainly the Mozart family had no choice but to interact in person or through hand-written letters with their acquaintances. There are many articles and studies about the ways in which people interact with their devices instead of the people that they're with. Recently NPR reported on a study that too much time on Facebook can make us sad. A recent New York Times article looked at how our extreme use of our smart phones is distracting us from the events and people in our lives. My favorite book on the subject is Hamlet's Blackberry, by William Powers. Powers takes a long view of technology, looking all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and suggesting reasons and ways to take control of how and when we switch off and reconnect face to face.

Then there's that three to four hour break after lunch that many residents of Salzburg and Vienna enjoyed in the 1700s. In spite of our many time-saving devices today, we work a lot. I don't know anyone who could take a break like that from work.

Perhaps because 18th century families tended to stay in one area instead of moving away from family and friends, it was just a part of their lives to socialize together. The Mozart family, though, does not fit this description. Leopold Mozart was estranged from his mother and siblings, perhaps because of his choice not to go into the family trade of bookbinding and also because of a dispute over inheritance. His wife, Anna Maria, had lost her family. Her father and sister died when she was still a child, leaving only her mother and herself. The Mozarts also traveled much more than most people at that time. Their large social group was made up of neighbors, fellow musicians, visitors to Salzburg and people they met on their travels.

There are no doubt other reasons as well. So many things back then were different and difficult, but there are some specific aspects that I envy, especially the frequent musical gatherings and that three hours in the afternoon!