About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mozart vs. Korngold, or Why Mozart should not be the Poster Child for the 10,000 hours crowd

Mozart is frequently used as the example for how having three key elements - 10,000 hours of practice, an excellent teacher or coach, and focused practice - lead to extraordinary performance in any field. I have written before in blogpost and also in a comment  about this idea, which is the topic of several books, including The Talent Code. The basic idea is that talent is not inborn, it can be developed if you have those three elements. If you read The Talent Code it's clear that it's more complicated than just that, but many people reduce it to a sort of formula.

It has always bothered me that Mozart is so often the example of the success of this formula. I kept thinking about why I didn't believe that Mozart's opus and legacy was the product of just these three elements, which he clearly had as a youngster.

Mozart was both an extraordinary composer and a world-class concert pianist of his time. He also played violin and viola well enough to play in professional orchestras of the time. He is revered today as one of the greatest composers of all time and his music is frequently played. He had a profound effect on musical composition, innovating in opera, piano concerti, and symphonies, which changed those genres for all composers who came after him. His works are clearly his lasting legacy.

Erich Korngold was a child prodigy, too. Born in Moravia in 1897, he began playing piano as a small child and composed his first works at age 8. He was often compared to Mozart. He was encouraged and his early compositions were acclaimed by Mahler and Richard Strauss for their originality and bold harmonies. He was asked to come to Hollywood and compose for films, which he did while continuing to write "serious" music. His film scores, such as Robin Hood and Captain Blood, are exceptional. After World War II, however, musical tastes had changed in Austria, and Korngold's work received poor reviews and small audiences. Today his concert music is rarely played and he is remembered mostly for his film scores. [Much of the biographical information here comes from the Korngold Society webpage.]

I heard one of Korngold's concert pieces recently and thought it was a very pleasant piece. When I listen to Mozart, I am drawn into the music because it is so much more than a pretty piece or an interesting work.

Returning to the three elements for becoming an extraordinary performer in any field, I came to two conclusions. There is a difference between being an extraordinary performer and an outstanding composer/creator. The composers whom we consider great - Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, etc. - not only wrote outstanding music, they changed music for everyone who came after them. By changing forms, harmonies, and instrumentation, they pushed music to new places. No amount of coaching or focused practicing leads to this level of creativity.

Second, look at the difference in Mozart's legacy and achievements and Korngold's. Both were child prodigies, both must have put in the 10,000 hours and the focused practice. Mozart may have had a better coach in his father than Korngold had. Alexander von Zemlinsky was his teacher, though for a much shorter period of time than Leopold Mozart taught and mentored Wolfgang. Overall, very similar background and opportunities, but quite different results. It's more complicated than a formula.

I'm not saying that the formula of thousands of hours of focused practice and a great coach won't have results. I think that it will, along with a few other factors, like a strong desire and some helpful genetics. You are less likely to be an exceptional basketball player if you're short, or a top gymnast if you're tall. The same holds true for musical instruments, for example, I am a terrible woodwind player because I have double-jointed fingers. But I don't believe that you can create a creative genius on the level of Mozart with a formula.

Tempting as it is to use Mozart as the poster child for the efficacy of developing extraordinary performance, he doesn't work for this. He went so far beyond extraordinary performance that he is in a category by himself.

Monday, May 11, 2015

L'enfant et les sortileges, truly enchanting

The Chicago Symphony is currently presenting French Reveries & Passions with Esa-Pekka Salonen. We attended the concert last week that included Ravel's Mother Goose Suite,  Debussy's La damoiselle elue, and a very unusual work, an opera by Ravel titled L'enfant et les sortileges, or "The child and the enchantments."

The entire concert was wonderful. Mother Goose was quietly enchanting, and the Debussy was a very interesting piece, using a poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that tells the other side of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven." In "The Raven" a man longs for his lost love who is now in heaven. In La damoiselle elue (The Blessed Damsel) the woman, in heaven, longs for and awaits her lover still on earth. It was an interesting, rarely heard piece, but the piece that really charmed and intrigued me was L'enfant et les sortileges.

This short opera, with a libretto by Colette, tells the story of a young boy, possibly 6 or 7 years old, who doesn't want to do his homework. When his mother finds out, she tells him he must stay in his room until he finishes with only "tea with no sugar and dry toast." After she leaves he has a tantrum in which he smashes the teapot and cup, pokes the pet squirrel in his cage, pulls the cat's tail, knocks over the kettle, swings on the grandfather clock's pendulum and breaks it off, tears up his books and rips the wallpaper with the poker. When he collapses the enchantment begins. The furniture comes alive, singing that it's glad the boy will no longer attack it with his heels. In a series of arias and duets, the various objects express their points of view. Some of these are poignant, while others are quite funny. The CSO not only had supertitles projected onto the stage, but also pictures of which characters were singing at the time. So, for example, when the shepherds and shepherdesses come to life, we saw a silhouette type illustration of them on the screen. Of the eight soloists, only Chloe Briot, who sang the boy, had a single role. The others played several different characters.

The interesting preconcert talk was given by Derek Matson, a dramaturg who works with many Chicago arts groups. Among the insights he shared was that Ravel specified that the teapot must be a black Wedgwood and the cup was a Chinese cup. Mr. Matson explained that a Limoges teapot would be more typical for a French household, but Ravel wanted his teapot to be an American boxer, singing a sort of pidgin English during a foxtrot, while the Chinese cup answers in a French version of Chinese. Manuel Nunez Camelino, the tenor who sang the teapot, was a wonderful actor in all his roles. As the teapot, he used his arm as both the spout and a boxing stance, jabbing now and then.

Another highly unusual duet is the Duo miaule, a duet between the boy's cat and a female cat, sung entirely in miaows. Mr. Matson told his preconcert audience that the first audiences had been outraged by this duet and made so much noise of their own, adding miaows and catcalls, that it was difficult to hear the music. Another of my favorite parts was when the boy discovers that only his mathematics book has survived his rage. "Mathematics" comes to life as an eccentric professor type, singing incorrect equations, and then the children's chorus, representing numbers, streams on stage to join him.

The second part of the opera is more serious, moving into the boy's yard as the moon rises. There the animals confront him with the pain and harm he has done them and finally attack him. He realizes how cruel he has been, and when his squirrel injures his paw, the boy bandages it. This shows the animals that he has learned his lesson and they sing, "he is a good boy."

Until this concert, I didn't know all that much about Ravel. I knew Bolero, of course, and the Mother Goose Suite, Rapsodie Espanole, Daphnis and Chloe, and of course every horn player knows Pavanne for a Dead Princess. I had generally thought of Ravel lumped together with Debussy, both impressionists. With this concert, I realized that Ravel lived further into the 20th century than I had realized. He died in 1937. This charming opera also demonstrated that Ravel was definitely part of 20th century music and is distinctly different than Debussy. At one point he has the chorus speaking their lines in rhythm, like sprechstimme, used by Arnold Schoenberg as well as other 20th century composers. The orchestra includes a lutheal, a hybrid piano invented in the early 20th century. There is whimsy and humor in the musical numbers, as well as experimentation.

Requiring a full orchestra (including the rare lutheal), small chorus, children's chorus, and eight soloists, this an expensive piece for an organization to present. It's too bad because this is a delightful and eye-opening opera.

Here is the cats' duet from the Glyndebourne Opera production:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Slice of Musical Life

This past Sunday was a special day for me musically. The concert band that both my husband and I play in had its last concert of the year and our daughter, who also plays horn, and I were featured on a solo.

The road to this solo performance was winding and full of roadblocks.

Every fall, any band member who is interested can audition for a chance to play a solo with the band. Generally two or three players are chosen. The first couple of years it was all woodwind players and I thought the brass really needed to be represented. However, I didn't want to play a solo by myself. So, I asked one of the other horn players if he wanted to audition with me on a concerto for two horns. I picked this piece because it is one of a small handful of pieces for two solo horns with band. My horn player friend said sure. He also felt that we needed to give the woodwind players some friendly competition. We planned to work on it over the summer. Well, it seemed we were never in town at the same time. Fall came and he said he just didn't have time to learn the part, which was quite challenging. End of story, I thought.

I was telling my daughter Jamie what happened and she said, "I could do it with you." Well, she's not a member of the band. She's a busy graduate student. She doesn't live with us, making rehearsing more difficult. But she already knew one of the parts. So I said I would ask the conductor if we could audition even though she isn't in the band. Much to my surprise he said yes. She had filled in at one concert, so he said that was close enough.

The next challenge for me was that the part Jamie already knew was the part that I had planned to play. So I needed to learn the other part, which is very high. Both of us are really low horn players. Like training for a marathon, learning this part required a lot of practice time to build up the endurance.

The piece in question is a "double concerto" for two horns was written by Antonio Rosetti, a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rosetti was German, despite his name, which he changed, probably because Italian musicians were paid more than Germans in the 18th century. He was a court musician in one of the many small courts in what is now Germany. He had two outstanding horn players in his orchestra, for whom he wrote at least 17 concertos, plus 6 double concertos. His music is rarely played today.

We auditioned last September and were one of three soloists chosen. Our concert date was in May.

Next roadblock: The Band music is rental only. The school district that sponsors our band ordered the music. Through some miscommunication somewhere, the wrong concerto arrived. It was only 4 weeks before the concert. The conductor told me he thought it was not possible to return the parts and get the correct music in time to prepare it for the concert. End of story, I thought.

But no, my husband was determined that we would play. He called the rental company the next day and explained the problem so persuasively that the correct music arrived at our house two days later! We had two rehearsals with the band and then it was concert time.

People are surprised that I get nervous when performing, but it's true. This time, though, it was such a joy to play this charming little piece with Jamie that my mind was only on the music and the pleasure of playing. A perfect performance? No, but I think we communicated the spirit of the piece. And we had fun!

Seize the moment! So many roadblocks along the way and this may very well be the only time that Jamie and I solo together in public. It's a great memory to have. 
Antonio Rosetti

A version of this post appears on my blog The Game's Afoot! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Five Things: A Challenge

There was a challenge traveling around the education part of Twitter recently with the hashtag #makeschooldifferent. The challenge, begun by Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant)  was to post a list of five things that all start with the statement "When it comes to education we have to stop pretending..." I was inspired by the many lists I read, and I wrote my own.

Then I began thinking about whether I could do the same for classical music - write a list of five things that we need to stop pretending about. We have all known for several decades that classical music has some serious challenges in today's world. Declining ticket sales, aging audiences, lack of music education in the younger public because of cuts in school music programs, perceived lack of relevance, and a limited repertoire are problems faced by American orchestras today. All these issues are acknowledged by the people who run orchestras. Many different ideas have been tried to bring new audiences in, to go out to the public, and to vary the types of programs that orchestras present. I don't see a lot of pretending going on. Orchestras know what the problem is, but haven't hit upon a surefire solution.

On the other hand, young musicians training for a career in classical music also face problems that previous generations did not have. There are so many music majors graduating every year that there is no possibility that even most of them will be able to get jobs in orchestras or related classical music areas. Robert Freeman, former director of the Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music has written a book, The Crisis of Classical Music in America sharing his views on this problem. In a recent interview Freeman stated that 30,000 music majors graduate from American colleges each year. Not all of these will be instrumentalists seeking positions in orchestras, but it's still way too many instrumentalists for the number of orchestral openings each year. This means, Freeman says, "When you're in school, you're hoping to be the principal oboe. Then you get out of school and it turns out there are 500 candidates for the job, 100 of whom are perfectly well qualified." When I was an undergraduate, my teacher, Milan Yancich, told me that he used to get calls from NYC asking him to "send down a few boys to audition" (yes, boys). Music organizations actually had to solicit to get players to come audition. It was no longer like that when I was in music school, but it's much, much worse now.

So here is my list of five things. I'm writing as an audience member, music lover, and the parent of a young aspiring musician.

We need to stop pretending:

  • that technical perfect playing equals a musical performance. With so many well-qualified musicians auditioning, orchestras seem to be focusing much more on technical perfection. Quite a few great players of the past would have a difficult time winning an audition today because while the examples I am thinking of were outstanding musicians, they missed some notes.
  • that even a fraction of the music students now in school will be able to support themselves with traditional playing jobs. 
  • that the traditional classical music concert is not intimidating and confusing to newbies. I was struck by a friend's first experience at the symphony. She didn't know how to find information in the program and so had no idea who was performing or what they were playing. And yes, this was an intelligent woman.
  • that the event of recordings, followed now by a tsunami of ways to listen to performances hasn't caused all interpretations to move to the middle. The eccentric, and often interesting, interpretations of the past are now a rarity. It can also be an incentive to stay home and listen rather than dress up and travel to hear a live concert.
  • that change isn't necessary. Change might be just the thing classical music needs. There are already signs that this could be true. Classical musicians are giving concerts in unusual locations, like bars. Musicians are talking to the audience at concerts. 
I go to a lot of concerts. I love classical music and the standard repertoire. I sincerely hope that classical music will continue to be important - it communicates with us in a way that no other art form does, and connects us to the past. It is a lively world with great ideas and wonderful people. May it evolve and thrive! 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dipping a toe into arranging

The school where I teach has an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly every January. It's quite a big production. There's music, skits, excerpts from MLK's speeches, and faculty and students, and often outside experts, are all involved.

I had taken part in 2013 by playing a duet with my husband - horn and tuba. We played Amazing Grace, which he arranged for us. It went well and added to the overall program, we thought. This year, though, the organizer, a fellow teacher, asked if I could put together an instrumental ensemble and "play something." I knew right away that this would mean arranging something. We would never have a standard instrumentation for any known ensemble. So I said yes.

I had not arranged any music since college. First I sent our a call for instrumentalists among the faculty and staff. I got one trumpet, one horn (me), one tuba (my husband), one clarinet/oboe, a mandolin/cello, and a percussionist. The only members of this new ensemble who played regularly were my husband and I. The percussionist told me very honestly that she hadn't played since high school.

Next, I went to IMSLP to search for spirituals in the public domain. I printed off a three-part arrangement of "We Shall Overcome" and an organ arrangement of "Deep River." I decided to set "We Shall Overcome" and wait and see if I had time to do something with "Deep River."

I had ideas about using the instruments to vary the texture and move the melody around. The biggest challenge for me was choosing a key that would be comfortable for everyone and still have a range that was musical. I also had to search online for a mandolin piece so I could see what the written music looked. I most definitely did not have time to learn Finale or Sibelius, so I had to write everything by hand.

Once it was done and I had copied the parts, we had a rehearsal. It sounded quite nice! There was an odd harmony in one measure, but we left it. The brass dominated, which was fine for this occasion. The mandolin could not be heard at all, so my friend the mandolin/cellist first thought he might amplify his mandolin. His second thought was that  he was really more comfortable reading bass clef than treble, so he decided to move his part into bass clef and play it on cello. Since the parts were simple and the rehearsal had gone just fine, and everyone in the group was very busy, we decided against having another rehearsal.

We were scheduled to play first on the program, as people were settling down. Four of us were set and ready to play in the gym. Our cellist was playing with an amplifier in the music room, thinking maybe he would amplify his cello. I think the volume from the brass had him worried. Our percussionist was missing. We waited, but finally the teacher-organizer asked us to begin. So we played as a quartet, and except for one phrase of the melody that was too faint, it was good. I found out later that the percussionist thought we were playing at the end, not the beginning, so she wasn't there at the right time.

And so I learned 1. why band directors are so obsessed with details and making sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do and when, and 2. that arranging is fun! I plan to try it again. I have some ideas for horn quartets that I hope to try this summer. And the third thing I learned, or relearned, is that trying new and challenging things is rewarding.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Poking Around in the New York Phil's Archives

Thursday's New York Times arts section included a short feature about a bass part to Dvorak's New World Symphony, which the New York Philharmonic will be performing this week. The bass part can be seen online in the Philharmonic's Leon Levy Digital Archives, and is interesting because it was used at the premiere of the New World in 1893. It is even more interesting because of a drawing of a face on the part, a face that resembles Antonin Dvorak, who attended rehearsals for that premiere. You can see the doodle here, along with a slide show of other pages.

The Archives are full of interesting material. Being a horn player, I did a search for horn parts. Once I chose horn, I had a choice of composers and pieces and also of marked parts. I browsed several marked parts and was interested to see that the New York Phil horn players markings are much like the markings that all horn players everywhere make. Horn parts are often in a variety of transpositions and often change transpositions during the piece. While the key is marked, horn players everywhere write it in larger or circle the key since there is nothing more embarrassing than playing the wrong transposition. (For non horn players, this is a carry-over from the hand horn, before valves were invented. The horn player would change tubing to change key. Now we transpose - play different note than are written.)

Then I selected a second horn part to "Harold in Italy" by Hector Berlioz marked by horn player Robert Schulze. He seems to have had difficulty remembering the transposition change for the 4th movement, as it is marked with a circle, arrows, and a skull and crossbones. Schulze was a member of the horn section in the early 20th century.

Besides parts, you can search scores, programs, images, and business documents. I'm sure this is useful to music students, but also very interesting to music lovers in general.

Photo of Antonin Dvorak

Monday, July 28, 2014

Perfection versus Musicality

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

An article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune of July 20, 2014, titled "A classic case of tryout panic," delved into the audition process that aspiring symphony players must go through to win a job in an American orchestra. The article, written by Donna Perlmutter, focuses on the difficulty of winning an audition in an American orchestra today and the process involved in auditioning. What struck me most were quotes from several orchestra members stating that musicians auditioning today must be perfect. "'Today perfection is a requirement,' says David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 'You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.'"

This theme of needing to play perfectly in an audition and the negative side effects has popped in a number of places recently, one of them being a remark by Glenn Dicterow, the retiring concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, in a New York Times article. "'It's a given that you're supposed to play perfectly, virtuosically,' he said. 'But maybe there's a bit of the generic quality in music making - people don't have as much individual style. I think that's just a product of the age we live in.'" Here in Chicago those great musicians with individual style included Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, Ray Still, and Dale Clevenger. You would not mistake their playing for someone else's.

A talented young musician of my acquaintance who has been taking auditions commented in frustration that at a time when orchestras are worried about selling tickets and continuing to have an audience for classical music, that the newer musicians joining orchestras are perfect, but boring, players, because that is what orchestras are looking for and hiring.

The Tribune article went on to discuss the audition process and how it has changed from an informal audition with the music director, often in his hotel room, to a structured process with much more involvement of the orchestra's members. Auditions today are behind a screen until the final round. Aspiring orchestral musicians spend endless hours practicing excerpts, the small parts of pieces that include solos and difficult parts for the instrument.

I was taking auditions 30-some years ago, mostly for smaller orchestras. Screens were becoming more standard at that time, which almost immediately increased the number of women in orchestras. Getting a job in an orchestra was becoming more competitive and difficult. I remember my teacher in college telling me "in the old days" orchestras would call up and ask him to send some players to an audition in order to give themselves enough to choose from. Part of the increase in competition when I was auditioning was from women, who dramatically increased the number of professional musicians when orchestras started hiring women more. Another factor was probably more graduates from more music institutions.

One of the auditions I took was for the Portland Symphony; probably 2nd or 4th horn. They were also auditioning for a trumpet position on the same day. The horns went first and took longer than the audition committee had expected, so they announced the finalists (including me!) and that they would hold the trumpet preliminaries next, then have the horn finals. After waiting hours for the trumpets to finish, the committee decided to continue with the trumpet finals, so we continued to wait, into the evening.  Once we had finally all played, the committee talked and then announced that they couldn't decide. They would let us know later and we should all go home. My impression that day was that the orchestra was astonished at level of the musicians who had come to the Portland Symphony audition and this was why they had such a difficult time making a decision. In the end, they chose the local horn player who had been filling in.

The number of outstanding players has only increased in the years since. It appears to me that with all these wonderful players, orchestras have grasped at perfect playing as a way  to pick musicians. What is lost, at least sometimes, is musicality and personality. The quote at the top of this post is attributed to Beethoven. It is undoubtably true. But to young musicians looking for a position today, it may sound like a luxury.