Friday, November 28, 2008

Wall Street Journal on Improv--and DePauw!

[Note: this is cross-posted with my new combined blog/website at All the posts on comments from this site have been moved there; please update bookmarks, links, and/or RSS feeds.]

Today's Wall Street Journal has a feature article on the return of improvisation to classical music performance and the training of classical musicians. A good bit of it features what my DePauw University students are doing. The online version includes several photos of DePauw students in action, and video footage from DePauw.Today's Wall Street Journal has a feature article on the return of improvisation to classical music performance and the training of classical musicians. A good bit of it features what my DePauw University students are doing. The online version includes several photos of DePauw students in action, and video footage from DePauw.

Welcome, if you did a search on my name after reading the article and found your way here!

I'll be posting more about what we do at DePauw over the course of the weekend, and one of the students is working on getting our most recent Improvised Chamber Music concert up on YouTube. Meanwhile, you may enjoy checking out my writings on improvisation at Improvisation for Classical Musicians, and listening to some of my own free improvisations.

Much of what I do with my improvisation teaching has been shaped and inspired by the work of David Darling and Music for People; those sites are well worth checking out, too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"I no longer recognize marriage."

[Note: I'm in the process of moving this blog and consolidating it with my website; the blog is the new homepage at I'll keep cross posting for a while to give everyone a chance to redo bookmarks and links.]

The passage of Proposition 8 in California (which amended the state constitution to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman) has energized the LGBT community in a way I haven't seen for years. The anger, indignation, and determination I see--from LGBT people and straight allies--is inspiring.

Sometimes it's a bit scary. I've had mixed feelings about all the name-calling, boycotts, people who made contributions to to support Prop 8 being forced from jobs, etc. Am I just too wishy-washy? Do I have too much residual internalized homophobia, as some would suggest, that I don't believe that everyone who supported Prop 8 is a bigot? Are deeply held religious views on this issue by defiition bigotry and ignorance rationalized, as some insist?

Or maybe I just find denouncing others distasteful and unloving. I'm not against protests; I'm all for honest self-expression of anger, hurt, betrayl, outrage, and all the other very human and understandable feelings that have been evoked. We sexual minorities have been demonized and given second-class status for far too long, and the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" energy that Prop 8 has unleashed is the force that will carry us into the next phase. I'm gay; I want to be able my partner (although it's a moot point at the moment since I don't have a partner). And I want the countless same-sex couples who are my friends and acquaintances to be able to marry.

Demonizing opponents can be effective politically, but also further polarizes the situation and can make those with whom we disagree so defensive that constructive dialogue is impossible. So when I found this post by Tom Ackerman, it seemed like just the sort of way to disrupt the assumptions in a way that can start to shift the paradigm.

I no longer recognize marriage. It’s a new thing I’m trying.

Turns out it’s fun.

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
“Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

“How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another’s beliefs.

Just replace the words husband, wife, spouse, or fiancé with boyfriend, girlfriend, special friend, or longtime companion. There is a reason we needed stronger words for more serious relationships. We know it; now they can see it.

There's more, and it's worth reading. I'm going to try this out.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Video: Self-Expressive Improv, Part 1

An invitation to explore self-expressive "free" improvisation, in which, as we say in Music for People, "there are no wrong notes." (I blogged about the comedy of errors I experiened making these videos here.)

Video: Self-Expressive Improv, Part 2

Priming the pump of the creative imagination by improvising just one note at a time.

Video: Self Expressive Improv Part 3

Cresting an extended improvisation (longer than one note, anyway!), listening inside yourself for the first note, then the next and the next.

So let's just make some quick YouTube videos . . .

Short version: I can't believe the comedy of errors and mounting frustrations that ensued as I tried to make some YouTube videos on how to get started improvising. (Emily over at the Stark Raving Cello Blog knows what I'm taliking about; she's encountered smilar frustrations.)

Long version:

Many regular readers of this blog know that I am an improvising as well as a classical cellist, and I do a lot with free, self-expressive improvisation (much of it inspired and informed by approaches developed by David Darling and Music for People) in my teaching at DePauw and in workshops I occasionally give elsewhere.

And there may be some new readers coming to the blog (if you're one, welcome!). A features writer from a major newspaper contacted me earlier this fall about a story on improvisation she was developing. We did a long phone interview and I suggested a number of other people to contact. She eventually decided to visit me at DePauw, where she observed me coach improvised ensembles, interviewed some of my students, sat in on classes of my colleague Scott Spiegelberg (who uses improvisation in his theory and musicianship classes) and did a long interview with me. Her story comes out tomorrow (Friday), the last I heard. I don't know how much of it will deal with the work I've been doing; I'm a bit on pins and needles waiting to see. She took a lot of video footage that might be used on the website, and the paper sent a photographer to Monday night's concert by the improvisation students I've been coaching. (If we make it in, I'll certainly be linking to it!)

Self-expressive improvisation, expressing yourself through sound, not worrying about conforming to the conventions of a particular style, is something that anyone can do at any time. It's made such a difference in my life that now that I'm a bit past 50, I'm clear that more than anything else I want to support and encourage others in this extraordinary process that's made such a difference in my life. One of the things that I grateful for is that DePauw has welcomed this, allowing me to create an improvisation ensemble and to teach an improvisation unit in the team-taught seminar the School of Music has for all our entering students.

In anticipation of some possible new publicity from the story in which my work at DePauw may or may not be highlighted, I thought it would be a good idea to make some videos that encourage other people, especially other classical musicians, to give free, self-expressive improvisation a try.

So I'll just set up the video camera, I thought, plug in a a good microphone, take some footage, upload it onto my MacBook, use IMovieHD to make short videos, and post them. Should take two or three hours. After all, I had led a class of first-year college students through the process of making YouTube videos with their MacBooks earlier in the week, and in a little over half an hour many of them had made a video and posted it.

First, though, I needed to make a set. I wanted to be in front of the fireplace in the front room (parlor?) of my 1888 house. But that room was filled with all sorts of junk, and first I had to clear enough away that there was an area to shoot. So that took close to an hour.

Then came camera angles and microphone tests. I was using my parents' digitial camcorder, which is higher quality than mine. Found the camera angle to use, cleared more junk away so it wouldn't be in the frame, etc. Connected a good stereo mic to the mic input, listened to the playback through headphones connected to a jack on the camcoreder, and it sounded good.

But I wanted to put the mic closer to me, on a boom stand out of view. So I added an extension cable to the short cable that comes with the mic (an AT822). That was fine, except it made a buzz.

So then I tried connecting a mono cable to the mic with an XLR conection ending in a quarter-inch mono plug, with a miniplug adapter. Fine, except I heard sound in only one channel on the headphones. Drat! I lookked around and found a stereo miniplug adapter, and that worked fine.

Then I tried the same thing with a different mic. Listended back and forth. Decided I liked the ATT 822 best. With the long mono cable ending in the stero adapter, I hear great sound from the camera in both ears of the headphone. OK, another hour or more has gone by.

With everything set up, I film 45 minutes of footage, realizing as I go that I really should have written a script or an outline, but thinking I could probably edit enough to get something. Doing 45 minutes of footage probably took 90 minutes.

Take the camera, hook it up via firewire to the MacBook. Download some video. Play it back. There's sound in only one channel.

OK, no big deal, I should be able to just copy the audio from the left channel and paste it into the right channel.

But you can't do that in IMovie, I discover, after an hour a going through the help menus, watching video tutorials, and Googling around. Only thing to do is to extract the audio, open it in another program, fix it there, then reinsert the audio. Shit, that sounds like it would take a week to learn to do. No way.

OK, maybe it's the connection between the camera and the MacBook, or the MacBook itself. So I try it with my DePauw laptop rather than my personal one. Same problem.

I try putting the tape in my own camcorder, not my parents'. Same problem. I hook the camera up to my home theater. Beautiful sound in both channels. What gives?

I try some test footage using the built in mic in my parents' camera. Transfer it to my MacBook. Sound in both channels. So it's not the camera, it's not the computer, it's something about the micing. (Now I could have decided to just use the built in mic, but I wanted better sound and was going to have it!) I suspect it has to do with usuing a mono cable with the stereo minijack. So I go back to the original short chord that comes with the AT822 and record again into my parents' camera. Same problem.

I try just using the camera in my MacBook, which is actually pretty good. The mic's not bad either, but it ads a high-pitched beeping, and the audio input jack doesn't seem to work (so now a trip to the Apple store in Indy is on the agenda, just what I want!).

Then on a whim I try it with my camera. Works perfectly. OK, so we'll have good sound with lesser visiual quality.

And now it's what, midnight or something. And no more time until Wednesday afternoon to work on this.

Wednesday afternoon rolls around. Now I spend an hour and a half trying different lighting setups, with and without some cheap spotlites from the hardware store and settle on soemthing that I think looks good (but later turns out to be over lit).

Fianlly I shoot some videos, writing a script between each one, knowing the points I want to make. I don't read the script, but I know what I want to say and illustrate well enough that I make the three videos, each one only about twice as long as I thought, but still well under ten minutes each.

I give up on any idea of adding titles, fade-ins, or other special effects. Just get the footage into IMovie, trim the beginning and end. And use the "share to YouTube feature" that my students found so easy to use. The first video is processed, then uploads itself to YouTube, then gives me, after about 15 minutes, an error message, and says I should try again. I try again and the same thing happens.

I want to scream. Maybe I did. (Express yourself through sound and all that!)

I give up, export the movie to a folder on my hard drive, and upload it from YouTube. Once that finishes I find a list of all my videos under "Account" and it turns out the first one did upload just fine, so the second two uploads, which I've now spent the beter part of an hour on, have been rejected as duplicates! (Thanks for the error message, IMovie!).

I edit the second video, export it and upload it through You Tube, and then do the same thing with the third.

The thirs looks funny, and I eventually figure out I accidentally set it up to be in widescreen mode, which means it has cut off a portion of the top and bottom of the frame, including part of my head.

So I have to redo the third one, going through the whole process again. It's getting late by now. But I see the process through. And I watch the third video.

And to my horror, I realize I had forgotten there was a false start. I'd started off well, then tripped over some words, said "Oh Shit!" and started over. That was all there up on YouTube.

So that gets deleted pronto. And I go and reedit the video and reexport it and reupload it.

Meanwhile, the video qualty on YouTube looks grainier and more washed out than it does in IMovie. Sound is pretty good though. I give up.

Now I find it funny. About 10 hours of work to make less than thirty minutes of YouTube videos. Much of it was learning by trial and error, and I learned a lot.

I love my MacBooks, my personal one and the DePauw-supplied one. But I will say that I switched because Macs are supposed to be so much better with audio and videos, or so I heard, than PCs, and in all honesty I found Windows MovieMaker to be a lot easier to use than IMovie, and more flexible, too.

We live in such a do-it-yourself age. Being one's own videographer and sound engineer does add an element of independence and freedom, but it's also a lot of stress.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Portland Cello Project: Holiday Sweater Project

The Portland Cello Project has some of the most innovative programming and marketing you can find. Their website has some of the most interesting cello photography anywhere. As a matter of fact, there may be more interesting cello photos on their site than anywhere else on the web.

When we're getting trained in classical music, at a conservatory or college/university music program, the underlying cultural assumption is that if we get good enough, people will hire us to perform. With a modicum of people skills, networking, and professionalism (i.e., returning phone calls promptly, consistently showing up early rather than at the last second or even late, etc.), this actually works to a limited extent, especially for freelance gigs. And of course some of us succeed in winning a full-time position in an orchestra or on a music faculty.

If you don't end up with a full-time gig, or have more free-lance work than you can handle (and I know fewer and fewer people with more free-lance work than they can handle), the key is to be good, do something innovative and interesting, and MARKETING and PUBLICITY.

Which is the members of the Portland Cello Project are my heroes.

Their next project is the Holiday Sweater Spectacular. Fabulous poster!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Fleming cello didn't sell, so maybe I still have a chance

I had really wanted to buy the "Fleming" Stradivarius, which was in an online auction at (Tarisio is like a very high-end Ebay for selling stringed instruments). I'd like to have a Strad cello, if only for a while.

My strategy, which was a long shot to say the least, was to win the Hoosier Lotto or the multistate Powerball. Neither came through (surprise!), so I wasn't in a position to bid.

Turns out the submitted bids (highest was 1.35 million dollars) didn't meet the reserve price, so if a successful negotiation isn't completed between the highest bidder and the Fleming estate, maybe I'll still have a chance. I'll keep spending a few bucks a week on the lottery. Yes, it's probably a waste of money, but at least I'm not buying cigarettes (which I gave up 10 years ago).

Both the thought of winning the lottery and using the proceeds to buy a Strad are delightful fantasies, in any event!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Always more to do than can be done

Well, I missed posting two days in a row by about three hours. it's about 3:00 Am, and I'm just finishing up some overdue work.

Like many college professors, I live in a constant state of having more to do than can be done. This isn't unique to my profession, of course. For a long time it made me quite anxious. I recently read somewhere that this is how it is for many people; we often have so many projects and appointments and meetings that it's just not possible to stay on top of everything.

Since I accepted that as a reality, two things have happened. First, I relaxed a good bit. Second, I began to feel less overwhelmed, and started getting more things done.

Today had a class, a coaching, a ton of advising meetings, and hours and hours on a overdue course proposal. It's submitted, and now I surrender for the night.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Students Creating an Audience

(Via AMK's Journal, I've learned this is National Blog Posting Month, which promotes writing a post every day, including weekends. I'm climbing on the bandwagon a few days late, but will give it a go--I'd love to be blogging regularly again, and this seems like a good motivation.)

I'm teaching a first-year seminar class for music majors at DePauw. My section, in which the learning is project-based, stresses, among other things, using creative ways to develop an audience. The twelve students have been divided into three teams of four, each team responsible for building a larger-than-usual audience for the final fall semester concert of one of the large ensembles (the concert band, the choirs, and the orchestra). We've been brainstorming ideas for using Facebook, YouTube, posters in unusual places (there seems to be a consensus for bathroom stalls), getting influential people (particular faculty, adminsitrators, and student leaders) to come, etc. I'll let you know how it goes.

Greg Sandow recently posted about how he and his wife worked with a faculty chamber ensemble at Florida State to use non-traditional ways to make their New York recital an event wth enough buzz that they might have a chance of getting a review in the New York Times. It's the way of the future, and I'm excited to see what my students come up with. Reading Greg's blog and interracting with him over the last few years online and off (including his visit to DePauw a year ago) has been a big influence on what I do with with my students.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians

I see that Greg Sandow gave Jeff Agrell's book a great mention last April, calling it " a complete delight, radiating both love and deep understanding of music from every word." I wrote my own review of Jeff's wonderful book last February for Connections, the Music for People newsletter. But I neglected to post it here!

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else by Jeffrey Agrell
Chicago: GIA Publications (2008). ISBN 978-1-57999-682-6

Jeff Agrell is one of the few classical music professors in the country who actively improvises, who passionately advocates for improvisation, who encourages and nurtures the improvisational spirit in his students, and who has succeeded at the often challenging task obtaining institutional support for a non-jazz improvisation course. After 25 years in a professional orchestra, Agrell became the French horn professor at the University of Iowa, and like many other classical musicians at midlife, was ready for a creative change. Having improvised and composed on the guitar since his teenage years, he finally began improvising on the horn. Most of us reading this article had a similar experience and found ourselves drawn to David Darling and Music for People. As he explains in the Preface to his recently released Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else, published by GIA, Agrell found his musical guide and collaborator right at home, in the pianist Evan Mazunik, then a junior piano major at Iowa. For both it seems to have been a “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” with the ironic twist of their formal roles in the university. The two began improving together, and that work blossomed into concerts, recordings, and workshops, and the “Introduction to Improvisation” course Agrell offers regularly at Iowa (Mazunik now lives in New York).

Anyone who has been to a Music for People workshop would find Agrell’s teaching studio in Iowa surprisingly familiar, as I did one Saturday afternoon last November; it’s cluttered with the djembes and assorted small percussion instruments so rarely found in the offices of classical French horn professors yet so common in the MfP world. I sat down with him, two of his colleagues, a student or two, and the saxophonist George Wolfe from Ball State University, and we began improvising. “One of the great joys of being an improviser,” as Agrell quotes cellist Matthew Barley, “is that I can play with practically any musician in the world. It is like being fluent in dozens of languages.” And that was our experience; it was the magic of free improvisation as the University of Iowa School of Music’s 2007 Contemporary Improvisation Festival (at which I was one of the guest performer/clinicians) began.

Although the National Association of Schools of Music, which grants accreditation to college-level music programs, mandates that all music students have experience in improvisation, most institutions pay lip service to the requirement without truly embracing it. Classical music professors, unless they specialize in early music, tend to ignore improv, seeing it as something irrelevant to their mission, and many jazz professors look askance at improvisation which isn’t jazz. So it’s often a lonely mission for people like Agrell, who really gets the value of improvisation for music students, who truly grasps how the process of creating music ties everything together.

I’ve met many former classical musicians who got burned out and turned to improvising as an alternative, healing mode of making music. How many of us in the MfP culture have said at one time or another that we are “in recovery” from our classical training? We find ourselves improvising instead of playing classical music, and it’s a wonderful, liberating, and healing new era of life. It’s release! It’s an explosion of self-expression and creativity and connection with other people. Classical music, for some of us, becomes a former lover with whom we were once intensely but toxically involved, and from whom we’ve had to move on. Our new, passionate love, improvisation has taken its place, but enough hurt remains that it’s hard to “still be friends” with classical music.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why it’s rare to find people who regularly perform on a high professional level as both classical and eclectic (i.e., non-jazz) improvisers. Jeff Agrell has managed to integrate the two into his musical and teaching life. He clearly understands the central role improvisation played in what we now call classical music until the late 19th century, and he sees that improvisation can and should be part of the central, core experience of classical musicians.

All this is articulated extremely well in Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. At 354 pages, including several indexes, the book is both a manifesto making the case for improvisation in the training of classical musicians, and an wide-ranging encyclopedia of starting points for improvisation. He makes an excellent distinction between the notation-based, “literate” approach of the traditional classical musician and the “aural” approach of the improviser working without notation. “The two approaches—literate and aural—are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. They balance each other, develop musicianship skills, and promote health and sanity. To achieve the comprehensive musicianship so vital to a contemporary musician, both approaches need to be cultivated to the highest level possible.”

Agrell uses the term “games,” he explains, because of fear of mistakes which blocks the creativity of so many classical music students. I’ve had a copy for several weeks now; as I plan the sessions for the improvisation ensemble at DePauw University, where I teach, I find it a valuable resource, although I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Agrell’s suggestions for structuring a college-level improvisation course are excellent, and will be of great value to colleagues at other institutions. And there are so many ideas for structuring improvisations! Warm-Up Games, Rhythm Games, Accent Games, Dynamics Games, Melody Games, Form Games, Harmony Games, etc., etc. The list of chapters goes on and on. What did they call the old Sears catalog? The “wish book?” It’s like that, an improviser’s wish book, except you don’t have to spend money (once you’ve bought the book), just creativity. There are so many games included that I find myself overwhelmed if I try to read too much in one sitting; it’s an encyclopedic desk reference that I’ll be working through for months to come.

Many of the game descriptions are brief, and I find it sometimes takes me a while to work out in my imagination what he’s suggesting. Clearly Agrell has worked to include as many games as possible, so brevity has been a priority. And he’s obviously avoided overly defining, and thus limiting, what are meant to be improvisations. So be warned: using this book requires the reader’s patience, thought and imagination. But the rewards are many.

Without a working knowledge of classical music terminology, much of the book might be hard to follow. But for classical musicians interested in improvisation, especially those of us who lead workshops and teach courses, it’s an excellent, welcome new reference, which makes an excellent compliment to classics like Return to Child, The Listening Book, and Free Play.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Zoë Keating on how she does it

The fabulous looping cellist Zoë Keating explains it all.

Well, not in as much detail as those of us who also do cello looping might like, but it's a great WNYC Radiolab podcast, with lots of music. Zoë does looped cello compositions; my own looping is mostly improvised or quasi-improvised. (Of course she also improvises, and the podcast ends with an imprvisation.)

I love her stuff.

And she makes some insightful comments in the podcast on how much more comfortable she feels playing her own music than the compositions of others. That resonates with me. I'm hopelessly addicted to playing classical music, though, and since much of my job is teaching it, I have to keep doing things like playing the Arpeggione Sonata and driving myself nuts. There are times, though, when I'd like to leave the classical stress behind. Yet the joy of performing classical music, when it goes well, is--what's the word?--oh, right, addictive.

Back to Zoë. Here are the tech details from the bio page on her site:

The cello is amplified with an AKG C411 contact condenser mic. I run it through a few looping/sampling devices: two Electrix Repeaters, Ableton Live and a plugin called SooperLooper. I control the sampling and various other audio parameters with my feet, using a midi foot controller.
I bought ProTools SE this summer, with some faculty devlopment money that had to be spent before July 1. The package, which I have yet to open (due to being obsessed with all those shifts in the Arpeggione sonata, which I'm performing again Monday), is supposed to include a stripped-down, "lite" version of Ableton, about which I hear only great things. I'm going to need a foot controller, I know, to start really exploring it. But I'll start thinking about such post-classical things Tuesday, post-Arpeggione.

(photo by Jeffrey Rusch, from Keating's site.)

Worlds of Warcraft, for College Credit

What triggered the need to blog this morning was a blog post titled My Cello Feels Neglected . . . , in which Justin G. (aka "zoomicroom"), a student at Vanderbilt University, comments that, "It’s very difficult to find a good balance between playing LOTRO and practicing the cello. Still working on that." My sympathies to Justin--it's hard to find a good balance between practicing the cello and other responsibilities, even when they include teaching the cello (hence my previous, slightly self-pitying post).

But what the heck is LORTO?

So I kept looking through his post, which had nothing else to say about the cello (what are his prioirites, anyway?) and then started exploring the blog on which he posted.

It turns out Justin is writing on a class blog for one of Vanderbilt's first-year writing seminars, ENG 115F Worlds of Warcraft, perhaps not the first class at an elite university to focus on a popular video game, but certainly the first I've come across.

(If you're wondering how I came across Justin's comment on a blog I wouldn't usually read, here's the answer. I have Google alerts set up for "cello" and "cellist," among others, and get a daily email with each new mention of those words anywhere Google finds them on the web.)

The course not only incorporates blog technology but also an ITunesU podcast. (There's a direct link to the course's podcast in the blog's sidebar.) The students aren't just playing games and listening to Itunes; they're reading books, making connections between the virtual gaming world and actual literature as well as gaming theory, and doing a lot of writing. I'll leave it to others to debate whether a first-year writing seminar which requires significant amount online gaming is a sign of the end times, or an innovative way to teach critical-thinking and writing skills by capitalizing on a passion shared by many new college students (and evidently some of their teachers, one of whom is the Chair of English at Vandy). (I'd be interested to see if Margaret Soltan, an English professor herself, at University Diaries has any thoughts.)

I imagine my avid-gamer son, while happy to be a sophomore at Grinnell, would have seriously looked at Vanderbilt had he known about this course.

I'm still not sure what LORTO is. That's OK, I don't really need to know, and I'm sure my son, to whom I'll email a link to this post, will tell me anyway.

And may Justin G. make the time to practice his cello. It's a struggle, but it's worth it, dude.

Blogging in bed

When school starts up (classes started here on August 27), life suddenly feels overwhelming, at least for a while. The mental energy to blog evaporates. Or at least it did for me.

There's tremendous emotional energy that goes into starting a new course, establishing teaching relationships with new cello students, and reestablishing relationships with returning students. And there's the really time consuming, and often frustrating, task of working out lesson times for cello students (time that most also work for their accompanists) and finding times for several chamber music groups to have coachings.

You think it's all set and then someone stops by and says, "Did I sign up for Fridays at 1:00? I don't know why I did that! I have a class then." And then the whole intricate system, or portions of it, may collapse and have to be redone.

But now it's all done. Or so I think. And the urge to blog is slowly returning. It's enhanced today by whatever it is I'm coming down with--a scratchy throat and now a cough--which I'm using as an excuse to spend most of the morning in bed. Between last night and this morning, I've skimmed through the last four days of the New York Times (actual hard copy editions!) as well as last Sunday's. I've browsed the web, watched YouTube clips and others I won't mention, and right now I'm sick of reading and watching and feel lke writing.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bucket Drumming in the Union Square subway

As I was writing my previous post, I was remembering my absolute favorite NYC subway musical experience: a young teenage boy doing fantastic drumming--I think it was at the Lincoln Center stop--on a white bucket.

And I just found a bucket-drumming video (different drummer) from director taikieatssushi, who made the beatboxing flute and cello . Fantastic!

Turns out there are loads of bucket drumming videos on YouTube.

In the Union Square subway station

One of the delights of visiting New York City is the music one encounters from time to time. I've heard fabulous stuff in there. I wish I'd encountered beatboxing flute player Greg Pattillo with Eric Stephenson on cello, filmed here at the Union Square subway in NYC. This is way cool, with great camera work:

Here's Eric's bio from the The Project site:

An exceptionally versatile cellist, Eric Stephenson’s style ranges from classical to jazz to rock and folk. He is currently a member of the IRIS Chamber Orchestra in Memphis, Tennessee and the Colorado Music Festival. Eric served as Principal Cellist of the Canton Symphony Orchestra from 2002-2006 and was a regular substitute for the Cleveland Orchestra.

As a fellow at the Aspen Music Festival, he served as Assistant Principal Cello of the Aspen Festival Orchestra from 1999-2004. He has appeared as a soloist with the Cleveland Institute of Music Symphony Orchestra and the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Eric earned his Bachelor and Master of Music Degrees with Honors from the Cleveland Institute of Music and was a recipient of the Ellis A. Feiman Award in Cello while a student of Stephen Geber.

Monday, August 25, 2008

", , , ever since I first heard the cello I wanted to play it."

A Naples Daily News profile of 13-year-old cellist Jared Blajian. “I think it’s something I was meant to do” he says, “because ever since I first heard the cello I wanted to play it.”

The cello is Jared’s lifeblood, his release. If he has a stressful day at school, he’ll come home and, within a half hour, he let it all out in through the vision of master composers.
. . .
Jared practices almost three hours a day, every day. He sits in the study and plays, barefoot, in a T-shirt and shorts with brown hair falling lazily across his forehead. He methodically works his way through at work, tilting his head slightly toward the strings as if he’s listening to words no one else can hear. Hours later he emerges from the room to grab a bite to eat or to watch a video of an orchestra performing. Then he returns to the study.

The awful noise that started a career

The Lousiville Courier-Journal has a great profile on cellist Ben Sollee (his website) who got off to an unusual start:

When Ben Sollee's elementary school band teacher first put the bow to the cello in his third-grade classroom, she struck the wrong note. But it was still the right chord for Sollee.

"She played all the different instruments for us, and she was a violinist and didn't necessarily know how to play the cello," Sollee recalled, laughing. "She went to bow the low string, and it made an awful noise -- which I loved. And I was like, 'I'm playin' that!'"

". . . if you have to decide between a really terrific European cellist and a really good American cellist, you lean to American"

Visas are harder and harder to get since 9/11, which is helpful for American soloists, at least in Phoenix, although the IRS is creating headaches of its own affecting the cause of the Americans:

"But with all the visa malarkey, and trying to get guest artists into the country with enough confidence to include them in our season brochure - well, we are looking at more American artists," Christie says.

Even the IRS gets into the act, says Maryellen Gleason Phoenix Symphony president.

"There is a new rule about federal withholding tax," she says. "It's not a deal killer, but if you have to decide between a really terrific European cellist and a really good American cellist, you lean to American, which is good for the American, but it's another step for our bookkeeping department, and we have only so much time.

"We canceled a guest conductor for next season for the exchange rate. We're looking at a Chinese conductor instead of a European one."

On the other hand, American orchestras touring Europe can be paid in euros, and the currency conversion imbalance can help them make up for a loss in corporate sponsorship. A poor economy has left several orchestras with empty pockets that corporate donations used to fill.

The entire Arizona Republic article is here.

Life carting a cello around has never been simple.

La Demoiselle et le violoncelliste/Lalo Cello Concerto

Via Animation Blog, Jean-François Laguionie's beautiful 1965 animation, La Demoiselle et le violoncelliste (The Maid and the Cellist). The score is excerpts from the Lalo Cello Concerto, with beautiful, old-school playing (anyone recognize this recording?).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Orlando Cole Turns 100

Eric Shumsky has written a tribute to the legendary cellist and teacher Orlando Cole (Wikipedia article and ICS interview), who turned 100 this past Saturday. I heard Cole give a masterclass and speak on a panel 4 or 5 years ago at a Cello Congress; he was sharp and articulate.

Is cello playing and teaching good for longevity? Greenhouse is in his nineties and giving masterclasses internationally. Starker is in his eighties and still teaching nearly full time at IU.

I hope so. The way the stock market has been going, I may need to keep teaching until I'm 80 or 90 myself!

Matthew Barley

Strings magazine has a new profile of Matthew Barley, including this photo by Viktoria Mullova (well, I'm assuming it's that Viktoria Mullova).

I'm a Barley fan myself. He's a great role model for young musicians in a "post-classical" era. His career is diverse, he has numerous self-initiated projects, and one of the best websites in the business. As a matter of fact, I think his site and Mullova's are an excellent contrast. His is eye-catching and interactive and not having seen it for a while, my reaction was "wow!" When I saw Mullova's, I thought, "well, that's nice."

He's also into improvisation.

I was sorry to see on his website that he's been having problems with his left shoulder and had to cancel a number of performances. He's scheduled to start performing again in September.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Amy Leung

I love this photo of Amy Leung, who has a Kennedy Center gig tonight.

Update:  Carl Banner, founder and director of Washington Musica Viva, likes her a lot, and says so on his blog.  He's included audio files from a rehearsal of the Brahms clarinet trio.  


I'm suffering from IWS: Internet Withdrawl Syndrome.  I'm staying in a guest apartment at a retirement/disability facility where a good friend libes.  No wireless!  Ack!

My friend does have a beautiful IMAC that I'm able to use for short periods of time.  But we're busy with a lot of stuff, so there's not much time for blogging.  And it's interesting to observe myself wanting to web surf at night.  But I can't do that in my room.

On the other hand, there's cable TV in my room, with about 100 channels.  So even as I experience IWS, I've been experiencing CSRS: Channel Surfing Relpase Syndrome.  And having a great time with it.  I had cable turned off at my house as a way to avoid the problems of Channel Surfing Syndrome.  It helped a lot, AND it is fun to induldge in my guilty pleasure for a few nights.

More cello news soon!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Casals, "On an Overgrown Path"

On an Overgrown Path, a beautifully-writen blog new to me, has a great story about Pablo Casals, and doesn't shy away from mentioning the views of Casals's detractors. It's mostly cellists who read my blog, so I don't need to highlight all that made Casals such a great cellist and cello revolutionary (for his time). I did find this Stravinsky quote so wonderfully bitchy that I''ll post it here:

His sometimes reactionary views left Casals an easy target, and after watching a television programme programme about him, Stravinsky remarked: "That was an interesting programme. In one scene the cellist and a sort of Hungarian composer, Zoltán Kodály, are seen together with their great-granddaughters, at least that's what one supposes until one learns tat they are their wives. And what were the two racy octogenarians talking about? Well, they were saying that the trouble with me is that I must always be doing the latest thing. But who are they to talk, when they have been doing the same old thing for at least eighty years! Señor Casals also offered us an interesting insight into his philosophy - for example playing Bach in the style of Brahms."
It's a subject for another post, and will be part of my improvisation book whenever I get it done, but that last sentence speaks to what I think was a really damaging idea, or nexis of ideas. forcefully promoted by Stravinsky and picked up by others. Implicit in the remark is the notion that there is (correct) Brahms style, that one can know it, and that there is also a correct Bach style, and one can know it, too, and that all works should be played exactly as the composer wrote them and in their style.

Casals made music in his ow voice, in his own style, and did so with the greatest of love and respect for the composers and music he loved. The 20th-century modernist movement, of which Stravinsky was such an important part, was obsessed with the fantasy that musical works, including pieces written before 1900, could somehow stand on their own, were in essence fixed and permanent, and that the personality and voice of performers should, in effect, be obliterated or at least avoided.

This caused much frustration, since a piece is inevitably reborn and to some degree or another transformed with each performance. When you write a piece for other people to play, you write a piece for other people to play. They are going to play it like themselves. More later.

"Weird" cello groups

A "weird concert alert" about an upcoming Rasputina radio gig in Albany.

The story also has a link to a MySpace fan page for Maston Jones, a group with two cellist/vocalists. The page describes the group in the past tense, so I don't know if they are still together. Probably not; a quick search didn't turn up any recent links.

Middle-aged rant: I find most MySpace pages visually confusing. I don't know if it's an aging-boomer thing, or that they are just visually confusing. Dark blue links against a darkish gray background? I couldn't read them even with my glasses on.