Category Archives: Fun Stuff
Viola Judy and I have received our chamber music assignment for BSO Academy: Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. We’ll be playing with Ivan Stefanovic, the Assistant Principal Second Violin with the Orchestra. Joining us will be our friend Deborah on bass (she played in our quintet last year) and a new cellist we have yet to meet. Ivan will be playing the First Violin part with us.
The good news is that the Mozart piece is delightfully familiar (a sample below), and is really not all that difficult to learn. Playing it well, on the other hand, is another issue! Considering Ivan typically plays Second Violin parts — the part I’ve drawn — I better get this one nailed!
And, it’s thanks to Nan that I can share two recent studies that reinforce the feeling many of us have that playing music — especially in groups — improves our lives as we get a little creaky in the joints.
The first study, published in the April 2011 journal Neuropsychology and reported in the Huffington Post, comes from researchers at the University of Kansas, who examined the mental abilities of people between the ages of 60 and 83 who play music. They found that people who had begun studying music early in life and had played for more than 10 years performed significantly better on both visual and verbal tests. While the authors conclude more study needs to be done, they theorize that learning to play music reorganizes pathways in the brain in ways that help ward off the effects of Alzheimer’s or other dementia. The finding would seem to be in keeping with the studies that have been done on children who study music, which have found an significant larger number of connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Or, as the Huffington Post headline declares, “Musicians Are Probably Smarter Than the Rest of Us.”
Even more surprising to me was a study reported on NPR this month, coming out of Northwestern University. In the report on NPR, the researcher reported that musicians may have an edge warding off hearing loss. Because of their training, musicians were 40% more likely to discriminate words from background noise than non-musicians. As someone who has spent most of her career in environments with lots of potentially damaging background noise (one audiologist physically blanched when she saw my workspace next to those old 1960’s vintage AP teletype machines!), that study gives me great hope!
I can’t believe it’s over.
As I write this, I’m on the road home. So much has happened, and I’ve learned so much that it will fuel this blog with content for a couple more weeks, at least.
Saturday brought dress rehearsal with Marin Alsop and the orchestra. Our group, Group 2, finally had a chance to sit in the hall and listen to the rehearsal of Group 1. Group 1 had a different repertoire to perform:
- The Overture to Candide, by Leonard Bernstein (an Alsop mentor!)
- Alborada del gracioso, by Maurice Ravel, and
- The first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #2.
The Bernstein is a favorite orchestra concert opener, and is full of light-hearted humor and fun. The Ravel is a French Impressionist composer’s take on Spanish music, and was very different from the Rimskey-Korsakov take on Spanish music that our group had in the Capriccio. The Mahler was alternately thrilling and ethereal, appropriate for a Symphony that has the subtitle, “Resurrection.”
Our group one colleagues returned the favor as our Group took the stage for our final rehearsal. My extra practice on the Capriccio paid off, in a compliment from my stand partner on the progress I had made in 24 hours. A “class photo”, lunch and a Q&A with Marin Alsop followed, and then we had the afternoon off to relax, rendezvous with our families and friends, and prepare for the final concert.
The Meyerhoff was about three-quarters full for the final concert; the size of the audience surprised the BSO musicians. The Symphony had also billed the concert as a “Donor Appreciate Concert” so the private boxes were well populated. The concert was also free to the general public, so we also attracted some local fans of the symphony.
Unlike most of my colleagues who sat in the audience, I listened in the Green Room with another Academy member – an oboe player – during the first half of the concert. It turned out to be strategic: I was able to hear Marin’s comments as she came off-stage after the Mahler. She was clearly happy with the Group 1 performance.
Then it was time for our Group to take the stage. I felt surprisingly relaxed – no attack of nerves like I had suffered on Friday during the chamber performance – and it was all over way too quickly. The Capriccio and the Hindemith are both such show pieces, that the audience immediately left to its feet at the end, giving us a standing ovation and three curtain calls.
We were all exhilarated. We had done it! We had played side-by-side with the BSO, and had learned so much and worked so hard. None of us were ready for it to be over.
We have many memories and a host of ideas to improve our playing for the future. So, where do I sign up for next year?
Friday afternoon, our String Quintet assembled for a final rehearsal before the Friday night chamber concert. Our usual rehearsal space was occupied, but we were able to use the platform set up in the lobby of the Meyerhoff for the performance. The acoustics were very different from the vestibule area we had been using, and we were able to make some adjustments that would pay off big time in the performance.
In all, more than half of the Academy participants had signed up for Chamber, so 17 groups in all were performing on Friday night. There were string trios and quartets, flute trios, a double-reed quartet (three oboes and a bassoon) and a number of different combinations of brass. Our group was number 16 on the program, and I have to admit it was intimidating to play with nearly half of the professional orchestra members sitting in the audience! We played the Scherzo from Dvorak’s Op. 77 String Quintet in G — a piece that was not familiar to most of the orchestra musicians (not many string basses play chamber music!). I played 2nd violin on this piece (the part played by the woman in the gold dress in this YouTube video.) We acquitted ourselves well and toasted each other at the end.
The only part of the orchestra not represented in the Chamber experience was percussion, but they had performed for us at lunch earlier in the day. More than a dozen musicians beat drums, shook rattles, rang bells, played vibraphones, and even used a rain-stick on a piece called Rainforest Journey. They were great (MUCH better than this YouTube video of a high school band) and we asked them for an encore.
Many of the amateurs found the Chamber experience a particularly meaningful part of the Academy. Participating gave you extended one-on-one time with a symphony professional in your instrument, a small group to become very close to, and a piece of music that we could play just for fun. Our group certainly bonded, sharing several dinners together at neighborhood restaurants, and introducing each other to our spouses as they began showing up for the final concert.
Friday morning, our group had a long practice scheduled with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony. A lot of focused practice allowed me to become more secure on some of the fast runs of the Hindemith, so I was anxious for rehearsal to see if i had it right. As it turned out, Marin was stuck in traffic, and we began under the leadership of her graduate student, who is completing a two-year fellowship at the BSO.
He began the first movement at a somewhat slower tempo than we had experienced with Marin, which made playing the Hindemith easier for me. (He is the conductor at the podium in the WBAL-TV report on the camp.) Marin appeared a few minutes into the rehearsal, and spent some of the morning coaching him on his techniques. “You have to play every instrument,” she told him.
With her conducting style, using her entire body, there is no ambiguity about what she wants and when she wants it. A wind player told me that it felt to him like his experience as a naval aviator: it was like that moment in air-to-air combat when a “target solution” is reached. When she cues you, it’s clear you are locked in her sight down the baton, and you either play, or you die!
When Marin took over, she made an adjustment in the original plan that was univerally praised by the Academy members. Based on feedback from Academy musicians that they wanted to hear more of the BSO, she had the BSO players play a movement, before having us all play it together. That change allowed us amateurs to pull our noses out of the score and watch our stand partners closely. We also had a chance to listen to the nuances of dynamics and tone Marin wanted in the music. That change allowed us to ramp up our game, and play better.
On the downside, what became glaringly obvious to me was that I had been TOO focused on the Hindemith in practice at the expense of the Rimskey-Korsakov – a situation I needed able to remedy with more practice!
Thursday morning, our Group had a late rehearsal with Marin Alsop and the orchestra, so it gave me a chance to “lock in” on some advice I had received in a Wednesday morning lesson with Associate Concertmaster Madeline Adkins of the BSO.
Ever since I took up the violin again, I have not felt secure about my control over the bow. She looked at my grip, suggested a slight change, and then said, “I don’t feel secure unless I can feel the music in my index finger (of the right hand).” What she said immediately connected with me, and I gave it a try. But I couldn’t seem to get it.
Her ultimate diagnosis was simple.
“Allow your arm weight to rest on the bow. The violin can take it.” She was right. I had been holding the bow up and moving it across the strings, but not allowing my arm weight to rest on the bow and fully engage the instrument.
I relaxed, and let my arm weight settle on the bow. The change in sound was immediate, and my finger could “feel the music.” A few more bows across the string, and it felt “right.” I had regained the sense of control I had been missing.
That’s not to say that I have mastered the bow. It seems to be a constant struggle for everyone. The scales professional orchestra players do before each concert are as much about bow discipline as they are about fingering the notes correctly with the left hand. It is also said that Pablo Casals used to spend hours playing open strings on his cello, figuring out the nuances of bow control.
Nearly all of the orchestra members I talked with mentioned the importance of the bow, and that the bow needs to be “in charge”. I was frequently told that if the bow is doing the correct rhythm, the left hand fingers will eventually fall into line in difficult music.
I’m still figuring that one out, but in the meantime, I do know one immediate side effect of my lesson with Madeline: letting my arm weight rest on the bow, instead of holding the bow above the instrument, helped prevent the “knife in the back” pain I had been experiencing when playing for longer periods of time.
One simple change. Big change in sound. No more pain.
I’ll be writing about the interesting “musician’s body” stuff we learned at the Academy in future posts.
WBAL-TV attended our rehearsal on Friday morning, while our group was performing the Hindemith, and did a story on their newscast which you can see here. I play second violin on this piece, and am seated immediately in front of (or behind, if you will) the conductor. Marin Alsop was caught in traffic and was late for rehearsal, so in this story, you’ll see her “intern” filling in.
WJZ-TV, the CBS Affiliate in Baltimore, aired this story on Thursday. More media are expected to attend our rehearsal on Friday. Check back for additional links!
After a lighter day yesterday and a much-needed break, it was back to intense music today at the BSO Academy. Our group’s rehearsal with the full orchestra and Marin Alsop wasn’t scheduled until 11:30am, so I had some time this morning for intense practice of some of my “trouble spots” in the orchestra program, and in the movement from the Dvorak String Quintet my chamber group is performing Friday night.
At the orchestra rehearsal, we received our final seating assignments, and I was surprised and pleased to see that I had been assigned to the 3rd desk in both the Second and the First Violins. I’m sitting next to Assistant Concertmaster Igor Yusefovich in the First Violins. He’s the engaging Russian who led our violin sectional on Monday. The assignment was even more surprising when the afternoon and evening showcased the amazing talent that is here among the 88 amateur (and mostly midlife!) musicians attending the academy.
During the afternoon, Concertmaster Jonathan Carney led a master class for violin and viola players. Eight musicians played. Carney proved himself to be a master teacher, gently coaching each musician into a better sound or more musical approach to their playing. I learned a lot from watching and listening, and am sure my own abilities to play will be greatly enhanced. (I am planning to post many of the tips and concepts I’ve learned this week elsewhere on this blog in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!)
After dinner, 24 musicians from the BSO Academy class played in recital at Meyerhoff hall. Most were solo performances, with a few small groups thrown in. There were performances by every kind of woodwind, brass instrument, and stringed instrument from the orchestra, but the real star of the night was BSO Violist Mary Woehr, who in less than two months prepared the piano accompaniment for all the musicians: 24 different pieces of music! She endured hours at the keyboard helping the musicians prepare this week for what turned out to be a delightful evening.
Tomorrow, a long rehearsal is on tap, then a break for some yoga. In the evening, 16 different chamber groups will perform. I’m in group #2, along with Viola Judy, an ER doctor from Hershey, PA on cello, a doctor from DC on string base, and Rebecca Nichols, a BSO violinist and Interlochen Arts Academy graduate.
Wish me luck!
Four days. That is the thought running through my head this evening. I cannot even to begin to adequately describe what I saw and heard this evening.
Tonight the various classes and small groups had a chance to show what they accomplished this week. We had four days to prepare and present music that we first saw Monday. Individuals from all across the country jelled into a group, from the Intermediate Clarinets – where several members first picked up their instruments a year or so ago – to the Advanced Jazz Band, that could rival any big band in the nation.
Every group was practically flawless, and every band member proud of what they accomplished. The evening held a few surprises. The Conch Shell Class did a great job on “Amazing Grace” and who would have thought you could get melodic sounds out of shells like those heard on “Ain’t She Sweet”?
One of the highlights of the Advanced Big Band performance was watching Greg Pope, the drummer from our band in Canton reading the lead sheets. Greg played with some of the Motown greats when he was a youngster, but never learned to read music. Tonight, he was practically sight-reading. Watching him this week was like watching a kid in a candy store. The week at Interlochen was a dream come true for him.
Tomorrow morning, the Intermediate and Advanced Bands will perform. It will almost be like a graduation. We’ll be playing music that we stumbled over Sunday night; that after Tuesday evening’s rehearsal we all walked away shaking our heads thinking we had only two more days to get it right.
Four Days!!!! Four days to accomplish something that most bands spend weeks or even months to perfect. We were strutting our stuff tonight, and we were all proud.