Tag Archives: BSO Academy

Reflections: Post- Baltimore

The New York Times is out this weekend with a story about this year’s edition of Baltimore Symphony Academy, which I attended at the end of June. This story is from the perspective of Daniel Wakin, who played clarinet in Group 1 (I was in Group 2).

Here’s the link: Band Camp for Grown-Ups.

It’s an interesting story, which really does a nice job of pointing out the differences between amateur and professional orchestra musicians. One of my friends has described that difference eloquently in an e-mail to me:

I really like the use of the term “melody expression” to denote one of
the techniques available to turn notes into music. I’ll try to remember
that the next time I want to elaborate on the subject.

I also enjoyed the use of the expression “Let’s get inside the sound”
Marin Alsop used in directing the strings to work on some rough spots.

The article also spoke of a few of the many technical subtleties that
need to be developed in order to play well. I learned quite a bit just
reading the article. For one, I never thought about the need to consider
room acoustics when deciding when precisely to make an entrance. That’s
something that a non-professional musician would never consider.

“I seemed to enter consistently late. Members later told me that along
with incompetence, this was probably a result of the acoustics of the
hall, which require some anticipation from players sitting toward the
back of the stage.”

That’s not something the average concert-goer would ever be aware of
either unless they were also professional musicians. The more I learn
about what it takes to be a professional musician, the more I grow in
awe of them!

I agree with Lee. I don’t think the average concert-goer — or even your average amateur — realizes how subtle, driven, and perfection-seeking the life of a professional orchestra player is. That was driven home to me, when — during a lunch — someone asked the BSO’s new principal bassoonist what it took to win his position.

After a moment, Fei Xie responded, “You have to be willing to throw a big part of your life away.” He went on to say that he spent his life either practicing, playing, or making reeds – consciously giving up what other people perceive as “a normal life.”

What he said struck a special chord with me. I don’t have any regrets about what my life has included, and I can’t imagine what I would have given up to dedicate my life full-time to a music career. It brought me a kind of peace about the choices I’ve made and helps explain why I’m a “midlife musician” — not a professional one.

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BSO Academy, Round Two

20120624-220700.jpgWe’re off and running on another BSO Academy. There are more than 100 musicians here this year to play side-by-side with members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and under the baton of Marin Alsop.

So far, the week is off to grand start. A big difference this year is a partnership between the BSO and the Baltimore School of the Arts. Our first sessions are taking place in rooms that were purpose-created for teaching music, meaning there are lots of music stands and pianos everywhere to support playing. There are dozens of rooms for practicing and private lessons in the middle of Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

There have been some lovely events to help us get acquainted with other musicians here. Among attendees I’ve met so far are a retired violinist from the Kansas City symphony who is now playing the harp and another violinist who works on environmental issues in Maryland but also plays the flute and saxophone. This year’s roster includes a significant number of teachers — finally able to attend because this year’s Academy is a little later — after school has let out for the year.

Today, we eased into playing with a fun session of string orchestra and a helpful master class — both led by BSO ConcertMaster Jonathan Carney. In the evening, chamber rehearsals began, and I worked on Mozart with the delightful Ivan Stefanovic of the BSO.

Sectionals take place tomorrow as we begin work in earnest on the Orchestra repertoire, with our first rehearsal in Meyerhoff Hall scheduled for Tuesday. We’re aiming for a great concert on Saturday evening, June 30th.

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Making Mozart

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!

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by | May 12, 2012 · 8:51 pm

Practice? Well, Maybe Later …

David Allen, the productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done has a maxim that goes something like this:  “The more something is on your mind, the less is getting done about it.”

I guess that’s why practicing music has been on my mind so much lately.   More “thinking about” than “doing.”

A hectic work schedule, a lot of 97-degree-high-humidity summer days, and the lack of something specific to prepare for right now have combined to throw me off routine.  The piano has been getting token practice the last few weeks; the violin, almost none at all.  Yet practice is like any other discipline, like brushing your teeth or putting away your clean laundry:  you can make up excuses but – in reality – you just have to do it.

The good news is that while in Baltimore, I learned some things to make practice much more efficient.

First, if you are tired or mentally checked out, you are probably better off not to practice – or at least, not practice anything complex.   For the violin, it’s probably one of those good times to watch where your bow is engaging the string and hear the different tones you get at different pressure points and with more and less hair, bowspeed, arm weight, etc.

Second, make sure you are not trying to do too much at once.   Sometimes, in my enthusiasm for a new piece, I keep playing it all the way through, over and over, rather than breaking it down and perfecting smaller sections.  In the end, I just keep perfecting my ability to sight-read, rather than my ability to play.  Professionals approach pieces differently.   They might listen to a recording, to get a sense of what the piece is and what their part sounds like.   Then they’ll work on the rhythm, perhaps walking around or dancing a little to get the feel of the rhythm into their bones.   Then, they attack the notes.  And, as the notes become secure (and memorized), the music itself emerges, with judgments of interpretation, nuance and tone.  Only then are they playing all the way through.

A side-effect of slowing down and working on smaller segments is that you can focus on technique; chances are your difficulty is arising because the technique you are trying to use is flawed in some way.   Or, as Peter keeps reminding me at my piano lesson, no one ever learned piano technique playing hands together!

One other professional tip:  when working on a difficult run, start at the end of the phrase, playing only three notes.   Play those notes repeatedly, until you can play them flawlessly 10 times in a row.  Then pick up the three notes that come just before the three notes you’ve learned.   Now you’re playing six notes over and over, until you can play those flawlessly.  Then pick up three more notes, and so on to the beginning of the phrase.   By the time you’ve done this, you probably have the troublesome phrase memorized, and have “locked in” on the correct way it should go.

There is a side benefit of this technique for orchestra players.   At tempo, it is not unusual to get tense and lose your place in a long run of very fast notes if you are trying to read them off the page.   Perfecting the end first means that even if you do get lost in the middle of a very black set of measures, you will soon come to the place you know well, and regain your balance.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do … as soon as I fix a lemonade, lay out on the chaise, and finish that novel!

 

 

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Summer Breaks

Another big summer event for string players in just around the corner.  Interlochen in Northern Michigan hosts the annual Adult Chamber Music Camp next month, for a full week of playing in small groups.  For those who can’t do the whole week, there’s also a String Chamber  Orchestra Weekend.  While I’m pining to go, my schedule this year – with Baltimore and all – just can’t spare the time.

Rebecca Nichols

Meanwhile, how does a professional violin player spend her summer?  Rebecca Nichols, the coach of our chamber group at the BSO Academy and a first violin player with the Baltimore Symphony, is spending her summer on a sailboat with her husband, sailing up the East Coast to Maine.  You can read about her experiences and see some great pictures on a blog she’s writing: Becky’s Sailing Adventure.  And, just because she’s sailing (or battling seasickness) doesn’t mean that she stops practicing.  She isn’t taking her best violin on the trip, but she is playing as they go!

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Summer and Fall Fantasies …

Received word today that the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis has announced a fantasy camp this fall.   They are looking for 50 amateur musicians – all parts – to take part in a two-day camp in mid-September.  The repertoire is Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, which is scheduled to be performed with the symphony in the second half of their September 16th concert.  You can get more information on the Minnesota Symphony site.

Nan Washburn

The information comes courtesy of Nan Washburn of the Michigan Philharmonic, who has just been named the new conductor of the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Society Symphony Orchestra.  The appointment received some coverage in local papers this weekend. Speaking both as a new board member of OLPS and a member of the orchestra, I’m delighted that Nan is coming on board.  The repertoire she has chosen for our fall concert is intriguing (Gluck, Ravel, Sibelius, Berlioz, and Mao Yuan).

The OLPS Symphony is looking for additional players, especially all strings.  If you play and want to get involved with a group, now is your chance!  Rehearsals begin Thursday, September 15th at West Bloomfield High School.  Additional information and registration materials are available on www.OLPSMusic.org.

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BSO Academy, The Final Day (Georgeann)

BSO AcademyI 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.

Dress Rehearsal

BSO Academy Group 1 Dress Rehearsal with Marin Alsop conducting.

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.
Dress Rehearsal-Correcting a problem

Marin Alsop works with the orchestra to iron out a problem.

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.”

Dress Rehearsal-Cellos

Group 1 plays Mahler at rehearsal.

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?

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BSO Academy, Friday Chamber Music (Georgeann)

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.

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BSO Academy, Friday Orchestra (Georgeann)

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!

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BSO Academy: Little Change, Big Difference (Georgeann)

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.

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