Tag Archives: orchestra

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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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 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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BSO Academy, Day 3 (Georgeann)

A marathon day of playing in Baltimore, starting with my own need to practice and work out some issues, followed by strings sectional.  Then, one of the key moments of the week, our first rehearsal on-stage at Meyerhoff Hall sharing stands with the professional musicians of the BSO, rehearsing with Marin Alsop.

In all, the rehearsal was very business-like and moved quickly.   In the middle of the Rimskey-Korsakov, I heard something remarkable:  the shuffling of musicians feet on the floor in applause for an extremely beautiful harp cadenza performed by our amateur harpist.   It was very cool.

After a break for lunch (and another hour for me in the practice room), BSO concert master Jonathan Carney led a string orchestra workshop, and I was proud to hear Mike, the cellist from our string quintet, performing another beautiful solo in the middle of Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

Then it was on to chamber music rehearsal, with our quintet coming together astonishingly well on the piece we plan to at Friday night’s concert.  Then another break for dinner, and class on getting most out of practice time.

In all, I calculated that the violin had been under my chin for at least seven full hours today.  Made me recall another quote from Monday’s session with the physical therapist:  “People don’t realize musicians are elite athletes.  It takes great strength to hold and play your instrument.”    Amen.

Sidenote:  Along with the intense schedule, the midlife musicians who decided to stay in the nearby dorm for the week were promised today they would finally have hot water tonight.   Can’t imagine what they’ve been putting up with!

 

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BSO Academy, Day 1

The afternoon performance of Verdi’s Requiem, with more than 120 voices joining the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was alternately stunning, ethereal, and emotionally moving.  So it was amusing to learn, talking to members of the brass section after the performance, that they nearly “lost it” midway through the performance when a cell phone went off at a critical moment, with a ringtone that was perfectly in key.

Marin Alsop addresses the BSO Academy Musicians

BSO Music Director Marin Alsop addresses the BSO Academy Musicians

That casual, companions-in-music camaraderie, set a great tone for the opening day of the BSO Academy.   As music director Marin Alsop told the assembled musicians (mostly midlifers like me), “it’s about the passion we all share for music.”   The BSO Academy, now in its second year, is a very different experience for the musicians, too, she says.

“We are here to help,” she told us.  “It’s not about pressure.  Any pressure you feel, you are putting on yourself.  We just want to help you improve your skill set and music making, so you can reach new goals.”

At the same time, Alsop warned that she would not go easy on the BSO Academy musicians, just because we are amateurs.  “I can’t help it,” she said.  “I work with every orchestra as if it is a major orchestra.”  But she also promised that the experience would “take you where you are and move you ten levels up.”

There are a lot of people here who do other things for a living:  a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a retired marketing executive, and so on, with home addresses that include Maryland, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Massachusetts, and California.

Crab Cake Sandwich at Phillips Seafood at Harborplace in Baltimore

As the schedules were passed out over dinner, it’s clear it will be a challenging week.  I have my first private lesson at 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning, followed by classes on preventing injury, Alexander Technique, sectional rehearsal, chamber music rehearsal, and — after dinner — another class on sight reading.

Good thing I got my crab cake fix at lunch today!

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The Tempo of Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about tempo lately.

BSO AcademySome of the thinking has its roots in the music I’m struggling to master for next week’s BSO Academy.  I’m starting to get my fingers and bow around most of it — but at half-speed.  I’m nowhere near as fast as the recordings I’ve been listening to of Hindemith, Rimskey-Korsakov, and now the Dvorak String Quintet in G (my designated chamber music piece – 2nd violin).  And the thought of trying to play as fast as the music demands fills me with terror. Continue reading

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From One Orchestra To Another …

It’s finally starting to seem like spring in Michigan, despite another snowstorm this week.  (No snow at 6am, 3 inches on the ground by 10am, but only a few patches here and there by dinnertime …)

This time of renewal has also seen a lot of musical activity. Continue reading

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This and That: Music, Work, Life

First, the news.

Detroit Public Television LogoI have a new job and a new title.   Senior Vice President, Content and Community Engagement, at Detroit Public Television.   I’m working on plans to address DPTV’s five key issue areas:   Energy and Environment, Leadership, Arts & Culture, Health, and Kids/Education.   Continue reading

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Symphony Fantasy Camp

BSO AcademyThe envelope was large, brown, and addressed by hand.

“Dear Georgeann,

“Congratulations!  After careful review of your application, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is pleased to offer you admission to the second annual BSO Academy …”

I’m in. Continue reading

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