Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Making a Difference with Classical Music

The world can be a dark, difficult place sometimes, and easy to start feeling helpless. Musicians in particular can wonder what their value is, especially when many people don’t see classical or art music as vital, dynamic art forms but rather leftovers from the past. But music is as vital and relevant as we musicians choose to make it, and we can use it to make the world a better place. Music is a powerful expression of human emotion and experience; it’s been around since the stone age if not earlier, and it will continue so long as there are mothers around to sing lullabies to their children. So how can we stay connected to our music, and use it help other people?

1. Attend a Concert of Music You’ve Never Heard Before

So often we want to encourage other people to come to our concerts and discover what we’ve been working on, but we forget to seek out new musical experiences ourselves. Yet, those experiences can be important reminders of why finding an incredible new piece or hearing an amazing artist you’ve never heard before can be so powerful. Recently, I heard a fantastic performance of a modern violin concerto I’d never heard before by a soloist I’d never of. I came away amazed and impressed by the violinist’s passion and precision (Vilde Frang--go see her if you get a chance), and deeply impressed by the piece. It reminded me of why I loved music so much in the first place. It’s inspirational, even if I know I’ll never play like that:)

2. Play Your Music For Someone Who’s Never Heard It Before

When I lived in Miami, I used to busk on Miami Beach for tips. I played the Bach Suites, Pop Music, whatever I happened to be working on. I loved it. There’s nothing like watching children dance around you while you’re playing a gigue. It’s wonderful to have a receptive audience, and gives you a very intimate understanding of how a piece should feel. Believe me, you learn very quickly how to play something in a way that moves people! But I think it’s even more important that we bring music to people who may not otherwise find it. Maybe we stir something in someone--their thoughts and emotions, their curiosity. Maybe we expose them to an artform they might not otherwise discover. Music is meant to be shared, and when we shared it, we can bring people together. That’s a powerful experience in the world today.

3. Support a Good Cause with Your Music

If you can write a song that brings people together, or gives them hope, or helps them understand the world a little bit better, then write that song. If you can put on or perform in a concert that benefits a good cause, perform your best. If you can perform for schools, nursing homes, or hospitals, don’t hesitate. You can bring joy to people with your music, and that’s a powerful, necessary thing. We all need it sometimes.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The National Endowment for the Arts and Musicians

Musicians, it goes without saying, often have a deep appreciation for the arts. After all, it's how we make our living! But it goes deeper than that. I know that many people will never have the amazing feeling of being on stage playing a Beethoven symphony, or giving the premiere of a piece by a living composer. But many people love and appreciate art music in its many forms, and the arts, or the lack of them, can have a profound effect on our country. Cutting funding for them will only deepen the divide between rich and poor, or urban and rural, and it will impoverish our national culture.

The sad truth is that many of the projects, concerts, and organizations supported by the National Endowment for the Arts benefit people in areas that otherwise can't afford or support them. Large urban centers like New York or Chicago often have enough wealthy patrons and well-established audiences to support organizations like the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera. But tiny towns in the South or the Midwest rarely have the opportunity to enjoy concerts of any kind without government support. The Chamber Music Rural Residencies Program, for example, has helped bring chamber music ensembles like string quartets to rural communities, giving local people a chance to experience live music they've never heard before while helping young professional musicians establish their careers. Likewise, many small community orchestras are supported in part through NEA grants. These orchestras allow many semi-professional or amateur musicians the opportunity to play music they love for their communities.

Furthermore, while billionaires can afford tickets to an concert they want to attend, NEA programs help bring music to people who can't afford tickets. One program will have members of the Philadelphia orchestra work with music therapists to develop music therapy programs for homeless people, which helps them develop coping skills. The NEA-supported Music and Memory program helps bring music to residents of nursing homes. The music helps residents with dementia to reconnect with their memories through music, as well as bringing them pleasure and helping them engage and socialize. Art and music programs for disadvantaged children have been shown to reduce stress and help children develop creativity as well as social and emotional skills. These kinds of programs help bring music to people who need the beauty, creativity, and vitality it offers.

 Music should belong to everyone, not just wealthy enclaves in large cities. The power and joy of music and art can build communities and connect people to each other. But without funding for the NEA, many vital programs that bring music to less fortunate people, from disadvantaged children to nursing home residents, are at risk. That's something that should concern all musicians.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Blessings of Being a Musician During the Holidays

The holidays are such a hugely busy season for most musicians, that it can be pretty hard to step back and appreciate how lucky we are. I know, you're tired and overworked, and you have three performances of the Nutcracker or Handel's Messiah this weekend, as well as an early morning Christmas service at one of those churches with way too much electric guitar. I mean, most people get a break during the Holidays, but even if school's out or you get time off your day job, your music job is sucking the life out of you. And how many electric guitars can one church possibly need anyway?

But, there are plenty of advantages that musicians have over regular folks this season. Here are a few I've noticed.

1. You can sing Christmas Carols and stay in the right key!

Yes, as a musician, you likely have enough pitch sense that you can sing a Christmas carol and stay in key, even if that key has far too many flats, and, oh my, what is that key change the choir director thought would be a good idea for the bridge? 

If fact, after so many Christmas concerts, you even know the correct lyrics to most carols, including the second verses!

2. You get extra money!

Sure, some people get end of the year bonuses, but others get tons of seasonal concerts and gigs. All that extra money means this time of year is likely your most profitable! Financial stability, here we come! At least until next month.

3. You have the perfect excuse to avoid awkward work or family functions.

I'm playing in a concert for the such and such symphony means no more uncomfortable small talk with your boss's nephew, the one who constantly insists he's not racist despite all evidence to the contrary. Or avoid trying to remember the names of everyone in the accounting department.

4. Special Effects and Celebrities 

Classical music doesn't get them very often, but Christmas and 4th of July Concerts can have as much fire, explosions, older celebrities, and glitter as they please. Anyone else played in the Transiberian? Or maybe along side a famous gospel singer?

 5. The whole "bringing joy to children" thing

Yes, most of the time classical concerts are less than kid-friendly, but once you have a  Santa Claus with a good baritone, let the little ones come! Let's face it, you have to be five years old to really get the plot of the Nutcracker anyway. There's mice and toy soldiers, and now dancing chocolate, and... just roll with it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

What Makes a Good Conductor?

Recently, the long-time conductor of one of the orchestras I play with retired, so this season the orchestra's board is having a variety of different candidates conduct the orchestra as part of their search for a new conductor. After each concert, orchestra members rate how well they think the candidate did. It's a curious position for an orchestra musician to be in, rating conductors, since for the most part, it's conductors who rate us. Yet, completing these surveys on conducting candidates has made me think about what makes a good conductor, and what a huge difference a conductor can make in an orchestra's sound and musical interpretation. So what ultimately makes a good conductor?

While every musician no doubt has his or her own preferences, I definitely prefer conductors with high standards and a clear idea of musical style and expression. I know it can be tempting to pick a conductor who's willing to "go easy" on the orchestra, with relaxed tempos and undemanding repertoire, but that's not going to build a great ensemble. Besides, that gets dull quickly. But high standards become an exercise in frustration without a strong command of musical style and a sensitive, thoughtful understanding of musical expression. After all, high standards mean little if they don't serve the music. Sometimes musicians and conductors alike get caught up in the pursuit of technical excellence. Technical expertise is only a tool that we use to better express music; it's not an end in itself. A thoughtful conductor must study the music--its history, its composer, and its score--and find within these things the power and beauty that make up this particular piece, then communicates his or her discoveries to the orchestra.

This brings us to another essential quality to a good conductor--they must be excellent at communicating with both the musicians of the orchestra and the audience. A conductor who can't get his or her ideas across to the people who will actually play the music is doomed to frustration, and one who can't build good rapport with an audience is doomed to empty halls. Communication is a tricky subject--some conductors speak fluently to audiences and fill rehearsals with charming anecdotes, while others command rapt attention with their baton alone. I think respect can be a crucial part of good communication. While most conductors I've worked with behave in a professional manner and treat their musicians with appropriate respect, and few bad apples have been known to disregard the musicians they work with. In addition to creating an unpleasant atmosphere for everyone, a lack of professional courtesy creates huge barriers to musical expression. No one can play their best, or express themselves fully, without feeling safe enough to take risks and play with passion and energy. The best musical expression requires mutual cooperation, and that takes mutual respect.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Short Story is in Red Sun Magazine!

One of my short stories, "Earth is for Earthers," is appearing in the most recent issue of Red Sun Magazine! I'm super excited to be a part of it, and I especially loved the haunting and beautiful cover illustration. The magazine is full of great content, including very thoughtful articles by Judith Field and Karen Smith, as well as an in-depth interview with the creators of Cromcast, a podcast about Science Fiction and Fantasy author Robert E. Howard. If you're interested in all things Science Fiction and Fantasy, check it out!

Discovering Viking Music

Vikings aren't usually considered musical people, perhaps because very little of the music they created survived to be written down. Yet, there's plenty of evidence that dark ages Scandinavians performed music, perhaps even singing ancient poetry from Norse sagas. Recent scholarship has uncovered many of the musical instruments they may have used as well, including the Hedeby rebec and versions of ancient harps and lyres. Using the instruments found in Viking settlements and the few surviving Medieval melodies and musical descriptions, modern musicians are beginning to recreate the sound of Viking music.

For example, in their CD Ice and Longboats the musical group Ensemble Mare Balticum tries to recreate Viking music, using musical archeology, old Scandinavian folk songs, and early Medieval Christian music as a starting point. They improvise on Viking era instruments to capture the sounds of the age, and perhaps improvisatory melodies once accompanied recitations of epic poems like the great Norse sagas, or even the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The musicians of Ensemble Mare Balticum conducted extensive research in partnership with the European Music Archeology Project to produce Ice and Longboats. With pure melodies sparsely accompanied with period instruments, this CD feels authentic. 

At a recent visit to a Viking and Celtic Festival in Oklahoma, I was lucky enough to meet a man who specializes in making ancient instruments like rebecs, lyres, and harps (check out his beautiful period instruments at Instruments of Antiquity). He had recently built an instrument modeled on the Hedeby rebec, an instrument discovered during archaeological digs at the Viking trading town of Hedeby. Unlike later rebecs, the Hedeby rebec lacked a fingerboard, so it's played by stopping the strings with just your fingers, not unlike how Chinese musicians play the erhu (the erhu is actually related to an even earlier instrument, the spiked fiddle, which may have been brought to Europe during the Crusades, if not before). The sound was soft, but it had a good variety of tonal colors, especially considering that the strings would have been plucked as well as bowed. Playing a recreation of the Hedeby rebec was a fun and fascinating experience, one that gave me some insights into how Viking music must have sounded.