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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Classical Music: the Beautiful Part of the Day

I recently got a full time, non-music job, and that's been wonderful in many ways. It's an exciting new challenge, and I still get to work with students, though in a different subject. But I have missed playing classical music all day, and I'm still working on finding a good place for it in my currently busy with other things life. Yet, even though I haven't practiced as much as I normally do, I still want a regular connection to music. So how can I have that while working full time and caring for my family?

Luckily, listening to classical music is as easy as ever. I have CDs (I'm old fashioned that way--you can pry them out of my cold dead hands), the classical radio station (still going strong in Dallas!). Listening to a Beethoven Symphony on the way home from work gives a bad day a touch of beauty and transcendence like nothing else I can imagine. In a way, not working in music everyday helps me appreciate how beautiful it is. As a working musician I loved music, but I also felt a lot of pressure around it (much of it admittedly self-inflicted). I couldn't just listen to music, I had to listen The Right Way and hear The Right Things. Now, I can enjoy music with a sense of ease I haven't had for a while.

Teaching my daughter violin also keeps me connected to my instrument. Even when she struggles or one of us gets frustrated, I still feel connected to her and connected to the music I'm teaching her. I'm sharing my love of music with someone I love. Seeing her learn music for the first time somehow makes pieces I've listened to or played a million times feel fresh again.

It's tough to be a working musician. I don't miss the uncertainties of a freelance career, or the burdensome process of collecting payments from parents as an independent music teacher. I don't miss the high pressure auditions or anything like that. But I do miss the music. If everyone had the time and energy to play an hour of Beethoven a day, the world would be a better place. No matter what the haters say, classical music isn't dying. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Recreating Medieval Music

My husband and I love Renaissance faires, and we've also become involved in Viking reenactment as well. As a musician, I'm fascinated by early music, from Gregorian chant to the music of the troubadours. While at a Viking and Renaissance Festival in Oklahoma last year, I was happy to meet a man from Instruments of Antiquity, who let me play his sample rebec. Since then, I've been seriously considering ordering a Medieval instrument, which are much more affordable than I would have thought.

As a violin and viola player, I find the history of musical instruments fascinating. It's so easy to assume that they've been around forever, but in fact many modern instruments were invented in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a few were created in the early twentieth century (Sousaphone, anyone?). Yet, the history of string instruments stretches back in time, to ancient Greece if not earlier. Though much of the music of history has been lost, some of it can be recreated by musicians eager to research and experiment with the performances practices of the time.

Listening to the  music of instruments like rebecs, vielles, and viols is like listening to voices from the past. Each one gives us a sense of the soundscapes and tonal colors that would have been familiar to the people of the Middle ages, or even earlier. What's more, for modern musicians learning these instruments (or at least researching them) can inform our understanding of composers like J.S. Bach, who wrote music for the viola da gamba. Indeed, many music historians speculate that Bach's 6th Cello Suite may have originally been intended for a violincello piccolo (which Anner Bylsma used for his 2nd recording of this suite), a five-stringed instrument slightly smaller than a modern cello. Even if a modern musician isn't interested in buying or playing an instrument like a viol, understanding what one sounded like can give us a better understanding of the ways that music has developed over the centuries.

Yet for all that, I think one of the things that draws me to ancient musical instruments is the same thing that draws me to classical music in general--they are beautiful, rich parts of our cultural heritage. The rebec, for example, is a bowed string instrument that dates to as early as the 9th century in Europe, and may have originally come from the Arabic rebab, or spiked fiddle. It's a lovely instrument, with a softer sound than a modern violin, and playing it gave me a small taste of what life would have been like as a Medieval musician.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Being a Teacher and a Parent

I recently started teaching my daughter violin lessons. She is now three years old, and my mother got her a violin for her birthday. While I have taught music to children her age before (I some Suzuki teacher training on violin), this is the first time that I've been a parent. It's been a fun and rewarding journey so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing how my sweet baby progresses. However, being a parent, not just a teacher, has definitely given me a fresh perspective on learning music at a young age.

Daily Practice Is Tough

Like all teachers, I've encouraged my students to practice every day, if possible. After all, regular practice is necessary to develop any skill. For young children, I've helped parents learn how to practice with their children, since kids under six or so are really too young to practice independently. But, like many teachers I know, I hear "we didn't have time to practice this week" over and over again. As a parent with a child who's learning music, I'm more sympathetic than I used to be. Establishing a practice routine is tough. My daughter likes her violin, but she also wants to color, play with play-doh, and watch endless amounts of "My Little Pony." When I first started working with her, it took plenty of chocolate to get her to practice! 

A Routine Helps!

While at first I relied on chocolate to convince my daughter to practice, as we developed a routine and she felt more comfortable with her instrument, she's seemed more excited and interested (we're down to only needing about three M&M's per practice:). Now, violin has become a regular and predictable part of her day. It helps that daily practice also makes her sound better! It's important for any parent to remember that starting a new activity always takes a little bit of time--everything feels new and confusing, it can be a bit overwhelming. But with slow, steady effort and a little bit of fun and encouragement (chocolate!), it gets much easier very quickly.

Embrace Short Attention Spans

Too many parents bemoan their children's short attention spans, without realizing that it's developmentally normal and appropriate for young children to have them! So instead of fighting a child's natural development, go with it. I keep practice sessions short (fifteen minutes or less), and focus on doing a wide variety of different activities to keep my daughter from getting bored with doing one thing over and over. Often, this amounts to switching between bowing exercises and left-hand exercises, with a little bit of singing and listening practice thrown in. If my daughter gets tired or distracted, we're done. It's less important to have long practice sessions (especially at young ages, when children get tired and bored easily), than it is to have regular practice sessions. 

Overall, I've loved sharing music with my little girl, and I hope that it will become something special that we can do together. There's lot of evidence that musical training helps children's brain development, but when it's done correctly, I think it can be a beautiful, enjoyable family activity as well.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

I'm always been a fan of Charlie Jane Anders' writing at io9, so when she released her new book, All the Birds in the Sky, I knew I wanted to read it. The concept--integrating fantasy and science fiction in a wonderfully inventive near future world--sounded fascinating. I found a copy at the library and dove in.

I loved Anders' world and her characters from the very first chapter. Patricia, an earthy but eccentric witch, and Laurence, a precocious scientific genius, are as flawed as they are lovable. They make terrible mistakes for the reasons that all people do, yet find beautiful ways to redeem themselves and each other. Anders' writing is witty and funny in the way I've come to expect from her work at io9, with some delightful plot twists I won't spoil here, especially regarding Patricia and Laurence's evil school counselor, Theodolphus Rose. Her depiction of middle school life in a school devoted to memorization and standardized testing is one of the most biting satires I've ever read, one that feels eerily close to life.

If there's one criticism I'd make of the book, it's that I found Laurence's parents unrealistically cruel and discouraging at times. I understand that from a middle schooler's point of view parents often seem capricious, and that even the best parent-child relationships can be fraught with misunderstandings. But most parents I know would be thrilled that their child wanted to attend a science and math high school, not discouraging. I think if his parents had been portrayed differently earlier on in the book, their actions might have made more sense, but as it was they seemed unrealistic. However, I found Patricia's tense but heartfelt reconciliations with her parents and her sister some of the most powerful moments in the book. I also loved the way Laurence and Patricia awkwardly found their love for each other. In fact, this book was one of the best geeky love stories I've read.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction or fantasy, or who enjoys Charlie Jane Anders' writing at io9. It's funny, tragic and heartfelt in turns, with just enough love and hope to carry its characters through the dark times.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

San Francisco Trip 2016

Last month, my family went on a big trip. We started in San Francisco, spending several days there  before we drove through Napa Valley and up to the Redwoods National Park. It was an amazing experience, so much so that I've only recently had time to look through the enormous number of pictures we took! Here's a few pictures from our time in the beautiful city of San Francisco.  
My daughter at Fisherman's Wharf. She loved seeing the sea lions!
We loved visiting China Town, and had delicious food at Z & Y Restaurant.
The docks were windy, but beautiful!
Sea Lions at Fisherman's Wharf!
The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate State Park
My family and I at the Japanese Tea Gardens
A beautiful pond at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park!
My daughter loved looking at all the trees and flowers. When she got cold, I gave her my hoodie. It made her look like a wizard! Here she is with one of our friends! 
A lovely pond at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
My little wizard! My hoodie kept her warm in the cold San Francisco wind.
My husband and me in front of a Pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden.
Beautiful waterfall and pagoda at the Japanese Tea Garden.
The Golden Gate Bridge, covered in fog. 
San Francisco in the evening.
The bay bridge lights at night in San Francisco.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Playing by Ear--Why You Should Try It!

I'm a traditionally-trained classical musician, which means that I didn't get any ear-training until I went to college. Before that, I had excellent teachers who taught me to listen to my playing and try to play in tune, but playing by ear was just not something that classical musicians in my area did--that was for jazz musicians. We could sight-read and memorize music, but that's it.

The first time I tried playing by ear was when I took a jazz improve class, again in college. I was the only strings person there, and I felt quite out of my league playing with a bunch of experienced jazz musicians. I did my best, but in the end I felt like playing by ear was just not something I could do. Fast forward a few years, and I took a class in Suzuki Method. There, we were expected to at least give playing by ear a try, and since most of the songs we were working on were fairly simple, I took a deep breath and gave it a shot. For the first time, I felt like it was okay to try and fail, and to my surprise, it wasn't as hard as I'd thought (I think years of aural skills training had definitely helped by then). I still don't feel like an expert in playing by ear, but I've found it can definitely be a fun and exciting way to practice.

I think the key to successfully playing by ear is listening. It's much easier if the music you're trying to learn is deeply embedded in your memory. For example, I'm a huge fan of the TV show Game of Thrones. Since I watch it regularly, it's easy for me to hear the theme song in my head. So the other day when I was practicing, I decided to try and play it by ear, instead of looking up the sheet music. It took me a few tries to find all the notes, but eventually I did. It was fun to play, and my daughter loved it! I've tried playing similar songs by ear as well, including the Misty Mountain song from the Hobbit Movie and simple folk tunes.

When I first started playing by ear, I found it very intimidating. It wasn't how I usually practiced, and I felt insecure without a music stand and sheet music in front of me. I was uncomfortable with making mistakes and feeling notes out (or listening for them) instead of knowing exactly what I was supposed to play. But I think that's one of the things playing by ear helps us to let go of. Instead of relying on sheet music, playing by ear makes us explore music more, thinking carefully about how it sounds, not what notes are on the page. What's more, it's good for music students to learn to take risks, and sometimes making mistakes is an important part of that process. That's what learning to play by ear has helped teach me, and it's a lesson I hope to impart to my students as well

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dallas, My Beloved City

Texas Blue Bonnets 
So there's a lot that's been happening in the news lately about Dallas. We've had a terrible mass shooting that targeted police officers who were protecting people at a peaceful rally. I had friends who were attending that rally, and I also have friends on the Dallas PD. It's been hard to even process the terrible things that keep happening in our country, especially the recent shootings in Orlando and Dallas, so I haven't written about it until now.

I came to Dallas in 2010. I've lived in many places throughout the United States, including Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Alaska, but Dallas has been one of my favorite places to live. It's affordable, family-friendly in the best sense, and people here tend to be kind and polite to strangers in a way you don't always see in other places. You may have seen the pictures the Dallas PD posted before the shooting, of police officers posing for pictures with the Black Lives Matter protesters, everyone smiling and peaceful. That might surprise people, but it doesn't surprise me. That's Dallas. You may have seen the video of a Black Lives Matter protesters encountering a counter-protest, and everyone hugging each other, praying together, and agreeing to stand together. That's Dallas (in fact, I know one of the people in that video).

There's a lot of things people complain about when it comes to Dallas. The city is highly stratified between rich and poor, and it does get crazy, crazy hot here. The school system has plenty of problems, including huge inequality. But in terms of the kindness and generosity of the people here, I can honestly say it's one of the best places I've ever lived. I'm horrified that the shooter (I won't mention his name--these people deserve to be forgotten) targeted our city, and our people, and our police for his hate.

But I know that Dallas isn't going to fall apart because of one angry, hateful person. Dallas is stronger than that. Our police department is a model for the rest of the country in terms of reducing police shootings and complaints of police brutality. I hope, I believe that progress will continue. Our mayor and police chief gave some beautiful speeches about our city and its police, and I hope you read about them. This tragedy doesn't have to divide us if we don't let it. Black Lives Matter. It's important that we train police officers to deescalate situations, for their own safety and for the sake of the people they serve and protect. And it's important that we recognize that most cops are good, decent people who are trying their best to do a difficult, sometimes dangerous job. When the bullets started flying, they protected the people around them. We can appreciate their heroism even as we ask them to do better.

Dallas has been attacked, but we're still here, and we can stand together.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Listening to the Glass Harmonica

The glass harmonica was an instrument that became popular in Western Europe for about 70 years. Instruments made of glass, usually filled with different levels of water, had been used in Eastern music for hundreds of years, but they were introduced to Western music by a man named Richard Puckeridge in 1743. Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) improved them enough to make it popular and relatively easy to play. Unfortunately, the instruments, which had cylinders of glass that spun and corresponded to different tones, used leaded glass. The possibility of lead contamination made the glass harmonicas lose popularity and become associated with madness. However, by the time they fell out of fashion, many composers had already written music for the ethereal, celestial sounding instruments, including Beethoven and Mozart. In particular, Donizetti originally called for the glass harmonica in the famous "Mad Scene" from his opera Lucia di Lammermoor, perhaps using the instrument's ominous reputation to enhance the scene's disturbing effects.

I found this CD of glass harmonica music at the library, and I had to listen to it. I had never heard that instruments like this had achieved such a great popularity, and I was interested to hear how it sounded. It does indeed sound ethereal and beautiful, not unlike a celesta that can sustain notes. I especially loved the effect of the glass harmonica when paired with strings or voice, where it added an eerie, ethereal effect, like fairies humming along with the instruments. If some of the compositions on the CD are less then thrilling (I found the Reichardt piece a bit tedious), others are as fantastical as the instrument deserves, including the Mozart and Beethoven pieces. Mozart's Quintet for glass harmonica, flute, cello, viola, and oboe is an incredible exploration of tonal color that contrasts the richness of the lower strings with the haunting tones of the glass harmonica. Mozart himself played the viola at the piece's premiere. It's worth listening to for anyone who's interested in some very novel classical music.

As a writer, I also found the history of this instrument a dark and fascinating piece of music history. The instrument was loved by many, but developed a reputation for causing depression, illness, and insanity in its aficionados. Was it the trace amounts of lead musicians may have absorbed from the glass, or some quality of the music itself which made some people find it uncanny? Some scholars have argued that instrumentalists would not have absorbed enough lead from the glass to endanger their lives or their sanity, but it's hard to be certain. Whatever the case, the idea of a musical instrument that slowly poisons the people who play it is certainly fascinating.  


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review: The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest

The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest is collection of fantasy short stories and poems that I found at the library. It was edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the same duo who had edited another book I enjoyed, Black Swan, White Raven, so I decided to check it out. I loved the theme of the book, and since I just returned from a trip to the Redwood Forest, it felt like the right book for me to read. I'm glad I did, because while I didn't love all the stories, many of them were haunting and unique, and I'm looking forward to reading more from those authors.

Some of my favorite stories were "Grand Central Park," by Delia Sherman, "A World Painted by Birds" by Katherine Vaz, and "Joshua Tree" by Emma Bull. These stories captured the theme in beautifully imaginative ways, but each one was as different from the others as water from fire. In particular, I loved the coming-of-age theme in "Grand Central Park," as well as the heroine's kindness and generosity even as she "wins." Vaz's story is as gorgeous and lush as a canvas, yet as sorrowful and haunting as a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca. I loved her imagery, and how the worst characters had some humanity in them, even the selfish General's Wife. In contrast, Bull's "Joshua Tree" was spare and understated, yet the germs of hope and freedom her main character discovers in the desert felt as tough as the trees in her title. It was a reminder that there's a beauty even in harsh, hard-to-survive environments, like high school and the desert.

Other notable stories included "Fee, Fie, Foe, et Cetera" by Gregory Maguire, "Remnants" by Kathe Koja, and "The Pagodas of Ciboure" by M. Shayne Bell. I loved Maguire's matter-of-fact take on fairy tales, where Jack has to contend with taxes and bureaucracy as much as a giant. Koja's "Remnants" on the other hand, had one of the darkest takes on the theme in the anthology. The forest of trash is both a refuge and perhaps a trap for the main character, who seems both magical and deeply disturbed. The dark secrets she uses the forest to conceal lurk beneath her supposedly sunny outlook, and the enemies she fears might be people trying to help her, if perhaps ineffectually. It's a story that definitely sticks in your mind, and raises uncomfortable questions about society and the "trash" we throw away. In contrast, "The Pagodas of Ciboure" is a charming, lovely story about the imagined childhood of one of my favorite composers, Maurice Ravel. I loved, loved, loved the pagodas, which are not Chinese temples but a type of French fairy creature made of porcelain, jewels, and crystal. The lovely little creatures and their relationship with a kind but sickly boy made this story one of the most enjoyable to read.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone interested in fantasy stories. Like many anthologies, there's such a wide variety of voices and approaches to the theme that it's easy to find stories to love.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Solo vs. Orchestra Playing

Recently, Strad magazine published an article where bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku suggested that double bass students spend too much time and energy practicing their solo pieces, at the expense of their orchestra music. While I don't play the double bass, I'm familiar with the attitude he's describing, and it effects many musicians, especially younger ones. So why is it so important for music students, and their teachers, to focus on orchestra playing as well as solo playing?

Realistically, most musicians play in orchestras or other ensembles far more than they perform as soloists. I'd guess there's fewer than a hundred full-time, professional violin soloists world wide. Keep in mind, the music industry as a whole (including pop music), has lost nearly half its revenue since people began downloading and streaming music instead of buying CDs. Few if any classical musicians can make money selling CDs in the traditional way (some might do better with their youtube videos, but even then most people don't make a good living that way either). What's more, jobs performing as a soloist with orchestras are few and far between, and it often takes a particular combination of talent, luck, excellent connections, and attractiveness to make someone an in-demand soloist.

That's not to say that we shouldn't practice solo music, of course. It's great for anyone to keep up their chops and explore new repertoire. But most of us make our money playing in orchestras or small ensembles like string quartets. For some reason, some music teachers and musicians actually look down on orchestra playing. Perhaps from the standpoint of an academic with a tenured job, orchestra playing looks less exciting or independent than solo playing, or less glamorous. But that doesn't mean that orchestra musicians don't have highly developed skills, including ensemble skills, or that their work isn't important. In fact, I'd argue that the orchestra is an essential part of Western music and culture, and without dedicated orchestra musicians, we'd lose that.

Orchestra playing helps young musicians develop essential ensemble skills, such as learning to listen to the music around you and blend your sound, or how to follow a conductor. It also helps musicians develop their sight-reading and rhythmic sense. I once did a string quartet gig with students from a highly prestigious musical conservatory (which shall remain nameless). I'm sure those students were skilled soloists who could play advanced concertos with ease. But when it came time to sight-read simple wedding music with a quartet, I was appalled at their poor sight-reading and ensemble skills. I couldn't believe that this elite institution had produced students who couldn't perform a wedding gig as well as students from a far less prestigious state university. This is a failure of music education, one that no doubt contributes to the infamous Julliard effect, which shows that out of a class of 36 instrumentalists, only 3 became soloists, and a good many ended up quitting music all together.

So practice your solo music, but practice your orchestra (chamber) music, too. Very few people can have a successful career without all those things.  

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (June 2016)

As a short story writer who frequently submits to magazines like the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov's Science Fiction, I've been making an effort to read these magazines. This gives me a better understanding of what the editors there like as well as a better understanding of modern science fiction and fantasy. After reading the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as listening to podcasts like EscapePod and Podcastle, I decided to try reading Asimov's for the first time. It's easy to find at Barnes and Noble, though you can also get copies from Asimov's website or via Amazon. Like most of the scifi/fantasy magazines I've found, it's very affordable, only $4.99 at B&N.

I enjoyed most of the stories in this issue of Asimov's, and surprisingly, I loved the poetry. I don't usually associate poetry and scifi, but I found the ones here quite interesting, especially Geoffrey Landis' "A Robot Grows Old." Even the short-form poems had vivid images I liked. Among the short stories, Sarah Pinsker's "Clearance" was a fascinating example of slipstream, one that moved between parallel worlds yet felt so grounded in mundane reality that she still managed to tell a powerful story of love and estrangement. I loved Rick Wilbur's "Rambunctious" as well. The relationships between the characters felt beautifully warm and well-developed, and the setting as lush as the Florida Keys themselves.

If I felt that Rivera's "Unreeled" covered similar plot points as many other works of scifi, I do think he did a good job of creating tension and unsettling dread. "Rats Dream of the Future" had a fascinating premise, but somehow the story felt rushed--I think it would have worked better if the main character had delved more deeply into her rival's experiments, perhaps even seen one in action. Instead, it felt like the major plot points occurred "off-camera."

"What We Hold Onto" is this issue's novella, and it was an interesting story. I liked the world the author created and the characters he developed. The idea of "Nomads," the ultimate freelancers, felt fascinating and perhaps even prescient. Yet, for me the story's pacing felt inconsistent, while the author did a good job of making the romance feel passionate, I had a hard time believing the two characters knew each other well enough for the ending to quite make sense. Likewise, "Project Symmetry," the novelette, had a great main character and a good premise, but the ending didn't feel earned--it kind of came out of nowhere. I felt the story could have used more foreshadowing and groundwork before the ultimate confrontation between the main character and her family.

Overall, I'd highly recommend Asimov's to anyone who likes science fiction. The stories were fascinating and unique, and the small size of the magazine made it easy for me to carry it around (even inside my purse) to read whenever I felt like it. The wide variety of stories made each one feel unique and reflected the breadth and depth of modern science fiction writing.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Parents of Musicians

Originally published by Polonius Sheet Music
In honor of Father's Day, I'd like to write about musician's parents. Parents have had a huge impact on many musical geniuses, often giving their children crucial support and training. I've written before about the huge influence J.S. Bach had on his talented crop of children, and many other parents have likewise shaped their children's careers. Shinichi Suzuki, among other great pedagogues, considered parents' engagement in students' lessons critical to their success.

Many talented musicians grew up in homes where music was considered a necessary part of their education. Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn's parents paid for extensive musical training, especially once it became clear how talented they were, and their father helped Felix publish his first pieces. If Fanny was discouraged by her father from pursuing music professionally, he did still see to it that she had training and opportunities to learn it, and her mother encouraged her to compose when she was depressed. Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart's father, while a difficult and manipulative man, also invested significant time and energy into training his talented offspring. He took them on grand tours of Europe and introducing them to potential royal patrons and the finest musicians of their time. Likewise, Franz Liszt's father was a musician in the court of Prince Nikolaus II Esterhazy. He knew Hadyn and Beethoven personally, and began teaching his son piano at the age of seven. His father's support earned Liszt a prestigious musical education and helped to support his first tour.

Johan Strauss I, on the other hand, was a mixed blessing for his son. He bequeath his son, Johan Strauss II, a prestigious family name and extensive musical contacts, and when he died the young Strauss took over his father's famous and beloved touring orchestra. But the older Strauss did not want his son in the family business, perhaps because he wished for him a quiet, stable, respectable life. He famously punished his son when he found him playing music. But young Strauss' mother supported her son and nurtured his talent, giving him training and support while the older Strauss was on tour and later after he left his family for his mistress.

Few young musicians have the ability to develop their craft without support from one or both of their parents (or at the very least, a generous uncle). Parents can play a crucial role in nurturing genius, by providing their children with lessons and encouragement. So this Father's Day, let's consider the role that supportive parents have played in musical history!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: The Providence of Fire

My husband first heard about Brian Staveley's first book, The Emperor's Blades. He got it on audible, and we listened to it (I heard enough to get the gist of the story, but not quite the whole thing. We've actually picked up a copy of the book, so I'm reading it now). I enjoyed the story so much that when my husband suggested we buy a physical copy of the second book, I really wanted to read it, even out of order (sort of).

I really enjoyed this book. It has a gripping plot and fascinating characters. I loved the fact that characters like Adare and Kaden were faced with decisions where there wasn't really a right or wrong answer, and that major characters could legitimately disagree about the right course of action. The conflict between Valyn and Adare's conflict is as heart-breaking as it is inevitable, as the siblings struggle to understand and trust one another. But if they don't unite, how can they defeat the powerful enemies that surround them all? Their enemies, Longfist and Ran il Tornja, are as fully realized as his main characters, yet they remain mysterious and unknowable, their ultimate motivations as elusive as the unhewn throne itself. Staveley's prose is at once spare and evocative, making his world feel viscerally real even in its more fantastical moments.

Overal, I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in epic fantasy. The tight plot and well-drawn characters make it such a pleasurable read I actually find read the whole book (476 pages) in less than a week. I'm definitely going to read the other books in the series, the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, too!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Hillary Hahn's Encores: 27 New Pieces for Violin and Piano

I've been thinking about listening and playing new music lately, so when I saw Hillary Hahn's CD, In 27 Pieces: The Hillary Hahn Encores, I had to buy it. I was mesmerized. These pieces represent such a wide range of expressive voices from composers of different cultures and backgrounds, each one a tiny jewel.

One of the best parts of the CD is how it introduced me to a wide array of living composers whose music I hadn't heard before. There are too many for me to talk about in a single post, but here are a few of the composers who stood out to me:

1. Christos Hatzis

Hatzis wrote "Coming To" for In 27 Pieces. It's a haunting, ethereal piece of music that I listened to twice the first time I heard it. I loved how it brought out the beautiful tonal colors and purity of Hahn's playing. The music is bewitching and eerie, modern without being harsh. Hatzis describes himself as influenced by his Byzantine Heritage, and something in this music feels almost spiritual, like modern plainchant for the violin. 

2.  Kala Ramnath

Ramnath is an Indian classical violinist who has incorporated aspects of Western classical music and other genres into her work. Her piece, "Aalap and Tarana," reflects her background in Hindustani music, with sliding glissandos and Indian tonalities. What I loved about this piece was its gentle, loving expression. Hahn never overplays the music, but lets it unfold into a beautiful moment. I'd love to get the score for this once it becomes available--I have many students interested in Indian classical violin, and this piece feels like it would be a great bridge between Western and Eastern music.

3. Lera Auerbach

Auberbach's piece "Speak, Memory," had the wistful elegance of a bygone era. One of the more "traditional" sounding pieces on the CD, it had gorgeous melodies well-suited to Hahn's rich, lovely tone. Auerbach herself has a fascinating life story, and I'm eager to listen to her other music, which includes several operas, a ballet based on the story of the Little Mermaid, and a wide variety of chamber music. 

When I'm looking for new authors to read, one of the things I like to do is read anthologies of short stories. They give me a sense of different author's voices and styles of writing, then I can look up my favorite writers from the anthology to see if they have any novels I can read as well. Hahn's In Twenty Seven Pieces is an anthology of music, one that gives the listener a chance to hear short pieces by a wide variety of composers. I'd encourage anyone interested in new music to give it a listen. You might discover a composer whose works speak to you, the way some of them spoke to me. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Rant About Clothes for Women and Girls

Why can I buy a Rey costume at the Disney store, but no Rey t-shirts at Target?
My husband and I recently went to target to buy clothes for my sweet little girl, who is just about to turn three. As a nearly three-year-old, she's endlessly curious about everything, and has already learned to love many of the things I did at that age, including dinosaurs (doesn't everyone love dinosaurs?). We have dinosaur books, small plastic dinosaurs and large stuffed ones, and have watched plenty of dinosaurs in the movies and on TV. And yet, despite my daughter's love of dinosaurs, the one place we can never find them is the clothing aisle. There are girl's t-shirts with every princess in the Disney canon, as well as unicorns, frogs, brightly colored birds, and flowers galore, but not one dinosaur. For that, we have to cross over to the boy's section, where dinosaurs are de rigor.

My question is--when did dinosaurs become a "boy" thing, one that girls are subtly excluded from so far as clothing manufacturers and stores are concerned? Of course, it's not just dinosaurs. It's also Star Wars, dragons, and other fun, geeky things that many people, male and female, love. I have plenty of Star Wars and Game of Thrones t-shirts, all of which I bought for myself in the men's clothing section. I know other geeky/nerdy women who do the same thing (I've even seen other ladies wearing my same shirt at events). If on the off chance there is a Star Wars shirt in the women's section, it's of course in the same wretched thin, flimsy material they make all women's clothes out of these days. You know, the stuff ends up practically see-through after a couple of washes. What I wouldn't give for a geeky women's shirt made from real t-shirt material! And some dinosaur-themed girls t-shirts!
She loves Star Wars, too!
It's not that I don't like Rainbow Dash, or other "girl" characters. I do--I think Rainbow Dash is spunky and adventurous, a fun and interesting character for my daughter to enjoy. I'm even okay with Disney princesses, though I think they're over-saturated and dull. It's that it frustrates and annoys me that marketers seem to draw such harsh lines around what girls and women can/should like/buy. Especially when those lines make science topics like dinosaurs seem like "boy" things, even when tons of girls love them.

Until children's clothing designers and stores get a clue and make dinosaur shirts for girls and Game of Thrones shirts for women, it looks like my daughter and I will be crossing the aisle (or buying t-shirt from Amazon, who seems happy to carry dinosaur shirts for girls). I want my daughter to grow up knowing that dinosaurs and Star Wars are hers, and she can wear them on her shirts if she wants, no matter what some idiot executive thinks little girls like.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Cold Eye of Truth: Practicing Music Objectively

One thing I've noticed about writers, musicians, and creatives of all kinds, is the way we love playing to our strengths. After all, who doesn't like to practice the things they're best at? It feels awesome, and we can ride that feeling all day. But that's not always what helps us improve the most. Yes, it's great once in a while to play the pieces we're best at, but if we want to improve, we must have the strength to zero in on our weaknesses and take a look at our practice with the cold eye of truth. But how can we do that objectively, without either beating ourselves up or inflating our egos?

1. Recordings

This is where technology comes in handy. Videos and other recordings don't lie--they give us a chance to hear or see ourselves the way an outsider does. Make frequent recordings of your playing, including your performances, whenever possible. While I usually listen to practice recordings right away, if you have a particularly emotional intense performance (an important recital, etc.), it might be better to wait a few days, then listen. That way you have enough emotional distance to listen more objectively. Likewise, I think it's a good idea to think about listening for specific details as opposed to judging your overall performance with broad generalizations, like "good" or "bad." Instead, ask yourself questions like, are there sections where my rhythm is uneven, and if so, where are they? Don't just think, "that's out of tune!" Ask yourself specifically what notes are out of tune, and are they sharp or flat, and think about what you could do to improve them. Which brings me to...

2. Use Your Tuner and Metronome!

I like to tell my students that we can debate many things in music, from Historically Informed Performance Practices to subtle interpretations of phrasing and articulation. But some things are fairly objective, and those things include rhythm and intonation (for the most part--I know there's fierce debates about equal vs. meantone temperament, but let's set that aside for the moment). The metronome and the tuner will not lie to you, but give you a fairly accurate assessment of your playing. That's valuable information that we all need!

3. Audience Feedback

Even a non-musician knows when something sounds wrong or boring. Yes, some pieces aren't for everyone and some modern music has lots of dissonance that's meant to sound "wrong." But if an audience doesn't seem interested or actively dislikes what you're doing, then you have a problem, even if the problem is choosing the wrong repertoire for that particular crowd. If the audience feedback is vague or you're not sure what they don't like, hopefully you have a video or a recording you can use to try to identify the problem yourself.     

Facing our mistakes and weaknesses is one of the hardest things that we have to do as musicians, but if we want to improve, it's one of the most necessary. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games 2016

While my family and I love going to Renaissance Faires, we'd never managed to make it to the Texas Scottish Festival until this year. Honestly, we weren't planning on going this year either, but the weather was nice and cool that day, so we thought it'd be fun to see. We had a great time watching events like the Women's Scottish Hammer Throw. 
Those hammer throws are very intense! 
We also watched the Women's Heavy Weight for Distance.
In addition to watching the athletic events, we heard some lovely harp music, and my daughter had a great time in the bouncy castle in the children's area. We enjoyed eating some of the festival food, including delicious meat pies and a yummy scotch egg. I got a beautiful amber ring at one of the shops. 
Overall, we had a good time. While the Scottish Festival didn't have as many costumes or booths as a Renaissance Fair, it was a fun family friendly event.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review: The Invisible Ring and Tangled Webs

I've read quite a few books by Anne Bishop, especially her "Black Jewels" series, so when I found 
The Invisible Ring (Black Jewels, Book 4), I decided to pick it up, along with Tangled Webs: A Black Jewels Novel. The Invisible Ring is less of a follow up to the Black Jewels series than a prequel, with Daemon Sadi as the only overlapping character. I enjoyed The Invisible Ring, which shows some of the resistance to Dorothea Sadi's reign of terror, long before Jaenelle is even born.

The book follows a new character, Jared, a Red-Jeweled warlord who's been enslaved to a series of terrible queens. He murdered the last one, so he's auctioned off to a mysterious "Grey Lady," who's known for buying slaves who are never seen again. Yet Jared finds himself admiring the Lady, even falling in love with her, despite his hatred and fear of the evil abusive queens from his past. Of course, the Lady is nothing like she first appears, and as her and Jared undertake a perilous journey to the one province safe from Dorothea, they grow closer to one another. I won't reveal her secrets here, but I will say that Bishop caught me off guard a couple of times, and I'm notorious at guessing surprise endings and reveals in books of all kinds.

Overall, I thought The Invisible Ring was a good prequel to the "Black Jewels" series, with interesting new characters, and just enough of Daemon Sadi to keep me wanting more.

Unfortunately, I did not care for Tangled Webs: A Black Jewels Novel as much as The Invisible Ring. I enjoyed the depictions of the characters I've come to know and love over the course of the series, and Bishop had plenty of funny, joyful moments in the book to keep it interesting. But the overall plot felt a bit weak. There was never any question of the characters being in serious danger--their opponent was too weak, and Bishop's characters are too powerful. I find this is a problem I sometimes run into in video games or D&D--once player characters are high-powered, the villains/opponents must be equally powerful. If they're not, the game loses its thrill. Thrills, after all, require risk, and if your opponent is too weak, then there's never any risk.

Still, for fans of the series, Tangled Webs is a good depiction of ordinary life after the momentous events of Queen of the Darkness: The Black Jewels Trilogy 3. Of course, if you haven't read the series, I'd recommend it before you read any of the other books. It's excellent dark fantasy, although it has a significant amount of violence.