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People who KNOW

Every single music teacher I have ever had, from third grade orchestra to tri-county symphonic orchestra, has given the exact same speech before a concert. Oh, I don’t mean the exact same entirely; there are riffs and variations based on the pieces played, and the state of them in rehearsal. But they always throw this one out:

Don’t worry about making mistakes – no one in the audience will know if you mess up!

I understand that they are not try to claim that, should the first chair bassist crunch his bow into the strings and make a distressingly low screeching sound in the middle of a pianissimo violin solo, no one will know the difference. What they are saying is that, should we botch a minor tempo or get a little out of sync, the audience is unlikely to notice, because what do they know from classical music?

This reassurance has never, ever, ever worked for me, and here’s why: 99% of the time, my mother was in that audience. AND SHE KNEW. She is a classical music aficionado and, were the violas off or our allegros a little too allegro, SHE KNEW. And she would tell me afterward. As in, “That bit was wrong.”

Which was fine, actually – it made for for honest feedback, which I much prefer to blind praise. And anyway, it made those times when she was impressed much more meaningful. However, it also rendered the pre-gig rallying cry of the conductor completely pointless.

A couple weeks ago, when we talked about phoning it in, it was mentioned that one of the reasons that’s such a bad idea is because there is always someone in the audience who knows. Doesn’t matter where you go.

School band and orchestra directors, this applies to you too! And so I make this recommendation to you: find a new trope. You’ve definitely got the right idea, attempting to give your musicians a pre-concert boost, but hit us with something true. There is someone in the audience who KNOWS.

Incidentally – music directors of all types, tell me! What do you say to your ensemble before you go on?


This is NO time for music


THIS isn’t Walt Disney World.

Do you know where I was yesterday? Walt Disney World.


This real world is dark and cold and unfriendly and I DON’T LIKE IT.

And in honor of my sadness, my bitterness, my loneliness, my desolation, here’s a sad and bitter video from the esteemed Louis CK.

(Don’t worry; I’ll be posting a photo roundup like usual! From Walt Disney World. Where I currently am not. SIGH.)

Happy Valentine’s Day, violists!

Awww, poor violists. Week after week we berate them here, and why? Because it’s funny, that’s why. But I do think it’s important to know thy enemy let all sides explain themselves, so on this day meant for sweetness, we shall check in on how the other half lives. I went straight to the source: my friend Elizabeth, who is (gasp!) a violist. GUEST POST!!!! I said to her, and she obliged, entitling her essay “Sense of humor required.”

I wanted to play the violin.  You had three options at my elementary school: violin, viola, or cello.  Cellos were too big and bulky for my taste, and what the heck was a viola, anyway?  When I told my mother, however, she told me she thought it would be better if I chose a less popular instrument, so I “would get more individual attention.”

I don’t know who suggested this idea to my mother, but it actually backfired.  It turned out there were so few students who chose viola or cello, that they combined us into one class, which meant that our instructor had to divide his time between teaching two instruments during a single period.  I stuck with it, though: it turned out playing an instrument was kind of fun, and eventually everyone but me dropped out and I was the only viola.  At this point I realized the true, often-overlooked appeal of being a violist: very often, you end up first chair by default.

Of course, there’s much less prestige linked to be first-chair violist, and you have to put up with a lot of jokes.  In fact, the word processor I’m using to type this doesn’t even recognize “violist” as a word, and asks if I meant “violinist.”

And yes yes, I know about the whole stigma about violists only being second-rate violinists who couldn’t make the cut, and switched to an instrument where no one cared if they sounded terrible.  This was not my experience, however.  In fact, since I often represented the entire viola section in my school orchestras, my mistakes were that much more obvious.  I was never an excellent player, but I did take pride in knowing that my directors depended on me to complete the orchestra.  My high school orchestra director sometimes referred to me as the “sherpa,” which I suppose was meant to me a compliment, and it was true that no matter how well I played, I was never going to get to play the melody or stop having to explain what my instrument was (a viola? isn’t that like a miniature violin?).

So if I could go back and explain to my 8-year-old self why she should choose the viola over the violin, I’d tell her that at least she’ll get to sit close to the conductor.

Thanks, Elizabeth! Certainly your insights are witty, well-put, and valuable. I’m going to keep posting viola jokes, of course, but all the same, well done, you! Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody. 😉

Would you watch this, could you watch this, won’t you watch this opera?

Guess where I am? Pittsburgh! Guess who was from Pittsburgh? Mr. Rogers! Guess who wrote an opera? Mr. Rogers!

I know, I know, it’s a whole entire Mr. Rogers episode and you’re not seven – except YES YOU ARE. You ARE seven, on the inside, where you’re actually kind of interesting. Anyway, it’s a holiday – so let’s make the most of this beautiful day. SPEEDY DELIVERY!

My God, what are these children doing to the Moonlight Sonata?!

Hmmm. Well, as music education goes, it certainly is trying.

I must admit, the Jurassic Park/”Gangnam Style” bit made me laugh.

One man’s trash is another man’s cello

Think finding a good violin at your local luthier is hard? Try searching through the trash for the parts to build one yourself. Meet the Landfill Harmonic – pretty neat, huh?

The great divorce

Here’s a question: did the strings secede, or were they forcibly exiled?

I’m talking about the weird divide that exists between string instruments and… well, everybody else, in school systems. The divorce begins early: for some reason, someone decided that kids can start in on the violin in third grade, but they need to wait until fourth if they want to lift anything as hefty as a flute.

That’s assuming you have a strings program at all – I’m fairly certain my mother’s strong protests against such discrimination is one of the only reasons we even had a strings program at my elementary school. I was part of the inaugural class, taught by a band teacher who had been told the summer before, “Hey, you’re teaching strings now too. Here’s a violin. Good luck.”

But this is not a post about strings as second class citizens (although I would like to point out that my freshman orchestra class met in a former janitor’s closet off the cafeteria). This is about the moment the split happened. I don’t know when it was, but I have a theory as to why it was, and that theory is called Marching Band.

Nothing against marching bands! Honest! I’ve never been in one myself, because it’s so hard to attach the wheels to the cello, but I’m sure they’re a tremendous amount of fun. But yeah, you can’t really have a marching orchestra, and I think somebody must have said, “Well, there’s no sense in trying to teach the strings along with the instruments who can actually take the field.”

Oh, occasionally some enterprising pair of band and orchestra teachers will get together and collaborate on a symphonic piece or two. But it’s a rare occurrence, and a token gesture. These music teachers are saying, “We recognize that the symphony orchestra experience is an important one, which is why we’ve decided to toss a couple horns in on this rendition of Borodin’s Steppes of Central Asia. But it’s so hard to get the wheels on the cello, so we’re still keeping our classes mostly separate.”

Maybe your school had a more enlightened approach. Maybe you got to mess around in lots of different ensembles (you lucky jerk). But for a lot of us, band and orchestra scarcely mixed. And I think that’s unfortunate.

How about you? Any opinions on the matter? Music teachers, I’d be especially interested to get your thoughts – is this divide purposeful, or does it exist against your will?

What’s the good word on teaching?

You may recall last year my post about what makes for a good music teacher, and then my much longer post about what makes a bad music teacher. Of course the latter was longer; there’s always more to complain about than praise, isn’t there? Well, let’s try to right the universe as best we can with a little positivity. Who out there is a GOOD music teacher, and why?

Sure, to an extent this is sort of a call for recommendations, and if someone out there is looking for a music/instrument instructor and can find someone here, awesome. What fascinates me personally, however, is the method behind it. I liked my cello teacher, Ben Myers, because he was supremely talented while still being super laid-back about the whole process. On the other hand, I also liked my high school violin teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, whom I would not describe as laid-back but who was so encouraging that my friend Megan and I once played a duet badly on purpose to see if she’d still begin her critique with “that was good!” (She did. We laughed and then explained. She was relieved.)

So: if there is no single characteristic that defines a good music teacher, what should you look for? And don’t just say “it depends on who you are” because that’s a cop out. And music teachers, how do you select and develop your method? On a related note, those of you with kids or students for whom you found teachers, how did you go about selecting the proper instructor?

Oh, two unrelated things to mention: don’t forget about the free outdoor concert at Strathmore tonight at 7 pm! And also, I received an email informing me that voting is now open for the Paris Opera Awards. If you have an opinion on opera and performers, make it heard here.

Where you sit and where you stand

Hey, remember high school orchestra chair auditions? That gladiatorial arena that pitted instrument against instrument in a clawing, biting scramble to score a seat two feet closer to the conductor, the same person you were auditioning for and who you’d known for up to four years, thus stripping away that cool and steadying wall of anonymity that might have otherwise supported you?

Right, so I was in one of those, my sophomore year (a trying year for me, orchestrally, but we can talk about that later), and I was visibly nervous, because that’s what happened to me during auditions: a neon light flashed above my head like a raincloud in a cartoon or a prism above a Sim, and the sign read NERVOUS. And O’Bryan, the conductor, told me to chill out. “Be like Elizabeth,” he said, referring to the first chair violist. “When she makes a mistake, she just says ‘Sorry!’ and keeps right on plugging, totally cool.”

Well, folks, Elizabeth happens to be one of my best friends, so I was able to ask her about this admirable attitude recently. “The only reason I was like that,” she told me, “was because I knew there was no possible way I could be demoted.”

It’s true. Elizabeth was a solid violist backed by a troupe of shaky violists. If she had been removed from her post the whole structure would’ve collapsed in the ensuing violaquake.

I just want to ask you guys about the orchestra (and by implication, band) culture, here. Concertmaster and assistant concertmaster and first chair are all prestigious titles to be sure, and it’s good that musicians have a seat to aspire to. But how much emphasis do you place on them? And beyond that, how much emphasis do you place on every chair after?

In all the school orchestras I ever participated in, your chair was permanent and a de facto indication of where you stood in your section. Anybody ahead of you was better than you, definitively, and if you had to move up you had to challenge your better with a face-off re-audition.

In professional orchestras, however, I understand that aside from the first two chairs, everybody rotates, the idea being that anyone who’s made it in is darn good and a place closer to the sun, as it were, should be afforded to everyone.

Of course, in many schools, music isn’t auditioned, so the logic is flawed. But do you think the rotational system could work in a school orchestra setting? What impact do you think it would have on the ambiance? Or is that cuttthroat culture all in my head?

Tchaikovsky, the third grade, and me

I had Mr. Wong for third and fourth grade art. I loved his class; he gave us all sorts of fun assignments and on one memorable occasion a party with soda (I don’t remember why we had the party, but I remember we had soda).

I’m not entirely sure the why of this — I think it was that time we made a self-portrait trading card type thing, and we were making “stats” for the back — but at one point our art assignment was accompanied by a survey of sorts, asking for items like favorite color, favorite food, etc.

One of the categories was “favorite musician or band.” Third grade me labored over this one a bit, decided to take some creative license, and wrote down “Tchaikovsky.” Musician, band, composer — practically reads like a thesaurus, no?

All the kids in the class went up one at a time to read our answers (a popular trope, the getting up and reading in front of the class; I think now this is less about education and more about teachers killing time). When I got to Tchaikovsky, Mr. Wong didn’t challenge me. He just raised his eyebrows and said, “Interesting.”

Maybe he was a Tchaikovsky snob? Maybe he was surprised that a third grader could spell “Tchaikovsky”? But I ponder now not his reaction but my answer to his question. It seems that in third grade, I thought Tchaikovsky was the bee’s knees.

And I still think Tchaikovsky is the bee’s knees, just not the queen bee. For awhile there I was desperately, hopelessly in love with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet. Now I think the adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s Pathetique piano sonata might be my favorite. For now.

My point is: tastes change. Obviously. Now cast your mind back to third grade you. Who was your favorite?