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me (Jenn)

This tag is associated with 130 posts

Is it possible to kill an entire musical genre?

Because I WANT TO DO IT.

Man, it feels like forever since I last did an opinion post! And in honor of the occasion, let me lay some disdain on ya. (Well, no. Not on YOU. I really like YOU. But you know what I mean.)

Part of my job involves standing at a concierge desk before concerts, giving out press tickets, directing people to the closest bathroom, etc. There is a bit of overlap, in deference to stragglers and people who got stuck on the beltway, where I’m doing this about ten minutes into the concert itself. The music is piped into the lobby during this time, which is why I am always sure to beg off the smooth jazz concerts, because seriously, what is up with smooth jazz?!

Really, I’m asking. Because I’m worried – why do I find this particular genre so distasteful? Is it something about my ear? My right brain? The musicians are perfectly talented individuals, and my GOD to people flock to their performances, but for some reason the instant I hear that mellow saxophone I’m in full on MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP mode.

Okay, I’m trying to articulate exactly what bothers me about it. It’s so… even-keeled. And calm. And peaceful. Soft and lulling. Which is to say nothing ever really happens. I feel like splicing a bunch of late-era Schoenberg into all the records just to liven things up (and come on, that would be pretty funny, don’t you think?).

I’m sorry, smooth jazz fans. I don’t mean to rag on you – okay, I did mean to rag on you, a little. I hope you can move past that, though, because now I’m opening the floor to you, or at the very least the people who understand you. What is it I don’t get about smooth jazz? Why do you love it so much? You can tell me. This is a safe space, I swear.

And while we’re on the subject: is there any genre of music or even era of classical that you can. Not. STAND?


And now it is time once again for that most glorious of holidays, National Letdown Day, otherwise known as my birthday. Here’s a bunch of happy birthday variations based on different composers:

And here’s a video that I feel like posting because I can.

Okay, kids – be good, have a nice holiday week, and I’ll see you in the new year. Now go forth and conquer!

“I’m going to tell you now the secret – something that conductors want to hide”

Hey, remember that time I was whining about how much I hate playing an instrument, on account of because I, in a word, suck? Well, this is the guy for whom I almost auditioned – Yaniv Dinur, conductor of the American University symphony orchestra. Steeped in my own incompetence, I wrote him an apologetic email cancelling my audition (I believe my exact Groucho Marx paraphrase was “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any orchestra that would have me”) – but of course I was shameless enough to slip in an interview request. And darned if he didn’t agree! So here is my interview with Yaniv Dinur – read on to learn about understanding music, taking responsibility, and the secret no conductor wants you to know…

Jenn German: Do you want to start with a bit of background about yourself? I know that’s not always the most exciting part of an interview, but I want to know about your magical musical journey.

Yaniv Dinur: Well, you know, talking about myself is always very exciting.

JG: Excellent!

YD: Well, I’m originally from Israel, and… uh… This is hard! I started studying the piano when I was six. I started studying conducting when I was sixteen, and when I was nineteen I had my first professional concert in Ireland, and that opened more opportunities for me in Europe. Then I came to the States about five years ago – I did my doctorate in orchestral conducting at the University of Michigan – and I just started at American University a couple of months ago. I’m completely new!

JG: Is this your first school gig?

YD: My first school gig, yeah.

JG: How do you find it so far?

YD: I like it a lot. I like the students very much; they’re very bright, they work hard, and I’m very happy about the group.

JG: How many concerts do you have coming up?

YD: This coming weekend we are going to do two concerts, on Friday and Saturday, with the same program. Next semester we’re going to do two other programs, and every program we’re going to repeat once, similar to this one.

JG: What are you going to be playing this weekend?

YD: We will play a Mexican piece called “Danzon No. 2” by Arturo Marquez, a composer that is still alive, which is always very exciting. It’s a great, great piece – intoxicating, really. Then we’re going to play the Barber violin concerto, the first movement of this concerto, with Allie Martin [apologies if I got this name wrong; EDITED TO ADD: corrected!], who won the concerto competition last year. The first half of the program is American music, so we have Latin American and North American. And in the second half of the concert we’re going to play Schumann’s Symphony No. 3.

JG: Can you walk me through how you made the decision to play each of these pieces? Was it something that you found to be easy, or did you really have to wrap your head around the students and the audience?

YD: Well, you know, programming for a concert is one of the most fun things for a conductor. It’s always interesting and exciting to look for new combinations and great music to do. So what was important for me was to do some American music, because I really believe that American orchestras especially should be playing American music, and also contemporary music – American contemporary music. So I wanted to do this kind of combination of new and old. That’s what I was striving for, and at the same time of course, great music, something that will be fun to play, and also challenging, and also fun for the audience to listen to.

JG: I’ve always really enjoyed that, back when I was playing instruments, playing a piece that was sort of just outside my current reach and then working toward mastering it – is that kind of your aesthetic?

YD: Yeah, yeah, something that is great music, but also challenging, and it’s also part of the process of building the orchestra and working toward even more advanced pieces.

JG: What would you say is the hardest of the pieces you’re doing?

YD: The hardest? All of three pieces are hard to play, and they all have different challenges. If it’s stylistic challenges, or rhythmic challenges…

JG: But is it ever a question of something being technically challenging or emotionally challenging? For example, the Barber Adagio for Strings is probably the best of that ilk because I don’t think the notes are terribly hard, but to capture that feeling is very difficult. So there’s probably two different ways that you could look at a piece as being difficult.

YD: Exactly. If you take, for instance, the third movement of the Schumann symphony, which is a slow, slow piece, kind of a simply song, so it’s very easy to play it in a very boring way, you know? And it’s very hard to really get into the feeling of it and treat every note in a way that it will mean something.

JG: How do you get that out of your players?

YD: This is hard. This is a challenge for me as a conductor, because I can’t really play myself. So I’m going to tell you now the secret – something that conductors want to hide. Everyone’s always talking about the power of conductors, but that’s nonsense! The truth is that conductors are really helpless, because we are totally dependent on the players. If they don’t want to play the way we want them to, we have nothing to do about it.

So there are many ways, for me, to try to get to that point that I want. The goal is for us to reach a point that we think the same. This can be reached by, for instance, giving them extra-musical examples that they can think of and be inspired by. For instance, play this like you are petting a cat. Something very tender, something that you love. Even though I don’t like cats.

JG: Awww, you just haven’t met the right cat!

[Here there was a brief interlude in which I attempted to convince him he would like my cat Ruffian, because she acts like a dog. He admitted there is a cat he knows that he likes, so I’m considering that progress! Anyway, back to the matter at hand…]

YD: Another way is by going to technical things, like playing with a certain amount of bow, with vibrato, without vibrato, things like that. So there are many ways to reach that goal. It’s hard.

JG: That was actually very interesting, that thing you said about the conductor being somewhat powerless. I recently read an article in the Montreal Gazette about how the conductor has achieved something of rock star status, that often his name, in the program, will be larger than the names of the composers they’ll be playing. So I’d like to posit to you something that my high school orchestra once asked of my class: if a concert is bad, the orchestra just did not do a good job, who is to blame – the instrumentalists or the conductor?

YD: This is the famous joke that all conductors tell! If the orchestra plays well, it’s because of the conductor. If the orchestra does not play well, it’s because of the orchestra.

JG: What does the conductor think?

YD: Exactly this, what I told you. [Pause for effect, pause for effect…] No, no, but it’s a joke, of course. Let’s say that the conductor is responsible for everything, you know? If the conductor dares to stand in this position of leader, take this position of a leader and stand in front of fifty players, sixty players, sometimes a hundred players, and tell them what to do and how to play – you also have to take responsibility for the results.

JG: Have you felt that this is scary, and do you find that to be invigorating?

YD: You know, it can be scary, but I don’t often think about that. What I think about is the privilege that I have to do what I like to do, to make music together with people. This is the best thing about this profession.

JG: That’s a good philosophy!

YD: Yeah, I try!

JG: Would you say you’re a rock star?

YD: Definitely.

JG: You and Dudamel.

YD: Yes, together.

JG: What is your favorite piece that you’ll be playing this weekend?

YD: My favorite piece…

JG: I know that’s a really rough one, but if I were to hold a gun to your head – for some bizarre reason; I don’t know how finding out your favorite piece would help me in that case – but if I were to demand this information of you, you must choose one!

YD: I must choose one… My favorite piece… It’s hard because it changes from moment to moment. When I conduct something, when I will conduct the “Danzon No. 2” it will be my favorite piece at that moment, and when I move to the next piece, that will be my favorite piece. It’s really like that. It’s not just wasting words. It really feels like that.

JG: That’s awesome, but now I have to ask you – have you ever conducted a piece where the entire time you were just like “Bleeeeeeeh. Make it stop!”?

YD: “Make it stop.” Um… yes. Yes, I have. I’ve conducted a piece like that. But in every piece that I conducted, of course, sometimes you like a piece more, sometimes you like a piece less. We’re people; we have our own tastes and our own preferences, so I am allowed to not like a piece.

JG: Of course!

YD: But in every piece I’ve conducted I manage to find something that I like, or something that I can make better for myself, or that I can make sound better than it actually is.

JG: So when you create your programs, are you aiming largely to find pieces that you like and that your orchestra will enjoy playing, or do you consider more what is going to work for the level of musicians you have?

YD: It’s a combination of both, but I think it’s very important, first of all, to choose something that I love, because I think this will be the best performance. When I love something, I will perform it in the best way.

JG: Indeed! Is there anything else you want to talk about regarding you weekend concerts?

YD: Yeah! I want to tell you what else is going to happen there.

JG: Ooooh!

YD: Yeah! We’re going to have a special event, because in addition to conducting the orchestra, I also teach a class that is called “Understanding Music.” This is a class for non-music majors. I decided that the final project is going to have to be related to this concert that we are going to have this weekend, and so their assignment was kind of free – they could do anything, but there were two limitations: it has to be related to the concert, and it has to be related to them somehow, preferably to their major. And there was another thing too… it has to be visual.

So it could be anything really – it could be a painting, a sculpture, a scientific experiment, but something that relates to the music we’re going to play, and to them or their major. And right before the concert we’re going to have an exhibition of these master works that they’re going to create, so the audience is going to come and walk around and see all these works and then come into the concert hall and hear the music that inspired these works. I’m very excited about that.

JG: That is incredibly neat. Will that be right outside the concert hall?

YD: It will be in the hallway around the concert hall.

JG: That’s really cool!

YD: Yeah, yeah, I’m excited to see that myself.

JG: What dates and times exactly?

YD: The concerts are this Friday, November 16, and Saturday, November 17, and both of them are 8 pm.

Thanks, Maestro! You can learn more about Yaniv Dinur on his website. I encourage everyone in the DC area to check out the concert, because that pre-concert exhibition sounds especially intriguing.

Third year’s the charm

Good morning, Ain’t Baroque! It’s your birthday! You’re THREE!

I know, I know. You feel so old. Why, one year ago you were only two, and I was still clarifying the bloggy mission. This year, let’s look back at some of your accomplishments, shall we?

Well, as of exactly right now, you’ve received a grand, three-year total of 58,546 hits. You garnered over 30,690 hits over the past year, with the most impressive individual day being January 21 – 4,455 hits. What post got everyone all excited that day? “For all those paralyzed by choice.” Apparently a lot of people need help choosing their instrument – aren’t you proud to have been such a big part of that?

Good job, little Ain’t Baroque! Who knows what you’ll make happen next year! In celebration, let’s gaze upon this picture of Beethoven demanding birthday cake. Some things are worth doing twice.

(I know, I know, greatest image ever. You can find it on cards and mugs and stuff at the AB store.)

What would you like to see happen to AB in the coming year?

You’re kind of awesome

This post starts out about ballet, but bear with me – I promise I have a musical point.

As you may know, I am an amateur ballerina. Key word being amateur; I’ve been doing it enough years that I am pretty good, but I can barely turn out a triple pirouette to save my life, my turnout is average at best, and my feet, while strong, could have higher arches. In short, I am an Okay Dancer.

This is not a story about proving myself wrong about that. This is a story about how a friend of mine came to ballet class with me, a friend who had never danced before in her life, and afterward she was so embarrassed because she couldn’t bend her body like I could. “I thought you were amazing,” she said.

Was I amazing, to the full extent that ballerinas can be amazing? Hell no. But compared to a non-dancer, I could do a thousand things other people could never dream of doing – simply things that felt so easy to me, leaps and jumps and lifts of the leg imperfectly executed but nonetheless executed, that I’d been doing for so long that I took them for granted.

And I think musicians are like that too. I think we forget that there are so many people who look at a piece of sheet music and see a random assortment of dots and lines. They compose a foreign language; they have no meaning.

To those who haven’t studied music, the ability to play a scale is a miraculous thing. Understanding of arpeggios? Genius! Bach’s “Minuet in G”? Astounding! All these tiny little things we’ve learned over the years that mean nothing to us because we’ve known them so long and the fingerings are ingrained in our muscle memory and a D# is a D# is a D# and how could anyone not know that?

But there are a surprising number of people who don’t know that. But you do. And it sounds really dumb, but I think it might be nice if, next time you play an instrument or read a score or parse a complicated symphony in your head, you think, “It’s pretty cool that I can do this. Not everyone can.”

Free concerts/noise violations

My inspiration struck around 7:15 pm last night, as I walked from the gym back to my apartment building. It was a quiet, drizzly, and entirely un-muse-like evening.

Then I heard it.

Buh… buh buh buh buh… Buh duh SQUEAK duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh dah dah duuuuuuuuh…

Can you guess? A portion of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony number six, as rendered by a decent but – SQUEAK – clearly still amateur french horn player hidden somewhere in the apartment building I was passing. I was all the way out on the street and I could hear him clear as day. Including the SQUEAK.

And I thought back to that horrible night I attempted to play the violin again, and how I cringed and tried to remain pianissimo lest the neighbors hear me. And then I thought about Artur Rubinstein. “Sometimes,” he said, “when I sit down to practice and there is no one else in the room, I have to stifle an impulse to ring for the elevator man and offer him money to come in and hear me.”

That guy on the French horn was playing with all his might, mistakes and all. I, on the violin, spent half an hour trying to play as softly as possible and then five minutes stifling my own impulse, which was to jump up and down on top of my violin until it was so many toothpicks. And Artur Rubinstein, of course, always hoped that somewhere out there someone could hear him.

I can’t be sure, but I’d say that horn player was completely oblivious of his captive audience; he wasn’t thinking about them at all. Whereas I was thinking about it entirely too much, and it added another unfortunate layer to my doomed proceedings. Rubinstein, of course, was only disappointed if he had no audience, so between the three of us, we have things pretty well covered, no?

So – where do you fall on this spectrum, either as player or neighbor? How does it make you feel when you practice and you know you can be heard? And have you ever wanted to pound on the wall and scream “SHUT UP” to the tone-deaf clarinetist next door?

Playing an instrument does not make me happy

I love music. We know this because I write a blog called Ain’t Baroque.

You love music. We know this because you read a blog called Ain’t Baroque.

But today I would like to talk to you about how music causes me BLINDING RAGE.

A couple weeks ago I was ever-so-gently railroaded into auditioning as an alum for my grad school orchestra. Although I have always hated practicing, I have also loved being inside the music; I thought, hell, may as well give it a shot. So I set up an audition time, borrowed my old violin back from my mother, and set about putting together an audition piece. I unpacked the violin, jury-rigged a shoulder rest, opened up an old Sukuzi, and…

God did I sound awful. Half an hour later, I canceled my audition.

Look, I haven’t played violin in, I don’t know, four years? And I knew, somewhere in there, that I wasn’t going to be able to just magically pick it up again ’cause I felt like it. I did know I could work at it, and get better, and eventually make something akin to real music. But the fact of the matter is this, was this, has always been this: it doesn’t feel good to play.

Holding the violin was not like coming home. It was not an old friend. I didn’t smile ruefully at my own incompetence, and I didn’t decide, with the great ambition and determination of the heroine of a novel, that I was going to practice every day until I could play Beethoven’s Spring Sonata with the same easy grace I did in eleventh grade.

Because even when it was easy and graceful, it was never easy. Even when my fingers flowed and my intonation was right on point, I never felt graceful. At my peak, at my best, my practice time yielded mostly anger. My successes brought me little pleasure. I can – I have – listed the reasons, my justifications, for why I don’t like to play, but the ultimate truth as that it does not make me happy.

There. I said it. Playing an instrument does not make me happy. It makes me angry. It makes me hate myself because I can’t do it right, and it’s not just a matter of practicing harder. Improvement does not make me happy either. For me it has never been enough to be quite good. If I can’t be Itzhak Perlman then I don’t want to play this game.

So. I tried again and nothing was different. And that makes me sad. I wish I could do it, I do. It’s just not where I belong in the music world. But I can write about it, and when I do, I sometimes find myself in a groove where all the words flow, and it’s easy and graceful. That makes me happy.

I may not be a musician, but damned if I don’t just shoehorn myself in among you anyway! There is a place here for all of us – sometimes it’s not behind a music stand, that’s all.

A viola joke that rings true, and free stuff – honest!

Goodbye. FOREVER.

Just kidding! I hope I didn’t cause in you any hopeless despair. No, I’m just taking tomorrow off for the purposes of heading down to Universal Studios so I can show my cousin around the Harry Potter section (and excuse, amirite?). As I did last time, I will be tweeting my way through my adventures; make sure you follow me on Twitter!

In the meantime, I got an email offering free BuildASign band banners to all my readers. Check that out if you need something to do while I’m gone.

Okay, see you next week! Viola joke, take us out:

Q. How many violists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Continue reading

Some pun about embouchure goes here

We’re continuing to give those poor, sad, lonely, pathetic violas a break this week (although obviously not a very good one). Also, I’d like to give a shout out to fellow conference attendee @iagobrothers, who recognized me in line for the flight simulator and puffed up my ego by referring to me as a “minor Twitter celebrity.” Why, Mr. H, you’re liable to turn my head! </Scarlett O’Hara>

So anyway, two flautists were walkin’ down the street, and one said to the other, “Who was that piccolo I saw you with last night?” To which the other replied, Continue reading

How did you find me?

There don’t appear to be any concerts this week (except a couple free ones at Strathmore – check ’em out), so I’m indulging myself in a silly little idea that’s been floating around my brain for awhile.

My server offers some rudimentary analytics; that is to say, statistics on how many people have visited this site per month, the countries they live in, the links they clicked from or to, and, my personal favorite: search terms they used to find the site.

Guys, these can be hilarious.

Some are clearly random and only barely related, and some are related in utterly ridiculous ways. “Alcoholic composers” pops up a lot. “How many violists does it take” has been searched ten times, which begs the question: to do WHAT? “Forest piss” completely baffles me. I mean, I get the relation, but why would you search that? “Beethoven crying” – ahem, but composers do not cry; composers are made of FIRE!

“Saxophone motivational” – what? “Mean Russian” – which one? “Confused about God existence animated” – … was I able to help? “I’m in love with the pianist” – Lucy Van Pelt? Is that you? “Stravinsky hate” – GET OFF OF MY BLOG. “I hate Shostakovich” – SERIOUSLY. I AM CALLING THE INTERNET POLICE RIGHT NOW.

That’s a sampling of some of the fascinating connections you, too, can make, should you decide to start blogging about classical music. In the meantime – how did you find me?