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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?


Phoning it in

First, let me start out with a story that makes me out to be a bit of a pretentious twit, so that I can later make the mild accusation that others are pretentious twits without sounding like I’m speaking from a particularly high horse.

My family went to visit my grandmother in NJ for Mother’s Day, and as part of our activities we went to a local library to see an outreach performance by members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The program consisted of Broadway music, and the finale was a big ol’ Sound of Music medley. About a quarter of the way in, I was horrified when the audience started to sing along. Gauche! Unsophisticated! Mortifying! I cringed in my seat and later, once the dreadful experience was over, I inquired to my parents what they thought of this impromptu sing-along. “Well,” my dad said, “they invited us to sing along if we wanted.” Oh. I completely missed that bit. So I guess that was all right…

Now that I’ve pointed out my own folly, let’s talk about the concert itself. It was… pretty good. The musicians, members of a highly respected orchestra, were of course talented and played well. I commend them for volunteering to perform outreach such as this, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if they don’t receive any additional compensation for doing it. However, I wish to register some complaints, not to lambast the NJSO or these musicians in particular, but as a means of pointing out what I understand to be a common phenomenon: the phoned-in concert.

Item 1. The highlight was a snippet of Isaac Stern’s fancy violin solos from Fiddler on the Roof; the rest of the programming was very safe, gentle, and of the love song persuasion. Take the three selections from West Side Story: “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” and “One Hand, One Heart” (I think; I tend to mentally wander off whenever love songs happen). All extremely unchallenging, you know? How about a fiery rendition of “America”? How about the tense, jazzy “Cool”? An even keel can get boring, guys. Change it up a little.

Item 2. The group was a trifle unprepared. On two separate occasions, the cellist – who, it should be pointed out, was the best of the bunch – could not find his music and once had to run backstage to get it. The violinist forgot to turn off his cell phone. They both played these things off charmingly and it made for some laughs, but this sort of thing wouldn’t go down in a concert hall.

Item 3. Riffing off the unprepared thing, there were some intonation problems, especially in the violinist, as well as some general group issues. The aforementioned “I Feel Pretty” was particularly sloppy.

I discussed this with my mother, who is the Fount of Classical Knowledge in all things, and she noted that this was not an isolated incident. She then recounted seeing a well-regarded cellist perform a Shostakovich piece at a small, outreach-style concert, and commenting to a music teacher friend that she was surprised how unpolished his performance was. “Oh, no,” replied the music teacher. “That’s normal. He probably barely practiced for it. They tend to phone that kind of thing in.”

Interesting. So. Here’s the big question: Why? Where’s the cut off? Not to rag on the NJSO, but let’s break it down with their example. Was it because they were performing simple little Broadway tunes, and pfffft, who cares about Broadway? Was it because they were performing in a library in central NJ, and pfffft, who cares about the hicks in central NJ?* Was it because it was free, and/or they performed for free? Did they not make the program themselves, recognize it as a bit boring, and therefore not feel the need to put in the practice time? Or maybe it was because they only found out about their performance yesterday and didn’t have time to sufficiently prepare even if they wanted to?

I’m sorry, NJSO. You guys were really good. I’m just saying: it was clear that you could have been much, much better. Not that it’s just you, anyway. And I’m wondering why. Anybody have thoughts on that, either as an audience member or a performer? When does one phone it in?

* Not to suggest that central NJ is full of hicks. I have lots of family in NJ! I’ll defend it! Except the jughandles, which are STUPID. What’s up with the jughandles, Jersey?

No Beethoven, no loot

Now THIS is a great idea. Although the Moonlight Sonata is awfully well known; they might be able to pick it out, or find someone who can. Wouldn’t it make more sense to program the code with, say, a Prokofiev piano concerto? What piece would you key your lock to? And don’t you love the very serious questions we tackle here at Ain’t Baroque, Ltd?

Would you please for God’s sake hold still?!

Have I mentioned this before? I can’t remember. Anyway, in high school I had a violin teacher who gave me a big ol’ lecture about how I was far too staid in my performing style. He wanted drama! He wanted me to stamp my foot and toss my head and wave my violin around in the air. None of this was remotely within my personality, but he insisted it was vital to giving a good performance, not only to engage to the listener’s visual senses, but also to enhance my own visceral feel for the music.

I can only assume that this particular speech is popular among music teachers, because I see so many performers positively flailing on stage, or engaging in completely unnecessary histrionics. I once saw a pianist who began every piece by lifting her shoulders, throwing back her head, taking what was clearly a VERY VERY DEEP BREATH, raising her hands hiiiiiiiiiiigh over the keyboard, AAAAAAAND… hunching over the piano as she began to play. By the beginning of the third piece I wanted to put her in a straitjacket.

At least she was a soloist. I find it particularly distressing when members of an orchestra wave their arms around like they’re seizing. I once pissed off Hannu Lintu by expressing my displeasure with his particularly physical conducting style. I realize the conductor heads the orchestra, but that doesn’t mean he should distract from it. And oh Lord, does the principle violinist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra drive me nuts sometimes. He, too, is of the sway-and-swoon school of music performance, and I DO NOT LIKE IT.

Okay, sometimes I DO like it. I adore Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg largely because of her stomps and forceful pulls of the bow across the strings, in a fight she’s winning. But here, I think, is the difference: her antics have always struck me as an expression of fun. She is enjoying herself up there. By contrast, the vast majority of the theatrics I’ve witnessed seem to communicate little more than what a seeeeeerious undertaking the musician has taken on. Oh, music is SO HARD and I must THROW MYSELF INTO IT because I just feel so much DRAMA. My soul is in PAIN, damn it, PAIN, and I want you to know!

Oh, shut it. You love what you do. If you’re dealing with a particularly twiddly bit, a frown of concentration will do it, thanks. This is not about you. This is about the music. And if it’s causing you such emotional angst, maybe you should see a therapist.

So, whaddya think? Do you agree that musicians tend to heavily toward theatrics when they play? Or am I totally off base here? Certainly there are exceptions to every rule – tell me about them!

The lonesome pianist

Okay, stop me if I’m being crazy here, but: is it lonely playing the piano?

No, no, I have a thought process. See, the thing that every once in a great while I almost miss enough to start playing an instrument again is the feeling you get, as part of an orchestra, of being inside the music. Surrounded on all sides by fellow musicians, together creating this great swelling sound, and you live there together. Certainly you don’t get this feeling as a soloist or practicing, but at least as kids growing up playing music in school, most of us had that experience – part of the musical group.

Except pianists.

Look, I’m not saying that we’ve purposefully ostracized the pianists, or that anyone’s tried to keep them out. And of course they have their own parts in full orchestra pieces, piano concertos and the like. But they’re not integrated much, are they? You call on the pianist as an accompanist or for a bit part in a random piece that calls for a couple chords and then they go away for the rest of the concert. Meanwhile the piano kid is handed piano scores and etudes to handle alone.

It’s not the same as the Great Schism of Band and Orchestra – once you get out into the big, scary world, the two come together again in the Symphonic Orchestra of Healing. It seems the pianist always inhabits a world of solos and backups, like an understudy in the Justice League. “You’re definitely important here, Devil’s Triad, but we really don’t need your particular skills right now. We’ll call you when we’ve got something that requires both hands.” (Devil’s Triad is my superhero name, in case you were wondering.)

I’m not speaking as an insider here – I switched from piano to violin in the fourth grade – but this is my perception of things. Pianists, you can give it to me straight: is it lonely playing the piano?

The cracks in the universe where the arts live

A long time ago, while generating ideas for blog posts, it occurred to me that it might be good to write about what makes each art different. And then I thought, no, that’s stupid – what makes each art different is that it’s a completely different art. Obviously. But there was something I was trying to get at there beyond the superficial differences, and last week I figured out what it was.

I was at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert, the one with the Rachmaninoff. I’m not even a huge Rachmaninoff fan, being raised to look upon him with a suspicious eye, but all the same. Garrick Ohlsson was playing these beautiful chords, and the orchestra was unspooling its notes gently behind him, and I thought to myself – there are places classical music can go that nothing else can. There are things classical music can express that nothing else can. Classical music can do things that nothing else can do.

And then I thought, okay, classical music snob, if that’s the case, why do you listen to so much indie rock? Hmmm? Missy? If classical music is so darn transcendental, what do you need with a bunch of clever lyrics and a bass line?

Good question, good question. And that’s when it hit me about the cracks in the universe.

Let’s say the universe is riddled with crevices, filled with emotions and truths. There are crevices only classical music can ever hope to enter, and facts about life that only classical music could ever hope to dig out. And inside those little holes there are bits that only Rachmaninoff himself can get to, next to the divots solely Beethoven could ever hope to go. The better the composer, the better the music, the more and deeper the cracks, of course, but there it is. That’s why we need classical music, to go the places only it can.

But! There are other cracks, that indie rock can access. The same – dare I say it – for pop music, with its bounce and feel-good fun. And then cracks that a painting can pick at where music could never hope to fit. Cracks just for dance, cracks just for actors. We need them all if we can ever hope to explore as much of the universe as we can. If we let any one of them die we lose our avenue to its portion of life.

So that’s what I think about during a concert, in case you were ever wondering. Cracks in the universe. Maybe I read too much Heinlein.*


* This is impossible.

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?

Playing with playing

Play (verb)
1. To occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation.
8. Music: To perform on an instrument.

Remember in the Suzuki method how every book has somewhere in the area of 32 – 57 pieces by Vivaldi? I remember sometime in late middle school I was practicing one of the violin concertos and still had, oh, fifteen minutes of practice time left.

Of course the smartest thing to do in such a situation would be to spend that fifteen minutes practicing, right? Honing the craft and whatnot. Well, as I pointed out last week, I HATE honing the craft, so I went a different route: I decided to try swinging Vivaldi.

I wasn’t very scientific or intelligent about it; I wasn’t concerned with the nuance of my crossover. I just wanted to amuse myself for a bit. So I played through the whole concerto messing with rhythms, stretching and contracting, syncopating to my heart’s content.

And what did that accomplish? Not a damn thing as far as I can see. But the memory did make me think – how many people ever take a few minutes to just mess around with their instrument? Can any good come of it? I’m sure my readership is composed primarily of very serious and dedicated musicians who are all hyperfocused on technical improvement and virtuosity, but how often do you play?

Mistaken identity, or none at all

I have a friend whose mother is convinced that all string instruments are guitars. My friend is multi-talented and has been known to bust out a violin, a cello, and even on rare occasions a viola, but no matter what the instrument, her mom says “Are you going to practice your guitar now?”

And about those violas (easy, killer – I’m going to lay on some rare sympathy). How many times have you heard a violist mention their instrument only to have someone inquire as to what, exactly, a viola is? What’s the difference, anyway? And the euphonium – blank stares all around, amirite? And the poor flugelhorn – that one just makes people giggle (hee; flooooogelhorn).

My point is that while everyone nods sagely for the proud clarinetist, the contrabassoonist is constantly explaining himself, and that’s kind of silly for an orchestral staple, don’t you think? There are still a bunch of symphonic pockets that are perfectly normal to those that inhabit the world but have little or no presence outside of it. Isn’t that weird? Have you ever played an instrument people didn’t recognize? Did it make you die a little inside every time, or did you cheerfully educate the populace, one at a time?

P.S. This is the first time I’ve ever given a post the tag “viola” without following it with “joke.”

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?