SHAR is excited to announce a new partnership with Associated Chamber Music Players, encouraging everyone to experience the joys of playing chamber music while enjoying special benefits from SHAR. The following blog describes one violinist’s experience with chamber music, his journey away from his violin, and back again.
Amazon Prime recently released the pilot for a new series based on the book Mozart in the Jungle (watch here for free). So far, it's all about the bad behavior of classical musicians in New York (well, along with a charming underdog story). It looks like it'll be a terrific series, but we at SHAR just wanted to point out that bad behavior and musicians are as old as... well, music. Here's a brief blog article on Claude Debussy's love life. Gossip away, readers.
Ever wondered just how crazy and/or avant garde your favorite composer was? SHAR Apprentices James Engman and Josephine Llorente have put together this handy graph! It displays, on X and Y axes, the relative sanity and aesthetic taste of your favorite compsers. Agree, disagree, or think the graph needs a slight change? Leave a comment for the SHAR Apprentices below!
As far as child prodigies go, Mendelssohn was pretty grounded and together. Felix and his three siblings were born with silver(ish) spoons; later he and his wife Cecile had five children of their own. Yawn. And although I love listening to/playing his music, Mendelssohn was also famously more cautious than some of his zanier contemporaries (ahem, Wagner). Double yawn.
Gershwin’s life/personality seemed relatively normal; he was a Brooklyn-bred, first generation, high school dropout. And oh yeah, he was also sort of a musical genius. Although Porgy and Bess was initially slammed by critics, it was later lauded as one of the most important operas in history.
Franz Josef Haydn
Although Haydn had a bit of a rough start to his life, including bouts of starvation and homelessness, later in life he enjoyed wealth and fame in London and Vienna. He was also described as likeable and humble — no easy feat for a prolific and successful composer.
I know it’s hard to view Papa Haydn as revolutionary in his musical contributions, but for us string players, but he was definitely a trailblazer... can you even imagine what our rep would look like if his string quartets didn’t exist?
I don’t have perfect pitch, but in my heyday in music school, I pretty much had an A440 stuck in my head at all times. Like me and George Costanza, Schumann went nuts over one note. (Remember this episode of Seinfeld?) All kidding aside, the reason he was institutionalized was because of severe depression. His works were fairly conservative in regard to form, but he helped push the boundaries of romantic music.
Johann Sebastian Bach
In his time, Bach was a name synonymous with “musician.” Being from a large family of musicians, Johann met and exceeded all of his expectations. Having never left Germany once in his career, he was a bit of a homebody. Besides conquering the study of counterpoint and being one of the greatest virtuosi ever, he was pretty much just a full-time family man.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Our favorite hearing-impaired composer places high on the crazy and genius/influential scale. He was definitely the tortured artist type — moody, passionate, and absolutely brilliant. We can thank him for bringing us into the Romantic era.
The mystery of his impoverished childhood has been debated — many think he may have been employed at the request of his parents in a dance hall. The circumstances of that appointment raise more questions regarding his very close relationship with Clara Schumann and his troubles successfully courting women. On many nights long-bearded Brahms could be seen in cheap clothes, walking with no socks on, to his favorite pub the Red Hedgehog. He would often hand out candy to children along the way. Despite his eccentricities, his music was labeled by the other half of the War of the Romantics as being “old-fashioned.” He admittedly focused on the study of counterpoint and imitation and development — much like his role-models, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
As a musician I feel like I have the right to say that MUSICIANS ARE CRAZY. Sure Shosty was often described as a bundle of nerves, and he even allegedly had some OCD, but he was a child prodigy and musical genius. I should also probably mention that he had to grapple with keeping Stalin happy and staying alive. With the cards he was dealt, I think Shostakovich was pretty together.
Shostakovich’s music is deeply emotional and restrained in the best way. Even though he’s pretty average on this particular matrix, he’s ranked high in my book.
Because of his fascination with opiates, some of you may think Berlioz should be ranked higher on the crazy scale, but hear me out. If you heard that a famous rock musician did some drugs and then created a composition based on that experience, you would probably shrug and move on. Berlioz was just ahead of his time. After writing Symphony Fantastique and other works, we can thank Berlioz for significantly changing the instrumentation of the modern orchestra.
In my opinion, there’s a "good crazy" and a "bad crazy." People who are bad crazy hurt people for no reason. People in the good crazy category think outside the box and have weird interests like Cage, who happened to be an expert of mushrooms (the funghi, not the drug).
Without a doubt, Cage was a leader in avant-garde music. Just looking at one of his pieces shows that the dude thought way, way outside the box. I’m pretty sure he’s the only person who could release a work of silence and still be super respected by the music community.
Johann Strauss II
Strauss was the tin pan alley composer of classical music. He came from a musical family; his father Johann Sr. and two brothers were also composers. When I think of a musical Austrian family I think of a happy bunch, but the Strauss’ were less like the Austrian Von Trapps (pre-war, of course) and more like the American Jacksons. Johann Jr. and his father were in serious competition, and we all know who won the title of "The Waltz King."
His ex-friends would say Stockhausen totally belongs in a looney bin. After reading this article, I can understand why. Maybe there’s some bias in the article, but Stockhausen is at best portrayed as eccentric and delusional. I can’t even imagine what it was like to rehearse the the Helicopter quartet with Stockhausen, who is often described as a hot-tempered perfectionist.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky was known to be extremely sensitive and painfully shy. His anxiety began early in his childhood and continued in his adult life; there is speculation that he even ended his own life. The Russian composer made his most significant impact in ballet music, but his worship of Mozart influences his work's strict classical form.
We have a wonderful guest blog today from Kim Wren, the upright bassist for the indie-folk band Doug Mains & the City Folk. Ms. Wren has been a member of Doug Mains & the City Folk since 2010 and is currently a senior music education major at Michigan State University. Ms. Wren talks about how "choosing the bass as a lifelong musical partner" introduced her to a rich variety of genres like classical, jazz, rock, and folk and to her current bandmates. It's a great story for our blog, where musicians like Christian Howes and Mark O'Connor have stressed the importance of playing in genres other classical.
When I first saw the upright bass in the back of my brother’s 6th grade orchestra class, my ten-year-old self would have never imagined the places that instrument would take me over the next decade. From a performing arts high school in Georgia to traveling on the road with an indie-folk band in Michigan, choosing the bass as a lifelong musical partner has lead me down many unexpected and exciting paths.
I switched to bass in 6th grade after playing the violin for a year in 5th grade. For various reasons (mostly because of the screeching sound of the E string), I didn’t enjoy my 5th grade year of violin playing at all and I was ready to drop out of music completely by the time 6th grade came around. But my mom and the middle school orchestra teacher convinced me to stay and try the bass out for a few weeks before I made a final decision. So I started staying after school for beginning bass lessons with the orchestra teacher and two other 6th graders who were also switching to bass. It was just about instant love when I first played that beast of an instrument. The low E string, instead of screeching like my violin, rumbled the floor. I was hooked on orchestra for good. My teacher let me take a school bass home and, especially in those early stages, I remember my parents having to stop me from practicing so much because it was driving them crazy.
Since those beginning years, being a bassist has lead me to many places I very likely would have never gone had I not stuck with music as a middle-schooler. From All-State Orchestras across the states of Virginia (where I spent my middle school years) and Georgia (where I spent my high school years), to a performing arts high school where I met many friends and colleagues in the arts, to summers at Interlochen Arts Camp, to Michigan State University for my undergraduate education. Being such a versatile instrument, the bass has also lead me to expand and explore many genres of music including (but never limited to) classical, jazz, rock, singer-songwriter, and folk. Most importantly to me, through music and bass playing I’ve met a countless number of people from all different walks of life. Some of them have become lifelong friends, like my four band-mates in Doug Mains & the City Folk, Doug, Josh, Rob, and Kelly. I’m so grateful to be a part of this team of musicians. We’ve traveled many miles together throughout the country and have shared so many meaningful experiences, some high, some low, but always together as a little indie-folk music family.
I owe much to my mom and to my middle school orchestra teacher for putting a double bass in my hands all those years ago. Where would life have taken me without that defining moment? I don’t even want to consider.
I'm not sure how many of you all out there read Jeremy Eichler's profile in The New Yorker on the German violinist Christian Tetzloff. If you have, good on you. If you haven't, you should pick up a copy soon. Most likely the article – and Tetzlaff's approach to music – will challenge your notion of how a violin should sound. However, it's an exciting and important challenge, no matter what you decide about Tetzlaff. Tetzlaff is an well-respected soloist, but he's not a soloist who's found success and recognition by being flamboyant, a crowd-pleaser, or a crossover star. Rather, his success comes from his ability to play "an unusally wide range of tones, from the refined to wild" (Eichler). To put not too fine a point on it, Tetzlaff even once told a a group of students, "Beauty is the enemy of expression!"
Even though many fellow musicians admire Tetzlaff, critics have occassionally been impatient with his playing. This is, of course, because Tetzlaff is upsetting the conventions of the instrument. If Tetzlaff wants to include harsher sounds in his playing, it comes with a price: beauty, and perhaps the ire of listeners who expect the Romantic composers to be played a certain way:
Most important, he [Tetzlaff] refuses to embrace what might be called the School of the Big Tone: the broad, velvety sound, sustained with uniformly wide vibrato, that many listeners in the age of Izhak Perlman have come to think is how a violin should sound. Tetzlaff's palette extends to harsh or crushed tones, even to sounds that he has purposefully leached of color. And older French musician of my aquaitance dislikes Tetzlaff's playing precisely because such ugliness is allowed in the door.
Rather than exhaust Eichler's article, I want to end to send you toward it with a hint of its praise for Tetzlaff. As Eichler demonstrates, audiences do respond to Tetzlaff. Eichler ends the essay with a description of Tetzlaff playing a Bach concert in a medium-sized church (and only two-thirds full) in Dresden. Eichler expresses a quiet but intense admiration for Tetzlaff's playing, and he senses that most of the concertgoers feel the same way as him:
A marathon Bach recital could easily try the endurance of people seated in hard pews, but the concertgoers in Dresden sat in rapt silence. I attributed this to a distinctive aspect of Tetzlaff's charisma. Onstage, many violin soloists adopt a confident swagger, but in Dresden Tetzlaff, as whenever he plays Bach, seemed to expose layer after layer of vulnerability, creating an atmosphere of naked confession.
I'm squirming a little bit in my seat as I write this, but I can't imagine a better concert. Beauty is only one register of expression, and it's a shame that artists often stay there too long. I can imagine other responses to Tetzlaff though. What do you all think? How central is beauty to your playing? How important is a wide range of expression?
We'd like to welcome our newest SHAR Apprentice James Engman to the SHAR Music Blog! James studied violin performance, physics, and math at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he hopes to use his degrees to excel in instrument repair. What we love about James's first blog is that his enthusiasm is so catching: his experience at the Mark O'Connor Teacher Training Workshop clearly affected him a great deal, and you can sense the transfer of enthusiasm from Mark to James and then to yourself as a reader. And isn't that how most of us got into the arts anyways? We heard or saw or read something amazing by another artist, and we thought: "I want to do that too."
If you know just a little about Mark O’Connor, you might describe him as “the world’s greatest fiddle player.” And while that title is apt, I would go even further. As someone who has followed Mark O’Connor’s career closely, I would describe him as “America’s virtuoso musician.” And I'm not be using the term "virtuoso" in the modern sense of a highly technically skilled performer (even though that would also be accurate). Rather, I'm excavating an older use of the term. In J.S. Bach’s time, a virtuoso was a musician who explored all the realms of musicianship and was accomplished in performing, composing, arranging, teaching, and who also studied theory, history, and philosophy.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. When I heard Mark O'Connor speak this weekend at a teacher training workshop in Ann Arbor, I realized how genuine and deep an artist's dedication can be. He recalled being eight years old and, having seen Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw play “Diggy Liggy Lo” on The Johnny Cash Show, he begged his parents for three years to buy him a violin. It is that young, unbridled enthusiasm – a child's determination to play like Doug Kershaw – that drives Mark O’Connor and his followers. Likewise, his method nurtures this enthusiasm, and it produces well-rounded, creative string players who, above all, love making music. Being a virtuoso is all well and good, but this passion – and a drive to unlock this passion in others – is also an important part of Mark's method.
It's true that this weekend I was certified in the Mark O’Connor Violin Method, which is a relatively new method for learning to play the violin (there are other, similar methods for viola, cello, or bass). But it's also true that I had low expectations when I arrived. I had been classically trained and had little fiddling experience and I knew Mark was primarily known as a fiddler. What I discovered, though, is that Mark’s method has a vast range of styles and is steeped with every aspect of American music. By the end of the weekend, I had been fully convinced by the passion behind the method and by the method itself. I’m unable to put my finger on any one reason that sold me on Mark’s vision: there are just too many. I can say that I see this method as a revolution in early string development, one that could produce fantastic violinists who can adapt to many styles and who possess the artistic creativity needed in today’s musical world.
Today's guest blog is from teacher and violinist Christian Howes. Mr. Howes shares some great advice for musicians: make friends with someone who, through their background or training or experience, has something to teach you. Often we gravitate toward folks who play like us, but Mr. Howes suggests that seeking out different musical traditions challenges us and makes us less insular musicians. It's certainly an inspiring blog, but at the very least don't miss the video of the jam session below!
Think about your best friends.
Guest Blogger Dee Braxton-Pellegrino owns a horse farm in NC and works as a professional musician. She’s sharing a blog in response to Alberta’s post "The Value of a Music Degree".
I'm not sure if you readers out there in the blogosphere subscribe to Richard Dare's blog for The Huffington Post. Dare is the CEO and Managing Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and he has a surprisingly sharp and entertaining blog going. (I say "surprisingly sharp and entertaining" because he's also a business whiz; it's kind of unfair that he's got both such a good head for business and a sharp instinct for art.)
I was browsing Dare's backlog of entries and I came across one from March titled "Brave New World: Who Muzzled All the Artists?" In this article, Dare shares an anecdote about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When a particular painting catches his eye, Dare turns to the docent giving him tour and asks, "What does it mean?" The docent, either in autopilot or intent on having Dare think for himself, volleys the question back to Dare: "Well," she says, "what do you think it means?"
Dare expresses his annoyance with the docent. Why, since art and music are so powerful, won't artists and musicians just come out and say what their compositions or paintings mean? And why is it that when our scholars, critics, and experts review an opera full of "murder and rape, war and pestilence, political intrigue, backstabbing" only talk about "whether the soprano hit her high notes gracefully"?
These are certainly fair questions. And, of course, Dare has a few answers. One, that art has gotten too self-referential: these days it's always about other art and not about everyday life. Two, that dictatorships from the twentieth-century have forced artists to "hide" their meanings more often. And three, that ours is an age of TV and we've just gotten lazy as interpreters of high art.
I would add to Dare's list, though, that it's just plain hard to interpret art and music. For lack of a better phrase, there's a ton of stuff to consider. Does the intention of the composer matter? The historical context of the work? The response of the individual listener? The response of a group of listeners? The way the piece engages with a genre or form? What about music theory and higher-level criticism? In a way, the docent tried to privilege Dare's individual response to the painting, although perhaps she should have said "How does it make you feel as a viewer?" In any case, it's a lot to think about and feel. As David Foster Wallace would say, good art is a "brain-melter."
I'd add yet another, perhaps generational, diagnosis of our fear of meaning. We live in an age of irony and evasion. When I think of my friends (Generation Y) and my younger brothers' friends (Millennials), I know how we'd respond to Richard Dare's question "What does it mean?" We certainly wouldn't gush about the beauty of the painting; most likely we would slyly admit to being moved by the painting while mocking that emotional engagement. Let's say the painting somehow conjures the pain of new beginnings. My brother would probably say in response to it: "It's about how bad my cat's breath smells in the morning." Funny, yes, and in a way accurate, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Irony is just the tone of his and my generation. This is the age of Internet memes and YouTube absurdity and Twitter hashtags and lightning-fast anonymous responses. In addition, it's also the age of an overwhelming amount of information. The sheer weight of what others have said make the interpretation of art even harder. (I think of Malcolm Gladwell's article on Enron's collapse a few years back, and his diagnosis of that catastrophe: it's not that we didn't have the signs in front of us, it's that there was too much information to even know what was relevant.)
So, what are we supposed to do? One of my favorite books on art and music is Real Presences by George Steiner. Among other things, Steiner argues that the best form of criticism is to make more art. If you hear a gorgeous violin concerto, the only way to truly and adequately respond to it is to write one yourself. I'm partial to his point, because it cuts through all the complications of interpretation, irony, and self-conscious criticism. You simply make other people feel what you felt.