Chamber Music Professional Development: IWCMF

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Imani Winds Bassoonist Monica Ellis coaching Coleman’s Afro-Cuban Wind Concerto

A typical day started at 9:30am and quitting time was often around bedtime. The morning workshop that started the day was always with the Imani Winds after which we would follow our schedules toward a rigorous day of masterclasses, coaching, and professional development seminars. There was no time to be shy with our chamber groups; we got cozy and comfortable with each other pretty fast to coordinate rehearsal times between mandatory festival events.

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Jason Moran with the Imani Winds

Each chamber group had been notified of their assignment before setting foot on campus, and had also been assigned an Emerging Composition fellow (ECP) . In addition to rehearsing the standard repertoire we would be coached on, we would also be working with our assigned ECP fellow on a piece to be played in concert at the culmination of the festival. telller, composed by my group’s fellow, Sequoia Sellinger, told the story of 5 artists who had all been at one time romantically involved. Demanding extended technique aside, the most grabbing part of the performance was the stage acting the piece called for, including on stage bickering that featured me snatching the oboist’s reed in protest of his intonation! I can now add Comedic Silent Actor to my resume.

The importance of building a network of artistic and personal support, or one’s “Tribe” as Valerie Coleman called it, was a central point of the festival. Professional development seminars covered skills such as networking, building a brand, and the elevator pitch. As an introvert, these workshops were invaluable to me. Returning to Boston, I was so inspired as to join Castle of our Skins where my primary responsibility is to be public facing and to talk to people all the time. A large part of my motivation this past year has been my passion for the work that I do, that we all do, as an artist. However the true catalysts, I must say, are the inspiring people and experiences I had with my Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival (IWCMF) cohort.

Though we were only together for a week, our cohort had a lasting impact on me that I carried into the following year. IWCMF seeks, in a week, to give fellows a comprehensive, educational experience. Touching on all of the tools that comprise an artist’s skill
set in one week is definitely as demanding as it sounds. And yet, I can say that last year was a rigorous experience, but also one of the professional highlights of my summer and I am excited to be returning this year.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Community Resources: Entrepreneurship Course at RCC

Last week, I completed the Create Your Own Job Seminar. Offered at Roxbury Community College, the course introduces topics from crafting a business plan to deciding when and how to incorporate your business. The course culminated with a one on one 15 minute, pro bono Q&A with one of the lawyers of Latham & Watkins, LLP.

I really appreciated Alexa and Priya of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice for their availability and willingness as mentors. They wanted to know our individual goals and presented topics to us with this in mind. Each week a different guest speaker presented on topics such as personal finances, business planning, and marketing. It definitely benefited us that the speaker each week was different and a specialist in their field. Not only were we hearing from a specialist, but we were hearing different perspectives, which helped to reinforce what I was learning.

Travis Grillo of Grillo’s Pickles, came to speak as an example of the program’s success. His business, self described as “starting with a pickle and a dream“, started with a niche product that grew over time because of demand, rather than the planned profit potential of a typical startup. One of the more laid back presentations, we brainstormed out loud ways in which the markets of the class participants overlap and how, just with the ideas in the room, we can help each other.

That is not to say that a person should not take the course if they have not yet determined what their product or niche market is. I attended the course as a musician looking for the skills to create opportunities for myself. I literally wrote that on my attendance intake form the first day. It so happens that, during the stretch of the course, some ideas formulated for me, but the knowledge I gained in the class was useful all the same.

Anyone who knows me has heard me lament about the lack of business training that artists receive from higher educational institutions. Did you know that when the CIA runs security clearances for job applicants, they check your credit history? Nowhere in Quantum of Solace does M remind 007 that he should be keeping his receipts. If spies have to find time between learning advanced driving skills, espionage, languages, and marksmanship to be financially responsible, why shouldn’t we? (Granted, rubbing elbows with the 1 percent, while impeccably dressed and digging for information, you would probably hear some insider information drop, but you see where I’m going with this.)

Artists operate in a nebulous area between non-profit and for profit. We are typically funded by grants, fellowships, and donations, but these projects also pay our salaries. This was not lost on the presenters when I asked specific pointed questions for my use case. I also appreciated that if the presenters did not know the answer, they would try to point me in the direction of a resource where I could find the answer for myself. I would highly recommend this class to anyone who wants take the helm of their own creative destiny and is looking for a place to start.

A Series on Piazzolla: Histore 1930

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The first time I heard Piazzolla, I was a freshman in college. It had everything I require for catharsis: rich, lush harmonies driven by a purposeful, powerful bass and interesting, poly-rhythmic motif.  I don’t remember which piece of his I heard first, but his music immediately grabbed, held my attention and it would not it go

Tango, and other related or derivative styles such as flamenco, charanga, and milonga, are the result of the melting pot that was Spain dating back to the Moor invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, colonization of the Americas, and the mixing and mingling of these cultures. Astor Piazolla, an Argentinian of Italian immigrant parents, was born March 11, 1921 and died July 4, 1992. The more I learned about Piazzolla and his music, the more I appreciated. Nadia Boulanger, whose footprint can be counted at my alma mater, Longy, was very important to his development, and encouraged him to use what he learned as a student at the Paris Conservatoire in his exploration of Tango. Internationally recognized as a revolutionary of Nuevo Tango, this and the influence of jazz is very apparent in his music.

And Histore du Tango: Cafe 1930, as is his style, delivers. Though it is a slower movement, the second of the four movements in the whole work, the left hand of the piano gives it steady drive, providing a groove under which the flute gets to float. Moods change quickly and suddenly in this movement – another reason he is one of my favorite composers. Histore was written as an homage to the evolution of Tango. Piazzolla paints a picture of Tango at different points in history: a bordel in 1900, a cafe in 1930, a night club in 1960, and a fourth movement of his own interpretation of tango today.

Though I was captivated by Piazzolla as a college freshman, I did not have the opportunity to perform his music for a public audience until this year. (That’s over 10 years ago). I’m still studying and learning about Nuevo Tango and don’t know that I’ll ever feel like I can do it justice, as the best recordings on record are of Piazzolla himself on bandoneon playing his works. But, starting with Cafe 1930, I want to share my interpretation of Piazzolla’s music and what it means to me.

Also included are interpretations of Cafe 1930 on other instruments. It was intended for flute or violin, but Piazzolla’s music is loved by all instrumental disciplines and is transcribed frequently. Usually played with guitar, my arrangement on flute is with piano. Arrangements for trumpet, and the alternative with guitar on violin are below:

 

Wibb Week – Worth the experience

This past week, I was afforded the opportunity to study in master class setting with William Bennett at the William Bennett Summer Flute Academy, affectionately known as “Wibb Week”. Run by Professor of Music, Flute Dr. Lisa Read Wolynec, the week long course focused on performance practice, phrasing, and style, with morning sessions having a pedagogical focus.

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William Bennett is a force of pure musical, unique, energy. The wealth of knowledge that he brought to the works each of our cohort performed consistently reminded me why I had made the trip to Tennessee to participate in this class. The most memorable and exemplary moment for me of this when he, very animatedly, sprang over to the piano to play an accompaniment underneath a student playing the Sarabanda from the Bach Partita in a moll for Solo Flute. Using the implied harmonies of the line, he demonstrated in real time where the phrases began, and where implied dissonances, appoggiaturas, etc. lied. I already knew that harmonic understanding is important to interpret any work, but he bridged the gap for us by showing us how to apply that knowledge.

There were many ways to attend the course, and no age limit is specified. Because of this there were a variety of musicians at different stages of development, each on different professional paths. The support that each of us gave one other during Wibb Week was so inspiring. Those who know me professionally know how I feel about the impacts of a positive learning environment on students. Wibb Week was an illustrative example.

The majority of the requests Wibb made of me were not any different than what would be asked of a singer. Focusing on my posture and angle of my chin, we freed up tension in my throat by lifting my head, allowing immediate and noticeable difference in my sound and projection. As instrumentalists, I believe there is a tendency to become caught up in the search for a pure tone and other technical considerations to the neglect of the real singing of the instrument that really speaks to the listener. Music as language is not an unheard of concept. Instrumentalists do not have the benefit of words to assist us in the communication of our intent, unless it is a transcription of an opera or some other vocal work. Wibb likened the rhythmic structure of speech to musical phrasing:

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Discussions in Wibb’s sessions about sound, projection, and phrasing were reinforced  in informative, technical morning sessions with Dr. Wolynec. In morning warm ups, she covered specific technical aspects to playing that previously arose in sessions with Wibb such as tapers, vibrato production and control, articulation. Dr. Wolynec centered these sessions around how this information can be applied to students, which was very helpful to me as an educator.

Rhonda Cassano, Flautist and certified Body Mapping instructor, also supplemented the instruction during the week by offering private sessions and a group session open to all. Adaptive to my individual needs, we discussed techniques and exercises that can be applied to my specific mechanical, physiological tendencies while playing.

Other activities, included:

Masterclasses with pianist Megan Gale
Flute Choir – Directed by Josephine Bossenberger
Student Recital culminating the week
Peal and Altus flutes

What I would love to see more of next year are scheduled activities for collaboration among us. Our last morning session was spent with Karl Barton – who also gave a flutes of the world session earlier in the week – learning about jazz and jamming together. I would enjoy more exploratory activities like this. The experience was definitely worth the time and travel. Most artists can attest to competitiveness and its stifling of creativity and the innovation that comes from camaraderie. As artists, there is an obligation to convey through music what words alone cannot communicate. I have sometimes asked myself: if all a fellow musician can contribute are the impacts of competition and antagonism, why are they here? How can they sow the seeds of cathartic joy if they don’t live it in their daily lives? There, I found the level of support and team work very refreshing. All in all, I learned a lot of from Wibb and my fellow participants.

 

The Evolving Worth of a Music Degree

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education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

The Royal School of Music recently explored the value of a music degree through round table discussion. Topics included the cultural impacts and economic obstacles that surround the pursuit of a music degree. Now, I appreciated this article for a few reasons:

1) “The qualities one would aspire for in a work-force suitable to meet the challenges of today’s economy are all those found in a music graduate,” noted one commentator. “We need to disband this myth that musicians are self-perpetuating and just create more musicians,” added another – top city firms, accountancy organisations and computing companies as among those who favour music graduates as potential employees.

Woot woot. IT Professional by day, teacher and musician by night right here.

While it is a myth that musicians are self-perpetuating, I never understood why that myth exists. In cases where musicians have children who also become musicians, I don’t understand why its a bad thing. It was the same as someone saying “I come from a family of lawyers” or “I went into the family business”. My mother is a musician, and a teacher. My father was an IT Manager. I don’t see how self perpetuation is something to avoid in that they successfully passed along their occupational knowledge to me. I also like Sushi, Oysters, am becoming an avid and opinonated gamer, interests I cannot attribute to my parents. They believe raw food is gross and could care less about video games. Although we grew up a Toyota family, my first car was a Chevy. I made these choices. I don’t know if it’s a myth so much as its a stereotype. Like most steroypes, they’re wrong.

2) “Despite general consensus as to the inherent cultural-economic value of musical study, there was considerable discontent around the table about its accessibility. One speaker commented on the decreasing number of music students at top institutions coming from backgrounds other than “music specialist schools, private schools and a few enlightened ‘LEAs’.”

As mentioned in a previous post, becoming a successful musician, including even acceptance to a reputable school, increasingly requires resources not available to most.

What was also interesting, was the mentioning of music and its cultural value (to the UK):

3) “One speaker argued that the relationship between music education and cultural value was not necessarily a direct one. “Many of those who add cultural value to the country do so because there is value here already. Our cultural value is increased by a critical mass coming from all over the world that wants to be part of our scene. The role musical education plays in cultural value, or to put it crudely, what we are yielding in terms of the economy, is probably diminishing rather than increasing.”

This comment was contested by another member of the panel, who cited the increasing numbers of foreign students studying music at UK institutions, and anecdotal evidence from those who claimed that paying more to study in the UK was worth it for the extra value they gained from being educated there. Another pointed to the legally binding commitments made by the government to promote musical participation in 2011-12 and, more recently, the National Plan for Music.”

I would have loved to know exactly why the speakers believe the cultural value of music education is dimishing rather than increasing. Is it because orchestras are struggling? Funding for arts education programs are also diminishing? Are students staying the UK after they graduate? Sometimes beauracracy can be a roadblock just as much economics. In the US, international students must apply for an H1B visa after they graduate to stay in the country. It must be sponsored by the employer and tied to your degree’s field of study.

Ultimately, the conclusions with which they ended were those that could be acted upon and not abstract, which is promising:

“We need to reconnect music with the world of ideas… We can rein people into music through linking the ideas, science, film and literature that surround the context of musical creation. We must not regress into isolation, but rather communicate the obvious value of music.”

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Why I Still Identify as a Musician

The week I posted my first entry on WordPress, I was elected Vice President of my bargaining unit of my local AFT – 4517, Cambridge College Employees Federation. And now that things have calmed down since I have a second – literally a few moments – this brings me to my next post’s topic: why I still identify as a musician.

I knew what I wanted to do with my life when I was 16. My flute teacher sent me to a flute festival in England and said to me that when I returned, I would know whether or not music was what I wanted to dedicate my life to.

Teenage insecurities aside, I heard players that could wipe the floor with me. I didn’t even bother to enter the festival’s competition. I knew I wouldn’t win. I knew how to play virtuosic, technical pieces in theory, but seeing done what I had been trying to do, before my very eyes, done in practice:

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Who were these teenage mutant flute players and what green goop did they drink that they could play so fast? I couldn’t even be mad. I’m lying. I was.

I learned a lot about being a musician at that festival. And I came home knowing that it was what I wanted to do. 11 years, including 6 years of music school later, someone asks me “so what do you do?” “I’m a flautist. I’m working toward some auditions right now in a few training orchestras and I teach flute, theory, and ear training”. “No, like so what you do for rent? “Um… Well, I personally am working in the IT Dept of a College.” “Ah, Ok. So you do have a 9-5”.

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If you go to school for software development, but work in risk management, can you not call yourself a programmer? If you have a law degree, and you’ve passed the bar, but you coordinate a soup kitchen, can you identify as a lawyer? Not every person who passed the bar is working as a six figure making lawyer. Are you not a doctor, simply because you choose not to practice if you have all the certifications and paperwork and whatever is required to be doctor like and you’re choosing to be a stay at home dad, or volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club? Not every graduated med student becomes a practicing doctor.

When these conversations go down, it’s as though I’m being told my job is more valuable than my career. Some of my fellow music majors became pre med. Some pre med students I knew are now writers. I know an awesome composer who is writing a play. Before that, he was writing video game music. Its not that he can’t make money. He actively looks for ways to give his work away for free. But that’s the point. Careers, no matter what field, give more fulfillment. They also take more time and require dedication. Careers are linear. Jobs are stagnant.

For the record, my friend and I do not see eye to eye about giving away musical services for free. Careers are an investment, an investment of time and resources . We have to be our own managers, assistants, social media marketers (because its 2013 and you have be on top of that. Let’s be real here. I still haven’t gotten myself on YouTube.) Regardless of the obstacles, I’m not saying that being a musician is impossible. I’m also not saying that its super easy and I don’t sometimes wonder if I should go into more debt so I can get a job in one of these tech jobs that are flooding Boston right now. I’m also rather obstinate and hard headed. And through the brick wall plowing I have learned a lot. I’m working in an IT Department at a college. I use my education skills there every day. I’ve also learned a whole heck of a lot about technology, and I’m applying it to my private teaching. I use my iPad to teach and I now manage two facebook pages, my own, and the Union’s (I am one of many managers).

Between of all these “jobs” which interweave into each other, I apply them to my ultimate goal. That’s what makes a career.

Exams, Expectations and Achievement in Higher Music Education

When I started undergrad, all freshmen were required to take two placement exams. These exams determined what courses you were placed in for Music Theory and Ear Training. You had to do well on these exams to prove your worth as a musician. Looking back, I cannot honestly speak to where this need came. I do not know if it was the nature of our freshman class or the atmosphere of the school itself. It was just in the air. To gain the respect of my peers, and some of my professors, I felt as though I needed to place well on these exams.

I truly believe this process sets students up for failure. In public elementary schools with gifted and advanced programs in elementary schools, educators have found that when you hold a subset of students to higher expectations they are more likely to succeed. When you hold the other group to lower expectations because they are not “gifted” or “advanced” they under perform.

My mother taught me piano starting at age 5. I picked up flute at age 13 (I like to jokingly say I played catch up on the flute until my masters). I have a very good ear, which is not as good now as it was then – use it or you lose it – thus I was placed in an advanced sight singing course. I thought my music theory knowledge was pretty solid (or was solid enough). I would find during my freshman year, however, I would not pass the Theory exam, and I would be placed into a remedial class theory class.

Imagine my surprise, and slight shame. There was a lot shaming amongst my freshman class. Maybe we were more competitive than other classes. By the middle of the semester, I found myself saying to myself “I know this!” a lot. Looking back, I’ve concluded a few things:

Terminology is determined by academia.

Theorists took a look at how classical greats such as Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and others invented terms and words for the compositional techniques they employed in their work. They then expect high schoolers with a propensity and gift for recognizing these patterns to magically know these terms. I found that music in academia doesn’t take into account what the student can bring to the table, such as student’s natural inclination to harmony or perfect pitch as a teaching tool. Instead of celebrating the knowledge that freshman already have, academia focuses on what students don’t know and thus devalues their prior knowledge.

The need to know terminology is completely fair.

Through the years, I’ve been able to process the high running emotions from these experiences, I found that I agree that terminology is important. When I was studying abroad, I spent 48 hours in Milan and found myself at an extreme disadvantage because I didn’t know Italian. It was only due to the kindness of strangers taking the time to figure out what I needed, or where I was trying to go when I asked for directions (thank you random strangers I never saw again!) that I survived. It is important that we musicians speak the same language. It’s important we know what a mode is, what harmonic analysis is, when we are playing in what key, and, when possible, what the composer intended.

My frustration, now that I think back to my freshman year, is what is the best way to get every student on the same page?

Unfortunately, my alma mater handled music theory and ear training the way a lot of schools do for freshmen. The “remedial” course should not feel remedial. And it should not consist mainly of lectures. Freshman year at a music school and I’m spending most of my time in a classroom? Assignments should be at a piano to reinforce the relationships being made between the language being learned and the terminology for those concepts. A student should be using a piano to hear how what they are learning mirrors what they already know. Professors should be teaching to the knowledge students bring to the table.

I was lucky in that I was not doomed to struggle, because while I was in the remedial Theory course, I was in the advanced Ear Training course. But I saw too many students switch majors, transfer, or accept low marks because the concept of singing notes with do, re, and mi attached to them was foreign. The idea of going a class twice a week just to sing melodies was foreign. I saw my peers asking themselves “how is this supposed to help me understand harmony? How does this make me a better performer?”

Now that I have taught in a K-12 classroom, and I work in academia, some of the same reforms and solutions being proposed could stand to be given a look for music education at the Collegiate level. It’s simply not enough to say that if you are failing in your pursuit of a music degree that perhaps you are not meant to be a musician. We do not accept that answer any longer when public school teachers give it to our students. Music teachers should not give it either.