Monthly Archives: November 2008

Wall Street Journal Improvisation Article

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a feature article on the return of improvisation to classical music performance and the training of classical musicians.  A good bit of it features what my DePauw University students are doing.  The online version includes several photos of DePauw students in action, and video footage from DePauw.

Welcome, if you did a search on my name after reading the article and found your way here!

I’ll be posting more about what we do at DePauw over the course of the weekend, and one of the students is working on getting our most recent Improvised Chamber Music concert up on YouTube.  Meanwhile, you may enjoy checking out my writings on improvisation at Improvisation for Classical Musicians, and listening to some of my own free improvisations.

Much of what I do with my improvisation teaching has been shaped and inspired by the work of David Darling and Music for People; those sites are well worth checking out, too.

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Filed under David Darling, improvisation, Music for People, videos, Wall Street Journal

Happy Thanksgiving!

I’ve been working HARD getting this new version of my website, now combined with my blog, up.  I’m THANKFUL that despite innumerable technical glitches (including make the entire old site dissapear for a while and having FTP meltdowns, etc.), I’ve got this much up.  More links to come!

I’m also thankful for a loving family, wonderful friends, good health, a solid job at a great school, fantastic students who are willing to work hard and do crazy improv things, and that at this difficult time for our country, the president-elect is intelligent, pragmatic, level-headed, and progressive.

I’m going to go have a great Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, not muck with my websites for a good while!

May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too.  Count your blessings.

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“I no longer recognize marriage.”

The passage of Proposition 8 in California (which amended the state constitution to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman) has energized the LGBT community in a way I haven’t seen for years. The anger, indignation, and determination I see (and share)–from LGBT people and straight allies–is inspiring. It seems to be another Stonewall moment.

Sometimes it’s a bit scary.  I’ve had mixed feelings about all the name-calling, boycotts, people who made contributions to to support Prop 8 being forced from jobs, etc.  Am I just too wishy-washy? Do I have too much residual internalized homophobia, as some would suggest, that I don’t believe that everyone who supported Prop 8 is a bigot?  Are deeply held religious views on this issue by defiition bigotry and ignorance rationalized, as some insist?

Or maybe I just find denouncing others distasteful and unloving.  I’m not against protests;  I’m all for honest self-expression of anger, hurt, betrayl, outrage, and all the other very human and understandable feelings that have been evoked.  We sexual minorities have been demonized and given second-class status for far too long, and the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” energy that Prop 8 has unleashed is the force that will carry us into the next phase.  I’m gay;  I want to be able my partner (although it’s a moot point at the moment since I don’t have a partner).  And I want the countless same-sex couples who are my friends and acquaintances to be able to marry.

Demonizing opponents can be effective politically, but also further polarizes the situation and can make those with whom we disagree so defensive that constructive dialogue is impossible. So when I found this post by Tom Ackerman (via Andrew Sullivan), it seemed like just the sort of way to disrupt the assumptions in a way that can start to shift the paradigm.

I no longer recognize marriage. It’s a new thing I’m trying.

Turns out it’s fun.

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
“Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

“How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another’s beliefs.

Just replace the words husband, wife, spouse, or fiancé with boyfriend, girlfriend, special friend, or longtime companion. There is a reason we needed stronger words for more serious relationships. We know it; now they can see it.

There’s more, and it’s worth reading.  I’m going to try this out.

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Video: Self-Expressive Improv, Part 1

An invitation to explore self-expressive “free” improvisation, in which, as we say in Music for People, “there are no wrong notes.” (I blogged about the comedy of errors I experiened making these videos here.)

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Video: Self-Expressive Improv, Part 2

Priming the pump of the creative imagination by improvising just one note at a time.

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Video: Self Expressive Improv Part 3

Cresting an extended improvisation (longer than one note, anyway!), listening inside yourself for the first note, then the next and the next.

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So let’s just make some quick YouTube videos . . .

Short version: I can’t believe the comedy of errors and mounting frustrations that ensued as I tried to make some YouTube videos on how to get started improvising. (Emily over at the Stark Raving Cello Blog knows what I’m taliking about; she’s encountered smilar frustrations.)

Long version:

Many regular readers of this blog know that I am an improvising as well as a classical cellist, and I do a lot with free, self-expressive improvisation (much of it inspired and informed by approaches developed by David Darling and Music for People) in my teaching at DePauw and in workshops I occasionally give elsewhere.

And there may be some new readers coming to the blog (if you’re one, welcome!). A features writer from a major newspaper contacted me earlier this fall about a story on improvisation she was developing. We did a long phone interview and I suggested a number of other people to contact. She eventually decided to visit me at DePauw, where she observed me coach improvised ensembles, interviewed some of my students, sat in on classes of my colleague Scott Spiegelberg (who uses improvisation in his theory and musicianship classes) and did a long interview with me. Her story comes out tomorrow (Friday), the last I heard. I don’t know how much of it will deal with the work I’ve been doing; I’m a bit on pins and needles waiting to see. She took a lot of video footage that might be used on the website, and the paper sent a photographer to Monday night’s concert by the improvisation students I’ve been coaching. (If we make it in, I’ll certainly be linking to it!)

Self-expressive improvisation, expressing yourself through sound, not worrying about conforming to the conventions of a particular style, is something that anyone can do at any time. It’s made such a difference in my life that now that I’m a bit past 50, I’m clear that more than anything else I want to support and encourage others in this extraordinary process that’s made such a difference in my life. One of the things that I grateful for is that DePauw has welcomed this, allowing me to create an improvisation ensemble and to teach an improvisation unit in the team-taught seminar the School of Music has for all our entering students.

In anticipation of some possible new publicity from the story in which my work at DePauw may or may not be highlighted, I thought it would be a good idea to make some videos that encourage other people, especially other classical musicians, to give free, self-expressive improvisation a try.

So I’ll just set up the video camera, I thought, plug in a a good microphone, take some footage, upload it onto my MacBook, use IMovieHD to make short videos, and post them. Should take two or three hours. After all, I had led a class of first-year college students through the process of making YouTube videos with their MacBooks earlier in the week, and in a little over half an hour many of them had made a video and posted it.

First, though, I needed to make a set. I wanted to be in front of the fireplace in the front room (parlor?) of my 1888 house. But that room was filled with all sorts of junk, and first I had to clear enough away that there was an area to shoot. So that took close to an hour.

Then came camera angles and microphone tests. I was using my parents’ digitial camcorder, which is higher quality than mine. Found the camera angle to use, cleared more junk away so it wouldn’t be in the frame, etc. Connected a good stereo mic to the mic input, listened to the playback through headphones connected to a jack on the camcoreder, and it sounded good.

But I wanted to put the mic closer to me, on a boom stand out of view. So I added an extension cable to the short cable that comes with the mic (an AT822). That was fine, except it made a buzz.

So then I tried connecting a mono cable to the mic with an XLR conection ending in a quarter-inch mono plug, with a miniplug adapter. Fine, except I heard sound in only one channel on the headphones. Drat! I lookked around and found a stereo miniplug adapter, and that worked fine.

Then I tried the same thing with a different mic. Listended back and forth. Decided I liked the ATT 822 best. With the long mono cable ending in the stero adapter, I hear great sound from the camera in both ears of the headphone. OK, another hour or more has gone by.

With everything set up, I film 45 minutes of footage, realizing as I go that I really should have written a script or an outline, but thinking I could probably edit enough to get something. Doing 45 minutes of footage probably took 90 minutes.

Take the camera, hook it up via firewire to the MacBook. Download some video. Play it back. There’s sound in only one channel.

OK, no big deal, I should be able to just copy the audio from the left channel and paste it into the right channel.

But you can’t do that in IMovie, I discover, after an hour a going through the help menus, watching video tutorials, and Googling around. Only thing to do is to extract the audio, open it in another program, fix it there, then reinsert the audio. Shit, that sounds like it would take a week to learn to do. No way.

OK, maybe it’s the connection between the camera and the MacBook, or the MacBook itself. So I try it with my DePauw laptop rather than my personal one. Same problem.

I try putting the tape in my own camcorder, not my parents’. Same problem. I hook the camera up to my home theater. Beautiful sound in both channels. What gives?

I try some test footage using the built in mic in my parents’ camera. Transfer it to my MacBook. Sound in both channels. So it’s not the camera, it’s not the computer, it’s something about the micing. (Now I could have decided to just use the built in mic, but I wanted better sound and was going to have it!) I suspect it has to do with usuing a mono cable with the stereo minijack. So I go back to the original short chord that comes with the AT822 and record again into my parents’ camera. Same problem.

I try just using the camera in my MacBook, which is actually pretty good. The mic’s not bad either, but it ads a high-pitched beeping, and the audio input jack doesn’t seem to work (so now a trip to the Apple store in Indy is on the agenda, just what I want!).

Then on a whim I try it with my camera. Works perfectly. OK, so we’ll have good sound with lesser visiual quality.

And now it’s what, midnight or something. And no more time until Wednesday afternoon to work on this.

Wednesday afternoon rolls around. Now I spend an hour and a half trying different lighting setups, with and without some cheap spotlites from the hardware store and settle on soemthing that I think looks good (but later turns out to be over lit).

Fianlly I shoot some videos, writing a script between each one, knowing the points I want to make. I don’t read the script, but I know what I want to say and illustrate well enough that I make the three videos, each one only about twice as long as I thought, but still well under ten minutes each.

I give up on any idea of adding titles, fade-ins, or other special effects. Just get the footage into IMovie, trim the beginning and end. And use the “share to YouTube feature” that my students found so easy to use. The first video is processed, then uploads itself to YouTube, then gives me, after about 15 minutes, an error message, and says I should try again. I try again and the same thing happens.

I want to scream. Maybe I did. (Express yourself through sound and all that!)

I give up, export the movie to a folder on my hard drive, and upload it from YouTube. Once that finishes I find a list of all my videos under “Account” and it turns out the first one did upload just fine, so the second two uploads, which I’ve now spent the beter part of an hour on, have been rejected as duplicates! (Thanks for the error message, IMovie!).

I edit the second video, export it and upload it through You Tube, and then do the same thing with the third.

The thirs looks funny, and I eventually figure out I accidentally set it up to be in widescreen mode, which means it has cut off a portion of the top and bottom of the frame, including part of my head.

So I have to redo the third one, going through the whole process again. It’s getting late by now. But I see the process through. And I watch the third video.

And to my horror, I realize I had forgotten there was a false start. I’d started off well, then tripped over some words, said “Oh Shit!” and started over. That was all there up on YouTube.

So that gets deleted pronto. And I go and reedit the video and reexport it and reupload it.

Meanwhile, the video qualty on YouTube looks grainier and more washed out than it does in IMovie. Sound is pretty good though. I give up.

Now I find it funny. About 10 hours of work to make less than thirty minutes of YouTube videos. Much of it was learning by trial and error, and I learned a lot.

I love my MacBooks, my personal one and the DePauw-supplied one. But I will say that I switched because Macs are supposed to be so much better with audio and videos, or so I heard, than PCs, and in all honesty I found Windows MovieMaker to be a lot easier to use than IMovie, and more flexible, too.

We live in such a do-it-yourself age. Being one’s own videographer and sound engineer does add an element of independence and freedom, but it’s also a lot of stress.

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Portland Cello Project: Holiday Sweater Project


The Portland Cello Project has some of the most innovative programming and marketing you can find. Their website has some of the most interesting cello photography anywhere. As a matter of fact, there may be more interesting cello photos on their site than anywhere else on the web.

When we’re getting trained in classical music, at a conservatory or college/university music program, the underlying cultural assumption is that if we get good enough, people will hire us to perform. With a modicum of people skills, networking, and professionalism (i.e., returning phone calls promptly, consistently showing up early rather than at the last second or even late, etc.), this actually works to a limited extent, especially for freelance gigs. And of course some of us succeed in winning a full-time position in an orchestra or on a music faculty.

If you don’t end up with a full-time gig, or have more free-lance work than you can handle (and I know fewer and fewer people with more free-lance work than they can handle), the key is to be good, do something innovative and interesting, and MARKETING and PUBLICITY.

Which is the members of the Portland Cello Project are my heroes.

Their next project is the Holiday Sweater Spectacular. Fabulous poster!

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Fleming cello didn’t sell, so maybe I still have a chance

I had really wanted to buy the “Fleming” Stradivarius, which was in an online auction at Tarisio.com (Tarisio is like a very high-end Ebay for selling stringed instruments). I’d like to have a Strad cello, if only for a while.

My strategy, which was a long shot to say the least, was to win the Hoosier Lotto or the multistate Powerball. Neither came through (surprise!), so I wasn’t in a position to bid.

Turns out the submitted bids (highest was 1.35 million dollars) didn’t meet the reserve price, so if a successful negotiation isn’t completed between the highest bidder and the Fleming estate, maybe I’ll still have a chance. I’ll keep spending a few bucks a week on the lottery. Yes, it’s probably a waste of money, but at least I’m not buying cigarettes (which I gave up 10 years ago).

Both the thought of winning the lottery and using the proceeds to buy a Strad are delightful fantasies, in any event!

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Always more to do than can be done

Well, I missed posting two days in a row by about three hours. it’s about 3:00 Am, and I’m just finishing up some overdue work.

Like many college professors, I live in a constant state of having more to do than can be done. This isn’t unique to my profession, of course. For a long time it made me quite anxious. I recently read somewhere that this is how it is for many people; we often have so many projects and appointments and meetings that it’s just not possible to stay on top of everything.

Since I accepted that as a reality, two things have happened. First, I relaxed a good bit. Second, I began to feel less overwhelmed, and started getting more things done.

Today had a class, a coaching, a ton of advising meetings, and hours and hours on a overdue course proposal. It’s submitted, and now I surrender for the night.

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