Monthly Archives: February 2010

Ah, the Hungarian Rhapsody

One of my students is playing the David Popper Hungarian Rhapsody in DePauw’s concerto competition Thursday.  It’s such a fun piece, and he’s made terrific progress with it, and so I’m in one of those happy-teacher moods.  There’s nothing better than when your students work hard and make progress and you feel like you’re able to actually pass things along.

The Rhapsody is far from a profound piece of music.  It’s an incredibly effective showpiece, written with such idiomatic insight that it sounds about five times harder than it actually is.  It’s a great piece for young cellists who are developing both technique and interpretive flair;  to really pull it off takes not just cellistic chops but showmanship as well.  I used to perform it a lot and haven’t for some time, and haven’t had a student study it for a couple of years at least.  It’s fun to revisit, and to help someone else explore all the things that can be done with it.

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Ah, entitlement

Show up to a class for which you’re not registered an hour after it begins, be sent away by the professor, write him an email in complaint, and what would you expect to happen?  Evidently not this, but it sure makes for fun reading.  (Hat tip to University Diaries.)

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Queeried, with an emphasis on queer

Over on Jody Dalton’s My Big Gay Ears, I’ve run off my big gay mouth in answer to his big gay questions.  Want to know if being out has helped or hurt my career?  (Or done both?)  Which famous conductors I never slept with?

And much, much, more?

Now you can.  Plus Jody posted my three YouTube beginning-improv clips, too, so you can watch me play my (big gay) cello.

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You may cough between movements and discreetly fart . . .

OK, reading Norman Lebrecht discussing the Anne Midgette WaPo (Washington Post) article I referred to in my most recent post, I think I understand that Hilary Hahn’s album was selling 1000 copies per week when it was the top Billboard classical album, not 1000 total.  That makes more sense. Still, it’s diddly-squat compared to what rock, pop, etc., sells, and it’s a wonder there are still major classical labels doing anything.

I hadn’t realized Lebrecht had an Arts Journal blog.  (So does Joe Horowitz.)  Paragraphs like this make it a worthwhile subscription:

Most concert halls, the moment you enter, do not let you forget who’s boss. Go here, do that, switch off, please don’t, be considerate. You may cough between movements and discreetly fart, but do not applaud until signalled to do so and above all do not signify your response on an electronic device until you have departed the premises, preferably until you have read the authoritative review next morning in a respectable newspaper and have been told what you are supposed to think.

Small wonder that the coming generation refuses to accept classical music as part of its cultural spectrum. This is an art form that must urgently change its language, its top-down mode of address, if it is to have any kind of audience in the future.


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I still think this can’t be right . . .

I couldn’t quite believe it when I read this article, and I still find it incomprehensible.  A classical album, number one on the Billboard classical chart, with national television exposure, got there and sold only 1,000  copies–including downloads.  The business model for classical albums is different than that for popular music of course, and I suppose the word “popular” has never been more apt.  Pop albums sell a lot early after they are released, then taper off.  Classical albums sell more steadily over a period of years.  But still, Hilary Hahn, only one thousand sales?  How can that be?

And obviously if you can get in the top 10 selling just a few hundred, it wouldn’t take that many friends, family, and fans to put an album on the charts.  Hmm . . . maybe I should make a CD after all!

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Bach and Being Human

OK, if it wasn’t for my Julie and Julia-insipried commitment to writing at least one post a day, I’d be in bed. Or at least watching television.

Enjoyed teaching today–a lot. Cello teaching is not just challenging and fun; sometimes in explaining or demonstrating I discover or realize something new to me. This afternoon, I was working with a student who had the notes down for the Prelude of the Bach D Minor Cello Suite, but not much sense of phrasing or emotional projection.

You really can’t find the right tone color, you don’t know how much or what type of vibrato to use, you don’t know what articulation to use, or where on the string to place the bow, if you don’t have a sense of what emotion the music expresses or is meant to evoke. With Bach, of course, there are an infinite number of ways one can play a movement and it still works.

As I asked my student questions, she identified that the Prelude is sad, that it reminds her of a funeral, with some busy coming and going. A good starting point. When she played, though, there wasn’t much difference. Very, very careful, almost tentative playing.

For me, what often works is to imagine a person in a particular place. I explained that to her, and to show her what I was talking about, I let an image come to me. Someone standing at Ground Zero, I said. There are some new arial photos from 9/11 recently released, so the horror and sadness of that day feels fresh to me. I closed my eyes, imagined standing at the edge of that awful hole in the ground, and played.

It was if it was a new piece to me. The timings and inflections were different than I’d done before, and I was much more sensitive to inflections in the melodic line as well as harmonic changes. The experience was profound for me. I’d connected with a new energy. And it was totally different than when I’d played it thinking of being at a funeral.

Who was it at the edge of Ground Zero? I don’t know. Not yet, anyway. I want to keep exploring this for myself.

For my student, of course, my imagery may be useless. She needs to find her own way into the piece. I was demonstrating the process, not a specific interpretation for her to imitate. I was, after all, improvising.

A lot of music majors are not going to play music for a living. A lot of our students may not even be music majors. We’re all human beings, though. And in our study of music, in our interaction with great pieces, we can connect more fully with our experience of being human. There’s nothing I want more for my students than that. Just demonstrating in that lesson today, I connected with a part of myself that I didn’t know was there. My intent is that sharing that with her opens up the possibility of her discovering something within herself.

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Eric the dictator, Eric the facilitator

Didactic vs. facilitaive teaching is the subject of today’s musing.

Arthur Hull, the father of the facilitated drum-circle movement, is one of the most articulate speakers I know when it comes to the distinction between teaching (by which I think he means what others would call direct instruction) and facilitation, in which one creates an relationship with another individual or a group and assist he, she, or them in doing what they are already capable of.  In a community drum circle, for example, the leader facilitates the group connecting with each other, feeling a common beat, feeling a sense of celebration and aliveness, etc.  In an African drumming class, on the other hand, a teacher would show how to hold the drum, how to do certain strokes, introduce complex rhythms that take a lot of practice to master, etc.  They are very different modes of relating, and Arthur warns of the dangers of teaching when you need to be a facilitator.

When it comes to cello improvisation, say, or working with a student to develop his or her own interpretation, there is a lot more facilitation required than didactic instruction.  I once had an argument with Harold Best in which I said you can’t teach improvisation, you can only facilitate students discovering, exploring, and developing their own abilities.  Harold said yes you can teach it, and described people teaching improvisation in ways which I considered facilitation, my vocabulary having been very influenced by Arthur in particular. (Also by discussions in the Music for People community.) That conversation was years ago, and I’ve decided finally that we can make a distinction between different modes of teaching, facilitation being one.

Years before my conversation with Harold, I had a mild argument with Camilla Wicks, the great violinist with whom my then-fiance was studying at the time.  I felt a teacher’s job is to help a student discover and develop his or her own musical voice and personality.  Camilla, on the other hand, was convinced that her job was to teach her students to play like her.  To learn her interpretations.  Camilla, of course, was a truly great concert artist, who briefly had a genuinely major career.  We really were at odds.  On the other hand, it’s widely reported that the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich rarely if ever demonstrated in lessons or master classes–he didn’t want people imitating him.  I get the sense that Rostropovich was in many ways facilitative rather than didactic.

Now I realize that there’s a time for everything.  “Imitate, assimilate, innovate,” said Clark Terry (he’s who the quote is frequently attributed to, anyway).  There are times when it is very valuable to imitate someone else’s playing.  There are times when it is important as a teacher to be didactic and tell someone how to play.  Eventually though, a young artist has to stop imitating and find her own voice, and as a teacher (unless your mission is to create out copies of yourself) one has to switch from instructing to facilitating.

Rostropovich, who rarely demonstrated, wasn’t teaching beginning and intermediate-level students;  to get in to his class I’m sure you had to be a virtuoso cellist to begin with.

There’s much more to be said about this, of course.  And links to add to this post.  Right now it’s time for dinner–and I have today’s post done well before bedtime for once!

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