Category Archives: improvisation

Dignity, Humiliation, and Music. Who Knew?

When George Wolfe asked me to come improvise with him at a conference at Columbia University, I of course said yes. Then I saw it was the International Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies conference, I told George we might need to come up with a good rationale for the cello professor to use professional conference funds to attend this particular event.

But once I arrived at Columbia, I was struck by how much I felt I was part of this work. Humiliation and shame are not just tools of control in relationships, personal, professional, organizational, and societal. They are also deeply part of the experience most classical musicians have as we study are craft and learn our art. There are very few of us who are not on some level ashamed of, or healing from years of feeling ashamed of, our playing or singing.

For my entire life as a teacher, I’ve worked with students to learn to trust themselves and find their voices, while at the same time presenting the exacting standards that can be so intimidating and which can cause so much hurt when we don’t meet them. All along, I’ve been healing, too.

It’s what led me into the safe-space, accepting world of Music for People improvisation and the community drum circle culture articulated by Arthur Hull.

I never framed this work in terms of humiliation and human dignity before. But as I heard scholars from many disciplines around the world speak, and as we spoke together in discussion groups, I realized that I’ve been working in this field.

And that there was much I could take back to DePauw, where we are dealing with how to make the campus climate more hospitable for students and faculty of color. Where we are collectively looking for how to participate in the national and international conversations that relate to ongoing humiliation that is racism.

The contribution that George and I were able to make was to use performances of free improvisations as a model for a way of relating that is rooted in what I now realize can be called dignity. Listening. Responding. Taking turns leading. Supporting and challenging. Neither dominating or submitting.

I learned so much, too, which I’ll write about at another time. Meanwhile, it was a genuine miracle for me to discover that there was a group of people of whom I was already a part, without knowing it.

Thanks, George.


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Filed under George Wolfe, improvisation

Rigorously Playful: Today’s Adventure in Improvisation

This semester at the DePauw School of Music (where I’m on the steering committee for our developing 21st Century Musician Initiative), I’m having a blast teaching, well make that facilitating, a section of our team-taught first-year seminar, Understanding Music, as well as two sections of Improvised Chamber Music, coaching a cello quartet, and, of course, giving cello lessons.

Today was the first meeting of one section of the improv group. We’re based in the principles outlined in the Music for People Bill of Musical Rights, as well as embracing aspects of what was once avant-garde experimental music and throwing in a bit of theater improv as well.

I crossed out the word “teaching” above because my job with the improv groups is rarely to instruct, to tell people what to do or how to do it or what I think.  I’m there to create a safe space for people to express themselves, to connect with each other, and to see what happens when you disable the usual self-censorship mechanisms.

Today, it was just two students (both guys) and me. We started with some very familiar (to me) Music for People activities, both taught by MfP’s co-founder David Darling. They are so familiar, in fact, that they become effective transitional ritual into the improvisational energy. First comes “release,” a gesture in which we put our hands at the crown of our heads, inhale deeply, then let our arms fall slowly to our sides while exhaling and letting go of whatever we brought with us.  And then we shook out our hands, wiggled our fingers, and let our tongues move with our fingers, making babbling sounds.

This silly activity isn’t so silly of course–it’s all about freeing up and letting go of doing something correct or predetermined.

The two young men who joined me today, both first-year students, and both, it’s accurate to say, bursting with assertive creativity, joined in eagerly. One had been at a session last week, where we’d emphasized body movement as well as sound making, and soon we were interacting with each other freely, moving about the room. I should have recorded it, because, as is often the case when one is really in the moment, I don’t remember everything that happened. I do remember that we stuck with our voices for quite a while, moving from la sounds to hard-consonant sounds (“katakatakata” “tikatikatika”) to conversational exchanges to ostinatos (repeated figures) over which we took turns singing long notes, to long tones forming drones which we took turns exploring.

I needed to do no explanation (just modeling), no active encouraging other than being part of the adventurous/playful energy, and very little attention getting when I wanted to shift things. When I moved things into the ostinato section, I may have sung the word “ostinato” or the phrase “repeated figure” once, but things didn’t break down, and I didn’t have to explain that we were now doing repeated figures, as is often the case when I work with new improvisers.

And soon two of us were playing inside the piano, strumming, plucking, and thumping (don’t worry, it wasn’t the Boesendorfer, just one of those long-abused grand pianos you find in rehearsal rooms in every music school) while the third was rubbing erasers on a white board.  We played the walls. We played the chairs.  We thumped everything thumpable.  The two teenage students were bouncing up and down on the floor and acting like apes for a while in a way I couldn’t quite match. Everyone initiated some new section. By the end, we were singing again, and I exercised my professorial authority only to bring things to an end. (Auditions were happening soon, and all good things must come to an end.)

It was quite exhilarating for all of us.  One of the students had never improvised with others before, and he had the kind of look on his face when we finished that I must had at the end of the first day of my first Music for People workshop.

This kind of improvisation, where you’re saying yes to your ideas, and saying yes to other people’s ideas, connecting when you need to, getting out of the way when it’s time for that, letting go of what you have been doing and spinning into the next thing–it’s not something you learn to do so much as it is something you discover you can do.  What I’m very clear about is that most of the time I’m not teaching people a new skill, but rather assisting them in discovering what they already can do.

When things really click, there’s a synergy that is indescribable.

I actually envied my young friends today–they were more free than I was at times, especially when bouncing around like chimps. They reentered a boys-playing-games, Peter Pan zone that I couldn’t quite get to.  When you’re 18 or 19, the boy in a young man is still very present. The Music for People book on improvisation is called Return to Child; sometimes, though, you don’t need a book to get there.


Was this rigorous?

“Rigor” is a word we use a lot in academia. We want to challenge our students. We sell rigorous education. You can go to your crappy local community college for unrigorous education, I think we assume, although I imagine there are some brilliant teachers at many community colleges. I tell my cello students that if they don’t hate me from time to time, let me know, because it means I’m not pushing them hard enough.

I was part of a very long faculty meeting later in the day in which we were debating changes meant to strengthen our Winter Term program. There’s a concern that some of the experiential-learning courses taught in Winter Term (and other times) aren’t rigorous or challenging enough. My colleague Nicole Brockmann pointed out that experiential learning can be rigorous indeed.

There are many ways to be rigorous and engaging and challenging. Frankly, I don’t even like the word “rigorous,” because it often seems to be used in a way that confuses difficulty (often for the sake of difficulty itself) with genuinely engaged learning, or makes a professor present some monstrous crap pile of things to memorize rather than genuinely engaging students in the process of learning. As we sat in the meeting, I thought of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and realized that someone ought to articulate a set of multiple “rigorousnesses” as well.

Many years ago, I sat across a table from David Darling, and he looked at me and said, “When you go to a jazz camp, they ask you what chords and scales you know.  When you come to a Music for People workshop, we ask you to tell us who you are.”

Is there rigor in, say, wiggling your fingers and babbling? In being silly? There’s no real technique involved. It’s not something you can really practice–we can each already do it. Heck, babies can do it.

But you know what? To do it in front of other people, that’s not so easy. As a matter of fact, it takes courage–doing something when you are afraid–for most of us. And to do it with abandon, well, that is a real challenge, because you have to trust yourself and the other people in the room.

You can sing a note that’s defensive, hiding behind a good technique or doing something silly. Or you can sing a note where you take a chance, where you express a raw emotion, where you don’t know if you’re going to hit the pitch you’re hearing. That’s where there’s rigor in this.

It might look like total bullshit if you walk into a room and see two people thumping strings inside a grand piano while a third kneels and rubs erasers on a white board behind the piano, intermittently crawling under the piano and tapping the case. But if all three people are genuinely listening to and responding to each other, and they are allowing themselves to follow their intuition and do this even though someone might look at it and think, “bullshit!,” there is a genuine rigor. Even if you get it and it works on the first try.

What can I say? I love my job.


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Filed under David Darling, facilitation/teaching distinction, improvisation, Music for People

“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation.”

Turns out I’m not the only classical instrumentalist with a penchant for improvising who loves Frank Sinatra.  Jeff Agrell has a great post about his experience playing in an orchestra backing up Sinatra-embodier Steve Lippia.  Jeff adds a brilliant description of techniques jazz singers use that classical players hardly ever do, and, asking himself why jazz singers do what they do, offers wise insight into what makes effective performances so effective:

1) Variety. The success of every composition depends on the proper balance of unity (what you can predict) and variety (what you can’t). Too much unity and the listener is bored. Too much variety and the listener is frustrated. A 50/50 balance is just right, where the listener can guess what’s coming next about half the time.

[big snip]

2) Expression. None of the tracks were unaccompanied. All vocal lines have a band supporting them, contrasting with them, providing solid beat (predictable) plus phrase end fills, occasional bridge choruses, and rhythmic punctuation along the way (variety) against which the vocal lines can create their magic.

(Read the whole post–it’s worth it.)

This balance of steadiness and freedom, of predictability and surprise, about which Jeff writes so clearly, is one of the essentials in a great free improvisation. Which is why, I suppose, I love improvised melodies over drones or ostinatos (repeated patterns), which provide a solid platform to be creative over.

I’m reminded of when years ago I played in a small orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson.  Smokey toured with his own rhythm section and added local strings, as I recall. (Maybe winds, too.  I’m not sure.  But bless him for hiring those of us he hired!)

We locals had a rehearsal with his music director, who played a Dr. Beat metronome, set to its most clanky setting, through an amplifier.

“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation,” the m.d. announced, with obviously-practiced authority, seeming somewhat grim about having to retrain yet another set of overly-lyrical musicians.

“There is no rubato.  There will be no slowing down or speeding up. You will stay exactly with the beat”   Resigned but determined, he worked to make sure we knew the charts and kept everything steady.  (OK, there may have been some ritards as songs ended, and some cued entrances and holds. But 99% of the time, we were amazingly rock-solid and did not adjust to what he was doing.)

It seemed obnoxious in the rehearsal. In the concert, I got it. We hadn’t rehearsed with Smokey.  Didn’t need to.  Because there was no interpretation on our parts.  He did his magic over the solid foundation his music director made sure we gave him.   We were steady so he could be free.

And here he is, in the most recent video on his website, in which the virtues of a steady-as-a-rock rhythm section are in abundant evidence:


Filed under Frank Sinatra, improvisation, Interpretation, Jeff Agrell, Smokey Robinson, videos

Two Nights, Two Sensational Quartets

Two incredible, and incredibly different, young string quartets–the St. Lawrence and Brooklyn Rider–in two days.  How good can it get?

The St. Lawrence String Quartet played Zankel Hall Tuesday night March 8.  Razor-sharp ensemble, extremely well worked-out interpretations of Haydn (Op. 20 No. 4), John Adams (String Quartet, composed for the group), and Schubert (the great G major, D. 887).  “Its mission is to present music to the audience in vivid color, with pronounced communication and teamwork, and with great respect for the composer,” says the group’s biography in the program book, and I couldn’t put it better myself.  The playing was so alive, so full of energy.  It’s the epitome of a traditional, acoustic classical ensemble, performing with such commitment and interest that I thought to myself that there can’t help but be a future for this music and this sort of ensemble.  Absolutely riveting.

Here they are, playing a minuet from a different Haydn quartet:

My dad once pointed out to me that a really good string quartet can produce as much or more tension and excitement and meaning as the largest symphony orchestra.  That insight kept recurring to me as the evening progressed.

Great to see the violinists swap first-chair roles for the halves of the concert.  This is happening more and more, and while it doesn’t work for every group, I like it, especially the egalitarian symbolism of it.  Concerts, whether we realize it or not, create and reinforce social relationships, as Christopher Small has pointed out. The evaporation of the first/second chair distinction appeals to me. Also interesting was the dressy-casual diversity of the men’s dress: one violinist in black shirt and slacks, the other with a suit but no tie, and the cellist with a lavender shirt and big bow tie.

I hadn’t been to Zankel for several years.  It’s one of my favorite places to attend a concert in New York: great acoustics in a visually attractive space.

The next day, Wednesday March 9, I’d gone with my daughter to a theater matinee and, feeling a bit tired, was tempted to stay home.  But the Tully Scope concert with Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider sounded too fascinating, and too relevant to my sabbatical mission of experiencing the musical love children of mated genres, to miss.

It was sensational.  “I’ve been to a lot of concerts in New York,” a fellow string professor on sabbatical told me afterwords. “This was the best.”  “It was incredible,” said a new acquaintance in the music business.  Huge, cheering, standing ovation at the end of both the concert and even the encore.

Brooklyn Rider, like the St. Lawrence, is a fabulous young string quartet, but towards the other end of the spectrum.  Amplified with pickup mics for the entire concert, the violinists and violist standing, the cellist on a platform, they play with technical assurance, musicality, imagination, and on-fire energy.  After a terrific performance of Giovanni Sollima‘s Federico II from Viaggio in Italia (2000), they presented the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Suite for String Quartet from Bent (1997).

Brooklyn Rider playing a different Glass piece:

So how do you end up doing a world premiere 14 years after the music was composed?  The music started as part of the score for the film version of Bent, a powerful play dealing with themes of love, oppression, and torture, in this case the horrifying treatment gay men at the hands of the Nazis.  The Emerson Quartet is heard in the movie’s soundtrack, but this was its first concert performance.

I saw Bent in its searingly moving 1979-1980 Broadway production featuring Richard Gere and David Dukes.  As a young man struggling to coming to terms with my own sexuality, it made a huge impact on me.  Although I haven’t seen the film version (which I recall receiving mixed reviews), knowing what it was composed for gave it a special, deep relevance for me.

Then the melding of musical worlds began.  Brooklyn Rider frequently performs as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.  And so does Kayhan Kalhor, an amazingly skilled and sensitive performer on the kamancheh, described in the program as a “Persian spiked fiddle.” An improviser (of course, since improvisation is integral to virtually every music except Western classical) and composer, he brought a quietly deep and wise presence that complimented the youthful enthusiasm of the quartet as well as bassist Shawn Conley and percussionist Shane Shanahan.

One of the delights of the evening was discovering what a fine composer and arranger Colin Jacobsen, one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists, is. Before intermission, the combined forces performed his 2008 Beloved, do not let me be discouraged. It was a beautiful combination of Western and Persian musical elements.  Jacobsen writes in his program note for the piece, “In our ears, Persian music expresses a deep desire to lose oneself in love.”

Beloved, do not let me be discouraged:

Maybe that was what made the evening such a success.  There was an absolute sense of love and joy in music making.  The people I talked to at intermission seemed, like me, to be on a high.  There was a crowd at the CD table.

After intermission, Kalhor did an extended solo improvisation, full of melodic inventiveness and motivic play.  I wish I knew enough about Persian music to be able to describe it.  As a matter of fact, I wish I had a better musical memory in general (or hadn’t forgotten to bring a pen so I couldn’t take notes) and could describe the pieces that followed.  I was enjoying the concert so much, so present in the moment, that I don’t remember that much of the actual music.  This often happens when I (and others) improvise;  you experience the music so fully that the brain’s memory chip gets overridden.  Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah (2011) followed the improvisation.  He and Nick Cords, the group’s violist, had visited Iran in 2004, where (if I understand correctly) they first met and heard Kalhor play.  This experience inspired him to begin composing and arranging, and this piece is one of the results.  So, too, was the concluding Ascending Bird (2006), an arrangement by Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei of a folk tune Jacobsen and Cords heard in a field recording Aghaei played for them during that seminal trip to Iran.

As I mentioned before, the audience leapt to its feat at the end, and a rousing encore of Brooklesca, evidently a signature tune for the group, with plenty of room for others and improvised solos, received its own standing ovation.

Brooklesca, with just four players (cool video, too):


Filed under Brooklyn Rider, improvisation, Kayhan Kalhor, Philip Glass, Silk Road Project, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Tully Scope

In Which Lisa Bielawa and Frances-Marie Uitti Turn Me Into a Tounge-Tied Fan (SJ VIII)

The individual and combined performances of vocalist Lisa Bielawa (best known as a composer) and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti at [le] poisson rouge on Sunday February 13 were extraordinary.  Billed as “In Translation: A Bold New Collaboration,” the program included Bielawa’s performance of the Berio Squenza III for solo voice, Uitti playing the Xenakis Kottos 1977 for solo cello, and then an approximately 30-minute improvisation in which Christian Hawkey read original poems to which Bielawa and Uitti improvised.

The Berio began with Bielawa off-stage, using a hand-held microphone.  Where was she?  Eventually she materialized on stage, and made an impressively seamless transition to a mic on a stand.  This was the second amazing performance of a Berio Sequenza I’ve experienced since I arrived in New York 5 weeks ago.  The pieces are so rich, complex, full of mood changes and nonsense syllables that they have to be “owned,” quite obviously, to be performed at all.  As I’ve heard them, anyway, they are profoundly theatrical.  It takes an enormous commitment to learn one, so they are the sort of thing that gets done brilliantly or not at all.  (I certainly wouldn’t want to hear a careful, tentative performance!)

The Xenakis cello piece is full of special effects, including lots of two-handed (at least in this performance) bow-crunching.  To say that Uitti owns this piece would be an understatement.  (I feel like I’ve been living under a rock in Greencastle for the last 20+ years.  Not only am I not familiar with the Xenakis, which is a major 20th-century cello piece, but I’d never heard of Uitti, who is one of the most important new-music cellists of recent decades.)  Uitti used a very tall seat (something on a piano bench, perhaps, all covered with a black drape), and keeps an assortment of four or five bows at the ready.  For the Xenakis (or most of it, my memory has faded a bit), she used what at first I thought (with disbelief) was a Baroque bow.  I couldn’t imagine using one for something this demanding on the bow.  As I watched more closely (I was at a back table) I realized this was some sort of contemporary bow, lacking the Tourte-model arching.  Turns out it is a bow of her own invention.

After an intermission, Brooklyn-based poet Christian Hawkey joined them on stage for a collaborative performance of sonnets he had written.  Uitti is fond of what we musicians call scordatura, or alternative tunings.  Bielawa told the audience, “It’s never the same,” (or words to that effect) as the cellist experimented, finally finding what I would call “the pitches the strings wanted to be tuned to.”

That’s the thing about improvisation, to which this portion of the evening was dedicated.  It’s not your left brain figuring things out, it’s focusing on the music and discerning what wants to be played.  It’s paradoxical; we create original music, which is probably the most profound manifestation of who we are as human beings, by getting (what we experience as) ourselves out of the way.  (I heard Meridith Monk talk about this point on Tuesday, which I’ll get around to writing about soon.)

Everybody can improvise.  We do it talking all the time, of course.  We can do it musically (or with dancing, moving, painting) as well; most of us just haven’t given ourselves permission.

To speak well, you have to have something so say.  And you need a vocabulary with which to say it.  The larger the better, especially if your vocabulary is put in service of what you have to say, and you’re not saying something in order to show off your vocabulary.  Even with a small vocabulary, you can be profoundly eloquent if you deeply feel what you are communicating.

Great musical improvisers have something to say, a wide and deep musical vocabulary, discipline and skill in their craft, and openess to and trust in their own ideas, the ideas of their musical partner(s), and the process itself. That was the case with this performance.

It looked like this:  Hawkey on the audience-left side of the stage with a sheaf of poems, Bielawa in the center, Uitti and her assortment of bows on the right.  Hawkey started reading; Uitti soon added some harmonics, and Bielawa some long vocal tones.  Then Hawkey finished the sonnet and handed it to Biewala, who sang fragments from it.  The music was continually varied, with Uitti often using two bows (one on each side of the strings).  The process of a poem read, then handed to Biewala who sang from it and dropped the paper to the floor as she and Uitti improvised, continued throughout the set.

I wish I could describe for you the entire performance, because it was not just stunning but entrancing and enlivening and emotionally deep and varied.  It was the most amazing improvisation I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve witnessed a lot), both in the range of the individual performances and the connection between the two musicians.

I was awestruck.  When I spoke to the performers after the show, I was tongue-tied.  My own English vocabulary seemed to have deserted me;  I had become a fan at a loss for words.

Turned out this was Biewala’s first improvised performance, and she and Uitti had experimented just once before.  It would be hard to believe, except I’ve been around so many first-time improvisers that I know miracles can and do happen.

How was it able to happen?  Biewala’s a gifted performer and as an important young composer knows a huge amount of music, is comfortable (or comes alive) on stage, and is in touch with her creative voice.  Uitti, similarly, is not just experienced as an improviser but knows the contemporary/avant-garde cello literature as well or better than anyone else on the planet. And these two really connect.  That’s something that happens or it doesn’t.  When it does, it usually is immediate and powerful;  you feel it from the first time you make music with the other person.

Hawkey’s poems gave them starting points, a focus for their creativity.  They each have rich imaginations.  And they each have huge musical vocabularies.  That’s what reduced me to fan-status for the evening;  I realized how much larger their musical vocabularies are than my own.

And my mind is still, well, boggled.

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Filed under Frances-Marie Uitti, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, Lisa Bielawa

Two Very Different Mashups at [le] poisson rouge (Sabbatical Journal VI)

Two very different recent events at [le] poisson rouge had one thing in common: combining separate pieces. “Mashups,” to use the rock/pop vernacular. (God, that makes me sound so middle-aged.) One classical, the other, well, nearly every possible genre.

On Thursday February 3, Bruce Brubaker (chair of piano at the New England Conservatory) joined his former student Francesco Tristano (who needs to get his website back online) in  Simultaneo, parallell concerts on the same stage. The music was by Buxtehude, Gibbons, Schumann, Messiaen, Glass, Cage, Earle Brown, and Tristano himself. Using LPR’s seven-foot Yamaha (amplified) and an electronic keyboard with processing effects, they created an etheral and haunting soundscape as they combined pieces. There was a slow-motion, quasi-hypnotic feel to the evening, the music never stopping, even when the two traded positions (looping and/or delay processing comes in handy).  Brubaker wrote a blog post before the show, saying in part,

Next week, I’m playing an overlapped, simultaneous concert with Francesco Tristano, this time at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. It’s billed as “[ Simultaneo ].” In the advertising it says: “Two concerts at the same time!” A manifestation of remix culture for sure — it’s Girl Talk Classical!

So a definite reference to pop culture, and how classical musicans are being influenced by it.  (I guess I really ought to listen to Girl Talk and start paying more attention to pop culture.) Here’s video of an earlier concert:

For me the sometimes Ivesian juxtaposition of the music worked really well.  For Jake Cohen at, it didn’t.

At one point during the double piano set by whiz kid Francesco Tristano and veteran Bruce Brubaker– two artists steeped in the 20th-century piano tradition– I jotted down in my notes: “I’m just not sure what the point is supposed to be.” Maybe that was the point. Avant-garde artists frequently set out to mystify their audiences, appealing to an elite and eccentric few, while shock and confusion were stalwart aesthetic values of the Fluxus movement and other happenings going on in this city during the 1960s and 70s. Make no mistake– Tristano and Brubaker are consummate musicians, unarguably at the top of their respective fields, and they know their stuff. They had a novel, wild idea: play two concerts with programs of both contemporary and classical piano music, from Cage to Schumann to Buxtehude, at the same time, at one of the hippest venues for classical music in the country. See what kind of freaky concurrences result, how each pianist will engage in a dialogue with both the music and with each other, and how the introduction of electronics will affect a wonderful synchronism of styles, touching on all the notable giants of piano music over the last 400 years. Unfortunately, their idea simply didn’t translate to practice.

I, on the other hand, was drawn into it. Maybe it has something to do with how my brain is wired.  When I improvise, I sometimes find myself playing two pieces at the same time, switching back and forth between them.  And this performance had that interactive quality that good improvisational music has. Brubaker and Tristano were clearly listening to and responding to each other. The music wasn’t only juxtaposed, it was often folded together.  It was, indeed, mashed up.

The audience was pin-drop silent, which meant that the sonic landscape included, even at the tables, clinking ice and cocktails being shaken, not stirred.  The music was so soft so much of the time that I found myself wishing we were in a recital hall rather than a club.

There wasn’t a lot of ice clinking last night, Sunday 2/6, at the 10:00 PM Dueling Fiddlers rock violin show, where extraneous sounds would not have disturbed the loose atmosphere or the amplified and energetic music. There was a small but enthusiastic audience. Not only was it Superbowl Sunday (it was hard to tear myself away from the Superbowl party; as a former Wisconsin resident I was riveted by the Packers), but the only genres it was tagged with on the LPR website were “rock and roll” and “rock violin.” I keep track of the events billed as “classical” and “contemporary classical,” so I hadn’t noticed the listing until that morning.  (There was enough classical music in the mix that both tags I mentioned would have been appropriate.) Glad I did, because it was really fun.

Adam DeGraff and Russell Fallstad have significant classical backgrounds (Adam, Russell told me, is the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony; Russell was the founding violist of the Fry Street Quartet) and top-level technique.  Playing acoustic violins (Fallstad often using a 5-string instrument including a C string) amplified with wireless mics, often processed with looping and effects pedals (one of which lowers the pitch of Degraff’s violin by a couple of octaves), they play with energy, a wide range of emotion, a sense of adventure and play, and interact with the audience with self-deprecating humor.  It’s much more than rock;  they quote a lot of classical music (Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach), and pop schmaltz (the theme from Love Story) as well country fiddling (they are based in West Virginia–or was it Virginia?) and original music.  They did a mashup of Lady Gaga and, well someone whose name I don’t remember. (OK, it was Ke$ha.) My 19-year-old daughter recognized much more than I.

One piece that struck me, and that I can remember pretty well, was the Prelude of the Bach G Major Cello Suite, played rather freely by Fallsatd, over which Degraff improvised a line, at first very conservative, reminiscent of the Bach-Gunoud Ave Maria. Then a blue note or too, and the thing morphed into a fiddling extravaganza about half way through the prelude.  Things were mixed up for a while, with all sorts of virtuoso double stopping, when Fallstad played the Bach’s descending scale passages so fast that they made a brilliant cadenza.  It built to a rousing finish, and gave me the idea that this Prelude, often played rather gently, could work as a free-tempo, very improvisatory and virtuosic showpiece.  Fallstad commented after that he had initial trepidation about “doing this to Bach,” but got over it, since “Bach is dead” and they can do whatever they want.  The comment seemed to fall flat. I’d say that Bach transformed and rewrote pieces by other composers, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

My daughter and I chatted briefly with Fallstad after the show.  How’d he get into this?  “I would be playing Beethoven quartets, realizing I was having a much better time than anyone in the audience,” he told us.  “I thought, we’ve got to do something about this.”  His old friend Adam called him with the idea of doing rock violin, and the duo, which has been performing together for about a year, was born.  They are getting an increasing number of gigs.  They’ve got a big future;  it will be interesting to see how their career develops.  There are things to work out.  There’s a quasi-apologetic energy to some of their comments that seems to be their classical selves making excuses for their rock selves; that they can move beyond.  Overall, there was so much great music making, interaction, and playfulness that I think I had the best time at their show of anything I’ve attended in NY so far.


Filed under alternative classical performance, Bruce, Francesco Tristano, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, loop-based improv, looping

Classical Music Establishment to Young Performers’ Creative Selves: Drop Dead

In a comment on my previous post, S.W. raises an objection:

If composing was an equivalent skill to performing, then there would be far more composers than we see today. Moreover, if world class performers were also world class composers — in equal number — then the world would be awash in new music with a clientele clamoring to hear it as they clamor to see world-class performers. Neither is true. The input and output channels for composition and performance seem to be quite distinct and different, distributed very, very unevenly amongst any given population and not clearly understood as different processes. This was true in Bach’s day and remains true today. Else, James Levine and Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo and Joshua Bell and Jessye Norman would all prove your thesis by their prodigious output of compositions. Additionally the recently deceased Milton Babbitt and his only world famous student Sondheim would both have shown their performing gifts in many, many concert appearances. I venture the opposite view, that most performers cannot and do not compose for a very basic reason, and that is that the two skills sets are not equivalent, nor equally distributed in a population, and your assumption that they should be is incorrect.

There’s a lot of truth in that comment. High-level composing and performing aren’t equivalent skill sets. As I said in the original entry, “It’s true that not everyone with a great gift and skill at composing has the gifts to be a great performer, and vice-versa.” I’m not proposing that the skill sets should (or could) be evenly distributed.

Participation in the activities ought to be, however.  If a world-class performer composes and improvises and keeps it private because the music isn’t great, that’s fine by me.  But if more performers had been composing and improvising all along, as a standard part of their educations, some of the music might be really, really good. We’ll never know, though, because for the most part they weren’t encouraged or allowed to explore their creative potential.

Compositional talent may be inborn, but compositional skill is developed through training, practice, study, and being mentored.  It doesn’t just happen.

We need to get away from the all-or-nothing mentality, the idea that you have to be great at something or not do it at all. Classical-music education, and classical-music culture, lacks widespread engagement by performers in the process of creating.  And suffers for it.  It’s a systemic problem.

Welcome to our school. You’re eighteen and have yet to manifest great skill at composing?  That’s OK, you’re a performer, or a music education major.

Oh, you have musical ideas in your head?

Hmm.  Just ignore them.  You’re not a composer, after all. No portfolio.  Your ideas are not worth hearing, exploring, or developing. No (significant) institutional  encouragement or support will be offered.

Failing to nurture the creative selves of young musicians, the structure of most classical-music education doesn’t allow students to develop their musicianship in the integrated way that, for example, jazz students experience.  Many others have argued this better than I.  Harold Best, who was the Dean of Music at Wheaton College for many years and a leader in the movement to mandate compositional and improvising activities in the National Association of Schools of Music accreditation requirements, has a great way of putting it.  Music schools (the ones focused on the classical tradition) do a great job of teaching students to think about music, he says.  But we need to do better at teaching students to think “in” music (i.e., to develop inner hearing), and the one of the best ways to do that is by “thinking up” music.

But for the most part, the classical-music education system, and classical music culture, says (in effect) “drop dead” to young performers’ creative selves.

Where I teach, at DePauw University, there have been tremendous differences between the periods when we’ve had a composer on the faculty and when we haven’t.  Students want to compose.  With guidance and training, they learn and grow a tremendous amount.  When there’s no composer on the faculty, no composition courses or lessons or informal mentoring, there’s something deeply lacking.  Some of these kids might develop into good composers if they had encouragement and support.  They’d absolutely become more complete musicians with greater insight into the process of composition.  But in a composer-free environment, that’s not going to happen.

It doesn’t seem much better at large institutions with a composition faculty.  The composition majors get trained, but there’s little opportunity or encouragement for performance majors to compose, or to improvise.  To create.

Virtually the entire pedagogical repertoire for any instrument consists of pieces written by performer/composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  When it comes to the 20th century and beyond, there’s almost nothing.  Classical music education became about learning to play the canon of great works, and much academic composition about writing pieces for other academic composers and a small, highly-educated audience of new-music followers.

Obviously people are going to specialize, especially in high-level careers. But that doesn’t mean that even the most gifted and disciplined and virtuosic young musicians wouldn’t benefit from an educational system that insisted they create music, good, bad, or indifferent.  Right now, in this time of great challenge, we continue the folly of forcing students to put arcane details of pre-Renaissance music into their short-term memories for a test while ignoring their creative selves.  (Despite the NASM standards, composition and improvisation activities tend to be of the low-impact, exercise variety in the form of theory and class piano exercises.) I’m not saying students shouldn’t learn Western classical-music history. But something’s not right when memorizing things we know the vast majority of students will quickly forget is an iron-clad, top priority while discovering what it is like to create a piece of music is not even on the list.

Those of us setting music school curricula (faculty) were trained in this same system.  It seems normal to most of us; for the most part, we are blind to the fact that we are perpetuating the same sort of creative abuse that we may not even understand we experienced.  We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we could have had richer lives if we’d composed and improvised music.

The idea that the whole system, the system of which we are both products and perpetuators, is screwed up?  Too awful to for most of us even to contemplate.


Filed under creative process, crisis in classical music, future of classical music, future of college/university music education, improvisation, inner hearing, Uncategorized

The Arvo Pärty

So I’m on sabbatical, as I’ve mentioned before, with various projects. One is what I now realize could be termed “cello pedagogy field research,” which has been taking the form of observing, this fall, many of Janos Starker’s lessons at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.  An amazing experience, which is having a positive impact on the occasional teaching and master classes I do, and which I will write about at length.  My interpretation of what I’m experiencing is being shaped by reading I’m doing.  Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, a study on John Wooden’s coaching techniques which Coyle references (there are some striking similarities between aspects of Wooden’s coaching and Starker’s teaching), and John Cloer’s 2009 dissertation Janos Starker: An Organized Method of Cello Teaching.

The other project is designing a course, for DePauw music majors, on entrepreneurial skills and alternative performance of classical music.  To that end I’ll be relocating to New York (“the city”) next semester for another kind of field research. meanwhile,  I’m here on an advance trip, performing improvised (or quasi-improvised) music tomorrow (Friday) evening in a preview performance of Robin Becker’s evening-length dance work (nice piece about it here) Into Sunlight, inspired by a similarly titled book, dealing with the Vietnam War, by David Maraniss.

Meanwhile, I was able to attend the “Arvo Pärty” (celebrating the 75th birthday of  composers Arvo Pärt and Giya Kanchelli) at [le] poisson rouge (LPR) in Greenwich Village last night.  LPR is a fascinating club, in the space formerly occupied by the Village Gate, which presents classical as well as other genres of music, performing, and visual arts in a cool club atmosphere.  “Serving alcohol and art.”  “Alcohol is our patron.”

A former student met me and a group of mutual friends earlier in the evening.  After dinner he and I headed over to Bleecker Street, where we discovered a line stretching from the LPR front door around the block.  That shows the success of LPR’s model and marketing–at least a hundred people lined up for a 10:00 PM Wednesday night concert of contemporary classical music.  Once my daughter, a student at NYU, joined us, we went in and joined the standing-room only crowd.

The performers were pianist Andrei Zlabys and vibraphonist Andrius Pushkarev. The music was exquisite.  Pieces by Pärt (“Für Alina” for solo piano and “Passacglia” for piano and vibraphone) began and ended the program, which also included two woks by Kancheli, two, well, I guess I’d call them transformations of Bach Inventions by Pshlarev, and, in the center of the program, the Bach E Major Keyboard Partita (BWV 830), which was performed brilliantly, with insight, playfulness, structure, and eloquence, by Zlabys.

So how well does art music work in a club serving food and drink?  Quite well.  The audience, shrouded in darkness (except for table lights or candles) perhaps even darker than that in a concert hall, was silent during the performances.  Wait staff almost silently glide among them taking orders.  We had ended up at the bar, where my daughter found the last bar stool, so our sonic landscape included the sounds of drinks being made.  Which I could have done without, for the musical experience.  It would have been much quieter at the tables.

It was wonderful to be part of the “Pärty.”  The collective experience means a lot–all these people jammed in together, celebrating the work of these composers (I confess, this was the first I’d heard of Kanchelli).  My former student, an active sound producer as well as a tenor, was delighted to be introduced to the venue.  My daughter was delighted to be introduced to Pärt’s music.  And me?  Delighted to share this wonderful place and this special experience with them.

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Filed under improvisation, Janos Starker, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, Robin Becker

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

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.)


Filed under how to improvise, improvisation, videos