Category Archives: videos

“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


This is fun.  And what a great project in must have been for the fifth grade students at Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat in Quinhagak, Alaska, and their teacher(s) and others involved in the filming and editing.  I don’t think they expected to become a YouTube sensation. Some things you just can’t help.

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“New York State of Mind” and “Union Square Pillow Fight” (James Bernal videos)

I discovered young photographer/filmmaker James Bernal through Andrew Sullivan’s posting of the “New York State of Mind” video below. James must have moved to NY  about the same time I did (I’m here temporarily and will be back in Indiana this summer). This video made me realize how deeply in love I’ve fallen with NYC.  And, along with the Bill Cunningham New York documentary (which is such an inspiring look at a man who is the joy that is his work), how much I love taking photos and videos–albeit on a much more amateur level than what James does.  But it’s still fun.  So now when I’m bored during the day I realize I can go out and explore what’s going on.  Camera in hand, it feels like a project rather than just goofing off or avoiding harder work.   I’m especially fascinated by all the music going on in parks, on streets, and in the subway.

Definitely click on the icon between “hd” and “vimeo” to watch in full screen mode.

This one is great, too.  My daughter and I showed up in Union Square just about an hour after the pillow fight was over.  Oh, well.

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Filed under Bill Cunningham, Filmmakers/Videographers/Photographers, New York life, sabbatical journal, videos

Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (video)

OK, trying to get my writing juices flowing today.  You know I love percussion music, and, meanwhile, I’m going nuts for video/film this week.  This is great. 9:30 goes by very quickly.

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Giant Cicada: Chamber Punk at the Thalia Café

“I have a band called Giant Cicada.  We play chamber punk,” bassist Jon Burr told me as he handed me his card.

“Oh, chamber punk. Sure,” I replied. (Or something to that effect.)

Jon was shocked that I took in “chamber punk” as easily as if he’d said “Mozart.”  (Once the son of a friend, about 11 or 12, came to let me know they were there to pick me up.  He was in full clown regalia, makeup and everything.  “OK, I’ll be right out,” I told him, purposely teasing him by ignoring his altered state.)

We had found ourselves eating next to each other in a soup place across from the midtown church where a Chamber Music America First Tuesday seminar had been held.  I don’t know how we got to talking, but we soon realized we’d been to the same event and introduced ourselves. And when I explained I was in New York researching, among other things, groups fusing genres and so “chamber punk” had quickly come to seem pretty, well, normal to me, we had a laugh.

Note to myself and especially my younger readers: remember that nothing is more important than networking.  Whichever of us started the conversation did the right thing. I keep working on getting better at this.  There’s an old saying that “it’s not how good you are, it’s who you know.”  The truth is that it is how good you are at what you do AND who you know that makes the difference.  If your work sucks, it doesn’t matter how well-connected you are.

We’ve kept in touch.  Jon lets me know about upcoming events, which led me to rush up to the Thalia Café last week, after a post-concert dinner with a friend after Thursday’s NY Philharmonic concert, to hear him and his Giant Cicada chamber-punk co-conspirators Lynn Stein (vocals), Carlos “Go-Go” Gomez on the cajon drum, John Hart (acoustic guitar–and he needs to get a website), and 15-year-old jazz-violin wunderkind Jonathan Russell.  (I even sprang for a taxi!)

Another note: inviting people to your concerts/gigs really works.  And yes, I’m rarely good at doing this myself.  That’s why people hire publicists and managers.  But unless/until you can afford that, you (or someone who loves you

It’s an attractive space with good drinks and food at reasonable prices. Giant Cicada (as described on the group’s website) plays a mix of music “from 60’s pop, jazz, the Great American Songbook of Standards, songs from around the world, as well as original tunes.”  Jon does a lot of bowed bass; the guitar lends both jazz and classical touches; Jonathan’s violin playing combines jazz, rock, and fiddling influences; and the cajon drum brings in a distinctively Latin feel.  Lynn is, simply put, a wonderful jazz/pop singer. It’s a wonderful, unique fusion of stylistic elements, performed by fun, inventive, skilled musicians.

They’ve got a great promo video (their next step, by the way, is probably to make a much shorter version):

At the Thalia, there were some, uh, challenges with the sound system, which made it near-impossible to hear Lynn and Jonathan. Not totally impossible, but it was if they weren’t amplified.  Which was too bad, because part of the crowd was quite noisy.  Get a bit of alcohol in some people who then get excited about their conversation, and they talk louder than the music.  To them, it becomes background music (or even a bothersome distraction), rather than being the reason to be there.  (I used to notice this when I played string quartet background music gigs.  If we couldn’t hear ourselves and played louder, the decibel level of the talking would increase in parallel fashion.)  It may be that given the lack of good amplification, these folks had given up on listening, but it still seemed obnoxiously bothersome.  You could look around and see the rest of trying to listen.

Anyway, it was a fascinating, fun,and musically enjoyable, regardless of the acoustic challenges.  The Giant Cicada folks are creative, good, and entrepreneurial. I look forward to hearing them again.

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Filed under Bassists, Carlos "Go-Go" Gomez, Drummers/Percussionists, entrepreneurship, Giant Cicada, Guitarists, John Hart, Jon Burr, Jonathan Russell, Lynn Stein, networking, videos, Violinists

This Tosser Loves “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”

One of the best experiences I had in the last year was seeing the brilliant and inspiring (now-closed) [title of show] at the Lyceum Theater in New York.  My son, who’s 20, straight, and never seen any other Broadway musical, was with me and loved it, too.   

I mentioned in a comment on Greg Sandow’s blog the other day that I have dreams in which I hang out with Hunter and Jeff (the show’s creators and half the cast) and work with them on getting it repopened.  Maybe that dream work is paying off. I see on a fan site that it may be reopening off-Broadway in the spring.  Yay!  I realize I’ve actually been in a grief process at the thought of not being able to see it again.

This video gives a taste of what I love about [title of show’ and why I am proud to be a “tosser.”

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Troy Stuart video

Well, I just discovered Vopod, and with it a way to embed the Sun video of Troy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Troy Stuart video“, posted with vodpod

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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.)


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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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