Saturday, February 9, 2008

Dame Evelyn Glennie

Today famed percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie gave a master class at Wake Forest University here in Winston-Salem. Four people performed, with ages from high school through college. There were a few things that were recurring thoughts that she had with each person and I feel that I might not have noticed some points of her overall philosophy of music and performing had I not been taking notes. She mentioned a few times about how we need to listen to our body when we perform. Really our body is a part of the instrument so we should always be aware of what the body is doing and how it is interacting with all the instruments we play as percussionists. I also got the feeling that she really thinks orchestrally even when performing a solo piece. She mentioned several times to think about how a trumpet or some other instrument would play this section. One thing I really liked about the master class was the impression I got about how she must really experiment with all the different ways to create sound on a percussion instrument. Like playing on the deadest part of the marimba bar (the node) and then playing near the center to create a different timbre. I think that's not something that many percussionists (or at least students) think about very often. One of the great benefits of the master class was to see how a soloist approaches music. It kind of makes me think of the cellist Pablo Casals. It was said of him that he would break any kind of tradition if he felt that the music called for it. It's all about the music.

Most of my notes are approximations of what she actually said today, however I was able to write one exact quote that I thought was very illuminating. She said "Don't be afraid of silence. It's really a heavy sound, a present sound." I don't know that she purposefully said silence was a sound but I get the feeling that she does think of it that way. The composer John Cage wrote about silence and said there really is no silence. He was able to go into a completely sound-proof room at some point only to find out that the silence wasn't absolute. He could hear the blood rushing through his veins. There is no such thing as a true silence. As I perform I do try to remember the importance of silence but actually thinking of it as a sound is quite a different thought altogether!

Tonight Tonya and I went to see her perform with the Winston-Salem Symphony. What a great performance! I was a little disappointed in the Schoenberg performance, though. It seemed at times that they simply hadn't rehearsed it enough because some parts weren't as clean as they could have been and the emotion also seemed to be lacking somewhat. But they definitely made up for it in the concerto! As accompanists to Ms. Glennie they were great. And she was just wonderful! I had heard the Schwantner in concert at least once before but it did not impress me. What I remember most was the performer seemed to have so many instruments that in order to play them all he could only play them at short spurts. It didn't do much for me because there wasn't enough time to appreciate any one thing he was doing. I don't know how much Ms. Glennie (or Schwantner) might have changed the soloist's part since then but the performance tonight was magnificent. Tonya and I have talked about creating a more theatrical atmosphere with lighting and Ms. Glennie used that tonight which I think really added to the whole experience. Hopefully this is where classical music is going. To me it definitely makes it more exciting. If you ever have the opportunity to see Evelyn Glennie perform, do it!


Saturday, October 27, 2007

It's still in me

It feels really good to think that there's still some poetry in me. I've hardly written any poetry over the past several years and it's something that I miss. Thinking of the how the Bible says that if we don't use our talents we can lose them I have sometimes thought that when I have more time to think and write poetically maybe that won't be there any more. I'm happy to say this talent has not completely left me!

This week I had an assignment in one of my classes to write an artistic statement, kind of like my mission statement as a musician. I think the fact that pretty much everyone--even families--should have their own mission statement is kind of dumb and wasn't looking forward to this assignment but then when Dr. Rothkopf said that he wanted this to be something that would really jump out at him and said to be creative it kind of piqued my interest. I thought, "ok, I'll write my statement as a poem!" So here it is. I'm pretty pleased with the result and think it will be something I use on my website if I ever set one up to promote myself musically. I hope you like it.

I want to talk to you. I want to communicate the universe to you. When I perform and hit that precise plane where my rhythm is right in time with you I want you to be there. When I’m not playing merely notes on the page but pure music--when it flows through my fingertips and out to you--that’s when I want you to be listening.

Music touches me. Music moves me. I want to take you where I’ve been, feel the pulsing, driving rhythms I’ve felt. I want you to hear the beautiful celestial sounds I have heard. I’m going to keep moving. If you come with me, I’ll take you there. Let’s go.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The results are in...

for the Winston-Salem Symphony extras audition last week. There were four of us in the audition but there was not one person that performed so much better than the others that there was a clear "winner" for the first slot on the extras list. This was my closest audition situation I've had to a professional audition so it was a new experience for me. I'm surprised that I didn't actually feel nervous in the normal way I usually do, but I guess my nervousness manifested itself in other ways. All the instruments were set up and the audition "committee" (my teacher and the recording equipment) were behind a screen. As soon as I got into the room and Mr. Beck started giving instructions ("play Sheherezade excerpt #1 on the snare drum") I couldn't concentrate on what was being said. Since this was a blind audition I couldn't ask what he said since that would give away who I was so I went ahead and played what I thought he said. At one point I did play the wrong thing because he said play the second line from the top and I played the second line from the bottom.

Although I didn't do as well as I could have I'm very glad we had this so early in my schooling here; it really shows me where I need to go and how I need to be completely familiar with all the excerpts. One of the hardest things was changing gears from one excerpt or instrument to another--getting into the feel of the new excerpt and remembering how the music sounded. I definitely have a lot of work ahead of me here. Onward!

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Sunday, September 23, 2007


I suppose tonight will be the first of many late-night practice sessions. Just got back from practicing for about 2 1/2 hours and it feels really good. Surprisingly I'm not completely tired but I did have about a three hour nap this afternoon which I really needed. I was talking to my brother Brandon earlier this or last week and he mentioned one person's philosophy of completing something all at one setting, no matter what it is. Brandon said he was going to try this with composition and I thought I would try that at practicing. I don't think you can really learn a piece of music all in one setting but as I practiced tonight with that mind-set in mind I think it gave me a bit more urgency to trying to learn the music. I was more focused.

One thing that was interesting about this practice session is that the time went by very quickly. I guess this could also be due to the concentration I was putting into the music. I wonder if my job has also prepared me for this; everyday I have a deadline to be sure certain things are completed by the end of the day so I always push myself to work as quick and efficient as possible. Hopefully that is crossing over into my practice ethic.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

School's in!

So here I am, the first day of classes was today and I actually don't have any classes until Monday. NCSA is interesting since it is not only a college, but there is also a high school here that has free tuition for any NC high school student. For percussion, there are around six high school students, mostly juniors and seniors. I think there's only one college student and there are three grads. As graduate students we had an opportunity today to listen to each student perform on timpani, snare drum and marimba. I was quite impressed. I think the level of perfomance ability was at a high level, especially for some of the students that have not had any private lessons. This made me think of my own experience that in high school I do not remember ever having private lessons in percussion. I did have piano up through my senior year but no percussion lessons except for a year or so of drumset lessons when I was around 13. This makes me wonder where would my level have been at the end of high school if I had lessons. These students are so lucky to have a conservatory experience at this age! Hopefully they will all realize this and take full advantage of it.


Saturday, August 11, 2007


When I was young I believed in magic, in a magical life. Then, as happens to most people, I had all kinds of "realities" thrust at me and lots of opposition to following my dreams. Trying to convince someone not to follow their dream, no matter how unimportant or illogical it may seem to you, does nothing to help that person, even if you think that by following their dream they might not "make it". Langston Hughes wrote "Hold fast to dreams/ for if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ that cannot fly./ Hold fast to dreams/ for when dreams go/ Life is a barren field/ frozen with snow." I have no idea when I learned this poem but it comes back to me every once in a while, probably to remind me to dream big, to reach for the stars.

I can't remember the first time I read Bridge to Terabithia but I think it wasn't until college. One of the main things that I remember about it was being so inspired by Leslie Burke, that she was such a beautiful girl with the kind of magic in her life that I wanted to always remember to have. Fast forward to graduation and the next eight years of my life. Dreaming big, after I graduated and soon after got married, my new wife and I follow through on our decision to start our new life together in Massachusetts. We didn't know anyone, didn't have jobs, but we wanted to do what we loved: play music. Since we still needed to support ourselves, we both got non-musical day jobs which brought us a steady paycheck. We also started freelancing in orchestras in the Boston area (but almost all our gigs were outside of Boston). I later started teaching elementary and high school students every week. This was a very busy time for us but one of the things that probably hurt me the most musically was my inability to stop doubting myself and my musical abilities. I also started thinking more and more that there was no way we could really support ourselves solely with music. These things were moving us further and further from realizing our dreams. In short, our dreams were starting to die.

After Nicholas was born and Tonya stayed home full time with him we really needed to make a decision: working full time for the company I had been a temp with for over two years. Although I had previously been offered a position six months or more earlier I had turned this down, trying to still focus on music. The realities of a new baby and basically half of our income cut made the decision for me! Luckily my boss was still interested in transitioning me to a full employee. Another part of my prior hesitation was that this job involves lots of travel. In the five and a half years I've been with the company my family and I have lived in four different states (excluding Massachusetts). In fact my daughter that just turned three hasn't lived in one place more than 14 months! And to think I wanted stability!

Obviously this kind of moving around can and has definitely hurt us musically but there have been some benefits that have come out of it, the biggest for me having been able to perform with the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra for almost a whole season. I was also able to take a few lessons from John Kasica, who performs with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I probably wouldn't have had these opportunities without my job taking me there, so I've always counted my job as a blessing. The only problem is that as I have been moved further and further from music the more magic has left my life, the more art has left my life.

Well, no longer! In less than a month our lives are going to drastically change: We're moving to North Carolina where I'll be a graduate student at North Carolina School of the Arts. This includes no more apartment life since we have acquired what is turning into a beautiful little house. I'll still be working for my company but will be doing this from home so with being a student and working full time life will be extra busy but it's going to be wonderful. It's going to be fun. It's going to be magical. I'm going to make it this way.

I'm not going to let anyone (or myself) pull me down this time. Several years ago I opted for a "stable" job, something that brought me a steady paycheck every week but never the fulfillment that I truly need. Tonya and I watched the new movie version of Bridge to Terabithia tonight and once again I was reminded of what a beautiful magical girl Leslie Burke was. Her inspiration has come to me again and once more I'm dreaming big; I'm going to reach those dreams. Life will be more magical than ever.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Not everyone is old like Bach

What is it about "classical" music that makes it seem so old? I've been watching a series of video podcasts by the Boston Symphony about Beethoven and Arnold Shoenberg. I didn't realize that Shoenberg died in 1951 and expressed surprise to Tonya that he died that recently. She mentioned that sometimes we don't think about the fact that the great modern composers lived in our lifetimes but that Dmitri Shostakovich did die in the seventies--1975 to be exact. So although I wouldn't have been listening to him, I would have been around two years old! In fact, there have been many great composers of the 20th century that were alive during our lifetime: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Igor Stravinsky (but not for me--he died in 1971), and even Ralph Vaughn Williams who's music, when compared to the others in this list, sounds much more romantic in style.

Does classical music have that much of a stigma to it that so many people just can't get into it? I know a lot of American orchestras try to have outreach programs to try and engage younger audiences but there still seems to be something failing here. I guess that's partly why I am a musician. I want to bring great music to other people who might not have experienced it. Listening to recordings is not enough either; you just can't get that same vibe that you do in a live setting. When I was in college I listened to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" several times and never "got" it. It just didn't do anything for me. Then I went to see the Nashville Symphony perform it and was blown away. This is the music for a ballet and when the ballet was first performed in the early 1910's (I think) there was a riot. I could finally understand it because I was so electrified at the Nashville performance--I just wanted to jump up and down in my seat like I was at a rock concert! So why can't we take classical music in this direction? I think if more people realized how exciting modern classical music could be then there would be much more interest in it. In other words, it would be much more marketable, which evidently is another problem to a lot of musicians, even in the rock world. I don't really know his music but several years ago there was a lot of talk about how Moby was selling out because he was making such a profit from all the different things he was doing with his music, like selling it for TV commercials. It seems that a lot of people think that to be a musician you should not think about the money, only the art. But why? Musicians have to live, too, right? So if they can make a profit while doing something they love what's wrong with that?

So many questions, but I certainly didn't mean to turn this into a rant about marketing art. In the end the main thing is that classical music somehow needs to become more mainstream, more understood. This is why this Friday I'm going to North Carolina School of the Arts for an audition to their graduate music program. I want to be able to do my part to bring great music to other people. And I know it's possible! While I was an undergrad, I put together a contemporary music ensemble which to most people is an immediate turn off. I had several people come to the concert that I am sure had never listened to anything like what we were doing. After the concert I asked them how they liked it and they seemed surprised that "it was very different but it was actually interesting". I know that "interesting" doesn't mean the same as "beautiful" or "exciting" but from that point I realized that if people could be educated about music then more would be interested in it.

But really the main education is simply this: You just listen to it. It doesn't have to mean anything. Just listen to the sounds and how they make you feel.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007


I've subscribed to a new podcast about the great saxophonist John Coltrane called Traneumentary. It's going to include interviews and commentaries about Coltrane and his music. The first episode was released this week and featured trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. Blanchard said he had heard from stories from other people that Coltrane said, "You had to play in tune, and he didn't mean pitch...he meant that you need to learn how to play in tune to what was happening in the universe, to the vibration that was going on at that particular moment in time."

This is the whole point! I briefly touched that just the other day as I was practicing and it is unlike any other emotion a person can feel. I've always thought of it as being one with the music, like existing in the same space as the music. This is such a rarity but is the end goal of performing and why I am a musician. Not to just be in tune myself but to give people who come to a concert this transcendent experience. I want to share this state of nirvana, of heaven. Of course, sometimes eating a reaalllly good watermelon can be quite transcendent so maybe there are a few other ways to reach this...