Orchestra weirdness

At the end of my rant about band yesterday I said I would explain why I didn’t sign up for orchestra this semester. I had two reasons – one was scheduling. I had less down time waiting for band to start in the late afternoon (tues + thurs) than waiting for orchestra to start (mon – wed). I’m done with class on Wednesday at 11 and orchestra starts at 4 and it didn’t make sense to go home so that was a lot of time to kill. However I would have dealt with the scheduling issue except for reason #2.

Reason #2: I was the only wind player that took orchestra for credit so I sat at every rehearsal playing my part along with the tympanist and the strings. This was very disconcerting. Horns are loud and every note I missed was heard clearly by everyone. Of course this kept me on my A game but I still felt very uncomfortable. It was also hard to keep counting correctly for thirty or forty measures rest without any help from the woodwind and brass cues in my part. And with all the instrumentation it’s easier to listen and just know where to come in.

About three weeks before our concert (Beethoven 2nd) our conductor started getting some winds to show up so one day we’d have a flute and another day a clarinet and once we even had two trumpets and an oboe. We finally had a full orchestra for the dress rehearsal. So I got to hear all the parts and how they fit together once before the concert.  I spent hours and hours listening to the CD and trying to play along with the CD. It’s just not like the real thing. I took orchestra to get the full experience of playing with an orchestra including all the rehearsals.

So this semester I opted for symphonic band and wind ensemble. Oops. In addition to the seating issues I mentioned yesterday, I’ve played all the music already, except for one easy piece, in the two community bands I’m in. For one of the pieces I played 1st and 4th so I know the piece inside out and upside down. For the others I played 4th and I’m still playing 4th. No learning experience this semester.

This morning I asked the orchestra conductor what they were playing this semester because both the 2nd horn and I were talking about switching to orchestra. The conductor said they were just using strings this semester because no winds signed up. I have no idea what’s going to happen next semester but I suspect that if I sign up for orchestra it will be the same as last semester. So I’m still on a quest to find an orchestra to play in.

Who’s on first?

Okay, I’m pissed. Today’s band rehearsal really had me seeing red. We had auditions for seating in the college Symphonic Band and for Wind Ensemble  a few weeks ago and, after today’s rehearsal, who got what is really ticking me off. I didn’t audition for 1st chair because I expected that Manny, the fellow who played first last semester, would stay on at 1st this semester since it’s his last semester and he did fine with it last semester.  It just seemed like the right thing to do. (Not that I had any expectations of getting 1st anyway though I did play 1st last semester in Orchestra and I did fine with Beethoven 2nd.)  But I would have thrown my hat in the ring and auditioned for 1st chair if I thought for a minute that someone other than Manny would get the position.

Now all that being said, the guy who got 1st plays okay but I don’t see much difference between him and the other three of us. Supposedly he has a great sound but that was not evident today. And we all have our good points and our bad points. However, he is a freshman and he is very immature. He has no business leading a section regardless of how well he plays. Today he spent the entire rehearsal texting and he didn’t listen to anything the conductor said. That’s what really pushed me over the edge. To be given the privilege and responsibility of leading a section and then behave like he could care less about it is inexcusable.  He also was forced into holding a sectional (he clearly didn’t want to do it) and he picked a time where I had to hang around for 3 hours before we started. Okay, sometimes it’s very hard to find a time that works for everyone. What got me angry was that our sectional lasted less than 15 minutes and was a complete waste of time.

On to me getting 4th chair. So far we have first filled and the guy who should have gotten first is playing second. Who’s on third? Some kid who didn’t even audition and isn’t a music major and who hasn’t played his horn for eight months and who has the most god awful embouchure I have ever seen. I know I told the band director before the auditions that I was okay playing 4th (he asked what I wanted to play) but I also said to him that he should put me where I fit playing wise. To me that sentence meant that if there are three horn players who are better than me then I should get 4th. It didn’t mean put the guy you have never heard play and who doesn’t care at all what chair he plays on 3rd and put me on 4th. It’s going to be a really long semester in band. Why I didn’t take orchestra this semester (big mistake) will be the subject of the my next blog.

Rehearsal Etiquette

A debate has started on the Yahoo Horn Group about rehearsal etiquette and in particular if ‘fun’ at rehearsals is appropriate and that having fun gives amateur ensembles a bad name. A question was also asked why just playing the music wasn’t enough. I weighed in pretty heavily on the fun side of the fence for amateur ensembles (a key distinction) and I thought I would also comment here. My comments are expanded a bit from what I wrote on the horn group website and I’ve added a few questions at the end.

My first question is amongst whom do amateur ensembles have a bad name? It’s certainly not the audiences – who we play for – in the community I live in. Our concerts for both bands I’m in are standing room only in decent sized auditoriums. We typically get standing ovations at the end of our concerts.

In the band I’m in where levity and laughter is allowed and enjoyed people come to rehearsals early allowing plenty of time to warm up. They bring their music home and practice. Hardly anyone misses rehearsals. Yes, while we are pulling out music in between pieces that we are rehearsing we have a few laughs. Sometimes even in the middle of a piece if something really funny happens. We are amateurs so there are times, as an example, when different sections start at the wrong rehearsal number and the outcome is really funny. There are even times when two different sections start on a different piece of music. Why not laugh?

In the band I’m in with the ‘serious’ conductor people are talking with their feet. This serious conductor took over the band in the middle of last year. Before that the band had a more relaxed conductor and rehearsals were packed just like the other band. Since January we’re lucky if half the band shows up and those that do show up are typically late. Remember that this is about amateur groups where members are volunteers and don’t have to attend rehearsals. It’s gotten so bad that the conductor put the winter concert off by a month and started a heavy recruitment campaign. I suspect that for our concert in March we will still have a full audience because their expectations will be from last year.  I have the feeling that the May concert won’t be so well attended.

In the ‘fun’ band the music isn’t less good because we have fun, it’s actually better because people really want to be there and they care enough to work at making it good.

I’ve only been playing again for two years so I still love going to band regardless of the level of tension at the one bands’ rehearsals. I’ll play in anything I can find. However there are people in both bands that have been going for fifteen, twenty or even thirty years. Clearly they don’t want to waste their time if they are not enjoying the experience and just the music isn’t enough for them.

I subbed in an orchestra (and got paid) in December and the atmosphere, as expected, was completely professional. We played Brahms Requiem and the music was glorious and yes, the music was more than enough to make me happy. I would play with this orchestra if I could all the time and love every minute of it, no levity necessary. I know enough to behave in an appropriate manner for the situation I’m in and I would hope that other amateurs would also behave appropriately. I don’t think that generally amateurs behave badly and professionals behave properly or that people need to be in a more serious environment in order to behave properly. There are bad apples on both sides.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong position here though I personally prefer a more relaxed atmosphere. In the end amateurs can make choices about what they want to do and those that prefer a more serious environment can opt out of whatever they don’t like and vice versa. Of course this really isn’t true for those making a living in an orchestra. Lot’s of times you are stuck whether you like it or not.

Which side of the fence do you fall on? Is there any levity in a professional orchestra? If there is does the music suffer for it? If there isn’t do the musicians suffer because of it?

Rehearsal Etiquette Update –>

Expectations

I had one of those “It’s 2 AM in the morning, why on earth am I awake?” nights and I started thinking about expectations. (It’s amazing what pops into one’s head in the middle of the night.) I spent 24 years in corporate marketing before I retired and I spent many of those years dealing with performance reviews based on expectations.

The typical review was based on ‘below expectations’, ‘meets expectations’, and ‘exceeds expectations’. These, of course, were one’s boss’s expectations. How they were derived were more about how much your boss liked you or what the corporation set as a required bell curve for reviews than how well you did your job. This is because expectations are highly subjective and very difficult to define concretely. I remember one time where I felt I had a stellar year and got a ‘meets expectations’ review. I talked to my boss and he agreed that I had a stellar year but then said, “I expected that of you.”

There are ways to try to quantify expectations – e.g. ‘put together 4 marketing kits for the year’. Well, if you put together 5 did you exceed expectations? Only if your boss thinks so. Maybe he would expect 6 in order to get an ‘exceeds’ expectations review.

So how does this relate to playing the horn? I think how ‘good’ we are is based mostly on expectations. For a pro there is a standard of expectations that needs to be met to get that gig or to get an orchestra job or a teaching position. Who defines what that standard is? The person or group who is doing the hiring. They may expect a candidate to play musically as most important and not mind a missed note or three. (Hopefully.) Or they may base everything on technical capability. They may even reject a candidate because he/she is too good and they expect that the person will leave soon for a better position. Did the person who gets the job ‘exceed’ their expectations? Probably but you’ll never know.

For the amateur I think expectations are more personal. There can be the same audition judging expectations for the community orchestra but many times our expectations define a ‘good’ practice day from a ‘bad’ one or a good horn solo in the orchestra from a bad one. You may think you didn’t play your best but the audience, with entirely different expectations, thinks it was wonderful.

When working with a teacher, I think it’s probably a good idea to talk about expectations. Rather than thinking your teacher expects you to play something perfectly (which is impossible) they most likely expect you to just improve. If they assign ‘this, this, and that’ find out what their expectations are. Maybe for the next lesson they just want the dynamics correct and don’t care so much about getting all the notes right. If they assign the Ab major scale most likely they expect you to know it by memory at the next lesson. But find out.

I usually write down how I think I did as I practice but it occurs to me that it might be beneficial to first write down what I expect of myself for my practice session. Maybe it’s just playing four measures of a piece I’m working on without any clams or playing the first two lines of a Kopprasch exercise without missing any notes. Whatever it is it needs to be realistic or I’m just setting myself up for failure and guaranteeing a ‘bad’ day. If I can come up with a reasonable set of expectations and accomplish them – the more specific I make them the easier it will be to determine if I accomplished them – then I can walk away from a practice session feeling good. There will always be days when I don’t meet my expectations but at least I’ll have a solid reason for why it’s a bad day and a goal to do better the next day. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but that’s what happens with ideas formulated at 2 AM.

Goals –>

David Amram

This is a very long post (which I am now making even longer) but I didn’t want to edit what David Amram wrote. I hope you find his composition and program notes as enjoyable as I did.

I had the pleasure of re-connecting with David Amram at IHS. I had met him many years ago when he studied composition with my mother. At IHS David Amram led a jazz improvisation class that was just superb. Before IHS I hadn’t realized that he played the horn. He also spent some time in Scott Bacon’s booth where he and Rick Todd improvised for at least an hour. What a treat that was!  After this I was able to spend some time talking to him both about his time studying with my mom and what he’s been up to for the past thirty years to which all I can say is wow. David’s a brilliant composer and a truly interesting guy.

Recently he emailed me and provided a link to his 32 minute orchestral work, ‘Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie’, which was commissioned by the Guthrie Foundation. The link leads to a Symphony Silicon Valley world premiere of this piece. I really enjoyed it and decided to share it with my blog readers. The following program notes are written by David.

=====PROGRAM NOTES AND REVIEWS FOR Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie

NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER for
Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie

It was forty-nine years ago, on a cloudy afternoon in 1956 on the Lower East Side of New York that I first met Woody Guthrie. Ahmed Bashir, a friend of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Charles Mingus (with whom I was playing at that time), took me over to meet Woody at his friend’s apartment a few blocks from mine.

Woody was lean, wiry, and brilliant, with a farmerly way that reminded me of the neighbors I grew up with on our farm in Feasterville Pennsylvania during the late 1930s. In the late afternoons after long hours of work, they would often congregate to chew the fat in the side room of Wally Freed’s gas station, across the street from our farm. I used to get fifty cents to mow Wally Freed’s lawn and when I was done and stayed around the gas station, I never got caught while eavesdropping on all the conversations of the local farmers and out-of-work men who would commune at Wally’s for their late afternoon bull sessions after their chores were done. They always told it like it was, without wasting a word or a gesture, leaving space for you to think about what they were saying, and in spite of the grinding seemingly endless horrors of the Great Depression, they had better jokes and stories than most professional comedians or politicians. Woody had this same quality, and I felt at home with him the minute we met.

As Woody, Ahmed Bashir, and I sat swapping tales and drinking coffee at the tiny kitchen table from noon until it was dark outside, Ahmed and I spent most of the time listening to Woody’s long descriptions of his experiences, only sharing ours when he would ask, “What do you fellas think about that?”

The rest of the time, we sat transfixed as he took us on his journeys with him through his stories. Woody didn’t need a guitar to put you under his spell, and you could tell that when he was talking to us, it wasn’t an act or a routine. Like his songs and books and artwork, everything came from the heart.

Looking back at these memorable first few hours with Woody, I still remember the excitement in his voice, as if he himself were rediscovering all the events and sharing them for the first time, as he told Ahmed and me his incredible stories of his youth and subsequent travels. Both Ahmed and I marveled at his encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music, literature, painting, and politics, which he wove into his narratives, all delivered in a poetic country boy style that was all his own. During these descriptions of his travels and adventures around the country, he often included references to events of his early boyhood days in Okemah.

Ever since that day we first met a half a century ago, I have always hoped that someday I would get the chance to go to his hometown of Okemah, but with my crazy schedule I never had the opportunity to do so. Shortly after Nora Guthrie asked me to compose this piece to honor Woody’s classic song, I was invited to perform at WoodyFest, the annual summer festival in Okemah. I have now done it for the past three summers.

In his hometown, I was able to meet his sister Mary Jo, her late husband, and Woody’s remaining old friends from long ago who were still living there. And by playing music and spending time with people who were also natives of Okemah, I felt that I was able to better understand Woody and his work in a deeper way.

I was now able to make a connection, since that first meeting with Woody half a century ago, to the ensuing years during which I have played countless times with his old friend Pete Seeger and his protege Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and times spent with Woody’s late wife, Marjorie, and the numerous concerts I have participated in with his son, Arlo, over the past thirty-five years.

All this helped me when writing Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.

The opening Theme and Fanfare for the Road has the percussion introduce the actual theme played by the marimba, followed by a fanfare, expressing Woody’s desire to go out on that open road.

Variation l Oklahoma Stomp Dance, is my own melody, depicting Woody attending a nearby Pow Wow and hearing an Oklahoma Stomp Dance of the Western Cherokee, on a Saturday night through dawn of Sunday morning. During the dance, slightly altered versions of the Theme appear, as they do in almost every other variation. The variation ends quietly, joined by fragments of the initial fanfare, blending with the Stomp Dance.

Variation ll Sunday Morning Church Service in Okemah is a musical portrait of by gone times. The oboe, clarinet and harp introduce a mournful melody, restated by the strings, and the theme is heard, as Woody heard it in church played on the organ, but with extended harmonies. The theme is later stated by the English horn and harp and traces of the fanfare are woven in with the first melody and distant church chimes are heard as the variation ends.

Variation lll Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance is the beginning of Woody’s journeys from Oklahoma through America. The solo violin introduction to the dance is followed by the double reeds, indicated in the score to sound like Celtic Uilleann Pipes. A lively original melody, composed in the style of Irish folkloric music, is later joined by the trombones and tuba, playing the theme as cantus firmus, in an extended version beneath the dance melody itself.

Variation IV Sonando con Mexico (Dreaming of Mexico) is a musical portrait of the Mexican workers with whom Woody spent time, and about whom he wrote some of his most memorable songs. The opening trumpet call, marked in the score to be played cuivre ed eroico, al torero (brassy and heroic, like a bullfight ceremony) is followed by a nostalgic melody in the strings, suggesting the workers dreaming of their home and families south of the border. The melody is developed and leads to a tuba solo, reminiscent of the Mexican polkas played by folk ensembles throughout the West. The principal song-melody returns, with the theme reappearing in the horns, weaving through the Mexican song as an obbligato, showing how Woody could not get this melody and the idea for the song out of his mind.

Variation V. Dust Bowl Dirge, for strings alone, honors the brave people who survived the national nightmare of losing everything during this ecological catastrophe and still found a way to survive. One of Woody’s greatest songs, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know ‘Ya” was reportedly written as a farewell note during one of the terrible storms when it was feared that everyone present with him would suffocate. This minor variation of the theme is played by the violas and then restated by the whole string family.

Variation VI Street Sounds of New York’s Neighborhoods is a compilation of many kinds of music that Woody loved to hear when walking through the neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn, during an era when music was played everywhere out of doors during the warm seasons. We hear the lively sounds of a Caribbean Street Festival, with the rhythms of the West Indies,Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and the theme appears in counterpoint in the middle of the march. this is followed by a Klezmer Wedding Celebration and the festive sounds of a middle Eastern Bazaar, where again the theme is used with the exotic sounds of Greek, Turkish and Armenian music superimposed over it. We ten hear the brass family play a hymn-like version of the theme (again using harmonies far from the three chords of the original song) evoking a Salvation Army band, which was a fixture on many corners of New York City’s neighborhoods during the late 1940s.

The same harmonies are used for a short section entitled Block Party Jam, often an occurrence to welcome returning veterans of World War Two to their neighborhoods, where jazz bands played celebratory as well as innovative music.

Finally the theme returns in a stately fashion with the original fanfare of the road playing in counterpoint, followed by a rousing conclusion restating the opening of the piece and a triumphant ending.

Just as in the case of Beethoven’s’ Symphony No. 6 in F major Pastorale, where he titles each movement with a brief description, the program notes for Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie serve as a guide to listener but are not essential to enjoy the piece.

The biographical nature of Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, served as a point of departure to write the best piece that I could, just as Hector  Berlioz did when composed Harold in Italy, inspired by the life and times of Lord Byron.

I receved invaluable  help from the research provided by Nora Guthrie, as well the inspiration when performing the song  in concerts over the years with  her brother Arlo, All this helped me to write the piece. I also thank my children for understanding why I often seemed to disappear for long stretches of time while putting in endless hours day and night to complete this new piece. And I thank Woody Guthrie for sharing his gifts with the world, which enables all  us today to feel welcome in those pastures of plenty which he sang to us about. This piece is a thank you note to him for all the joy his spirit still gives to people all over the world.

Summer season finally over –>

Gizmos

Even though I know better, I keep trying out things that I hope will instantaneously turn me into the world’s greatest horn player. The two latest gadgets that I am trying out are the Dennis Wick Horn Booster and the AcoustiCoil.

The Denis Wick horn mouthpiece booster is said to, among other things, add more mass to the mouthpiece to help with projection, provide better control at louder dynamics, and better centering of pitch. Oh I wish this was true. I have tried it on and off for the past three months or so. I keep hoping that it will help but I really can’t tell much of a difference other than it makes certain notes buzz. Because of this buzzing I would use it for around a half and hour and then take it off and then try it again later in the day or the next day. I’m not 100% sure that it fits my mouthpiece correctly but I’m using a B12 Moosewood cup and that’s pretty standard.   

The AcoustiCoil is supposed to enhance everything – per their website: articulation, endurance, dynamics, intensity, intonation and range – yup, pretty much everything. Rather than my paraphrasing what their website says, please just check it out. If nothing else, it’s an interesting premise to read about. I have had slightly better results with this than with the Denis Wick Horn Booster.

The first time I used it I went straight to band rehearsal. I immediately noticed better articulation. In fact, I probably played the band music as well as I had ever played it at this rehearsal. I practiced with it in my horn for a few days but as the time passed I noticed less and less improvement – in other words, I played the way I always play. I would then take it out of the horn and it would seem that I played better without it but again eventually I would drift back to my typical capability. I’ve had it in my horn for two or three week stretches because I forget that I have it in. During those stretches I’ve had great days and horrible days. So the jury is out with this gadget. 

Of course (here comes the disclaimer) the results that I have obtained are exclusively mine. I’m not saying that these gizmos don’t work, they just didn’t work very well for me. It’s entirely possible that both these devices would work better for someone who plays better than I do. Most likely the expected changes are subtle and would more likely be noticed by an experienced player. Although I will always be a sucker for the latest gizmo, the real deal is that I will just have to keep on practicing.

International Horn Symposium –>

Band rehearsal does not equal practice

Well, my ten days of really good horn playing has come to an end. Bummer. I really can’t play a thing today. I’m trying to figure out why.

Was it band rehearsal? I had band rehearsals both Monday and Tuesday evenings. On Monday the rehearsal was a little over two hours and on Tuesday about an hour and a half. My chops felt okay after both rehearsals. The previous Monday I practiced for an hour in the morning and really didn’t have the chops for the two hour rehearsal that night. I decided that I wouldn’t practice before the rehearsals this time but I got to them early enough to do a warm-up.

When I picked up my horn this morning things seemed okay at first. I do low register arpeggios first and they were good. Nice rich sound, good slurs, clear notes. It was when I got to the middle and high register that I had an inkling that things weren’t up to snuff. The arpeggios starting at middle C felt stiff and lacked tone. I moved on to exercise 1 in the Singer book and those long steady notes just sounded flat – not intonation flat but tone flat. Not a good sign. I took my usual twenty minute break after the Singer exercise.

Starting up again, I moved on to Kopprash. Hmm. Things are going downhill fast. Suffice it to say that the rest of my morning’s horn playing continued moving in the wrong direction. I started to work on scales in the Pares book figuring that at least I could work on those but no such luck.

So was it the lack of practice before the band rehearsals? Possibly. (Hopefully?) I play 4th in both bands so although I play continuously for almost the entire rehearsal I play in a very limited range.  Tons of off beats between middle C and F. Occasionally there will be a melodic line or two and maybe I’ll see a top space Eb. Once in a blue moon there might be a G. I’m guessing but playing within one octave for hours may stress ones chops in very different ways than a good practice session would. Again, this is just a guess. There could be no reason what so ever for my bad day other than it’s just a bad day. They happen.

I have a lesson tomorrow and I will ask my teacher about this. Maybe she’ll have some ideas. If I’m playing poorly again tomorrow maybe she’ll see something that I’ve started doing wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.

So far, I’m not overreacting about this. I’m not going to change mouthpieces or horns or add gadgets or buy new method books describing new embouchures or… (insert any new fangled thing you want here.) It wasn’t that long ago that I would have leaped to the conclusion that I needed some new piece of equipment or needed to make some drastic change. I’d like to think I’m maturing – at least horn wise.

Nocturno –>