Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Taco Bell Musket

Taco Bell Cannon... Pachel's Bells.... Pachelbel by Canon... Taco Bell Musket... No matter what you call it, Canon in D by Pachelbel is one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever. People who don't even like classical music still seem to enjoy Pachelbel Canon. It is certainly a pretty piece, but there are thousands of other pieces with equally beautiful melodies that don't share a fraction of Canon's popularity. So what makes Pachelbel's Canon stick out?

An obvious answer is that this is a piece that many people have chosen to have played for their wedding. Music that has personal meaning can bring back all the emotions of time passed, good or bad. In my life before the KSO I was a Suzuki violin teacher. We often took the advanced violin students to perform at shopping malls and other public places. Pachelbel Canon was one of the pieces they performed and it was always fun to watch couples stop and listen. Some would tear up while others would smile at each other or hug. Our kids could play, but in this case it wasn't the performance that was attracting attention, it was the piece itself.

Emotional association doesn't explain WHY Canon achieved popularity in the first place, though. My theory has to do with the bass line. Not all canons have a bass line. In it's simplest form, a canon is a piece with a melody that is repeated by an additional voice or voices after a given interval. A round is a simple form of a canon. Row, Row, Row Your Boat is a good example of a round. Pachelbel's Canon is similar to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Voices enter at regular intervals and play identical music. Canon in D adds a bass line in the cello part.

The cello part for Pachelbel's Canon is eight notes that are repeated until the piece is over. If Dante had conjured up a circle of Hell just for cellists, my guess is that their punishment would be to play Pachelbel's Canon for all eternity. Their part has none of the fun of the violin parts. As tedious as it is for the cellist, it is, I think, the key to the popularity of Canon in D. The cello part provides rhythmic and harmonic security. It grounds the listener. Although it is dull to play, there is so much going on in the melody that you don't really notice the cello part when you are listening. It's there, though, hammering the chord progression into your subconscious.

Many pop artists have used Pachelbel's Canon as inspiration. Some have used bits of the melody in their songs, but more often they use the chord progression. "Cryin" by Aerosmith, "Let it Be" by The Beatles, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister all incorporate part, if not all, of the chord progression from Canon in D. Doesn't it just make you smile to think of Steven Tyler rockin' out to Canon in D on his tour bus?

For a more complete list of pop artists who have been inspired by Canon in D, visit

Monday, June 22, 2009

Getting to Know Lisa Muci Eckhoff

One of my plans for summer blogging is to do a series of "getting to know" posts about the staff and musicians who make the Knoxville Symphony what it is. As musicians we all have our professional biographies, most of which are on the KSO website. My aim for this series is to go beyond the usual of where we've played and with whom we've studied to talk about who we are outside the concert hall. The musicians of the KSO are a diverse group of folks. We all love music, but beyond that everyone's interests splinter off. I'm excited to get to know my colleagues better. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to convince Maestro Richman to participate!

Lisa Muci Eckhoff plays 1st violin in the Knoxville Symphony. She was gracious enough to go first in this series of e-interviews.

KG: I know you are crazy about your dogs. How old is Beauty now? And how did you come to have such big beautiful dogs?
LME: Beauty is around 7 years old; she was in a foster home in the rescue system when we got her, so we don't know her exact age; but we've had her for 3 wonderful years. She is an amazing and gorgeous dog with a fabulous personality!

Arabella is the puppy - 11 months old! After an extremely busy season at the KSO, Arabella is finally receiving much needed attention. Obedience class has been the best thing ever. We have a wonderful trainer named Shauna at Petsmart. Of course, Arabella won't "perform" in class. She only wants to visit with the other dogs...and people! "See how cute I am!" "Don't you want to pet me?" "Can I sniff you?" But, the training is helping out immensely with her behavior on the home front. Hurray!

I have also been searching out dog training shows on TV. The Dog Whisperer is one of my favorites, but I did watch a very interesting documentary-type show on either National Geographic or the Learning Channel the other day. It was all about studies being done in Europe on dog behavior. One of the most interesting things was unraveling the secrets to tail-wagging. Who knew there are studies on tail-wagging! Apparently, if a dog's tail is wagging predominantly on/to the right side of his body, he sees his master; if the tail is wagging to the left side, it is someone other than the master that he is looking at.

The dogs are both Great Pyrenees (known as "gentle giants" originating from Siberia and having served as guard dogs in the Pyrenees Mountains for thousands of years before becoming the Court Dog of Louis XIV in France), and many years ago, I saw a picture of one in the News Sentinel who was at the Knox County Animal Shelter. I started to research the breed, and that's how we came to own this breed. Beauty and Arabella are #3 and #4. Sorry to write so much about my dogs, but, they are my children...

KG: How / why did you get started playing the violin and what made you want to make music your career? Was violin your first choice or did someone choose for you?
LME: Back to music! I started lessons when I was 5. My birthday came immediately after the cut-off date for enrolling in school, so I had to wait another year. My mother was looking for activities to keep me busy. I told her that I wanted to play the violin; I had heard a recording of Sheherezade! Little did my mother know that when she enrolled me in violin lessons that it would become all consuming...for me ...and for her! When I was speaking with her a few days ago, she told me that she was finally shredding some old, old, old sentimental checks; they were checks written out to my first violin teacher - $1.50/lesson!

KG: Your husband, Herb Eckhoff, sings opera professionaly. What is the best thing about being married to an opera singer? Were you an opera fan before you met Herb?
LME: I was just entering my study of opera phase when I met Herb. I had auditioned for and won a position in a summer opera company - the Des Moines Metro Opera Company - two months before I met Herb. As a student, I had played in a few operas during my university studies, but during school, you are so focussed on your own solo studies that, well, it's pretty impossible to broaden your horizons too much. I know, isn't that what college is for?? But anyway, when I lived in Chicago, the husband of the personnel director of the (non-school) orchestra I played in (the Chicago Sinfonietta) was a member of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. He had access to student tickets, so that's where I really got my introduction to opera - going to the Chicago Lyric Opera.

After I met Herb, I had the opportunity to attend opera rehearsals - not orchestra rehearsals, but staging rehearsals for the singers. This includes all of the technical side of opera production - lighting, sets, costumes, stage direction, etc. Then, finally the orchestra joins in. It is FASCINATING - how all those elements come together! I strongly urge anyone who has not attended an opera, to find a way to do so. Also, if it is possible to take a backstage tour of an opera stage, do it. The magnitude of it all is daunting! And, of course, do read the plot ahead of time; this will make a huge difference!

...So, to answer your other question...the best thing about being married to an opera singer is: being serenaded regularly! Also, getting to travel worldwide. And, attending operas and concerts and seeing performing arts centers. Meeting other musicians, singers, composers, and conductors...and the wonderful people who support the arts! Oh, and of course, having a spouse who is also a musician helps the marriage because we both understand and accept the unconventional life style and rehearsal and performance schedule of the other. Okay, so the question should be, "What are the best things (plural) about being married to an opera singer?" Those are just a few of "my favorite things!"

KG: I'm interested in knowing more about your study of Baroque music. Is it something you have studied on your own or have you taken classes / workshops / etc?
LME: Many colleges and universities have early music and baroque ensembles. Unfortunately, my course work did not include this, as my focus was elsewhere. Several years later, I decided that I really needed to put in some concerted study time devoted to early music. So, aside from a ton of listening - public libraries are always a good resource for this - I finally got up the nerve to apply for a workshop - the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute in Toronto.

Wow, what an intense immersion into the baroque! Every morning, I attended baroque dance class! It actually felt like Pilates set to renaissance/baroque music. In other words, quite a workout, but to weird music! Then, there were the art exhibits to study baroque art, and classes to study music history, ornamentation, instrument construction, and, private lessons, etc. Awesome! In the afternoons, I practiced period performance in baroque violin, viola d'amore, chamber ensembles, and orchestra. The evenings were devoted to concert attendance and performance. I shed plenty of tears when my coach made me "lose" my shoulder pad and chin rest. Yikes! This was the real deal! Everything was so different - from how you hold the instrument and produce sound, to the phrasing and tempi that we all learn as players of modernized instruments. (Most noticeable for string instruments is that the instruments then had shorter necks and fingerboards and a flatter bridge; the bows were not as straight and employed looser hair.) In playing, for example, most tempo markings should be interpreted faster than what is normally accepted on a modern instrument. And, there's not a ritard at the end of every little piece. Where even notes are written, it is likely that the notes should be played unevenly. Every phrase has diminuendi in it - even within a crescendo. Improvisation is expected - except in Bach who almost always wrote out everything. It all finally made so much sense. I try to bring a little of the flavor to my playing on "modern" equipment, but many articulations and bowings are simply not possible. But, the spirit is! Now, I am hooked! I confess that the viola d'amore is more interesting to me than the baroque violin. Someday I hope to own one. In the interim, I take a refresher lesson with a well-known and recorded d'amorist every time I get to Toronto!

KG: Favorite recording(s)? (classical or otherwise)
LME: More than recordings, I love live music! As an audience member, you experience all the drama, excitement, and sonics that recordings cannot convey - even dvds. I'd much rather spend my money going to a concert/recital and then have those memories in my head, than listen to the same recording over and over again! That said, some of my favorite concerts...anything in Carnegie Hall - what an incredible performance venue! Isaac Stern soloing when I was a member of the Wichita Symphony. The 2005 New Orleans Opera production of Wagner's opera, Siegfried. (Yes, Herb was in that production, but I'm not entirely biased. It was a knockout cast and production that received rave reviews!) Sting, when he was a member of the band, The Police!

In the KSO and Knoxville Opera... the ones that come to mind instantly are solo performances of Gil Shaham, Midori, Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Luciano Pavarotti... and KSO performances of Strauß' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and Beethoven's 7th Symphony conducted by Maestro Richman, and Strauß' Der Rosenkavalier Suite and Ravel's Bolero led by Maestro Kirk Trevor.

Too bad that attending concerts isn't always that case, please support the classical music recording industry by buying recordings of your favorite artist or composer!! All that said, my confession is that I do, of course, own several recordings of all of the above named artists and composers...and then some! For baroque performances on period instruments, I love the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra led by Jeanne Lamon or Bruno Weill, and Franz Brüggen conducting the Orchestra of the 18th Century. The Metropolitan Opera also has some incredible baroque opera recordings of live performances, in particular, Julius Ceasar by Handel; I am embarrassed that I cannot think of the conductor's name at this moment...

KG: Favorite color?
LME: I like to wear purples! (Me too, Lisa!)

KG: Any memorable concert mishaps you'd be willing to share (KSO or otherwise)?
LME: There is the infamous, I Sneezed and Popped the Button off My Pants story that happened with the downbeat of Barber's Adagio for Strings! I don't think it's necessary to elaborate. Just envision it! Or, the other story when my standpartner and I collided and I accidentally dropped my bow down his tuxedo sleeve!

KG: Any summer plans you'd be willing to share?
LME: Where ever I go, attending as many concerts as I can as an audience member!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Big Hands

Have you ever had everything break down all at once? This is what happened at my house this past weekend. I'll spare you the rant and promise a meatier post for Thursday. I've got my fingers crossed that by then I won't be sitting on the floor pecking out my blog on our third-in-line computer.

In the meanwhile, here is another youtube video that marries music with humor, in a much less painful way than Thursday's entry.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Queen of the Night

There are quite a few musicians who have made their careers based on comedy. Until today I had never known of a musician who became famous because they were so ear-shatteringly horrible that people came out in droves to laugh at them.

The first sentence in Florence Foster Jenkins' Wikipedia entry is, "Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an American soprano who became famous for her lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability."


Jenkins' confidence in herself was unwaivering. She claimed that her critics were merely jealous of her talent. The heartly laughter coming from the audience while she was singing, she said, was from her rivals.

You be the judge.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Beam Me Up!

Traveling by air with an instrument is a headache at best. It has always been this way, but since 9/11 the headache regularly turns into a migraine. Regulations regarding which instruments can be carried on to flights and which must be checked have always been confusing. Honestly, a lot depends on who is working at the airport that day. I once confirmed with my airline that I could bring one instrument on as carry-on and gate-check the other only to be stopped by airport security who told me there was absolutely no way they would let me through with two instruments and a purse. I would have to go back and check something. I took everything crucial out of my purse and checked it.

I always hold my breath when going through security with my viola. I have smaller cases that I use when I fly, so size is not usually a problem. My biggest issue is my bow. I use a carbon fiber bow. On the security x-ray it shows up differently than a regular wood bow, and apparently looks a lot like a sword. You are not allowed to take swords on airplanes. (Good thing, too!) Luckily, the security people I have dealt with have been reasonable and after a quick look inside the case we all have a good laugh and they let me through with no problem.

Other musicians have not been so lucky. Horror stories abound and include people having to play their instrument at security to prove that they are, in fact, musicians and not clarinet-wielding terrorists, instruments that have been dropped while being inspected by security, and people who have made specific arrangements with the airline regarding taking their instrument on the flight only to be informed that they will have to check it at the gate when it's time to get on the plane.

This final scenario happened to one of my college house-mates. He had bought a ticket for his cello, which is what cellists have to do in order to take their instruments on a flight. Everything was fine on his flight out, but when returning home the plane was overbooked. The flight attendant told him she would put his cello in the closet up front but the cello wound up gate-checked instead. When he arrived at home he noticed that one of the latches on his case was a bit mangled. Then he opened the case. It looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his cello. About a quarter of it was completely smashed. Slivers of wood filled the bottom of his case. After several months in the shop the cello was eventually restored and actually wound up sounding better than it had before the accident. In the meanwhile, though, my friend had auditions for graduate school and no cello. We wondered how the audition committee at The Julliard School would react if he showed up playing air cello.


How about you? Do you have any horror stories about flying? Any airlines or airports that you love?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hidden Talent

Lamar Alexander can play the piano.

I know he is slated to perform with the symphony later this month, but sometimes when we have celebrity guest artists perform with us, their performance is, well, secondary to their name recognition. I just checked out Lamar Alexander's interview on NPR's Weekend Edition and he can *play* the piano.

In fact, as governor he traveled around Tennessee performing with 21 symphonies and community orchestras as a way to unite people. He's a classically trained pianist but he is able to play all different styles from Mozart to gospel. As a young man he played on Bourbon Street in New Orleans for extra money. He has even recorded The Tennessee Waltz with Patti Page. As senator he doesn't perform often, so it will be a real treat to hear his performance on June 13th.