Thursday, July 29, 2010

Classical Musicians Treated like Rock Stars

If you haven't heard what Maestro Richman is doing with his summer, check this out: Star Wars in Concert. If you click on the "Listen to the Story" link you can hear Lucas talk to NPR's Allison Keyes on All Things Considered.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Christmas in July

I have a fair collection of holiday-themed recordings. I rarely listen to them at the traditional time of year, though. As a musician I am immersed in that particular genre from Thanksgiving through the New Year. No, I save my holiday music for July and August when the mere thought of stepping outside makes one start sweating. Listening to Bing Crosby croon about a White Christmas is a temporary reprieve, if only psychological, from the triple digit temperatures outside.

I freely admit that breaking out the carols in July is an unusual strategy for beating the heat. If it's a little too far out there for you, there are several other pieces of music centered around winter that might better fit the bill.

* Symphony #1 in g minor ("Winter Dreams") by Tchaikovsky
* Winter Bonfire op. 122 by Prokofiev
* Concerto in f minor, op. 8 no.4 (L'Invierno) by Vivaldi
* Cuatro estaciónes porteñas (The Four Seasons), tango cycle Winter in Buenos Aires (Invierno porteño) by Piazzolla
* Wintereisse by Schubert

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mobius Canon

If there was any doubt that Bach was a genius...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer Plans

Alan Sherrod of the Metro Pulse has been doing a wonderful series on the summer plans of several KSO musicians. He has posted blogs featuring oboist Ayca Yayman, cellist Stacy Miller, violinist John Fox, KnoXville BrassworkX Company, and Maestro Richman. I hope there are more to come because I'm enjoying the series very much.

I didn't respond to Sherrod's request for summer plans because mine are less than riveting. (But I'll tell you about them anyway!) I'm spending the summer rehabbing my hand. I fell last February and injured the pinky on my left hand. My doctor advised that I take four weeks completely off from playing. I compromised. I took two weeks off. Almost. My quartet was in the midst of rehearsals for our chamber concert and I just couldn't bring myself to take more time off than that.

Injury is not uncommon among musicians. Actually, at least among string players, I know more people that are injured, have been injured, or at least have played in pain than people who have not. Sometimes this is due to technique, sometimes it is due to anatomy, sometimes it is due to an inability to walk on flat land -ahem-, but mostly it is due to what we demand our bodies do on a daily basis. Playing an instrument presents a serious and often underestimated stress to the body.

In her book Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, cellist-author Janet Horvath puts it this way:

Let me offer you a comparison. A highly proficient typist can type 60 words a minute. Typing 60 words a minute (with tendons sliding thousands of times per hour) translates roughly to five letters per second, fifteen letters per three seconds. Frank Wilson, admired neurologist and author of Tone Deaf and All Thumbs and The Hand, in a 1994 lecture at an American Symphony Orchestra League conference, calculated that musicians are able to execute 38 notes in 3 seconds. That's more than twice as much!

Once injured, musicians tend to be reluctant patients at best. In the words of one doctor, we are "worse than runners" in terms of following a treatment plan that includes rest. Freelancers don't want to be labeled as unreliable or unavailable. Musicians with steady gigs have commitments that they don't want to break even if their management is supportive of their taking time off. In my case the decision to come back to playing after two weeks was mine alone. I could have taken the four weeks off, but if I had, the chamber concert my quartet was slated to perform would have had to be drastically altered. To me it was an unacceptable choice.

I came back to playing after those two weeks off in March and finished the season. My injury is pretty slight in the scheme of things. My left pinky pops and if I use it too much it starts to ache. It also feels "stupid" to me - slower to respond and less accurate. I don't think you would notice it in the audience. I'm not even sure that my colleagues would notice a change in my playing. To a non-musician it would be a non-issue. To me it feels huge.

Which brings me back to my summer plans. I'm using the luxury of time off to get myself back in shape for the rigors of next season. For my hand this means switching to violin, which I do every summer, but this year instead of reviewing some beloved concerto I'm taking it easy with slow scales and etudes. I'm also working on strengthening my hand away from the instrument.

One good thing about this injury is that I have become a lot more aware of the stresses playing presents to the body. A number of musicians in the KSO swear by yoga for injury prevention so this week I start a yoga class. It won't be pretty, but I don't want to miss a single second of next season.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Carrot Clarinet

The zucchini from my garden is taking over my kitchen. I thought I was getting ahead of it until my husband harvested another 30+ pounds last night. In desperation I have started looking for alternative uses for our monster squash. I found instructions on how to make a zucchini flute, but it used the stalk of the zucchini, not the actual vegetable. I did find a great video featuring a carrot clarinet, though. I bet the same principles could be applied to zucchini. Gary? Mark? Ben? Any takers?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Lately I've been reading a book about Leon Theremin. He was the inventor of the Theremin, which was one of the very first electronic instruments. Theremin's work in electronic music paved the way for Robert Moog and the modern synthesizer.

Theremin is also known for his work in Russian espionage. While imprisoned in the Gulag he invented "The Thing," a listening device that was hidden in a plaque which, in 1945, was presented to the American ambassador to the Soviet Union as a gesture of friendship. "The Thing" was undetectable by x-ray, didn't require any electricity, and could run by itself for upwards of 50 years. The bugging device was discovered largely by accident after it had hung in the ambassador's office for eight years. The technology was extraordinarily advanced for the time and was a predecessor to today's RFID technology.

Here is Leon Theremin playing his musical invention, the Theremin. I was about to comment on its unusual looks, but then I started thinking about typical instruments. When you think about it, the violin is pretty funny looking too. I'm not completely clear on the science of how a Theremin works, but the right hand controls pitch and the left hand controls volume.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Subject: Gustav Mahler

Born: July 7, 1860

Died: May 18, 1911

Child prodigy? Yes. Mahler showed great promise as a musician from a very early age. He gave his first public performance as a pianist at age 10. His family encouraged his ability and interest in music.

Contribution to music: Mahler is the bridge between the Romantic period and the Second Viennese School. He expanded the bounds of what was acceptable in terms of form, timbre, harmony, length and orchestration.

Known for: His conducting! Mahler was one of the great conductors of his time, especially for opera. He spent 10 years as director of the Vienna Court Opera in addition to shorter stints with the New York Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Happy or neurotic?: Maybe not neurotic, but certainly depressed.

Strange fact: Mahler's 6th Symphony calls for a percussionist to strike a "Mahler Box." It's an incredible thing to hear live because it is so powerful that you can feel the sound throughout your body.


Don't forget - tonight WUOT will begin broadcasting the recordings of last season's KSO concerts. More information can be found here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why 1812?

Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is as traditional to the 4th of July as picnics and fireworks. This has always seemed very strange to me for several reasons. Tchaikovsky was Russian and while he did visit the United States, there is nothing stylistically American about this piece. It was written not for the American war of 1812, but to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon.

I did a little digging and found a Newsweek article about the origins of the practice of performing the 1812 Overture on the 4th of July. In short, we can blame the Boston Pops. In the mid 1970's, then conductor Arthur Fiedler was looking for a flashy piece to draw an audience to the Boston Pops' July 4th concert. With canons, church bells and a virtuosic score for the orchestra, the 1812 Overture fit the bill. The crowd went wild over the piece and so it was decided to repeat the performance the next year, and then the next, and the next. Now, several years later, the piece has become synonymous with the 4th of July and American patriotism.

Over the years there have been several small movements to try squelch this tradition. This year a facebook group was formed to try to influence orchestras to remove the piece from their 4th of July programs. With membership numbering only in the double digits, they haven't garnered much support. I find the whole thing a bit silly. Hot dogs originated in Germany, fireworks in China. Why not listen to Russian music on the 4th of July?

You can hear the KSO play Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture as well as many other festive pieces this Sunday at 8:00 as part of the cities Festival on the 4th in World's Fair Park.