Monday, August 31, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

Working in a recording studio is one of my favorite things to do as a musician. It's a lot different than performing on stage, which I also enjoy. The work is fast-paced and the emphasis is on getting the job done as quickly and accurately as possible. There is a little bit more pressure to get things right the first time, but the general atmosphere is much more relaxed than it is on the concert stage. Tuxedos are not required for studio work. Neither is a serious countenance. For me this is a great relief. My poker face is non-existent. My emotions, good or bad, are written all over my face and it has gotten me into trouble a few times.

I also find the whole process of recording fascinating. Often times parts are recorded separately and then mixed together to form a full ensemble. To make sure the parts all fit together when everyone is recording separately, musicians wear headphones and listen to a click track, which is basically a metronome. Tracks can be layered so that one violinist sounds like a whole section. The end result is pieced together like a puzzle and sounds like a huge ensemble all playing in the same room together.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work on a recording project for the Clarence Brown Theater. This week the theater will open it's season with A Streetcar Named Desire. If you have seen or read the play you know that Tennessee Williams called for many music cues. Lucas Richman actually wrote a score to go along with A Streetcar Named Desire when he was a mere teenager. His mother, actress Helen Richman, was in a production of Streetcar, came home from rehearsal one day and asked Lucas if he would write incidental music for the production. He scored the music for Dixie band and string quartet, an unlikely combination of instruments that actually works quite well to set the mood of the play. His original score was re-recorded by local musicians, many of whom are KSO members, and will be heard in this Clarence Brown Theater production.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs from September 3rd through September 20th. Information about purchasing tickets can be found here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to Practice....

Judging by the feedback I've gotten, Monday's post about practicing struck a chord (ha!). (By the way, I love getting feedback. Sometimes I feel like I'm talking to myself here. Comments are always welcome.) As the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra is gearing up to start in a few weeks I thought I would expand on how to practice well when you aren't crazy about practicing.

Practice every day. Practice every day. Practice every day. Practice every day. The repetition of daily practice creates muscle memory. It's the same process as learning to shoot free throws. The only difference is the use of fine motor skills vs gross motor skills. Muscle memory is not something you can cram at the last minute. If you wait to practice until the day before your lesson most likely you will wind up having “played it better at home.” You don't need to slave over your instrument for hours every day. On super busy days even 10 minutes of quality practicing is better than nothing. The bottom line is that you need to practice every day. You have time, trust me.

Have a plan when you practice. How long are you going to practice? What do you need to accomplish this week? How does that translate to today's practice session? When you practice without a plan you tend to wander. Things will get done but not nearly as quickly as when you have a plan. And when you are busy and don't particularly enjoy practicing, it's best to get things done as quickly and efficiently as you can. Your plan should be as specific as possible. Planning to practice your youth orchestra music is too general. Identifying the piece, section, and problem within the section that you need to practice in your youth orchestra music is much better.

Go slow and start small. I'm considering printing this on a tee shirt because this is, by far, the phrase I say to students the most. (It is also, by far, the most unpopular thing I tell my students.) Can't play a section without crashing and burning? Slow it down. Still having trouble? Identify the problem and break it down into smaller parts. Really listen and pay attention as you play. Ten minutes of concentrated work like this is tedious but at the end of the ten minutes you will be miles ahead of where you were when you started and certainly in better shape than if you had spent ten minutes muddling through.

Make the best of it. Practicing is not inherently fun because practicing is work. Realizing that playing an instrument doesn't have to be fun all the time can go a long way in reshaping your attitude toward practicing. Find ways to make it fun. When I was in college a group of us always hit the practice rooms at the same time. After awhile we would take a break, hole up in someones practice room and have tea and chocolate. We also had scale parties where everyone got together to practice scales, but that's another story... See if you can practice 100 days in a row or compete with a friend to see who can go the longest without missing a day. Record yourself playing a piece or section when you first start working on it and then record yourself playing the same thing a few weeks later. It is very motivating to hear your progress, especially if you feel like you're at a standstill. Find recordings of great artists playing your instrument and listen to them often. Attend live performances for even more motivation.

The better you practice, the better you will play and the more you will enjoy your instrument. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go practice.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Practice Only on the Days You Eat

When people find out I am a professional musician many will share that they, too played an instrument sometime. Most end by saying something along the lines of, “but I didn't like to practice.” I'm never quite sure how to respond to that because the fact is I have a secret. I don't particularly enjoy practicing either.

Playing I enjoy, and there is nothing quite like the rush from performing, but practicing? Not my favorite. I think a lot of musicians feel the same way. Practicing is a necessary task to get to do the other things we enjoy about playing an instrument. For me and many others the joy we get from playing and performing far outweigh the pain of practicing, so we do it. And it is a pain. To practice effectively you have to turn away all distractions, be incredibly critical of your work and be willing to repeat things until they are exactly right. The difference between a note being in tune and out of tune is minuscule but separates a great performance from a mediocre one.

Think of it this way: you've moved into a new house and the yard is a complete mess. The grass is overgrown, there are dead flowers and several tree stumps to get rid of. It's a daunting task. After many hours of sweat labor things look better but still aren't great. Every day you work a little more and eventually your yard is beautiful. This is a lot like practicing. Some parts of the journey are enjoyable, some aren't. The end result is completely worth it. The sense of accomplishment at being able to play a passage flawlessly that used to trip you up every time is awesome.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Red-Haired Mary

Most musicians enjoy exploring more than their chosen specialty. There are several members of the KSO who moonlight with various bands or on secondary instruments. Tomorrow KSO flutist Jill Allard will perform as a member of Red-Haired Mary on WDVX's Blue Plate Special. The concert is free and starts at noon. The WDVX studio is located downtown at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill. If you can't make it downtown, you can stream the concert live from the WDVX website.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Office Brass

I really liked this. It is proof that great music doesn't have to happen in a concert hall.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Glass Harmonica

My husband and I really love LP's. We love the oldness of them as well as the quirkiness of music available. Some of my favorites from our collection include Captain Kangaroo narrating Peter and the Wolf, a recording of Karajan rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic on Beethoven's 9th Symphony, a recital by violinist Igor Oistrakh (son of David Oistrakh) of 20th century pieces, and various recordings of easy listening "jazz" from the 1950's and 60's.

Occasionally we will come across an instrument that we're not familiar with. Last weekend we picked up a record that features an ensemble of cello, viola, and glass harmonica. Surprisingly, it works quite well. Neither of us knew quite what a glass harmonica was, though, so we looked it up on Youtube.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Music: The Next Generation

Scientific American Frontiers on PBS is one of my favorite television shows. Recently I caught an episode that featured innovations in music. Children played "Beat Bugs" which are electronic bug-like instruments designed so that people with no formal musical training can pick them up and just play. I was especially excited about a music composition program called Hyperscore that transfers pictures or visual patterns into sound. At the time the show originally aired it was an open-source program. It's still around, but now you have to pay for it.

My search for Hyperscore led me to MIT's Media Lab website. Two research groups there caught my eye: Music, Mind, and Machine and Opera of the Future. There are several projects that look fascinating: MIT scientists are developing tests to identify early Alzheimer's using music, the creation of a "hyperbow" to analyze bow technique of violinists, and a program that completely visualizes the main aspects of music are just a few that caught my eye.