Is there any combination of words in the English language sweeter than “summer vacation”? That glorious expanse of three hot months spent sunbathing on beaches, napping in hammocks, and eating ice cream barefoot on hot asphalt.
Okay, enough fantasy. Realistically, most of us have probably been working to pay for that expensive conservatory tuition (it’s too damn high!) and/or slaving away in hot practice rooms at music festivals around the world. But one should always make time for summer reading breaks. Here are four books you should add to your list! Many, many thanks to my friends for their recommendations!
We often hear that classical music is a sport, and it’s true that there are many parallels. Playing an instrument, like playing a sport, requires body awareness, efficient muscle movement, and endurance. To satisfy my own curiosity about what other people do at the beginning of their practice sessions, this brief series will feature several individuals’ warmup routines. Some people do very little, and some people do a lot. Some people are very structured, while others approach warming up from an exploratory and improvisational angle. Below are my friend Cobi’s thoughts about the warmup process!
To paraphrase Juilliard piano faculty member Julian Martin, we should not need a warm-up period in order to feel technically comfortable at the instrument. Instead, the musician’s physical understanding should be so intimate and familiar that calling upon facility and ease is instantaneous. This makes sense to me; if a pianist cannot achieve a sense of technical freedom every day without a warm-up, how does he or she expect to maintain that freedom in a performance, when one’s physical awareness is blurred by nerves and adrenaline?
One caveat to Martin’s view is the fact that not all musicians have already developed such an indelible and prompt connection to the operation of their technique. Accordingly, it can still be beneficial for many musicians to warm up before practicing, as long as it is done with the proper goals in mind. In other words, as long as we use a warm-up period to improve our understanding of how to call upon the sensation of effortlessness both in general and for a variety of particular technical challenges (rather than becoming reliant upon warm-ups as the only path to that sensation), I see no reason not to warm-up before practicing.
I have never followed any particular routine at the beginning of my daily practice, instead preferring to start with any kind of exercise that suits my current physical state. That’s because I have not found any one exercise or piece that unfalteringly vitalizes my body, arms, and hands. I am still recovering from an injury that resulted from many years of practicing without developing feelings of ease and comfort, and as such, my grasp on technical facility is fickle.
Calvin’s take on testing, by the inimitable Bill Watterson
Note: This post was edited on August 28, 2019 to fix/replace broken links.
Alternate title: acing those placement exams.
Congratulations! You made it past auditions, and now you get to be a fancy masters or doctoral student and live out all your fantasies of striding down the halls of the music building while wee undergrads swivel their heads in awe! Not so fast, though: there’s just one more hurdle to leap over. (As if those applications, pre-screenings, and auditions weren’t enough. But come on, if you wanted life to be easy, you wouldn’t be a musician.)
The theory and history placement exams nearly all incoming graduate students will have to take are just preliminary assessments to see where your theory/history level is at. So theoretically, you don’t have to study at all, particularly if (a) you’re a theory/history BAMF and could practically teach a class yourself, or (b) you’re happy to wither away, wasting hours of your life in remedial classes while your peers are practicing, performing, etc.
Neither of those options are for me! So, let’s study together! Yay! Here are some resources for your summer reviewing pleasure.
Hello dear reader! Many of the posts on Conservatory Culture are directed at all classical musicians in general, but many of my viewpoints and priorities are colored by the fact that I’m a pianist myself. So I’m curious about the actual demography of my readership and how this blog can evolve to include more people–should I try to include more posts by violinists, for example? Please tell me what you play!
One of the professors at my alma mater once told me that all the conversations in the Juilliard cafeteria were about “food, sex, and music–in that order!” It stands to reason that musicians, who deal in the “food of love” (quoth Shakespeare), take great relish in other sensory pleasures, including the food of…well, just plain food.
One of the most difficult things about being a music student is avoiding the temptation to equate good musicianship with good technique. We pour hours into practicing to improve our technical skills, to untangle knots, to reduce our mistakes–and sometimes this can create a tunnel vision in which we judge our own, and others’, performances with simple tallies and check marks. Number of wrong notes. Clarity of articulation. Adherence to the score.
While it’s crucial to pay attention to all these technical details, it’s easy to forget that these are only means to an end. They’re tools in a toolbox, paints in a palette, to help us achieve the primary goals of music: communication, emotional expression, beauty with the power to rejuvenate the soul.
That’s why I loved reading this interview with Christian Tetzlaff, in which he reminds musicians that there’s more to making music than merely “playing well”:
Tetzlaff advises players not to be afraid of being emotionally vulnerable. The more vulnerable you can be in your real life, the easier it will be to transmit to an audience successfully. “You have to allow yourself to talk about yourself onstage. It’s a complex issue,” he says. “As a violinist, one might be scared of doing that for several reasons: It will screw up your intonation from time to time if you really get lost in there, and it is also simply difficult to do—especially at age 20—to really show who you are.”
If opening up helps in music, it also helps in real life. When you really share, it’s better for everybody, and everything becomes more meaningful. “In the long run, it’s better to live life without armor,” Tetzlaff says. “Armor might save you some pain, but as a musician you become meaningless. Many soloists go onstage invincible and impeccable, but not communicating about the composer and the music’s emotion. The look-at-me attitude is the last thing our music should have. One should not go onstage with this idea of being adored. It takes away all the essential qualities of the music.”
“Les buveurs de café,” by Flemish painter Paul-Joseph Delcloche (1716-1755)
Ah, coffee! The drink adored by artists around the world for centuries: musicians, painters, philosophers, writers….Without the late-night spurts of energy fueled by this fragrant, smoky black drink, who knows how much more barren our libraries and museums would be?! (Pardon my hyperbole…maybe I’ve had a little too much myself this morning.)
Coffee came from the Middle East to Europe through the trading ports of Venice, and even Pope Clement VIII could not resist its allure, saying, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage!” Thus, in 1600, he declared coffee Christian, ignoring protests to ban the “Muslim drink,” and opened the door for coffee to saturate the West. (Thanks, Pope Clement. You the real MVP.) Coffee houses throughout Europe quickly became popular places for social gatherings, and the Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus–or “Café Zimmermann”–in Leipzig is one of the most famous, for hosting public concerts in which many of J.S. Bach’s secular cantatas were performed…including:
Most musicians teach young students at some point in their lives, if not throughout their careers, and it’s certainly one of the best ways to make a positive and direct impact on a child’s life. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy money! Teaching children requires you to navigate an endless array of emotions and learning styles, and requires the patience to understand where a student (particularly a misbehaving one) is coming from, so that you can guide them to the place where they are ready and able to learn. That’s why I was so happy to stumble across this list of ideas for dealing with misbehaving students, and hopefully they will help some of you too.
This quartet was written in 1827 by an 18-year-old Mendelssohn. How incredible it is that such an early work has the ability to take its audience captive from the first chords: wood and strings breathing and moving together, chorale form, through reverent, earnest harmonies that make you want to lean forward, hold your breath.
After this brief hymnal introduction, we are introduced to the motif that runs throughout the work: a dotted-rhythm question that speaks and then waits, perched breathless on the dominant, before repeating itself in hushed tones. The question is “Ist es wahr?”–“Is it true?”–and is taken from “Frage,” a song Mendelssohn had written a few months earlier.
Top: the opening motif from “Frage,” Op. 9 no. 1 Bottom: the motif as quoted in the string quartet Op. 13.
Ist es wahr? Ist es wahr?
Daß du stets dort in dem Laubgang,
An der Weinwand meiner harrst?
Und den Mondschein und die Sternlein
Auch nach mir befragst? Ist es wahr? Sprich!
Was ich fühle, das begreift nur,
Die es mit fühlt,
Und die treu mir ewig,
Treu mir ewig, ewig bleibt.
Is it true? Is it true
that over there in the leafy walkway, you always
wait for me by the vine-draped wall?
And that with the moonlight and the little stars
you consult about me also? Is it true? Speak!
What I feel, only she grasps —
she who feels with me
and stays ever faithful to me,
This motif opens and closes the quartet, bringing us back in cyclic form to the same profound, unanswered question.
Hello again, dear readers! I’m back to posting after taking a month off to focus on auditions, and I know many of you have just finished the same process. Admissions decisions will be rolling in within the next few weeks, determining where we will be for the next 2-4 years–but unfortunately, for many of us, there will inevitably be some rejection letters in the mix. That’s why I wanted to re-share this article, published almost a year ago exactly, in which Frank Bruni raises some excellent points on the benefits of taking second-choice paths.
People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates….For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.
This goes far beyond easing disappointment with “sour grapes” excuses. Personally, I think rejection has been one of the most strengthening elements in my life. Sure, it sucks in the moment–but it teaches you resilience; it gives you the assurance that you are pursuing your passion for the right reasons, and not because of any external validation; it trains you to face reality and accept all its good and bad parts with open arms.