If you go through enough pictures or videos of me, you can see that I am not a hat person (maybe a wig, sometimes). Not only did I have to wear a proverbial hat today, it was a different one than I am used to wearing – the hat of a conductor. Today I took my conducting final, completing my first year of course work here at USC. I thought this semester would have been more difficult that it turned out to be, but it definitely came with its challenges, in this class particularly.
What I’m about to say may shock you, but I’m going to say it anyway – I’ve never been the most fond of conductors. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for my stick waving brothers and sisters, but I always thought playing a bassoon would be more difficult. I understand the time and effort it takes to study a full work, but at the end of the day the ensemble is making all the noise, right? I came into the graduate conducting class with that attitude, assuming there was little for me to learn. Boy, was I wrong!
Before we did any conducting of any music, we worked on a series of “Elizabeth Green Exercises”. These basic conducting exercises are a compilation of rhythms with dynamic markings under them that the conductor is supposed to portray to an ensemble that doesn’t have any music in front of them, like this:
Sooner or later I got the hang of these, but it was most certainly a challenge to get the music out of a blind orchestra.
The next big project was Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony. I am familiar with the bassoon excerpts in this piece fine, but learning the work from top to bottom with each instrument part in mind was eye opening. It’s like the difference between loving cheesecake, and being familiar with each ingredient to a level of being able to make it without a recipe! I used to think Mozart was just like that cheesecake – delicious, yet plain and sometimes boring (who am I kidding, cheesecake is never boring), but allowing myself to become engulfed in the rich gooey texture of a musical recipe so old, yet still relevant and simple heightened my awareness and appreciation of a true classic. We didn’t get to the last movement of the work for time’s sake, but it was plenty to take in none the less – I didn’t need the extra “calories” anyway.
The midterm exam was simply a long list of musical terms and transpositions we had to identify and define. Do YOU know what key the alto flute or oboe d’amore play in?
The final, which was conducted today, was the first movement of Beethoven 2. Learning this work as officially made it my 2nd favorite Beethoven symphony (next to the very famous 5th symphony [YouTube it]). Being in a class with such great musicians (and all around fun people) really helped this symphony come to life. The orchestra that was hired for us sounded great too. We skipped a portion of it in the middle, but anytime I hear this symphony I’ll think back to this great class and my very fun classmates. The video of my final is below, if you’re curious.
So yes, I’m admitting that I took the skill of conductors for granted, but I think I now have license to be far more critical at the same time. See if you can put yourself in a situation where you are forced to wear a different hat, so to speak, of a person you think doesn’t have it all that hard. Like me, you’ll probably learn something!
This past weekend I got the opportunity to travel back to Memphis and perform with the Hope Pres ensemble for their Easter services this year. Not only is this gig lucrative, it is also very inspirational for the 15,000 people that attend the services over the weekend, as well as the performers. Because this venue is so large (and the orchestra is so small) each musician is amplified with a microphone, and we often appear on one of the jumbo-trons so that the audience can feel like they’re right there on the front row. Hearing yourself louder than you ever have through a microphone in an arena and seeing yourself 20 stories tall on a giant screen are both very cool experiences, but it comes at a price – you must be fully engaged at all times!
When performing with an orchestra, wind ensemble, or anything similar to that you are being observed by an audience, but there are still places to hide. The percussionists, for example, could easily be reading a book instead of counting measures (it seems to be the case often times), because they are so far back in the stage. As a bassoonist, hiding musically isn’t that difficult with loud trumpets and horns on the row right behind us. Being in a situation with mics and cameras, though, required a deeper level of concentration because even the harmonically supportive whole notes rang clear throughout the hall, thanks to a sound mixing team in the back. Counting rests became a more active thing, because it would be bad to be caught yawning, sleeping (mentally, if not physically), or looking uninterested on camera for thousands to see. The performances went well, and my hat goes off to all of the soloists and other musicians involved.
The idea of being engaged and giving a full physical performance is one I’ve thought about often. When you look at ensembles like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, you see a stage full of musicians who have a physical attachment and reaction to the music that is being played, and I think it’s so much more interesting to watch. I’m not the biggest “mover” when I play in an ensemble setting, but I am constantly thinking about how I can translate the music into something physical, for the benefit of the people watching. Not only does it ensure your familiarity of the works, it gives onlookers the idea that you really do know what you’re doing! I feel like watching a performance with people who look like statues would be not too far from simply listening to a radio (my car radio is back on, by the way, and I ended up just turning it off by the time I got to work). I will compete in the USC concerto competition tomorrow, and I will definitely do everything I can to make it look like I know the Concerto for Bassoon and Wind Ensemble by Eric Ewazen as well as I really do (cross your fingers for me, and good luck to all of the other participants)!
Even if you’re not a musician, I think there are ways to perform on life’s stage in a convincing manner. Maybe people don’t care what you’re wearing or how you’re walking, but if we’re honest we’ve all caught ourselves people watching at the airport, waiting for a bus, or on a restaurant patio. We too often, in my opinion, fail to remain aware of how our piece of the puzzle fits. For example, my “day” job here in Los Angeles is actually at the USC Gould School of Law office of admissions. It’s basically a lot of paper pushing, but I definitely wear a tie most days. Even if I opt out of it a couple days of the week, I always make sure to look like a professional in the field of higher education administration, because that’s the hat I have to wear to pay some of the bills. I’m actually wearing jeans today with my excuse being that my flight landed late and I’m still very tired, but hey – I’m still fabulous.
Perform on life’s stage! It's easy to think that we're going unnoticed, but we can never know when someone has the microphone on us. Where the “costume” that’s appropriate for your role. Be aware of the way you’re perceived by other people in public. Don’t be caught picking your nose when the jumbo-tron lands on you! Make sure your white t-shirt isn't showing when the camera does an aerial shot of you, Nathan! ;-)
Pictured below: Hope Pres Stage
Being here in Los Angeles, I have gotten the privilege to play movie scores both in the concert and studio settings. Some of these scores were simply student creations, but others were award winning masterworks. Even if a score doesn’t earn an Academy Award on its own merit, however, it lives in the hearts and memories of the people who love those films. Who in the world wouldn’t immediately recognize the Star Wars theme, or the chromatic motifs of The Twilight Zone? Music is special, because it has the ability to unearth memories that are buried deep within our spirits. This past weekend my fiancé and one of our friends, Guillermo, visited me and there seemed to be music attached to the entire experience.
My radio is still off for Lent, by the way, but we sing and joke around enough for that not to be an issue. They landed around the same time on Friday night at LAX, which was great, and we went straight to the bar. Well, we actually stopped for a little Mexican food first, and walking down the street in our white, purple, and pink outfits (by coincidence) we felt it necessary to channel Gloria Trevi’s “Todos me Miran”, which means “everybody look at me”. The bar we went to is one of my favorites, simply because of the price, and it’s filled with regular working folk who are out to unwind and play a little shuffle board. We stuck out, and it definitely seemed like everybody was looking at us, but I consider that a good thing! It seemed to get late too quickly, so we later retired for the evening.
The next morning I had an AYS rehearsal, followed by a trip to the beach. The weather was great as we drove down Sunset to the Ginger Rogers beach, and we felt fabulous. Hanging out and letting the sun kiss our skin was very Katy Perry “California Girls”-esque, so clearly that tune was in the air. All that was missing was our “bikinis on top” (because me and Guillermo were already rockin’ the daisy dukes). On the ride home from the beach we reminisced about our time together back in Memphis and sang “Our Last Summer” by ABBA. Ahh….bon temps.
We hit up West Hollywood with our friend Dominique that night, and the hot tunes in the clubs are bars were “S&M” by Rihanna and the new single by Lady Gaga, “Judas”. I was D.D. so I didn’t get too crunk, but everyone seemed to have a good time.
On Sunday morning we took the trek up to Studio City and had our bi-monthly champagne brunch with Dominique and her husband. There was a live musician there playing the electric guitar and singing jazz standards, with my favorite being his rendition of “Beyond the Sea” by Frank Sinatra. Following the brunch was shopping in the valley, Malibu, and Santa Monica, and we tied it all together with a late dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Venice called Casablanca. This place also had a live guitar musician, and she sang soft tunes that I thought were very beautiful. Guillermo knew them all.
On Monday I took them back to the airport, and the gloomy weather matched my mood. It’s hard to go back to work after such a great weekend, and all I seemed to want to do was to go back to Memphis with Andy. The day was rough, but I made it through. That night I actually went to an oboe recital, and one of the pieces (the Poulenc trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano) matched the ups of the weekend and the downs of the following day. The piece ending with a mood of comfort, promise, and a sort of “near the finish line” feeling, and it snapped me back into focus. I’m now ready to press through these last couple of weeks in L.A. and complete the first half of my master’s degree.
With all that being said, take a moment and think about the music that unlocks memories for you. What songs remind you of your childhood? Which tunes unleash the saddest moments of your life? What artist represents the summation of everything you’ve done until now? I can’t answer those questions with single answers, but I’ve been reminded that, in the words of Robin Williams as “Genie”, there’s nothing in the world quite like a friend!
I know it’s been over a month since my last post (so unprofessional) but I’ve had a lot going on lately. Between gigs, traveling to and from Memphis, and preparing for competitions, I’ve been spread pretty thin. The weather here in California has also just recently gotten back to normal, so today I was able to go to the beach and write this blog (I typically write at the beach, because I’m sure to be left alone). The time off from this blog has also given me time to think about my Lent sacrifice for this year. I am a practicing Christian, yes, but not a Catholic. I still think it’s a good idea, thought, to get rid of something you might be taking for granted once a year and see how your life holds up without it. I’ve done a variety of things in the past for Lent, but this year I decided to make it music related: I decided to turn off my car radio.
No, it’s not broken, nor was it stolen, but I’ve just decided to let it go until the end of Lent. To many of you this may sound silly or easy to do, but in Los Angeles you spend A LOT of time in your car, so I think it’s rather significant. It was pretty difficult at first, but now I’ve come to enjoy the purifying silence at the beginnings and ends of my days. It gives me time to think, pray, reflect, and even act out my favorite “Madea” moments. What I’m NOT doing in my car these days is taking the artistic expression of musicians for granted, and treating their hard work as nothing more than background noise. Now I’m not accusing any of you of doing that with your car radios necessarily, but if we’re honest with ourselves I think we are often times turning on the radio for the purpose of noise – especially to cure awkward silences between you and a co-pilot.
The idea of music being a side-show to something more important isn’t new at all. Back in the days of Classical opera (17something or other…not good with dates) the lights in the theatres and opera houses would be up so that the guests could schmooze and see who was there, all while an opera was being performed. Today, brilliant original scores are composed every year for movies that we tend only to acknowledge if there are lyrics (Disney type movies, or musicals) or if it wins an Oscar (I recently performed a movie music concert that people really came out for and enjoyed, though).
I guess these days musicians of all types are just happy to work either way (I know I am), but “ditching the dial while driving” has heightened my senses and awareness when it comes to pop music, particularly. At work a few weeks ago I listened to Beyonce’s “B-day” album and was blown away by some of the non-singles on the CD. Because I was actually listening to the music things came up that I’d never really noticed before – and that’s saying something for THIS Beyonce fan! Rihanna’s “Loud” album has also become a favorite at work, much for her sensitivity to different styles, from lyrical to ultra-pop, and even a little Rasta.
This idea hits home a little bit for me as well, too. If I were to give a recital I’d be very upset if a whole lot of stuff was going on other than listening to me, and you would be too. In 9th grade my band director at the time reprimanded the student audience for treating a performance of “Ode to Joy” for the Black History program like “a radio”, and I agreed. You just never think about these things when the music isn’t live, I guess.
I’m not telling anyone that they should turn off their car radios to appreciate anyone’s music more, but try to pay more attention to the art you’re surrounding yourself with. Really look at the pictures hanging in your house. Consider the artistic or expressive traits in what you wear tomorrow. Don’t treat music as background noise.
Listening to: "Man Down", Rihanna