My string education began with a combination of classical, Suzuki, and fiddle. I loved learning the fiddle tunes, playing in Ms. Carol's ensemble where we would play classical works by memory, then turn on a dime and rip out Orange Blossom Special at fancy cocktail parties.
This combination of fiddling and classical training gave me a unique perspective on music. I was taught to play by ear and to read music. In high school, I played in a couple of bands where I was given the chance to improvise and be part of an ensemble with singer song-writers, guitarists, drummers, and vocalists. The experience shaped my playing style and honed my ears.
Last year, the Axiom Quartet started working on a recording project. Our first album ,Axioms, is being released on April 13, 2018. My absolutely favorite piece on the album is Wagon Wheel. Recording it, and performing it, makes me feel like I'm home. It is a cover of Bob Dylan/Ketch Secor's famous tune.
The way the quartet weaves in and out of fiddle melodies and banjo-like accompaniment does my heart good. When we were recording it, I was taken back to 2002, when my high school orchestra director was encouraging me to look at universities in Nashville and Berklee College of Music. She had noticed my drive and love for fiddle and jazz and was so encouraging to go that route. A classical education won out, but sometimes I wonder what if I had taken the plunge and gone to school to fiddle?
As a violist, I don't get a lot of opportunities to fiddle, but I highly encourage you to take a listen to our version of Wagon Wheel, and hear my teenage self come back to life!
This photo was taken during my dress like you're on the set of Jurassic Park days, but I'm sure I was playing something like Tennessee Waltz or Wildwood Flower for my dad!
The most common phrase I hear in lessons is "but I practiced this." I always follow this statement up with a request: "Ok, tell me how you practiced it." Nine times out of ten, the student tells me that he played through it a bunch of times, beginning to end, bulldozing over the mistakes, but he doesn't say bulldoze. He then says, "I thought it would be better next time."
Why? Why and how would it be better next time? The act of playing through music is not practicing. Practicing is a skill, just like reading music is a skill, or holding the bow is a skill. Practice makes permanent. The times I've learned something incorrectly and not practiced intelligently, I've paid for it dearly. Fixing a learned mistake is harder to correct than learning something correctly the first time. We are going to make mistakes! We will learn things incorrectly, we are human. However, we can be intelligent in how we practice in order to cut down on our inevitable humanly mistakes.
Over the next few blog entries, I will share with you how to practice in a more meaningful way.
There were many wonderful experiences at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival last week, but one of the highlights was the opportunity for our string quartet to be coached by Arnold Steinhardt, former violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet. We played Beethoven String Quartet Opus 18 No. 4. He had great advice for all of us, and was so kind. We were all thrilled for the opportunity. There is a moment in the last movement of that quartet where the viola shares the melody with the first violin for about one measure before dipping back down to a more accompanying role. Mr. Steinhardt told us that he would love to speak with Beethoven about that measure and ask him why he wrote it that way. It is amusing how quickly the shining viola moment comes and then goes. (That measure exemplifies the life and role of a violist!)
I was also very aware of how we changed as a quartet by playing for him. Personally, it made me more aware of my playing. The experience got me thinking about awareness of my sound, intonation, musicality, everything. It was as if all my senses were heightened because I was playing for someone who I've admired and listened to since I was ten years old. Last summer my teacher encouraged our studio to come to our lessons as if we were coming to perform for her. She very gently let her students know that for the second half of the music festival that she wanted more from our lessons. Her encouragement really challenged me to spend my weekly practice time more efficiently and treat my lesson as a performance and as a coaching, not as a check up or a platform to be under prepared.
Playing for Mr. Steinhardt reminded me of the wise words my former teacher spoke to our viola studio last summer. The coaching with Mr. Steinhardt made me think that we should all practice as if he would hear us. So many times we practice for our lessons and we hope the best. We don't always bring our best to our teachers. We come in slightly under prepared knowing that our teacher will still listen to us and offer us some encouragement. We hope that what we have worked for will come out in our lesson, but know that our teachers will keep coaching us even if we make mistakes. I'm not saying don't make mistakes, we will make mistakes! We are human. I'm saying that we get comfortable and sometimes don't practice or perform at our best or with intention. We get used to our sound, our intonation, our musical interpretations and don't always listen critically to our own playing. The thought of practicing with more intention as if I might at any time be playing for a famous musician has certainly changed the way I am practicing, and will change the way I encourage my students to practice as well. You never know who is listening or who might be listening in the very near future.
I recently graduated with an MM in viola performance, and like many recent graduates, frequently ask myself what I'm doing with my life. Then, I sit down and remember why I got started in the first place. This post is for all you folks out there wondering what to do next.
See if this sounds familiar:
You practiced all through high school, went to college for music, and now you have a music performance degree, and you haven't quite taken the NY Phil by storm. If you are especially devoted to academia, you went in for round two and now have an advanced degree in music. But, once again, you don't have that orchestral job you thought you'd have and find yourself in the same spot you were two years ago before you went on the noble pursuit of advanced degrees.
You've sat through countless conversations with friends and family members asking, so what are you going to do now?
We've all been there. I've even heard music education majors being asked what their degrees are good for. My thought: Have you ever heard of band, orchestra, chorus, and general music in public and private schools across the country? So, they don't exist in every school system, but they do exist. I promise, and a lot of people love their job in the school system.
Well, back to that degree issue. Music degrees are good for a lot of things!
First off, the discipline it takes to get through a music degree is astounding. Music students take more classes, usually offered at 0.5 or 1 hour credits, that take up more time than most liberal arts students could even have nightmares about. For instance, most orchestra classes in college count for one credit. ONE. Orchestra rehearsals range anywhere from two to three hours each, and meet at least twice a week. This does not include the time spent outside of the class to learn the music. That's dedication, an attribute any employer would be honored to have in an employee. When I graduated from my undergrad and briefly considered becoming a lawyer, which I decided not to do, I was told by admission recruiters that law schools like music majors: they work long hours,dedicate themselves, and work hard. Strong work ethic: important for law school, important for music teachers and performers, important for life.
So, back to the question: Now what? Here are ten suggestions, and ten things I say to myself and to my students:
1. Teach! Teaching private lessons is an extremely rewarding way to use your expertly honed skills. Sharing what you have learned not only enhances another person's life, but also enhances your own. Think back to those teachers who helped make you into the musician you are today. You didn't get that scholarship on your own. Someone encouraged you and passed along musical knowledge. You can do the same for someone else!
2. Take auditions, big and small. You have to start somewhere! We can't all play in the NY Phil. Taking auditions is a skill, just like practicing. (Oh, and keep practicing....receiving your diploma should not keep you from dusting off your instrument and spending some quality time with it.) The more you take auditions, the more confident you become in that process, and it is a process. Remember that everyone at the audition is nervous. Almost everyone considered not taking the audition because they didn't feel prepared. Just do it. You have to practice taking auditions. Very few people walk into their first audition with a major orchestra and win it. Get an orchestral rep coach. Let someone help you through the process.
3. Play chamber music! Gather your friends and colleagues for a good old fashioned sight-reading party.
Revive parlor music by inviting pro and amateur musicians alike. Ever heard of Classical Revolution? Check it out!!!
4. Get creative. Make your own opportunities. Play whenever and wherever you can. What about that coffee shop down the street? Wouldn't they love to hear you fiddle away? Maybe play some Bach? Well, maybe don't start with the Bach, but throw it in. Maybe you could embrace new music! The classics are great, but there are a bunch of really wonderful modern composers and works out there. Play them.
5. Play weddings. Once again, we can't all play in major symphonies every week. I heard a great story about a violinist in Philly, who waited tables, played weddings, and regional gigs for over TEN years before he finally won a job in a major orchestra. It happens! Let's say he did the grad school thing, went straight through school, then started playing gigs and waiting tables in his mid twenties. That puts him in his mid 30's before he won his first big job.
6. Don't give up, and don't be afraid of being self employed. When I was in school, there were two camps: performance and education, and a lot of people ended upin the classroom. The public/private school classroom is for some people, and not for others and that is OK. You might like teaching in a classroom, you might not. Some people make great classroom teachers, some do not. This job should be chosen with great thought about your own happiness and the happiness of your students. A major problem with our educational system is a lack of passion in the classroom. This, of course isn't true of everyone, but go into the classroom because you enjoy that line of work and you enjoy teaching classrooms full of students. You may find that one on one instruction is for you, or you may not. Try it. You have to try to know.
7. Embrace opportunities when they present themselves, and be willing to travel: You never know who is listening or who you will meet. Sometimes a window opens because you stepped through a bunch of different doors. Some of the best advice I ever got about music jobs was that musicians can't be picky where they live. You go where the work is. So go!
8. Be nice to other musicians: The music world is small. You have no idea who you will run in to. Don't burn bridges. People want to work with nice, reliable people.
9. Be your own cheerleader. You may have to supplement your income until you get the gigs you want. You may end up being self employed forever. Be happy with whatever you choose to do. You get to be a musician for a living! You get to do what you love, and people pay you (maybe not the big bucks, but maybe the big bucks)!
10. Never, never, never give up.
Are you looking for a summer music camp for your child or student? Have them check out the Florida State University Summer Music Camps. The string camp is held June 22-July 5. It is a great opportunity to work with a great staff and live on the FSU campus! Click here for more information: http://www.music.fsu.edu/Quicklinks/Summer-Music-Camps
Are you a double bassist? Check out the Double Bass Workshop June 18-21.
Over the holiday a break, my husband and I spent time visiting family. While we were away we had the wonderful opportunity to jam with a family friend who plays banjo and guitar. As a violist, I don't get a lot of opportunities to play in a bluegrass style. I did not take my violin with me, but our friend had one! So, he let me borrow it. I haven't played fiddle tunes and gospel favorites in years. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to play music that I learned as a child as a student of a Nashville fiddler. I was amazed that I remembered the music I learned about fifteen years ago. It was a good lesson in remembering that music stays with us. When we learn something and learn it well, it never goes away. Playing fiddle tunes and improvising with a musician I'd never played with before reminded me why I love playing violin. It gave me hope and just made me feel good about life. That is why we play music: because we love it. It isn't to win jobs, it isn't to impress people, it is to please ourselves and to enhance our own lives. The fact that our craft brings joy to others is an added gift. I have the best job in the world.