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July 21, 2013

Gettin’ down with o.p.p.

That’s “other people’s property” for those of you who don’t remember the hit by Naughty By Nature back in the early ’90’s. This came to me as my wife and I were hanging out in Matt Stamell’s killer violin shop (Amherst, Mass, if you need an axe) on a steamy hot day. Matt, Stacy and I were all dreading having to head up to an outdoor festival to meet various music business contacts, so we were stalling, waiting for violent thunderstorms to give us an excuse to bail. Somehow, I was able to talk Matt and his assistant Sasha into letting me try 18th century cellos at 6 figures and up, and I have to say, it was heaven. The problem? I realized I wasn’t good enough to get the best out of the instruments. I mean, get real: it’s not like that wasn’t obvious before I started playing, but it was quickly reinforced that the road to cello virtuosity won’t ever be traveled by me.

What’s this got to do with anything? As we talked afterwards about the technique required to be good (at anything, really) we drifted on the the merits of the Suzuki method, and how some are trying to completely toss it out the window in favor of American fiddle-based music. I know a few teachers who have tried the O’Connor method, and while it’s good, it doesn’t quite solve all the problems. Suzuki has a place, and that’s that it does a fantastic job of teaching technique. The O’Connor method has a place, and it introduces different repertoire, hopefully pulling some of the “vibe” of fiddle music out of the field and into the teacher’s studio.

We decided, though, that both are missing the point of what’s lacking in current string methods, and why string programs are having difficulties holding the student’s interest. On it’s own, Suzuki can suck the life out of a student faster than an Sci-fi channel vampire. Fiddle-based music on it’s own is too simple. Let’s face it, most tunes are at the potty-training level. Seeing a grown person trying to make “Old Joe Clark” sound interesting is just sad.

How do we use alternative tunes to teach really sophisticated concepts? It’s pretty easy, it just takes a great teacher. The classical repertoire is critical for proper technical development, and if the student ends up preferring that music over other forms, fantastic. The fiddle, or folk repertoire is unparalleled for teaching music theory, ear training, composition, and improvisation. These skills are critical for any student wanting to make a career in rock, jazz, bluegrass, or other folk forms. If the student prefers this type of music, and goes in that direction, equally fantastic. The point is that students are having fun playing music and using their brains. Teachers that can only teach one form or another are becoming useless. Maybe even harmful. I mean, bad. I hear lots of whining about the “stage band” or “Glee” effect, and how it’s draining good players from chamber and string orchestras. So what? Kids are having fun using their training in playing what they want. That’s a REALLY GOOD THING.

Now, it may be that one teacher simply is more experienced or is better at one form. Cool; but at least have the brains to partner with someone who specializes in the other. We can’t risk losing more potential players, either amateur or professional, over your stylistic turf battles. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

So here’s what needs to happen to really make this string education thing work, and it’s a holistic approach:

1: All kids get classical training for technique and an introduction to the classics.

2: They also get a comprehensive ear-training course built on fiddle repertoire, and that includes not just American, but Irish, Scots, Breton, etc. They learn the differences between jigs, reels, hornpipes, etc, and what the purposes are for. They learn how Baroque music evolved into the hard-rockish Cape Breton fiddle music of today. “Dang! They’re almost a dead-on match, maybe just a little slower back then!”

3: The learn how to fill out a fiddle tune. Take any one, and make a symphony out of it. Learn theory, arranging, what makes an interesting piece. Heck, if Aaron Copeland can turn Bonapart’s retreat into a Mighty Dog commercial, you can too!

4: Learn improvisational skills using the simpler jazz or old-time fiddle forms. First, melodic improvisation, where you alter the timing and notes of a tune that is the base melody, and then groove-based improvisation, where a groove or sequence is repeated, and one must compose their own melody line within that chord structure. Neither are hard to do, both are very hard to do well. For the uninitiated, listen to Sonny Rollin’s version of “Tennessee Waltz” for a taste of melodic improvisation on a simple theme, and Miles Davis’ “All Blues” for the classic groove-based improvisation.

The thing all teachers seem to forget is that the percentage of ALL students that will go on to a well-paying career in classical music is infinitesimal compared to the number of kids starting out with cute little quarter-sized instruments.

Let’s teach them more than a few notes so that they can really develop a toolbox full of skills that they can use throughout their musical life, as amateurs or musicians. A whole lot more will stick with it when they realize what they can do with music other than practice.

April 18, 2013

What exactly do we call this new acoustic music?

Having just had Jeremy Kittel last month, and Nuala Kennedy earlier on, I found that, as a presenter, I had a real problem. What do I call this stuff when speaking with the press? You’d think Nuala was easy: Irish. But if you were one of the lucky ones to see her trio, it was chamber music with an Irish slant. Sure, when Nuala was singing, the songs were all Celtic, but during the instrumentals, especially “Asturias” it was played so perfectly and intricately, it rivaled any chamber music being played today, and lacked any hint of “Celtic-ness” even though it’s a traditional tune set.

Jeremy presented the same problem. Yeah, much of his stuff is Celtic, either Scots or Irish, but is that what you’d call it? When  people inquiring about tickets would ask me what his music sounded like, it was impossible to answer. What would you call Crooked Still, or the Punch Brothers? The Duhks? It’s folk music, but if you tell people that, they’d think you’re talking about some old guy with a guitar singing about trucks or dogs, or some woman singing about lost love. It’s not old-time, it’s not classical, it’s not bluegrass. And forget the fact that just about every one of these musicians has been classically-trained, and most have degrees from one conservatory or another.

The problem really started years ago, with the trio of Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, and Edgar Meyer. Their early tunes were wild, strange compositions that were somewhat free-form, sometimes very “composed”, but always displayed technical perfection. It really was classical, but the classical world had no interest in claiming it. Too bad, because the newer classical compositions are rarely more interesting, more tuneful, or more thought-out.

While this seems like a non-problem, it actually is quite a big one. Human beings, by nature, like something predictable. They may not know what the food they’re about to eat will taste like, or the music will sound like, but they won’t order something off a menu that’s listed as “Dead Animal Surprise.” If it’s named “Sausage, Bacon, and Egg Breakfast” it’s all cool. The same is true with music. Bluegrass fans want to know it’s bluegrass. Tell them it’s a “Sort Of Like Bluegrass Spectacular” and I doubt many will show. I can’t wait to print the poster that says,”Come see the sort-of-but-not-really Classical Real Vocal Quartet!”

So, I’m taking suggestions. We have to figure something out, because too many people are missing out on some of the best music being played today.

January 28, 2013

Are the new breed of “alternative” string players creating the new American Chamber music?

Whether or not one wants to accept it, it’s happening anyway. One look at where the Conservatory or University trained talent is headed tells you all you need to know. Highly-regarded institutions like the New England Conservatory and University of Michigan all offer programs in alternative string styles and techniques. A quick look at the list of alma maters of some of the leading lights in the new wave of “folk” music reads like any first rate orchestra; Juillard, Eastman, New England Conservatory, Yale, Princeton, etc, etc etc.

What’s up with this? Simple: you can actually make a living, and it’s fun. But, you’d better be able to play really, really well. The technical bar is now set so high that even a lot of middle-aged players that younger musicians used to look up to are now considered average at best.

First, it’s important to remember that many classical composers have long relied on folk melodies to use as a framework for larger pieces. Copland, Dvorjak, and Bartok are all well known for this. One must also accept that chamber group instrumentation has changed through the years, and that further change is not necessarily a bad thing. While the standard string quartet may be comprised of two violins, a viola and a cello, there are numerous variations on this, and many pieces written for small orchestras comprising completely unique ensembles for each composition.

That said, why are a large number of string players heading to what used to be called folk forms? Earning a living is certainly one. If you add up the total of all the music students currently at the major institutions, then take a look at all the job openings in classical music over the next few years, it’s pretty depressing. Say “hello” to a student loan default. Couple this with pretty lame salaries in the orchestral world, and all but the brightest of stars are headed toward a career in teaching, not in performing. Conversations with graduate and undergraduate students hint at a general theme of dissatisfaction: emphasis is placed on training to perform well in a given competition, which will then supposedly launch you on a career path to stardom.

The problems with this are many: competitions are subjective, a great player may get “out-performed” by a good player. They’re expensive to enter. No one really remembers (let’s be honest here) who won some semi-obscure competition somewhere in Carpathia or Ravenna. And, all the emphasis is on how to play a piece to show well, not how to play musically, and worse still, not how to really perform.

The short story: your education is expensive, stressful, time-consuming, and will probably lead to under employment or unemployment. Fun times!

Now let’s look at the other half; the repertoire, and the freedom of arrangement. That’s both the easy and hard part, depending on how you look at it: anything goes. Classical purists  can’t deny the fact that there’s been musical ideas crossing over for centuries. Bach’s famous solo Sonatas and Partitas are based on Baroque dance rhythms and figures. I might have the only remaining copy of William Russo’s “Symphony for Blues Band and Orchestra” with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Seigel-Schwall Blues Band. Yeah, I know, it’s not very good, but it does exist on Duetsche Grammophon, and everyone knows they have impeccable taste, no?

I was watching the television one day with a very classically-oriented friend who was horrified when the Mighty Dog commercial came on and simply “disgraced” Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. I had to make him listen to quite a few recordings to convince him that Copland had lifted it from the old-time fiddle tune “Bonapart’s Retreat.”

So what makes a composition “chamber” vs. just cranking away on some tunes? Three qualities have to be present: the players must be highly skilled, the music must be arranged with creativity and complexity, and must be able to be performed live. The last issue may sound odd, but way too many records are being made that sound great upon first listening, but require too many studio tricks, like double-tracking, compression or other effects, and looping. Looping is a tough one. Is it an electronic performance? There certainly are many preferences for that, also.

The bumper-sticker version is this: everything’s on the table, the “folk” players of today are amazing in any genre, and anyone who puts labels on various forms of music, and then will only listen to one or another, is missing out on some incredible stuff.

A very short list of recommended listening:

Alasdair Fraser/Natalie Haas/Muriel Johnstone; Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle. This is THE link between Baroque and it’s evolution to contemporary Scots fiddling.

Alasdair Fraser/Natalie Haas; Highlander’s Farewell. Where Scots fiddling is now.

Beolach; Variations. What Scots fiddling became when it traveled to Cape Breton.

Annbjorg Lein; Prisme. Scandinavian brilliance, featuring the Hardanger fiddle, an 8-string, sympathetically tuned tone monster. Required listening for anyone who considers themselves a violinist.

Mike Marshall/Edgar Meyer/Darol Anger collaborations; Any of them, really, and in any configuration. The Mike Marshall tune “Borealis”  is incredible and Edgar Meyer’s “Big Country” is chamber brilliance.

The Kruger Brothers. A flat out chamber version of “Angeline the Baker” at warp speed is worth the download, and their Appalachian Concert is really interesting.

Childsplay; Waiting for the Dawn. Hanneke Cassel’s big band of folks who play Bob Child’s violins (he’s a luthier.) Orchestral and gorgeous. Anything by Hanneke is gorgeous, actually, so all of her cd’s are perfection.

Punch Brothers. An obvious choice, but I’ll be somewhat heretical here and say it’s all been done before by the aforementioned Marshall/Meyer/Anger crowd, especially when they add Joshua Bell into the mix, which they did frequently. Maybe Punch adds a little Seattle Grunge feel, but still, brilliantly played stuff.

Crooked Still; Some Strange Country. THE originators of old-time chamber. That simple. Others sort of danced around it, but Aoife and Greg’s creative collaboration is miles ahead. This, their last cd, is just stunning, especially the title track.

Harem Scarem; the Birnam Witch Project. Hard to find, but Nuala Kennedy’s progressive Celtic/jazz/classical combo is still one of the best and most imaginative cd’s of it’s type.

Grada; The Landing Step. Can’t leave out our boys. They were one of the originators of taking Irish traditional tunes and really pumping up the complexity, speed, and in the process, the skill level needed to really cook.