Monday, October 29, 2018

Jumping into Mechanics Hall

People swear by visualization as a technique to achieve your dreams. As a parent, I always wanted my kids to succeed in music. Six years ago in 2012, we went to a concert at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. It was the first time the kids experienced this magnificent space. Adam was 11 and Dova was 8 years old.

I wanted them to feel comfortable in this space so we explored the stage a bit during intermission.

Of course, I made sure they "didn't go too far".

I mentioned, "Wouldn't it be nice if you could perform here one day?"

I took the first photo of the bustling hall, framed it and put it on the landing of the stairs to the second floor of our house so they would see it each time they went upstairs. Imagine yourself performing here...

Only three years later, Adam performed at Mechanics Hall with his school band as part of the MICCA Gold Medal Showcase. Woohoo! Visualization paid off! He's actually performed there six times since with various groups. In the last performance, I decided to capture the same shot but with Adam in the photo this time. He always stands out playing the bass.

And then I replaced the photo in the stairwell. Way to jump into the photo!

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Living the Chamber Music Life

In its beginnings, music was merely chamber music, meant to be listened to in a small space by a small audience. - Gustav Mahler

Chamber music has always been part of my life, starting with piano duets with fellow students as a child and moving to larger groups as an adult. Because what’s better than playing music by yourself? Playing in a group or course. There’s nothing so magical as playing completely in sync with other musicians, playing in harmony, breathing as one, passing themes back and forth. During rehearsals, we always laugh at funny mistakes and cheer at perfect endings.

Every once in a while, in rehearsal with really good players, the music is so overwhelmingly beautiful that you feel you’ve just touched the divine. You can close your eyes for a split second and everything is completely right with the world. You breathe in and hold your breath hoping to hang onto the sense of euphoria. It must be like an opioid high, but ever so brief. Then the music will carry you back to reality, as it is inherently rooted in the present time. Listen to this spot in the Schubert Trio Op. 99 for a minute as an example.

When Adam played the violin as his main instrument, we played several sonatas for violin and piano by Mozart and Beethoven. These are not violin sonatas with piano accompaniment but really chamber works as both instruments are equally important. It's a pet peeve when someone compliments my "piano accompaniment". If the music is specifically written as chamber music for piano and not a symphonic reduction for a concerto, it is not accompaniment! (Now stepping down from the soapbox...) I had always hoped to play chamber music with Adam in larger groups but he had moved on to playing the bass where there is a lot less chamber music and he had also become a busy high schooler.

One of my lifelong dreams is to play the Schubert Trout quintet. After playing in piano trios for years, I joined a string quartet at my music school and suggested the Trout. I had the Music Minus One version and was never able to play it up to tempo with the CD, but thought I could handle it with real people. Little did I know that this quintet was scored for violin, viola, cello, and bass. The coach (a cellist) expressed her concern about trying to combine the cello and bass parts or shifting everyone to play a lower part (2nd violin to viola, viola to cello) which would be a lot of work. When I heard this, I suggested that Adam play the bass part especially since he was already at the music school for his lesson. Just a few minutes later, he was playing with our group. It was a double dream come true for me, playing the Trout quintet and playing it with my son! I was in chamber music heaven. It was such a thrill!

A couple months later, we were at a party of another chamber coach, a professional musician, who specifically asked everyone to bring instruments and music to play. On the drive over, I was so excited to have Adam possibly play with us. I kept exclaiming, "This is it! This is living the life before technology, where people could only entertain themselves by playing music together. This is my dream to be able to play like this for fun with professional musicians!" Adam was not so keen on this "ultimate party". When we arrived, he was extremely reluctant to take his bass out and I had to have a student cellist in the Boston Conservatory who he knew give him a pep talk. When one of the hosts asked who was available to play with which instruments, I mentioned that Adam played the bass, and his eyes immediately lit up and he said, "Trout!"

Moments later, here we are living the dream (doubled up violins). And we got to perform the Trout again in a lovely bucolic setting in Harvard MA (with even more varied instruments). The A and A-flat keys were sticky on this not-so-lovely electric Roland piano, but at least the pedal didn't wander away.

We also played the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (had to hunt for the harpsichord voice, number 66 on the Roland).

Over the summer I convinced Adam to enroll in a chamber music camp, where he was really in his element. They played movements from the Dvorak Bass Quintet and Hummel Piano Quintet.

I love this photo because you can actually feel the collaboration going on.

Camp photos courtesy of coach extraordinaire Amy Lee

The performances were magnificent! I was so glad that Adam got his own taste of the chamber music life.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Living the Jazz Life

At my music school, my chamber group was invited to perform in an art gallery opening in the concert hall. We were asked only a week in advance but thought we could pull off a few movements of the Trout Quintet. We had a 45-minute time slot so we’d have to play some easy filler pieces as well. The violinist in our group suggested that her two sons could play some jazz on trumpet and piano instead having us scramble to fill the time. I immediately offered Adam to play the bass with them. Adam, who was present in the room, nodded and said he could do it. The violinist said that her sons would be in contact with Adam to discuss songs. Sounds good, no problem!

At this point, Adam’s jazz experience was mostly in the high school jazz band where they learn and rehearse a select few songs to perfection every year (he also racks up a bunch of Outstanding Musicianship awards for these). The only pickup jazz experience he had was several weeks of jazz ensemble in music school and a pickup jazz combo in summer camp the previous summer. When the boys gave him a list of songs to look from the Real Book, Adam started to panic because he had not heard of them. I said we’d just listen to them on YouTube. We started to listen while Adam followed along in the Real Book. Immediately the performances veered off the sheet music and Adam said he couldn’t do it. “Why are you making me do this?” I started to doubt myself in volunteering him, although he was in the room and never once seemed unsure of it when we said yes. Before the art opening, he never tried playing the songs by himself and keep dreading the day. On the day or the art opening, the boys were going to meet and rehearse the songs for a half hour before going on. When the day came, Adam had to rehearse with our chamber group first and then bow out to meet the brothers. After introductions, they actually only got 15 minutes of actual rehearsal before playing in public for 25 minutes. We played the chamber music first which was mediocre at best since one of the movements was fairly new.

Adam Jazz Combo
Click play!

Then the jazz trio took up residence and the whole atmosphere changed. It was easy going, mellow and smooth, as if Adam had been playing with the brothers for a long time. The whole room relaxed as the audience chatted quietly while viewing the artwork. Adam looked completely natural without a hint of nerves. Whew, I knew he could do it! To be honest, there was no way I could ever pull something like that off and I was beaming with pride that Adam could. There were a couple of spots where I noticed Adam got a little lost, but he played right through as if nothing happened. No one else could tell. I asked him about it afterward and how he recovered. He said he just he just played two chords until he figured out where he was. In fact, you can always tell if he’s made a mistake when you see him smiling. Like it’s simply amusing to be lost, no panic whatsoever. Now that’s living the jazz life!

At a jazz jam at the other music school Adam attends (which has a much larger jazz program), I was amazed at how versatile the musicians were. During the course of the jam, a trombone instructor scatted for a song. In another song, she sat down and played the drums. Then she switched it up and played the piano! Adam arrived in the middle where there was another bass player student already playing. The other bassist set down his bass, gave Adam the amplifier plug and then picked up the electric guitar while Adam played the bass. The leader was also a trombonist but spent most of the time playing the piano and drums (but didn’t sing as well). Even the saxophonist put down his horn and played the piano and drums for several songs! Wow, that’s some real musicianship! Adam, who plays only the violin and bass, clearly needs to pick up a few more instruments! We already have the piano at home, although I am completely useless at helping with anything jazz related unless the music is completely written out.

Jammin' - play me!
It appears so effortless when jazz players jam. There’s usually just a skeleton of the music written out in the Real Book but instinctively everyone knows where the changes and the handoff to soloists. The handoff could be just a look or a nod, and it is also completely OK just to talk to each other in the middle. No one ever gets lost or if they do can recover without anyone noticing. This concept is completely foreign to this completely classical pianist. In chamber music, when things fall apart, it’s usually full stop and then announcing let’s start at measure 132. In one performance of the Trout Quintet second movement, I sensed that we were getting out of sync and started to panic. Eight measures before the cadence I started the harmonic descent and miraculously we all arrived at the end at the same time. It was truly a miracle that we saved it. Even Adam thought it was a miracle. But this sort of miracle happens all the time in jazz.

Adam solos
Adam solos - play me!

A unique thing about jazz is probably the most frightening for beginners - solo improvisations. Adam had always refused to do solos, but thankfully this instructor makes him do it. And again, it sounds so effortless and fun. The best thing about being a jazz musician is being able to drop into a group and simply play without having hours of rehearsals together ahead of time. You can just go and make music together. So happy that Adam can live the jazz life!
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