Sunday, November 22, 2009

Musical & Personal Growth

I've learned an incredible amount over the last few months (and particularly over the last week) & wanted to take some time to reflect upon that.

I think my main source of growth has been the Sound Shore Chorale. I've just about always liked singing (except in early high school when I was way too nervous to sing for anybody), but SSC has really just been a tremendous experience. I've met all sorts of different people (all older than me - I'm the youngest in the ensemble) & that in itself has been great. However, the real growth has been musically. My sense of pitch (well, really my ability to sight-sing/read) has developed a lot more (from having to prepare the parts on my own) & my listening has improved as well. Through preparing the pieces & having to really internalize & analyze them in a way that you don't always necessarily have to (but should) when reading something on a physical instrument has done wonders for my understanding. I've also started working on learning the accompaniments to the songs we performed & will keep working on that ... I'll talk a bit more about that later. One thing I've learned is that I have a very under-developed sense of pitch (relative to the rest of my sense of pitch) in my lowest register (between 1 & 2 octaves below middle C) - both on cello & voice. This has been improving lately as well.

In addition to that, I've grown a lot as an ensemble member - both in terms of my commitment to an ensemble & learning to be in sync with the ensemble and the conductor. I still need more work on the second (because I tend to work by ear, rather than visually) & need to look up more (because I usually know the music to the point of memorization anyway), but I've really progressed with it a lot.

In addition to all that, I've got a chance to watch Richard Slade as a conductor/musical director & have learned from that. There are two aspects to this position: the musical & the people-management. Musically it involves picking repertoire, rehearsing it on a weekly basis, knowing what your group can handle musically, having an incredible ear, being able to conduct & having/being able to communicate a musical vision. As a manager, it involves having rehearsals & concerts scheduled in advance & spaces reserved, it involves telling everybody the order of pieces over, it involves planning multiple concerts a year, being the most-organized person at the concert & all sorts of other things.

My experience with SSC leads me to my next source of growth - playing in a string quartet. We performed the 3rd (thanksgiving) movement of Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet (Richard asked me to put this together as part of the program). This was a brand new experience for me. The only other time I've been able to play in a quartet has been playing christmas music & that is hardly even close to the same thing. I've done a fair amount of chamber music before (not an incredible amount, but a good amount for how long I've been playing), but it has always been for other combinations (largely piano trios). Those formats all have their own lessons, but there are things you can only learn through playing a string quartet with other advanced players.

In addition to my musical growth from that quartet, I also learned about the organizational side of putting a quartet together for a performance. This was a very challenging activity! First, it takes time to find players (which proved to be particularly difficult in this instance), who will most likely be very busy, then you have to schedule rehearsals (which is always a challenge). Then add in the difficulty of the work & last-minute problems/illnesses & making sure everyone is on the same page with everything & everything goes according to plan... and there you have it. At the end of the day, everything works out & it's on to the next thing. The whole experience made me think of tour managers and stuff like that for bands & what their experience must be like. In my case, I need to plan things a little bit more in advance & account for time better (I'm usually getting to things just when I need to - unless they're in NYC, in which case, I'm always early b/c I never know how trains will work out)

Another source of growth has been the St. Thomas Orchestra. We performed Harold in Italy & Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony. I have performed Harold in Italy before. I didn't have either piece fully prepared & one thing I have learned is that I need to start working on parts much earlier - even when I have a ton of other activities going on. I need to create a schedule/deadline for working on things & I need to get to a point where I know all the notes by the second or third rehearsal so that in rehearsal I'm actually working on musical things & on following the conductor a lot better. One thing I have gotten much better about is listening to the other parts and fitting my part in with them. Orchestra playing is really just a huge chamber ensemble, and that makes it *incredibly difficult*. I could still do a better/more frequent job of listening, though.

It's also caused me to grow, because I am the weakest cellist in my section. The gap isn't overwhelming, but everyone else has a much more secure technique/knowledge of the parts & it's been great to be around that & watch and learn from them. Particularly, I had one rehearsal where I sat in the first stand (because a lot of people were out) & playing next to Claire was just really inspirational - she is a very strong player. One important thing I've learned from St. Thomas is that it's much easier to dislike the way someone does something than it is to do it well yourself. In the future, I'm going to do things better & make it much more of a point to find things to like/learn from when observing other people (while still being critical).

One thing I've been getting into lately is accompaniment. Not that I've been doing any, but I've been reading about accompanists & working on piano parts for the choral music I'm working on. In general, I'm hoping to develop my piano skills more so that I can start to do accompaniment work & maybe even some day play keyboard in a pit. This will help things financially, but also musically & compositionally. I came to realize from various playing I've been doing that accompaniment is something I really like doing (regardless of what instrument I'm on). It's an enjoyable challenge, and I find it very fulfilling.

So there are some sources of recent musical growth ... there have been more too, which I'll write about soon.


One last thing. One of the major ways I've grown over the last few months is that I've developed a lot more self-confidence & comfort in my playing/musicianship. To accompany that, I've also begun to think less of my individual accomplishments (not in a demeaning way) and to start to see the bigger picture & look at how my experience compares to other players'. So in short: more confidence, less ego.

Another thing, it's a little scary to write so openly about my playing on a blog, but I think it's an important part of who I am as a person, so I will always continue to do it to the fullest extent possible.


Dean said...

Mike, I just found your blog, and am really enjoying reading it. You remind me a lot of myself when I was a music student in college (I am 43 now), although I would say that it sounds like you are very good at making observations and drawing reasonable conclusions from them. I think I was too focused on having fun that I missed some of the most important stuff. Anyway... that's all history now.

I'll try and keep this short. I grew up learning the piano, and only studied the cello for less than a year in elementary school. I didn't return to cello until I was an adult, and I've been playing again for about 15 years now. And I'm really enjoying it! It takes a lot longer, I think, to be good at an instrument when you learn it as an adult, and I feel I'm finally at that "breakthrough" point where I'm actually getting to be really proficient. I play in a local string ensemble, mostly of older adults (I think I'm the youngest one), and I find myself learning the music pretty quickly, so that I'm able to watch the conductor a lot more. I've noticed in general that a lot of orchestral musicians don't look at the conductor very much, which, as a longtime choral singer (yes, I sing tenor), seems almost anathema. I feel that only by abandoning your focus on the printed page can you really begin to MAKE music, in a live performance setting. When you perform, you should be at the point where you don't need to look at the music, so your attention should be given to the conductor, whose responsibility it is to take all those parts and create a whole from it. And by responding to his or her cues and nuances, and allowing the vagaries and spontaneities of live performance to "take over" (not to the point that you screw up the music, although that does happen too!) is the only way to create a satisfying performance experience, both for the audience and the performance.

Anyway, lest I bore you to death, I'll stop here. I just want to add that I don't think you need to worry about putting your cello practice and performance issues out on the Internet for all to see; you just want to be careful about what you say and whom you talk about (but I'm sure you're mature enough to realize that anyway).

Happy playing!

Mike Lunapiena said...


If I haven't bored you to death, there's no risk of you boring me to death!

Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience.

I totally agree with you about music making only beginning once you get away from the printed page.

I'm also of the opinion that playing in an orchestra is one of the hardest things to do well as a musician.

So how'd you come across my blog anyway?