Preparing for a Bach Cello Suite Marathon

suitte a cinq cordes

Performing all six of Bach’s Cello Suites is a marathon in the career of any cellist, and for many years I wondered if it was even a good idea to attempt this feat. Surely it was a lot to expect of an audience to compel them to sit through six long and intellectually demanding pieces? Mightn’t they stagger out at the end, exhausted, never wanting to listen to the Suites ever again? Would it not be more prudent to perform one or two of the Suites at once, leaving the audience wanting more, rather than bashing them over the head with all six?

But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. And the more I thought about the Suites and how important they had been in my career and my life, the more I realized they really did belong together as a cycle. A Gradus ad Parnassum, almost, starting with the G major suite (No. 1, which is playable by some well-taught children of eight or nine), progressing through the harder D minor (No. 2) and C major (No. 3) Suites until you get to the “big three,” the really hard stuff: the E-flat major (No. 4), the C minor (No. 5, in which Bach asks us to tune our A-string down to a G, a setup which is very hard to get used to), and the mighty D major (No. 6), which is, on a four-string cello, bloody difficult.

To be honest, it was the difficulty of No. 6 that had stopped me performing a “Bach marathon” in the past. How could I, after playing five long, complicated pieces, have the strength to play something that compelled me to zoom up the highest reaches of the register and twist my fingers into all manner of uncomfortable shapes?

That’s when I hit upon the idea of doing what the cellists I admire the most do: getting a five-string cello. No one can say without a shadow of a doubt exactly the instrument Bach had in mind when he directed us to play à cinque cordes, though Dmitry Badiarov has made a pretty convincing case for the violoncello da spalla. I knew right away that I had neither the funds nor the time to buy one of these marvellous shoulder-held cellos and figure out how to play it, so I hit upon the idea of commissioning a five-string cello from Luis & Clark, since I knew that it would be relatively familiar to play and would have a sound that I liked.

There was now no excuse not to do a Bach marathon, and so I find myself preparing daily for this concert, which will take place on January 16 here at the University of Idaho and which I hope to repeat at other venues.

One problem remained: exactly how do you prepare for such an event? Comparatively few people do this, so I didn’t have a rule-book to refer to.

The first question was: repeats, or no repeats? In Bach’s binary dances (i.e. every movement except the Prelude that begins each Suite) so much of the sense of balance and proportion comes from having repeats, plus, the second time affords you the opportunity to add a few improvised ornaments. Big problem, however: when I timed myself playing with all repeats, the total time of the concert came to well over two and a half hours, which seemed like a big ask, both for me and for the audience.

So with some trepidation, I decided to ask strangers on the internet. This is a thing I ordinarily hesitate to do, since as we all know, the internet is full of terrible mansplainers. (There are two ways to deal with mansplainers: the delete button, or, if you’re feeling particularly ornery, replying “Nice mansplaining there, buddy!” which will cause them to lose their minds.) I went on an internet forum where a lot of cellists hang out and asked if anyone had done a Bach marathon, and if so, had they done the repeats.

A few commenters jumped in to tell me I was a moron (I ignored them). A few people who actually knew something about the subject offered thoughtful opinions. A couple had done Bach marathons and found they’d got much tireder than they thought they would after just two or three Suites, and wished they hadn’t done repeats. After much consideration, I decided I wouldn’t do repeats, and would save my improvised ornaments for a later studio recording.

Next problem: how do you practise for such a long and hard concert when you have a full teaching load of lectures and studio students, not to mention rehearsals and concerts and travel and class prep and grading and email and freelance writing, and your practice time is at a premium? Clearly, I was going to have to apportion my time very carefully.

That was when I had the idea of practising only two Suites a day, but in pairings that would allow me to “review” the “easy” Suites (1-3), which I’d performed dozens of times, and work in detail on the “hard” Suites (4-6), which I hadn’t done as often, and in the case of No. 6, only ever on a four-string cello.

My pairings went like this, and I did them for six days of every week:

  1. G major and D major (two major keys, both pieces in the “transcendent” style)
  2. D minor and C minor (two minor keys, the most “French” of the Suites, both in a melancholy style)
  3. C major and E-flat major (two major keys, both in a more “jovial” style than the G major and D major)
  4. D minor and D major (parallel modes)
  5. C major and C minor (parallel modes)
  6. G major and E-flat major (somewhat related major keys)

On the seventh day, I did a mish-mash of movements that were the hardest for me: usually, the D minor Menuets; E-flat major Prelude, Sarabande, and Gigue; C minor Prelude and Allemande; D major Prelude and Sarabande.

This way I felt I was covering each Suite relatively often and relatively well. The only problem was that I did tend to get overly stuck on the Preludes and Allemandes, which tend to be the longest and most complicated movements in each Suite. I solved this problem by starting with the Gigues first and working backwards.

The rest of the difficulty lies in being true to the score, which is hard when no J. S. Bach autograph exists. I’m working mostly from Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy, but referring to the other three manuscript sources (Johann Peter Kellner, Westphal, Anonymous Viennese) and the Norblin edition (first print). And until someone buys me this for Christmas (hint! hint! Come on, it’s only 400 euros), I have to do this by flipping back and forth. I documented some of my struggles on Instagram:

…and added a few videos of myself practising the five-string cello:

I have a month and a half to go. I’m nervous but excited too.

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In Memoriam Phyllis Young, 1925-2017

Mrs Young and MW

Miranda Wilson with Phyllis Young, Austin, 2005

Sixteen Novembers ago, on a grey, dreary day, a bright yellow book fell off a London library shelf and landed on my feet. Had it not done this, my life might have turned out considerably differently.

Playing The String Game by Phyllis Young wasn’t your average book of string pedagogy. Every aspect of teaching technique was conveyed in imaginative, kinesthetic language, accompanied by whimsical line drawings. Even quite hard concepts, like teaching a child to hold the bow, were made into an entertaining game. “See this imaginary bucket of water? I’d like you to dip your right hand into it…” “…Pick a strawberry with your second finger and thumb, then take a fresh hold on the bow…” [1]

As I flipped through her book, I thought This woman knows everything about teaching people cello.

I knew that I wanted to teach. I also knew that London, where I’d been studying, was a place of strange hierarchies and caste systems, a game whose rules no one would let me in on, an endless series of slammed doors and rejection letters. Phyllis Young’s biography said she was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a place I had never heard of. An idea came into my head. I checked out the book, then hurried out of the library and into an internet cafe across the street. Before I could lose my nerve, I looked up the University of Texas, found Phyllis Young’s email address, and composed a message in which I asked whether she had any places in her doctoral program.

Two days later, I had a response. Yes, she was accepting new doctoral candidates, and yes, I might come to Austin and audition for her. I went to a travel agent bought a plane ticket.

I had never been to America before, except for the transit lounge at Los Angeles, a stepping-stone between my home in New Zealand and my adopted country, Britain. I was dimly aware of New York City and Washington DC, but Texas was only a name on a map. I found myself at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport one late night in January 2002, ready for the adventure I was sure was in store.

Things started badly when I tried to get in the driver’s door of the taxi I’d hailed to take me to my hotel. Then when I got to the hotel, I was astonished to be addressed by the Texan proprietor as “Ma’am.” I assumed he must be addressing someone standing behind me, so I looked around, but I was the only person in the lobby. Had he mistaken me for a grown-up? O brave new world!

Almost as soon as I’d put my bags down, the telephone in my hotel room rang. “Is this Mirinda?” said a bright, heavily-accented voice. “This is Phyllis Young.” We conversed for twenty minutes, during which she did most of the talking, and I tried to respond as politely as I could given that I could understand almost nothing of what she said. Finally, she ordered “Come to my office tomorrow at four. I’m going to hang up now.” Click.

I got lost in the cavernous lobby of the School of Music and then in the tangle of green-carpeted hallways and mezzanines before I found my way to Mrs. Young’s office on the fifth floor.

A colourful vision greeted me at the door. I had learned from my researches that Mrs. Young was in her late seventies, but the woman before me looked at least thirty years younger. She was as tall as me, slender, and clad in a silk blouse of boldest yellows, oranges, and pinks. Her hair was a swirling confection the colour of butterscotch pudding. Two bright brown eyes — which I later learned missed absolutely nothing — looked back appraisingly at me. “Mercy!” exclaimed the vision. “Why, you’re a real pretty girl. They must make a fuss of you in Luhn-don!

“Er, no, they really don’t,” I said, and the vision pealed with laughter. “Honey,” she said conspiratorially, “you have just a little bit of an ayac-cent.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but she went on. “You must be hungry, honey. I’m going to take you to dinner now.” She drove me — terrifyingly, talking a mile a minute as she screeched around corners — to the biggest, flashiest restaurant I had ever seen, and ordered a platter of shrimp so enormous that I could only stare at them. An elderly admirer of hers who had joined us (“He’s not my sweetheart, honey”), and who insisted on paying the not insubstantial bill, proudly informed me that “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” I was enchanted.

After dinner, Mrs. Young wanted to show me her splendid home in West Austin, with its view of Palladio Point from the vast picture windows that extended the entire length of one side of the house. Brilliantly-coloured souvenirs from Mrs. Young’s many travels covered the shelves, and the white walls were hung with vivid abstract paintings by an artist called Felice Giovanni. (Mrs. Young confided that Felice Giovanni was none other than herself. Was there anything she couldn’t do?!) I asked if Mr. Young were home, since Mrs. Young’s answering machine message said “Phyllis and Giorgio Young.” More peals of laughter. “Giorgio is my little dog,” she told me. “He can talk, you know.” Right on cue, an immaculately groomed white dog clattered out onto the tiled floor to greet me. “He understands present, past and future tenses.”

Mrs. Young always had a huge studio of cello students, a workload I later realized was far more than a full-time professorial teaching load. Her graduates could be found all over the world as professors, orchestral players, studio teachers, schoolteachers, and freelancers of all stripes. She was proud of them all, but especially of the one who’d ended up in the New York Philharmonic. Her teaching style was characterized by simple, easily memorable kinesthetic methods: “No hills, no valleys, no detours!” was her instruction on left wrist positioning; she got you to find your left arm’s correct elevation by knocking your fist (“A friendly fist”) up and down the string so you could shift easily between neck and thumb position. If you messed up a shift on an up-bow, she’d have you play it on a down-bow to see if it went better, and then instruct you to imitate the down-bow’s sound with the up-bow. Noticing my tendency to play flat-knuckled, she showed me how to maintain a pronounced bend in my base knuckles, which improved not only my intonation in thumb position but my ability to vibrate freely too. Her solutions to technical problems demystified the idea of having “good technique,” a thing that’s often presented as impossible to attain for all except a lucky, very exclusive club of top players.

I mean no disloyalty when I say that Mrs. Young and I weren’t a good fit for each other as teacher and student. Some of it was that we had trouble with each other’s accents — our conversations were hampered by mutual incomprehension, such as the hilarious occasion when she repeatedly told me I was “a little hottie,” and it wasn’t until several hours later that I realized she was scolding me for being haughty. And our priorities were wildly different: I was interested in analysis and scholarly performing editions and so on, and Mrs. Young wasn’t. Her concept of musical interpretation was joyous, almost childlike. She loved the big Romantic pieces, and didn’t much care for new music. When I protested that I’d like to play some, she said she’d compromise by letting me learn George Crumb’s solo sonata — a piece composed in 1955! She had no truck with the early music movement either, preferring long, singing lines and continuous wide vibrato — a “Texas-sized tone,” she called it. Woe betide you if you wanted to learn Bach in a more historically-informed manner. “Bach without vibrato? You won’t get a job if you play like that,” was Mrs. Young’s scathing response to my protests.

We fought constantly over this, and over her insistence on bowing with flat hair, a thing I found uncomfortable. Eventually, she told me “Well, honey, you can do what you want, but your tiny little tone isn’t going to impress many people.” Nettled, I retorted — with a malice of which I was immediately ashamed — “I would rather listen to a cellist with a small tone and something musically interesting to say than a cellist with a big syrupy tone and nothing behind it.”

There was a dreadful silence while we both took in what had just occurred. It simply wasn’t done to answer back to Mrs. Young, especially not when it came to the Texas-sized tone. Finally she spoke, in her normal voice. “Honey, I hope you’re not expecting to have a career.” Mrs Young 1, Miranda 0. What a horrid brat I was!

Even if we were often at loggerheads, Mrs. Young inspired my admiration. She had been on the University of Texas faculty since the nineteen-forties, when she was the only woman professor in the School of Music. She had plenty of stories about institutional sexism and male colleagues who patronized and condescended to her, dumped a pile of work on her, then took credit for her achievements. These experiences had shaped her into a staunch feminist and, in her own words, “a yellow-dog Democrat.” “What’s a yellow-dog Democrat?” I said. (Goodness, what a curious turn of phrase these Texans had.) “It means that if the Democrats nominated a yellow dog for their candidate, I’d vote for him,” said Mrs. Young.

It wasn’t until we attended a reception hosted by a philanthropic foundation for retired professional women together that I understood something about why Mrs. Young was the way she was. All the ladies in the organization, which had given me a generous scholarship, had had careers as judges and professors and lawyers and surgeons. It was like being in a room full of Mrs. Youngs. Like her, they were perfect Texan ladies: impressively coiffed, made up, bejewelled, and dressed in dazzling colours. Like her, they all went by the title Mrs. even though they had earned the right to use Dr. or Judge or Professor, and like her, their sweet speaking voices came with minds like steel traps. They had been pioneers in their fields in a time when men really didn’t want them there. I suddenly realized that Mrs. Young’s eccentric demeanour might not have been innate, but a persona carefully cultivated to trick those chauvinistic male professors into finding her unthreatening.

I often wondered how Mrs. Young’s life might have been different had she been born in 1945 instead of 1925. Might the women’s movement have made it possible for her to spend less time doing things for other people, and more time on things for herself? By the time I knew her, she hadn’t played in public for many years, but in her youth she’d been the star student of Horace Britt and a member of André Navarra’s masterclass in Italy. Her demonstrations in lessons, even at eighty, were technically impressive. What must she have sounded like at the height of her powers?

One day, I had the chance to find out. My two best friends from studio, A and J, came bouncing into my practice room, breathless and chattering. “I wanted to know if there were any recordings of PY,” said A, “so I looked up the online catalogue in the Fine Arts Library and there was an old tape from the 1940s. I think we should go over and listen to it.”

“We mustn’t!” I said. “Mrs Young wouldn’t like it. She’d go ballistic.”

“What PY doesn’t know won’t make her ballistic,” said A seraphically. “Are you coming or not?”

We hurried out into the sunshine, filled with glee over the wickedness we were about to commit. With our best butter-wouldn’t-melt expressions, we convinced first a librarian, then an archivist, then the archivist’s boss to go on an hour-long search for an ancient reel-to-reel cassette and an archaic machine for playing it on. Finally, we plugged headphones into the adaptive sound system.

First on the tape was the Bach C minor suite, played very much in the highly vibrated, sostenuto tradition of the mid-twentieth century, but with careful nuance and the long, long phrases of the “golden thread” that Mrs. Young always exhorted us to spin. Next was a Romantic piece that we couldn’t identify, and later learned was the Variations Symphoniques by Léon Boëllmann. Last, a Vivaldi concerto played with orchestral accompaniment. It was simply beautiful playing, the kind that makes you want to listen again and again. I felt a kind of mourning that this was Mrs. Young’s single contribution to recorded history. Would anyone digitize this frail treasure before it crumbled into ashes?

Everyone who knew Mrs. Young can describe her unstoppable energy, her generosity, and her kindness. She was so, so kind to me, even if I didn’t always deserve it. One day she found me weeping in a practice room over a broken love affair. “What’s the matter, honey?”

I told her.

“Oh, you’ve left that boy? I’m so glad,” was her response. I looked up in amazement. “Mirinda, honey,” she explained, “you’re such a pretty girl, and that boy, well, he was kinda homely. I was so worried y’all wouldn’t have pretty babies.”

This revelation surprised me so much that I burst out laughing. All of a sudden I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed and laughed until my sides hurt, and Mrs. Young laughed too, and we fell into each other’s arms, bonding guiltily over our lookist prejudice. Dear Mrs. Young!

Later, to cheer me up, Mrs. Young took me to see the American Ballet Theatre, and the next day insisted on making a present of a bracelet she’d been wearing that I’d admired. I treasure it. I’ve kept it on ever since I learned of her death two days ago. How kind she was.

After I left UT, I got to see Mrs. Young one more time when she came to visit me at my then home in Boulder, Colorado, where she had travelled to visit some of her family. She asked after my career, and then, while I was making lunch for her in my landlady’s kitchen, wanted to know if I’d met any marvellous men recently. Blushing, I admitted that I had.

“What’s his name, honey?” she wanted to know.

“Sean,” I said.

“Well, I want to know his last name too!” insisted Mrs. Young. I told her that it was Butterfield.

Mrs. Young was silent for a moment, her head on one side, fixing that all-seeing gaze on me. “Well, honey,” she said brightly, “you know that a lot of girls keep their maiden names these days.”

She wouldn’t come to our wedding less than a year later, saying that it was a long way to travel to watch someone say “I do.” For a wedding present, she wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation that helped me get my job at the University of Idaho.

After that, I didn’t hear from Mrs. Young for a while. And then I got a long letter from her. She had evidently decided that I needed to learn an important lesson. “As you may possibly remember, you were pretty blunt to some of us here at UT but you managed OK because Texans tend to be a bit more forgiving than some others — especially when the person is a guest from another country.  We tend to think that bluntness or the lack of sensitivity might be a general characteristic of the people who live in that country.” She went on: “Remember: Try very hard not to say anything blunt or unpleasant to any faculty, staff, or student there in your Idaho job. We never know who will be appointed or elected to serve on the faculty committee which will decide our fate when the question of re-hiring or the matter of tenure comes up. It seems that almost everything is revealed and discussed openly in these committees which are always held behind closed doors. And we never know which staff members or students might be quoted.”

She signed it “Phyllis.”

Reading this sent me into a fit of the sulks. Even after all these years, was I still in trouble with Mrs. Young? I’d grown up now; I’d changed; I wasn’t the same early-twenties brat any more. I knew how to behave myself in a faculty meeting and I wasn’t stupid enough to pick fights with colleagues. Couldn’t she stop scolding me, ever?

Then I felt ashamed of myself, remembering how kind she had been to me and how disagreeable I had been to her, always arguing when I should have been listening. Eventually I wrote a careful response saying that I was grateful for her wise advice, and that I asked her forgiveness for all the times I had been disrespectful.

She didn’t write back, and I never heard from her again.

I learned later that she had written many letters to former students that month. She’d received a dismaying diagnosis, but she didn’t tell us that. She was writing to us to say goodbye, to teach us one last “life lesson” that she knew we needed to know.

Just like the cover of her book, Phyllis Young was a sunburst of bright yellow in a world full of grey. How lucky we were to know her. Her legacy lives on in the thousands of lives that she touched. How we loved her, and how we miss her.

[1] Phyllis Young, Playing the String Game. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1978, 22-24.

© Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

Open secrets

I’ve been following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo hashtag on social media recently, and keep reading the same comment, usually (though not always) voiced by men: “Why didn’t they speak out? If everyone knew, why didn’t they do something?”

I’m not an actor, but as a member of another profession for which there are exponentially more aspiring workers than there are jobs, I think I know why.

It’s an open secret that certain top figures in the classical music world are sleazebags. Everyone knows who they are. I can think of at least one well-known cellist who was reputed to have been grossly inappropriate with younger players. Another was universally known to have raped someone. Everyone knew, and there were no consequences for this person, ever.

Musicians aren’t monsters, and to be fair, I’d say the majority would at least warn  colleagues about known lechers. I remember a few times, early in my career, when kind colleagues would tacitly make sure I was never left alone with a person who was known to harass and/or grope young women. I now do this myself, for example by offering rides home if someone is about to get in a car with someone she shouldn’t. I didn’t contribute to the #metoo campaign last week, but of course I’ve had my share of unwanted male attention, both verbal and physical, and I don’t know a woman who hasn’t. It’s clear that the discreet warnings and pre-emptive chauffeuring are woefully inadequate responses to a serious and widespread problem.

Why does this happen? Why won’t we confront these creeps? Call the police? Kick up a fuss? Because we don’t want trouble. Troublemakers don’t get hired again, and most of us have worked way, way too hard building our careers to want to do anything that would jeopardize them. If you won’t put up with a person in power who leers at you and pinches your backside, someone else will be found in five seconds flat. Such is the nature of a profession with a neverending supply of young up-and-comers.

I’m glad that the Hollywood establishment will no longer (so it claims) tolerate the revolting behaviour Weinstein got away with for so long. I’m also heartened to see several groups, such as She Bangs The Drum, finally giving a voice to people who for so long were afraid to speak out about the epidemic of harassment and assault in the music profession. I feel emboldened to be more direct the next time I witness something that’s unacceptable, and I hope widespread systemic change is coming, and soon.

We’ve still got music

I should remind myself not to look at social media right after an appalling tragedy, because reading the same meaningless platitudes (“thoughts and prayers”) again and again makes me feel so hopeless and powerless and enraged. But for me, a day without social media is like a day without oxygen, so of course I looked. @carnegiehall had this to say:

And I thought, OK, we can do that. It’s what we’re trained to do.

My next thought: who’s listening? Most people don’t like or listen to classical music, so who is this really for?

I scrolled further, and there was @stevenisserlis with this quote from “On Music” by Thomas Moore:

Which says it all, really.  What we do, classical music, might not speak to everyone, but in times of distress, we who make it have the privilege of being able to take comfort in it. Music is our life’s work, the soundtrack and very fabric of our lives. It’s there when words fail. I can’t find solace in “thoughts and prayers” because I do not and cannot believe. But we have music, we’ve still got music.

And once more I turn to Bach’s cello suites…

 

The next chapter: Bach on five strings

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My first Luis & Clark cello, which my puppy loves almost as much as I do.

Bach’s six suites for solo cello have been a major research area of mine for a long time now. After much reflection, I’ve decided to play my first ever marathon concert of all six suites in the upcoming Idaho Bach Festival (January 16-20, 2018).

Six years ago, when I did my first Bach 36 project, I was frustrated by the poor tone quality I was producing in Suite No. 6. It’s written for a cello that has five strings, as opposed to the usual four, and while you can play it on a standard cello, it’s fiendishly hard and you really miss that high E-string Bach had in mind. A five-string cello is basically like a hybrid of a cello and a violin, and lets you play much more easily in the upper register.

Well, to cut a long story short, I fell head over heels in love with my Luis & Clark carbon fiber cello when I bought it two years ago, and I knew it was possible to custom-order a five-string version from this brilliant company. With the generous support of the University of Idaho College of Arts, Letters & Social Sciences-Office for Research and Economic Development Partnership, plus further research funds from the Dean of the College of Arts, Letters & Social Sciences, I was able to do this, and I’ve fallen in love all over again.

pablo (16)

I never want to play the Sixth Suite on four strings ever again — and what’s more, I’m also inspired to re-learn some other high-tessitura repertoire, such as the Franck sonata, Schubert’s arpeggione sonata, and Haydn’s D major concerto on five strings.

This is what I did when I first lifted my new treasure out of its shipping carton:

(By the way, I’ve become addicted to Instagram. I know, I know, I’m a late adopter. I started after I read a piece online about musicians who’ve exponentially grown their careers through this media. I took a look, and my first thought was that it was the most narcissistic thing I had ever seen in my life. My second thought was “I could totally do that!” and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. The filters are fun to play with, and the video uploading feature is a breath of fresh air after trying to deal with YouTube and basically giving up because its interface is so clunky.)

Playing the five-string cello turned out to be harder than I’d anticipated. The strings were rather closer together than on a four-string cello, and I kept bumping into the adjacent string to the one I was playing on. The hardest string to play was the D, which is right in the middle of the fingerboard where I’m not used to having a string. But I’m sufficiently convinced by my experiment with playing eighteenth-century music on space-age materials that I don’t think I’ll go back to a four-string cello for the Sixth Suite, that’s for sure. It kind of feels like cheating after all those years I spent practising the high bits and the hard chords!

Here’s an excerpt from the Allemande from this morning’s practice session.

To smile, or not to smile?

happy face

Many years ago, I attended a summer chamber music school whose faculty were top international artists. During one of the daily masterclasses, a young piano trio performed the Brahms C major op. 87. The piece has its difficulties, and every time the players got through one of the tricky spots, they would look up from their scores and grin broadly at each other.

After they’d finished, a couple of the faculty yelled at them. They said it was not appropriate to pull those wild grinning faces, that it was unprofessional, that it detracted from the music.

Everyone knows that you shouldn’t pull a face or shake your head when you make a mistake in performance. My first teacher once advised me “Don’t, for goodness’ sake, let the audience know you’ve made a mistake, because most of them won’t know the piece. If you pull a face, they’ll know instantly that you did something wrong and it will lessen their enjoyment.” Wise words — and in a thought-provoking post at The Bulletproof Musician, Dr. Noa Kageyama backs up the need to keep a “poker face” with psychology research into audience reactions to a performer’s demeanour.

But what about the happy faces?

Another one of my teachers told me that smiling during performance was a “provincial habit.” I was so eager to please him that I never asked what he meant. So I was interested to watch this video from TheStrad.com of a masterclass with the cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, where he instructs a group of students performing Beethoven’s trio op. 1 no. 3 “If you’re kind of stone-faced all the time, it’s very difficult to really have the…it just informs the rest of your body… The body believes what the face is doing. You have to convince yourself that this is real, that… the teacher said that it has to be bright, but there is brightness here.” Later, when the students start to play more energetically, Elschenbroich comments “I can hear it when you smile!”

The photographer for the Red Lodge Music Festival, where I play and teach every summer, took this snapshot of me during a performance of the Prokofiev sonata.

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I didn’t actually realize that I was smiling as I played. All I remember is how happy I was to make great music with a great colleague, in front of a nice audience, and getting paid for it. (What a privilege it is to be a musician—to be allowed to be a musician!) I honestly don’t even think about my face that much when I play, other than making a conscious effort to keep it relaxed, since facial tension can cause tension in other parts of the body, inhibiting efficient technique.

And yet, I know myself to be one of those people who is incapable of disguising their feelings, and the photo did give me cause to wonder whether I was becoming the kind of face-pulling clown my mentors would have scorned. So Elschenbroich’s comments made me feel better.

Maybe the “mistake face” is the one that we should definitely avoid, but the “happy face” isn’t necessarily bad?

“Canon-Splaining”: Harvard’s Curriculum Change and the Formerly Sacred Cows of Academic Music

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Harvard University’s music department recently caused some controversy in academic music circles with a plan to change their undergraduate curriculum in a way that eliminated certain core theory requirements and included some previously neglected topics such as world musics and pop.

Now, I love the canon as much as anyone, but I actually think this is kind of a cool idea. Harvard is by its very nature an elite institution that attracts lots of the sort of students who’ve had 10+ years of pre-college private music education, so to expand their offerings to students without that background is surely not driven by a need to recruit. Even though I teach at a university at the opposite end of the privilege spectrum, I can imagine that Harvard’s ideas might enrich any music curriculum.

You only need to scroll down to the comments section to hear about the outrage of many academics. (Summary: “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR-PART CHORALES?????”) I agree with them that academic rigour and advanced understanding of music are important. I disagree with their view that Harvard is “dumbing down.” Nowhere in the explanations of the new curriculum does it say that they’re making it easier. Nowhere does it say that they won’t be studying any traditional Western music fundamentals. What it does say is that they’ll be taking  classes called “Thinking About Music” and “Critical Listening.”

Which are surely concepts we could all get behind. Aren’t critical thinking and listening what we’re trying to accomplish anyway?

I’ve thought for some time that certain aspects of traditional college curricula have been given more importance than they perhaps deserve. Being incurably nerdy, I relish the geeky pleasures of four-part writing, species counterpoint, and all the rest of it, but I don’t see why our theory and history textbooks focus so much on, say, serialism, an episode in Western art music that I consider rather overstated in the academy and much less important to the long view of twentieth-century Western music history than octatonicism. And I say this as an enthusiast of the Second Viennese School. Sure, let’s study Berg’s Lyric Suite and so forth, but I admit I have very little interest in the post-Webern serialists, and if we’re talking post-WW2, I’d rather listen to what the composers in the politically constrained Soviet Union were doing because I find that their music speaks more meaningfully to me.

And to audiences, who will typically only give a “modern” piece of music one chance. No wonder music lovers feel so alienated from the Western “art” music of the past fifty years when the academy insists on feeding it to them as if it’s some kind of yucky vegetable that you have to chew through virtuously before you can have ice cream (Tchaikovsky). And when the academy insists that pop and rock music aren’t as valid as “art” music, and confines anything non-Western to non-compulsory electives within the music degree.

(BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR-PART CHORALES?????)

I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that students oughtn’t to learn the fundamentals of what make Western music work. But I do wonder if music educators everywhere, myself included, couldn’t do a better job of explaining why we do these things. In addition to teaching cello, I get to teach a two-semester course in aural skills, and I’ve started presenting the material as a class both in professional-level musicianship (i.e. “you gotta count, people, it’s what gets you gigs”) and in the nuts and bolts of what makes great music great. That is, why we cite Mozart so much when we’re talking about phrase structure. Why we base the rules about parallel perfect consonances around what Bach was doing. Bach and Mozart didn’t know they were obeying the “rules”; those rules were written by nineteenth-century music theorists. Mozart and Bach just thought they were writing some good music.

This, as opposed to “Write a four-part chorale and don’t you dare have any parallel perfect consonances OR ELSE” without explanation or rationale. (Should we get in a time machine, travel to medieval France, and explain–canon-splain?–to the polyphonists of the Notre Dame School that they were “doing it wrong”?)

And you know what? I think we could all stand to know what makes great Indian music and Balinese music and Ghanaian music great too. What makes a well-written pop song work? What is it that differentiates the good from the mediocre in any genre? What does this music mean to the people who make it? Mightn’t studying a more diverse range of musics help us all learn something about what it is to be human?

But when you talk about dispensing with a sacred cow or two (Schubert seems to come up a lot in this discussion, for some reason), this drives some folks crazy.

And in a way this un-diverse mindset reminds me of some episodes in the history of, say, race relations, where certain sectors of white society were very reluctant to give up white privilege because they saw this as favouritism towards people of colour. To them, requests for them to give up their white privilege were an outrage, a prejudicial attack on white people, because it disrupted a hierarchy that they assumed to be innate, to be the natural order of things.

No one likes to give up their particular position in the academic musical firmament. (I should know: I’m a cellist who performs mostly canonical works and whose current major research interest is Bach.) I too have devoted my life to studying and performing Western “art” music, and I love it passionately. But this current controversy goes to show that we should think very, very hard about why academics are getting so mad about what Harvard is doing.

And by the way, Schubert isn’t going to go away. I just Googled him and in less than half a second I got 40.6 million results, so I will make the assumption that if he gets skimped on in the new Music History 101 class, people can, if they wish, learn something about Die schöne Müllerin.

Masterclasses: personal vs. musical?

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Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Music Lesson. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This morning I read Strad interview with the violist Kim Kashkashian about things she’d like to tell her younger self, and was very taken with her assertion that we should “remove the personal and concentrate on the music.” She illustrated this with an anecdote:

I once saw the composer György Kurtág teach a masterclass during which he reduced one student to a puddle of tears. His wife Márta, who was sitting in the audience, came up to him and said ‘György! György! Stop now!’ Only then did he see that the student was upset. ‘Why are you crying?’ he asked. ‘We’re just working on the music – we’re one musical family. Why are you crying?’

I liked Kashkashian’s advice to take the personal out of it. It’s good to remember that most criticism is a gift. It may hurt at the time, but it’s rarely meant personally and almost always intended to help us get better. But I was taken aback that Kurtág hadn’t even noticed the effect he was having on a student (though to his credit, his response to his wife’s warning was kind). Surely most of us would recognize that a student couldn’t handle what we were saying, and back off?

That made me start thinking about the whole tricky phenomenon of the masterclass. Now that I’m on the giving rather than receiving end of them, I wonder more and more what they’re actually for.

Clearly, they’re a chance for a student to have a lesson they otherwise wouldn’t get to have–but how much is truly accomplished under the pressure of performing in front of one’s peers, and possibly one’s own regular teacher?

Is it so the visiting maestro can posture and grandstand in front of a captive audience?

Is it to give some amazing life-changing revelation to the student so that she will now be able to play far better (in the moment, at least, under the influence of a jolt of adrenaline), while her regular teacher sits in the corner feeling sad that he’s never been able to get her to play half so well?

Is it one of those chores that touring musicians just have to do when they visit a conservatory, but find a bit boring and annoying?

When I was a student, I hated masterclasses. I always felt awkward and embarrassed, but it was impressed upon me that I ought to take every chance I could to be in one. There were good ones and bad ones. I never had a truly awful one myself, but I remember being in the audience for several where the student on the stage was fighting off tears, or lost the fight altogether.

Maybe the teachers thought they were toughening the students up? But were they oblivious to the fact that they were having exactly the opposite effect? What good came of this?

Once, at an international competition, I watched a member of the jury well known for her terrifying personality reduce a student to jelly by shouting at her to take her woolen hat off. It was an icy winter day and the hall was far from warm, and I didn’t see what a big deal it was for the girl to keep her hat on. The jury member wasn’t having it, though, and delivered a five-minute monologue on how incredibly rude it was not to take one’s hat off in a masterclass, even after the girl had removed it and was sitting there in tears, her head bowed over her cello in shame.

What exactly was accomplished here? Did it help the student improve? What would she take away from this class? Probably nothing, besides an anecdote that might one day become funny about that time she met Mme. So-and-So and got screamed at.

On another occasion, at the Manchester Cello Festival, I observed a leading international soloist ridicule a way the student played the chords in the opening solo of the Dvorak concerto by comparing him to a duck. “Da-dee-da-dee-da, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, QUACK!” he bellowed. “That is how you sound!” The audience tittered sycophantically. I don’t think the student found it all that funny.

There are times, I think, when it is personal.

When I’m teaching a masterclass, I’m mindful of the fact that the student is probably nervous, both because she doesn’t know me well and because she’s having to perform both for a stranger and for an audience of her fellow students and possibly also her teacher. There’s a lot at stake for her.

The balance of honour and loyalties is a fine one. I’m always careful to set students at their ease by making a joke, usually at my own expense, and to precede my advice with “Now, I’m sure you’re already working with your teacher on this concept…” so that the regular teacher isn’t embarrassed. (Not “Has your teacher ever talked to you about playing closer to the bridge?” The nervous student, put on the spot, looks mystified and mutters”No!” even though the teacher has, in fact, told her repeatedly to play close to the bridge. Meanwhile, the teacher goes hot and cold with mortification in the audience.)

Sometimes you get a student who really is hopeless, like the poor Dvorak-player in Manchester, but what’s the point in ridiculing? Under the right conditions, anyone can improve their playing, even if they aren’t going to be the next Yo Yo Ma. It’s my job to help people get better. If I’m being paid to do something, I need to do my job.

Sometimes I wonder if masterclass-givers ought to sign some kind of equivalent to the Hippocratic oath before they’re allowed to teach one. “First, do no harm.” Second, really don’t make it personal. Hold people to strict standards of musicianship, but be gentle with them. If we expect a student to focus on the music, so too should the teacher.

Show up, look at the camera, face the music

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A student and I were discussing stage fright, one of my favourite subjects. “This might sound like a silly question,” she said, “but where are you supposed to look when you perform?”

No such thing as a silly question.

I’ve written about this quandary before in the epilogue to my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance Several years ago, I had a moment of revelation when I realized that one of my top technical problems–bowing my head and hunching over while playing the cello–was caused by my introvert’s fear of other people.

“Even after what I’d learned about my habit of looking down while playing, it was incredibly hard to stop doing this. My natural shyness made me incredibly reluctant to look at the audience while I played, for fear of accidentally making eye contact.” (1)

I found a solution to my problem by taking inspiration from the way that television newsreaders appear to gaze steadily and naturally at the “audience” (even if it’s only the camera). What would happen if a newsreader delivered the news with her head down? Her message would be lost.

And it’s not that different for us, the performers of music, and the messages we want to share.

I asked my student “What would happen if you looked at the audience while you were performing?”

She looked taken aback.

I continued: “What’s the worst thing that could happen? That they might look back at you?”

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But seriously, would that be so terrible? Why does a musical performance have to be this hallowed thing where the person on the stage seems so remote that they might as well be on TV?

News flash, they can already see you and you can already see them. Why do we pretend that we can’t see each other for what we truly are? 

I’m reminded of another student who came into my office a couple of years ago with an end-of-semester gift for my assistant. “But if I can ask you for a favour,” she said, “don’t tell him it was from me.”

“But why?” I asked, and then “Oh.

The student squirmed. “Please just don’t tell him.”

“If that’s how you feel about him,” I said, “why don’t you ask him for a date? The class is over, you’re graduating, he’s graduating, and he’s no longer your teacher in any capacity.”

She was shocked. “I couldn’t!” she exclaimed. “He might…he might see me.”

I repeat: would that be so terrible? To make ourselves vulnerable, to give ourselves a chance to share our true feelings in the hopes that love may be reciprocated?

Why do we hide our innermost and most beautiful feelings? Why do we worry so much about what “they” might think when in reality, chances are that “they” are so wrapped up in their own pain and their own anxieties that they aren’t thinking anything negative about us at all?

The answer is that sometimes our displays of vulnerability don’t end well at all. The question is whether or not we take the chance to do this at all. I’m here to say that I think we should. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson reminds us in section 27 of In Memoriam, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.”

Those lines have become a cliché, but they’re good words to live by. Performing is like that. Putting yourself out there and truthfully expressing the emotion of music to an audience who needs that music now more than ever.

We live in troubled times. In the face of this horror, it’s so tempting to withdraw into silence. When we are scared or we don’t know what to say, it’s all too tempting to fix our gaze on the floor, to hide behind the music stand, to go inwards.

Or we can be exceptionally brave, and speak the truth. There’s that expression “facing the music.” Even when there are a few things in music—and in life—that we don’t want to face, it’s the artist’s job to do so. We must show up. We must speak the truth. We must be grateful when others show up to hear and see us.

The world may be falling apart, but we still have music. And it’s in music that I find answers. When I’m at my saddest, I turn to one of my most beloved pieces of music, Bach’s Actus tragicus BWV 106 (“Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”).

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The crossing recorder parts remind me of all the crossroads at which we find ourselves. The “footstepping” basso continuo line (my job!) reminds me that we are always walking towards the unknowable, and we mustn’t look away.

We still have music, and we still have each other. My answer to the student was that we must walk out onto the stage and look out at the audience, look at their faces, and think–or say!–“Thank you for showing up. I’m grateful for you.” 

And then do what we do best, in the hopes that it may, even in some tiny part, take some of their pain from them.

© Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.

(1) Miranda Wilson, Cello Practice, Cello Performance (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 116.