My first memory of recording was singing along with my parents’ Mitch Miller LP. Sprawled on the floor, propped on our elbows, my brother and I sang into a compact cassette player while the record spun. Over and over we pressed clunky buttons on the recorder and shrieked while we sang, convulsing with reckless laugher and aching sides. Each replay was more hilarious than the last.
Fast forward to the serious side of recording--college audition tapes. Believe me, that's no laughing matter. I recorded at a studio owned by a family friend, Garman O. Kimmel, a man who knew something about recording. “For 30 years, Kimmell recorded, edited, and produced for radio the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra’s weekly performances, all at his own expense. He eventually did so on a state-of-the-art tape recorder machine that he and A. P. Van Meter designed and built.” from So much to give, the legacy of Garman Kimmel. Cut and dried and state-of-the-art, we got the job done.
As a freelancer I’ve done a variety of session work through the years--all in recording studios. That is, until recently. My last few gigs were home studio sessions. It's fascinating to see their workspace--a converted garage, a niche in a bedroom and an entire basement repurposed as a recording studio. Home studios instill a relaxed atmosphere that makes the work more amiable. And it's a welcoming touch to be greeted by the family dog.
My son writes songs but evades the studio. His charts and mp3 files arrive first in a Dropbox folder. Then with laptop and microphone in tow, he travels to record one band member at a time. (I’m honored that he makes a 1,000 mile journey to include me in his music.) It's a joy to make music with him! For an entire afternoon my teaching studio is converted into a maze of cables, microphones and music stands, every square inch of floor papered with completed charts. I'm delighted to share a completed song from his August sessions:
And the newest recording studio? Well, there’s one in my home...and in 52 others spread out across the globe. We’re part of something new. So new in fact, that this very week our inboxes anticipate the first composition we’ll record together. We’re members of the Twtrsymphony, “an ensemble made of classical musicians who met on twitter and wish to share their love of music with the rest of the world.” Brainchild of composer, Chip Michael, we record each part individually and send the completed file to Chip for mixing with our far-flung colleagues. Amazing!
This project takes me back to the giddy days of my first recordings. When I couldn't wait to play. Honestly, this new adventure is magical--like Wonkavision. Not a giant chocolate bar but a digital score, broken into tiny bits and sent through the air to be recorded. Back it goes through the air to be reassembled into a living orchestra performance. A tasty morsel of music not longer than 140 beats per piece. It's a crazy mix of music and technology that is so refreshingly modern that I can't wait to get started!
Not long ago I ran into a former private student. On break from college she excitedly shared her music experiences. I listened proudly until I heard she was a music ed major. That's when my heart sank. I should be happy that she wants to share her passion. But it won't be long before she's looking for employment…and then what?
I live in a district that last year, eliminated all band and orchestra classes at the elementary level. Forty-six elementary schools in all--just imagine how many children are impacted. In early 2010 the district opened a community survey. This question about elementary instrumental programs was answered only by parents who had children participating in elementary music at that time: "If a fee of $100-150 to participate in an Instrumental Music Program that meets 2-3 times per week is implemented, would your child continue to participate?"
The survey results? Yes: 1465. No: 1833. Underwhelming support by 44% of a small, select group. By the time our district eliminated the classes this group had already moved up to middle school.
Why do we need instrumental music? I have a better question: Why do we need high test scores in math and reading? Sadly, it's not about our kids; though they are the ones who suffer from lost opportunities. And in turn, our future will lack adults who can creatively problem-solve.
I read an article today "Trimming Music Ed in the Schools is a Mistake,"
by Mark George, president and CEO of the Music Institute of Chicago, writing as a guest columnist in the Chicago Tribune. "The arts provide a depth of understanding and even the basis for understanding for some children on their long road to achievement. And perhaps most important, the arts provide a way for children to envision the possibilities of a world outside of their immediate circumstances."
I like to believe that loss creates space for growth, change and improvement. But my inner cynic sees little hope of ever bringing these lost classes back into the curriculum. Lost classes strike me as lost opportunities. I was introduced to the viola in an orchestra class in 4th grade so it's hard for me to imagine a different way. Or a better way. Luckily for my district there is a ray of hope. Thanks to the perseverance and creative thinking of one teacher whose job was eliminated there is an alternative for many of these students: fee-based before and after school band and orchestra classes. I think it's a great start.
The Improv Project has taken a side step for a couple of weeks. The students continue to incorporate dynamic elements into the daily warm-up scale which keeps one element of expressive control in their fingers. On Friday I asked them to play the scale at volume 7 with "happy" quarter notes just to make sure they had retained some of the original lessons. It's amazing to hear them--they know exactly how to create that effect.
The kids enjoy their march through the pages in Essential Elements so we've focused on covering ground. It's important for me to put this in perspective: students want to see their accomplishments in a method book. Checking off the numbered exercises is their goal. Introducing them to expression while they learn an instrument is my goal. I want to keep the lessons balanced.
Around the time we took a break from playing with sound I introduced them to 12-bar blues
. The bass player and cellist were given a simplified walking bass line. The upper strings are playing a simplified part as well--just the root for now. All I put on the board is the note names so they get to choose which D, G and A they play. Having a note option teaches them more about their instruments and about music. Yes, there really are A's all over your violin! We also work on rhythm by having one student tap 4 quarter notes on each bar.
After two weeks the chin fiddles are completely comfortable with their part. And the walking bass is coming along. They love playing this so much that we started adding dynamic expression. I asked the students to suggest volume levels and we added some finger snaps in addition to the tapper. A usually mild-mannered student asked to play volume 12. So far, ten has been our loudest volume. At the end of 12 bars he was still playing like a rock star sawing frantically on his violin. He was having a blast! Now that's priceless.
Near the end of our class period they almost always ask if we can play 12-bar blues. It's a great way to play for enjoyment. And this kind of music is definitely more fun with a group. I think it teaches them to work together. In future classes we'll try different rhythms, new notes and more of our expressive techniques. The possibilities are limitless!
As we come near the end of another school year, I find myself thinking about all the connections I've made this season. As a teacher and as a performer I've met so many new students, parents, teachers, colleagues, supporters and friends. I've been touched by the youngest violinist playing an audition for the very first time. Only days ago I was moved to tears by my colleagues' performance in the exuberant Mendelssohn Octet. I'm grateful for all the new connections.
It's interesting to trace the effect music can have on personal connections. The desire to make music leads to instrument searches and lessons and practice and more practice. Then as we improve, we are all led to an entirely new place when we decide to step outside the practice room. It's a world where we can truly connect while we make music with others .
My personal "ah ha!" moment came while listening to an orchestra. The surprise was that the orchestra happened to be my elementary school's advanced strings playing a recruiting concert! To me, an impressionable 3rd grader, this was the most glorious music I'd ever heard. Those young musicians from a little elementary school in Oklahoma changed my life.
Recently I was contacted out of the blue by a successful professional violist who is the associate principal for a large metropolitan orchestra. We had played together nearly 25 years ago in our hometown youth orchestra. Through the wonder of the web he was able to connect with me. He wrote such a kind note thanking me for the inspiring impact I had on his musical life. The strange thing about it is I don't even remember him. Since he's a few years younger than me I'm sure I was focused on the older students and missed the connection entirely. Until now.
It hardly seems possible that I had made those connections so long ago without even realizing it. And yet, it is possible. It turns out my teacher was doing much more than molding students. He was the catalyst. He brought us all together; he helped us make connections through music. I wish I could thank him right now.
With your help, I can. As you wrap up your spring orchestra concerts and recitals and music classes think about the connections you've made. I know it's a relief that all the driving and the rehearsals and studying are finally coming to an end. But before you head out the door for the summer, take a brief moment and thank your parents and your stand partner and thank your teacher.
Last Saturday my youth orchestra took the stage for our annual Side by Side Concert. It's an inspiring concert for me because all of my students, from the 7-year-old beginner to the accomplished high school violinist have the opportunity to perform seated next to professional musicians. And my colleagues feel privileged to mentor aspiring young musicians in a way that transcends the traditional teacher/student format. They perform together as equals joined by a common objective--making music. It is magical!
What is it about music that unites us? A mother's lullaby, a hymn of worship, even a wail of pain--all of us connect to the shared vibrations. We come into this world cooing and crying. I wonder if it's better to think of language as an extension, rather than an alternative, to our primal tones? It's no mystery that music has such soothing vibrations; it's a tonic for our souls. Even though our differences seem vast we share a deep, wordless connection.
I was honored to play a memorable concert with the Colorado Springs Symphony on September 11th, 2001. Despite the terrible attack, management decided to go ahead with the previously scheduled season-opening concert. Our program was changed to offer a moving and reverent memorial to a people in need. The great cellist, Yo Yo Ma was on hand to perform the Elgar Cello Concerto. Reflecting on this concert he said, "The most extraordinary thing was having the community gather in the hall. The music never felt more powerful to me than it did then, drawing people together and giving them solace in a time of crisis."*
Yo Yo Ma began the concert as a soloist in front of the orchestra. After he finished the concerto, the musicians on stage were startled to see the famous artist slip in the back to humbly share a stand with the last-chair cellist. They performed the rest of the concert together as equals joined by a common objective--offering comfort. Dissolving barriers; connecting lives through music. Side by Side with Yo Yo Ma.
My mission is to teach that life offers us limitless possibilities. The first step is to eliminate the barriers that separate and confine us. What better way to start than a youth orchestra side by side concert featuring beginners to well-seasoned pros playing Mozart and Jimi Hendrix? Together, in concert, the waves of sound dissolve our barriers.