Symphony Jam

Last week I had a longish conversation with the fellow who will be the new principal cellist this fall for the Livermore Symphony. He’s a much better cellist than I am — to the point where he’s lowering himself a bit to play with the group at all. I’m very happy that he wants to join the group, and I want to support him in whatever way I can. I feel a bit passionate about local community music-making.

During my tenure as principal cellist, I was in the habit of actively providing support for the cello section in the form of weekly emails, suggested fingerings, and even informal sectional rehearsals held in my home. I had, accordingly, sent the new guy an email with a number of questions and suggestions. During our conversation, however, he made it pretty clear (in a friendly way) that he intends to run things his own way. He has specific ideas about how things are to be done in an orchestra — and of course that’s his prerogative as the new section leader. As a result, there’s really nothing for me to do beyond practicing the parts, showing up at rehearsal, and what I call playing the dots. Or dots and squiggles, I suppose, though you’re not supposed to play during the squiggles.

In the course of the conversation, he said, “An orchestra is not a democracy.” His point was, he will be making the decisions for the cello section, in consultation with the concertmaster and, when necessary, the conductor. But as I’ve mulled over the new situation, a subversive thought crept into my mind: Why isn’t an orchestra a democracy? What would it look like if it were a democracy?

It seems to me that many of the ills from which, as an institution, symphonic music suffers may be owing to the fact that an orchestra isn’t a democracy.

The first and most glaring of the ills is that symphonic music is in no sense a creative activity. At best, as an orchestral musician you’re a foot soldier, marching in formation and following orders. At worst you’re a zombie, lurching through hostile terrain and hoping your fingers don’t fall off.

The conductor has some limited creative autonomy, in that she can choose and then tell us how to interpret the music, but the rest of the musicians do nothing but show up and play the dots and squiggles. We have no scope for creative involvement — none. Or, to be absolutely honest, vanishingly close to none; I did in fact attend meetings last winter of the repertoire committee, a volunteer group that any of the musicians can show up for if they want to. At these meetings, the conductor presents a list of possible pieces, and we comment on the list and kick around other ideas while the conductor takes notes. Ultimately, though, she puts together the programs for the season from her short list.

I did object to one piece on her list — Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” better known to fans of Fifties novelty pop as “Hello Mudda, hello Fadda, here I am at Camp Granada.” There was general agreement that that was not a great piece, so the conductor crossed it off the list. That was democracy, of a sort. But other than that, I had no perceptible influence. I kept saying, “Beethoven Sixth, Beethoven Sixth! Or how about Mozart 35?” I might as well have wandered over to the snacks table and munched on Audrey’s very nice brownies. I would have accomplished just as much.

What would a creative, democratic symphony orchestra look like? Well, most of the players don’t improvise, but a few of us do. Shouldn’t musicians who improvise have an opportunity to play a solo here or there during a concert? Or to add improvised ornaments to a written part, if we feel moved to do so?

And what about the repertoire list for the season? Shouldn’t we all get to vote on what we want to play?

What if we don’t want to wear Concert Black attire in the future? I certainly don’t. Wearing black is a holdover from the 19th century. It stinks of aristocracy, and it has no place in a 21st century concert. Shouldn’t the choice of attire be the musicians’ decision?

There may be two or three musicians in the orchestra who have written, or could write, original orchestral scores. Assuming the composer has the ability to produce a playable score and print out parts, shouldn’t the orchestra have the opportunity to play through a colleague’s piece a couple of times and then vote on whether they like it enough to include it in a program? If there aren’t any composers in the orchestra, or even if there are, shouldn’t composers in nearby cities have the same opportunity?

Why is it that after we perform a piece once, it can’t be scheduled again for five or six years? Who makes these decisions? If the orchestra loves a piece, shouldn’t we be able to vote to play it again next year? Bands playing in clubs always repeat their repertoire — they play pretty much the same set at every gig. Why should an orchestra’s programs always have to be changing?

What if a piece is too hard? Shouldn’t the musicians be able to vote to drop it and substitute something else? Or — here’s a radical thought — how about simplifying a daunting piece so as to make it playable by amateurs? Why do we have to play (or attempt to play) every note exactly as written? If it sounds like crap (as the terrifying passages sometimes do), what’s the point of tormenting ourselves trying to fight our way through it? Or what if we do want to play a very tough piece, but need extra rehearsals in order to bring it off? Why is there no discussion of that possibility?

In the past, I’ve agitated for an extra rehearsal, to no effect. I’ve also made specific suggestions to the cello section about how to simplify an impossible part. But no more. At this point, it’s up to the new principal to try to coax an excellent sound out of a group of unpaid amateurs.

The word “unpaid” is significant. If the musicians were being paid, even at a modest (non-union) level, it would be natural that the people writing the checks would make the decisions. But no, this is an all-volunteer group. The folks in the audience shell out money for tickets, but except for the conductor and the concertmaster, the people onstage are working for free.

Some of my ideas about a democratic orchestra might need to be tinkered with in order to be workable. I’m wingin’ it here. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: None of them will ever see the light of day, not in the Livermore Symphony and not in any other orchestra either. Democratic processes are incompatible with the very nature of the symphony orchestra. The symphony is a hierarchical institution that was born in the 18th century, when the king was an absolute monarch appointed by God, and came to fruition in the 19th century during the industrial revolution, when the assembly line was God.

Today, we play the music of dead white guys, most of them European, while wearing clothing that would have been appropriate evening attire for upper-class gentlemen in the 1890s. (As a side note, there were no women in orchestras in the 1890s, except for possibly the harpist. The women in the audience would have been dressed far more elegantly than the women in today’s orchestras, who have more choices than the men — skirt or trousers, long sleeves or short? — but are expected to wear black.)

If you have other ideas about concert attire or anything else, nobody cares. Sit down and be quiet. Play the dots.

Bubble Boy

Lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m living in a bubble, or on a stage set — as if my life isn’t quite real. For a while I was thinking this is because I have no family. But while that may be a contributing cause, as an analysis of the situation I think it misses the mark.

I’m a musician. I enjoy playing music. Yet I feel almost entirely disconnected in an emotional sense from the music-making in my community. I don’t share the attitudes and expectations of either the audiences or the other musicians.

Our community orchestra has a new conductor. She’s working hard to build up the orchestra, and that’s a wonderful thing. In the past I’ve served as principal cellist in this orchestra, a post that gave me the opportunity to try to help the cello section sound better. My efforts may or may not have been effective, but at least I felt that I had some input in or involvement with the process. Playing orchestral music is not creative in any sense, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers activity, but I was able to go beyond that in certain (very limited) ways.

This year we have a new principal cellist. He’s certainly a better player than I am. (He’s also a friend of mine.) I’m very happy to have him take the post, because I want the orchestra to improve! But he has some very definite ideas about how he would like to interact with the cello section. As a result, I need to get out of the way. There is now little or no room for me to make a contribution to the orchestra (though there was little enough before). All I’ll be doing is showing up and wiggling my fingers so as to execute the dots on the page in whatever manner I’m directed to by the conductor and the section leader.

This is not music-making, not really. It’s a zombie activity.

A few years back, I was playing electric cello in a local band. We played original music and we improvised our solos. This was real music-making! We were playing occasional gigs — Saturday afternoon at a local winery, that type of thing. I suggested to the guys that we could work at really polishing the material and then stage our own concert.

They weren’t interested. Playing winery gigs was fine with them.

Eventually I quit the band. There were other issues — namely, drinking wine at band practice, which seemed flagrantly counter-productive to me. But here again, the underlying issue was the guys’ lack of interest in or commitment to excellence. What they were doing was good enough that they could enjoy doing it, and that was the extent of their ambition.

They’re still doing the same stuff today. Their regular gig is at a local wine bar. They’re a very decent band, and I think they may have accurately gauged their audience’s interest in music listening. Music is, for these audiences, a sort of mildly stimulating social backdrop. The wine audiences don’t really give a damn about music one way or the other, nor do they have the cognitive skills that they would need in order to interact with music in a more meaningful way.

What interests me about my own music-making is explorations of form, texture, melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Whether I’m good at it or whether I’m a dreadful hack is a different question, and not one that I’m qualified to answer. The point is, when I launch my music app (which happens to be Reason, usually) and start working on a new piece, that’s what I’m involved with. That’s what I care about. And I’m quite sure there are no local audiences who would be equipped to discuss or even perceive the processes I’m exploring. What I’m actually doing musically would be entirely opaque to them. If they were to encounter the music (perhaps on a Friday evening at a local coffee house), they would experience it as a mildly stimulating social backdrop — disposable, ignorable, perhaps momentarily enjoyable based on certain surface characteristics (a strong beat, big chords, whatever), but not something to be actively engaged with.

Some people are actively engaged when listening to classical music. Certainly my friend the new principal cellist is actively engaged — not in a creative way, but he does care about interpretation and is very knowledgeable about the repertoire. And he’s not the only fine classical musician in town.

That’s the picture, though: The folks who care about excellence are not doing original music, they’re just painting by numbers. And the folks who are doing original music don’t care about excellence, only about being good enough to play for (and be ignored by) people who are getting drunk.

This is the local and personal manifestation of a larger social process. In a consumer culture, music is a consumable. It’s something that you market, and its success in the market is presumed to dictate its worth. The idea that a musical ensemble would challenge an audience to engage in active, thoughtful listening is pretty much unmentionable.

Part of the blame for this may lie in the excesses of academic classical music during the 20th century. Challenging the audience (by writing 12-tone music or whatever) was pretty much the only thing composers aspired to do. Those who, like Aaron Copland, wrote more accessible music have withstood the test of time far better than have Schoenberg and Berg.

These days, highly abstract music still exists, in the form of experimental improvisation, but now there’s no underlying form or conceptualization that audiences could aspire to grapple with. Experimental improvisation operates pretty much the way pop music operates at a winery gig — you can have an immediate sensory response to it, or your mind may wander for a minute, but if your mind wanders that’s okay, because there’s nothing going on that you could engage with intellectually.

In this month’s Harper’s there’s an article about how colleges are ceasing (or have ceased) to teach the value of thinking. There’s more to the article (“The Neoliberal Arts”) than that. It’s worth reading. But as it relates to my experiences in community, music-making, it shines a spotlight on the fact that neither musicians nor audiences dare engage in the process of developing their own musical values through a careful process of introspection and dialog. People just accept whatever musical values are prevalent in their neighborhood. Nobody questions. If they strive at all, they strive within a narrowly conceived framework that has been set out for them.

We’ll be playing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in the December concert. Not a bad piece. The narrator will be a former mayor of the town. I have no idea whether he’ll be a fine narrator or a stumbling, stammering mistake. But I was at the meeting where the repertoire was being discussed and the topic of asking the mayor to narrate the piece was brought up. Nobody said, “Gee, maybe there’s a fine local actor who could bring the narration to life in a wonderful dramatic way, with gestures and vocal inflections.” Nobody said anything like that. Innovation and excellence were not on the agenda. Bringing in an audience by having the mayor, a (very minor) local celebrity, narrate — that was the whole point.


The School of Velocity

I have a couple of advanced cello students (high-school age) whom I’d like to prepare for symphony work. They can already play 95% of what a classical composer calls for — but then there’s that other five percent. In a typical cello part, you get a lot of whole-notes, a lot of easy quarter-notes, and then the composer throws you a terrifying run in 16th-notes. And of course the conductor is going to take the piece at a hair-raising tempo. No mercy.

I haven’t yet found any exercise books that could help students prepare for these passages. (And the Internet Cello Society forum, where I’ve posted questions in the past, appears to be dead.)

Yes, there are books of etudes with two-page etudes marked allegro that are entirely in 16th-notes. Tricky ones, too. But I’m not quite merciless enough to ask a student to master an entire two-page etude and play it flawlessly at a breakneck tempo. Anyway, that’s not how orchestral cello parts work. Typically, your terrifying run is going to be from two to six measures long, and then you can go back to breezing through the quarter-notes. Also, composers of etudes are fond of tossing finger-twisters at players, which is fine, but most composers of symphonic music don’t toss in finger-twisters merely for the sake of challenging the players. They’re more likely to ask you to run up and down a scale pattern in the key of A-flat. Or D-flat. Or F-sharp.

For those of you who aren’t cellists, perhaps I should explain that in the key of A-flat, you can’t use the open A and D strings. In the key of F-sharp, you can’t use any open strings at all. The cellist’s hand spans only three scale notes, and the strings are tuned a fifth apart. As a result, any scale that doesn’t use open strings forces you to shift up or down the fingerboard to a new hand position after three notes.

If the tricky passage is, let’s say, four measures of 16th-notes, that’s 64 notes. Divide by 3 and you’ll find that you’ll need to do as many as 20 rapid and precise shifts, often while crossing from one string to another, at odd rhythmic spots, and usually to or from notes like D-flat and A-sharp that your intermediate method book studiously avoided. Even fairly advanced method books don’t typically use double-sharps or double-flats — but composers don’t hesitate to do so.

So yeah, here’s another cello method book I ought to write.

Let’s Get Together

The town where I live is not huge. It qualifies as a city only in the rhetoric of our elected officials. Even so, we have a thriving Art Association. Local painters, photographers, and jewelry makers have banded together for many years to put on shows and workshops.

It’s a curious fact that we have no equivalent for composers of music.

A web search reveals a few organizations for composers in San Francisco and the Inner East Bay. But as I get older, I’m far less inclined to want to hop in the car, drive for an hour, hunt for a parking place, and walk back to my car after dark in a strange neighborhood. Sorry, sports fans, but that’s how it is. If it’s within 20 minutes of my house, I’m happy. Anything further afield is a chore. If I never have to drive to San Francisco again as long as I live, I’ll be very happy.

So why isn’t there a group of active composers here in town?

I put it down mainly to the difference in media. This plays out at both the beginning and the end of the artistic process.

Painting — or at least, representational painting, and trust me, that’s most of what you’ll see at a show of the Livermore Art Association — is an art form in which your eye can be trusted to tell you, quite intuitively, whether you’re doing a decent job. If you try to paint a cat and it comes out looking like Read more

Whip It Out

Back in the early ’70s I played in two or three bands. Did a lot of gigging, made a little money, had a bunch of neat experiences. Both of the bands that I was most involved with were composed of people I had gone to high school with. That made it easier to put things together, I’m sure.

In the late ’70s I was working for a fledgling music magazine called Keyboard, and I had a look around in the South Bay to see if I could find a band to play with. No luck. I answered a few classified ads, but what I encountered were either wannabe’s — people who had a desire to play, but were variously clue-impaired — or gigging bands who were doing commercial music of a type that I didn’t care for.

So I bought a synthesizer and an 8-track reel-to-reel, and got into electronic music. That was when I started writing science fiction too, come to think of it.

Lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to play some live music again — something besides the local community orchestra. So forgive me while I think out loud for a minute.

What I’m finding is that the scene is pretty much what I remember from 35 years ago. Today I was scouting through the musicians’ classifieds on craigslist. My favorite ad so far Read more

Picture Yourself Playing Cello

My new book for beginning cellists is due to arrive in bookstores at the beginning of April. Here’s a low-tech home-brew video in which I talk about the book:

The book is written mostly for folks who are new to cello playing. It’s packed with photos, a fact that I forgot to mention in the video. If you’re struggling with the first stages of learning to play the cello, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the book!

Starting from Scratch

Now and then I get a call from an adult who has conceived a desire to play the cello. Because I teach, I’m always happy to help them get started. But I’ve learned to give them a gentle warning up front.

What I tell them is this: I’ve had several adult students who started as beginners, stuck with it for several years, and made very considerable progress. But I’ve also seen several who started taking lessons but soon gave it up. I’m sure the main reason is because learning to play the cello turned out to be more of a challenge than they were prepared for.

When I get that initial call, I usually suggest that if the prospective student doesn’t already have a cello, they should find a nearby store that does monthly rentals with a rent-to-own option. A decent cello is expensive, and there’s no point in laying out a pile of cash until you’re sure you’re going to want to stick with it.

How expensive? Depends on what you mean by “decent.” I usually try to find good things to say about a student’s cello, but if you’re spending less than $2,500, you’re not going to enjoy playing as much, because the cello is simply not going to produce the kind of warm tone that probably inspired you to want to start taking lessons.

Once they’ve started lessons, I usually tell them this: When you watch a good cellist, he or she makes it look easy. Yo-Yo Ma is inspiring to watch, because he can do anything on the cello and make it look easy and natural. But in fact, the use of the arms, hands, and fingers is not Read more

I Sing the Cello Electric

For the past year or so, my electric cello has been languishing, in its case in the closet, surrounded by its amp and other accessories. Yesterday I had an impulse to get it out and start using it again.

In spite of the obvious major similarities, it’s a very different instrument from the acoustic! And not just visually, but as an instrument. Visually, it’s a plank. There’s no body. And the headstock is a flying-V design, with all of the tuning gears on one side. They’re black — very classy — but yet it’s clear at a glance that we’ve left the Italian Renaissance far behind.

It’s a five-string cello, with a high E string. I once phoned Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito and said, “I need to buy a cello E string,” and the person said, “There’s no such thing as a cello E string.” Ah, but they were wrong. You can also buy a low F string, if you want to play in the bass register. My cello came with a second nut, grooved for the lower string set (F-C-G-D-A), but after trying it out for an hour I decided Read more

A Joyful Noise

Community orchestras are a wonderful thing … sort of. Last night I played a concert with the Silicon Valley Symphony. Tonight we’re repeating the program. It’s a good orchestra, capable of tackling fairly challenging repertoire and bringing it home. But I see both the plusses and the minuses.

Playing in such an orchestra is enjoyable first and foremost because it gives you a chance (indeed, an obligation) to sit in a chair and pay close attention to a complex piece by Brahms or Beethoven for 25 or 30 minutes at a stretch. Being in the audience just isn’t the same: In the audience, your mind can wander. At least, mine does. And an audience member is unlikely to sit through the same pieces week after week, becoming more closely acquainted with them.

There’s some satisfaction in being able to do a good job. Also, the orchestras provide a welcome outlet for soloists who are very capable but are not quite ready to play a concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, and may never be.

On the other side of the coin are two issues.

First, playing in a symphony is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative activity. Someone hands you a stack of paper with little dots on every sheet, and your job is to wiggle your fingers in ways that match the dots. Years of training are required, so the activity is a little more sophisticated than being a ditch digger, but if it took years of training to be a ditch digger, the two would be quite comparable with respect to the scope one has for personal expression or meaning.

Beyond that, even the best community orchestras are not, in my experience, able to do truly fine performances. There are always rough edges. Someone in the bass section can be relied on to jump in early during a rest. The violins’ intonation is likely to be quite shaky during fast passages. French horn entrances are hit-or-miss. Once in a while, the conductor may even drop a beat; it’s rare, but it happens.

So the upshot is, I drive down to rehearsal on the freeway, week after week, in order to perform what is essentially a mechanical activity, for which I don’t get paid, and after the concert I find myself saying, “Well, that wasnt too bad.”

I’m not a candidate for a better orchestra. I make a few little mistakes from time to time too. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I just wish it was more satisfying.

Three’s Company

An inspiring concert tonight — the Tilden Trio onstage at the Bankhead in Livermore. They played Beethoven’s Op. 1, No. 3, the Dvorak F minor trio, and … well, apparently there was a chaotic scene last night at some hotel in San Francisco, where they played at a gala honoring Michael Tilson Thomas. The violinist’s sheet music for the third trio piece got lost. So they substituted a virtuosic violin/cello duo by Bohuslav Martinu. Wow!

Sometimes I think all I want to do is play, listen to, and compose music. Why bother doing anything else? I now have a keen desire to rush out and buy several CDs of music by Martinu. On the other hand, I have a box set of CDs containing all 14 Shostakovich string quartets, and when was the last time I listened to them? Heck, I have a couple of hundred LPs and a functioning turntable, and I can’t remember the last time I played an LP at all, other than to let one of my students hear Pablo Casals playing Bach.

I’m strictly an amateur pianist, but I keep at it. Over the last few years I’ve learned several Haydn piano sonatas. But when I don’t play a piece for a while, it falls apart. One of my goals for this winter is to expand my repertoire by relearning a bunch of piano music that I’ve learned and then set aside. Right now I’m working on the Haydn C# minor sonata. And lots of Bach. And Clementi, who was amazing.

The wonderful thing about playing the piano is that there’s an endless supply of great music that you can play by yourself, in your living room. I enjoy playing the cello too, but the cello is not Read more