Now I remember why I've spent so much time studying Suzuki pedagogy: the man was a genius, and an inspiration.
The instruments are ready for the students, the parents are excited. You, the teacher, have all kinds of ideas about how to teach the perfect bow-hold, how to get the instrument sitting properly on the shoulder, how to sprinkle the perfect amount of theory and history into the curriculum....
And then comes the reality of the classroom: it's full of kids. No, you weren't hired to babysit them, but you were hired to teach children. Children tend to...act childish. They are juvenile. Immature. This is their nature. They're not going to sit there like graduate students. You need classroom management skills.
So what are you going to do about it?
I'd love to tell you that I have all the answers, but of course, I don't. In fact, many of you probably have more answers and more experience than I do in the classroom setting. Nonetheless, I'd like to share a few ideas that I've gathered over the years, teaching in many different situations including private, Suzuki group and public schools. And of course, I welcome yours! Here goes:
Now the award-winning violinist, age 41, who has made more than 30 albums and played at concert halls the world over, has a new venue: his house. He took the time to chat with me about a week ago, a few days before he played on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. We talked about home, friends, and his new album.
Laurie: Your new album is called Joshua Bell At Home With Friends, and it features Sting; Chris Botti; Edgar Meyer; Chris Thile; Josh Groban; Carel Kraayenhof; the band Tiempo Libre; Kristin Chenowith; Sam Bush; Mike Marshall; Frankie Moreno; Nathan Gunn; Regina Spektor; Dave Grusin; Anoushka Shankar and Marvin Hamlisch – all playing the kinds of things you might play at a home jam session. So tell me more about this concept of playing friends; I didn't know you liked to have salons in your house....
Joshua: I'm trying to take it to another level. I've always had people come over and play: it's sort of casual, everyone brings their instruments and they get up and play, and people sit around. It's either chamber music, or a singer will get up and sing. People love listening to music in that way. So when I built my new place, which I spent the last four years rebuilding in Manhattan, part of the idea was to make a mini-concert space in my house. It's on the top floors, and I've tried to keep it very open, and I have a theater curtain that gives it a dramatic effect.
I only recently moved in. So I've had a couple of evenings so far, like this, but I'm hoping to take it to another level, so it becomes a regular event, either for charity, or for fun.
Laurie: You don't have the neighbors banging down your doors or anything.
Joshua: No. (laughing) I'm on the top floor of this building, and the first thing I did was to install a foot of soundproofing on the bottom floor, so I don't have that problem.
Laurie: I think the home concert is what music was meant to be, in a way.
Joshua: Certainly a lot of the great chamber music was written for that sort of (venue). I have a lot of friends who are not musicians. They've gone to hear me play at Carnegie Hall, but whenever they come to the house -- and sit right amongst us when we're playing -- they always say it's a whole different experience.
Laurie: If these are your friends on this album, you have some really fun friends...What was it like to work with, say, Sting? That idea makes me all starstruck. How did that come about?
Joshua: We had never played together, but we had done a concert where he was narrating the letters of Schumann and I was playing...
Laurie: Oh, he recently put that out on DVD.
Joshua: I wasn't on that recording, but we did some performances, and that's where I got to meet him and know him. I listened to very few rock bands as a kid in the '80s -- Genesis was one of my big ones I really liked, and The Police was another. I knew that (Sting) had an interest in the classical sensibility, in the way he approached things. So I just asked him if he would be on this album. When I started putting this together, I thought that would be cool, and he said yes. So we had to figure out what we would do, I thought about doing one of his rock songs, trying to figure out a way to make it work, and then in the end I thought it made most sense to do one of his (John) Dowland songs which he recorded already and to try to arrange one for violin.
I was impressed, working with him. He's very professional, he sings in tune...(he laughs). He really takes care.
Laurie: On the younger side of things, I see you have (mandolinist) Chris Thile in there.
Joshua: One of my oldest friendships on the album is (bassist) Edgar Meyer. We did an album 10 years ago called Short Trip Home, and this was one of the greatest experiences of my musical life – touring with him and Mike Marshall and Sam Bush. Edgar wrote all the music, and we toured around in a bus – like a rock band bus – and we played on the Grammys and did all sorts of fun stuff. So this album was also a chance to put that group, the four of us, back together, for one of the songs.
But Edgar has been telling me for the last couple years about this phenom, Chris Thile. I've gone and heard him play, and he's amazing. So Edgar wrote a song for him, and me.
Laurie: Tell me about your other friends on this album.
Joshua: Another connection that goes very far back is Chris Botti, the trumpet player, whom I went to school with at Indiana University. I've known him for 25 years, and we always wanted to do something together, but never had the chance. So here was the chance to do something, so we did a track (Gershwin's “I Loves You Porgy"). Kristen Chenoweth, the amazingly talented Broadway singer and also ex-girlfriend of mine from many years ago, she does this version of My Funny Valentine, which we had done for a Rogers and Hart special many years ago, and so this was another place to put that piece.
At the very last second, as we were going to press almost, I heard that Regina Spektor was interested in the idea of being on the album. She's a wonderful folk singer who's really hot right now. So I quickly listened to some of her music and I arranged a song called Left Hand Song, and figured out a way to make it a duet. That one was really a challenge, but in the end it was one of my favorites.
Laurie: So you did much of the arranging?
Joshua: Yes, for certain things. For some I hired an arranger to help do the dirty work, then of course I always tailor it. But the ones I really did myself where the Regina Spektor track, with her, of course, and the Eleanor Rigby track, with Frankie Moreno.
Laurie: Now, this is all a little different than recording the Sibelius Concerto or something, does it brings a different energy to your playing, to work with all these people?
Joshua: Actually I find it a lot easier, only because the songs are short. One of the hardest things about doing the Sibelius Concerto is just the sheer length, and keeping the emotional intensity up when you're repeating. In a concert, it's fine because you give everything in one performance, but in recording I find it's very difficult to find the right way to record it. It's a huge, monumental work.
But I love this, because we'll have a whole day set aside for one song, and there's no problem in repeating a song that's three minutes long, over and over again.
Logistically, it was hard to get it all together, with so many different people and different schedules. The whole thing was all put together in six months, so it was a logical nightmare, but it did work.
Laurie: I think it would be neat to mesh with these people who have such different approaches.
Joshua: It's great, you really get inside these different worlds. I just loved playing with Tiempo Libre; I've always loved Latin music, and Jorge, the pianist, is my manager's husband. So for years I've gone to his concerts. He wrote this piece (“Para Tì") on the album, which we (played) on Conan.
So you just learn a lot from these people who approach music in a different way. You always come away feeling like you've learned something.
Laurie: I've listened to the recording, and I have to say that the thing I enjoyed the most was your duet with the sitar player Anoushka Shankar. This is Ravi Shankar's daughter, right?
Joshua: Yes, Anoushka Shankar is Ravi's daughter. She's studied with him and followed in his footsteps. His other daughter is Nora Jones, they're half-sisters. I've known Anoushka for many years, as friends, and I've gone to her concerts. We'd always talked about the possibility of doing something together, then a few years ago we were at the same festival, the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, where I go every summer. We did a piece that Ravi wrote for Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar, many years ago -- they did an album called East Meets West, and they did this piece. So we did that together.
Then Ravi wrote us a new piece, (“Variant Moods"), that we have on the album. We played it a few years ago, and so when I was doing this album, I felt it was a perfect opportunity to finally put it somewhere, since a whole album of (this music) is unrealistic for both of us. We're old friends, as the name of the album suggests. I like the music a lot, and it was so great to work with Ravi in San Diego, where they have a house. I went out there, and he coached us together. He's a great man.
Laurie: Had he heard you play together before he wrote it?
Joshua: No, he had listened to me play, but he had never heard us play together before he wrote the piece.
Laurie: I thought it really suited the sound of your violin. It was really interesting, sonically, I thought.
There's also a duet with Rachmaninoff in there – now how is that possible?
Joshua: It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, the track that I did with Rachmaninoff. I grew up listening to the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff recording of the Grieg. Just around the time when I was making this album, I'd heard about this technology where they extracted just the piano part from this old recording. So I thought it would be funny, as a joke – a semi-joke – to try this duet with Rachmaninoff playing. The amazing thing is, it sounds like he's in the room.
Laurie: Did it change the way you played it?
Joshua: Oh, certainly. I couldn't make him change, so it was a challenge to make it feel natural and be my way of playing. Surprisingly, there's a lot of room for nuance – a lot of the rubato is between the beats anyway. I don't feel like I had to copy Kreisler, for instance.
Laurie: What a challenge. That's the kind of thing you would do in your living room, too, play along with an old recording!
Joshua: (laughing)Well, I'm hoping to get one of those pianos that I can load Rachmaninoff, so that at one of my events I can do that.
We'd been waiting all afternoon and evening for this big moment: the appearance of Gustavo Dudamel on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, with his new title: Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
He came out, not in the traditional formal wear of a conductor, but wearing a black T-shirt that said "YOLA," which stands for Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.
In his first public act as Music Director, he would conduct the children of this youth orchestra, which was created two years ago, inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan system of music education in which Dudamel was raised. Later in the evening, he would lead the LA Philharmonic in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
And so it happened, that 18,000 people gave their ear to a youth symphony. These weren't prodigies, these were 200 children from south LA, nervous and excited for this important performance. The idea of making children's lives beautiful through music gleams with idealism; the reality is that it's a tremendous, arduous effort for both teachers and students. Dudamel certainly knows this, having conducted so many youth orchestras himself in his native Venezuela. There was no apologizing for the fact that kids who have played for only a few years sound like kids who have played for only a few years. Their accomplishment was tremendous; and to celebrate it, to celebrate them, is legitimate.
"The thing that excites me most is the message and symbolism of Gustavo conducting the youth orchestra that was developed at the Expo Center," said Mark Slavkin, vice president of education for the Music Center, before the concert. "These kids are part of the whole experience, and we need to reinvest in music education in the Los Angeles area in a big way."
Before and after their performance, the members of YOLA sat in a place of honor, directly in front of the stage, all wearing colorful T-shirts.
"I'm kind of nervous," said clarinetist Chris Duran.
"It's exciting that we get to perform here," said clarinetist Lilia Reyes, 13. She said she loves music because "it's a nice way to express yourself" and it even can "change people's moods."
These weren't the only children in attendance; while walking around the Bowl, I spotted many, including a four-year-old, sitting on his mother's lap, waving a conductor's baton, and a violin student who has been in my group class many years, who had come "for the new conductor."
I also overheard a couple of teenagers, who were sitting behind me in the nosebleed section.
"So he's really big, eh?" said one girl.
"Yeah," explained her friend. "He just moved to LA..."
The pre-show, before Dudamel's entrance, involved a number of celebrities.
Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was rockin' out to a Stevie Wonder song with his kids from the Silverlake Conservatory, which he helped found with Keith Barry. In the highest regions of the Bowl, several middle-aged women were inspired to dance along, wearing their bright yellow "Bienvenido Gustavo" T-shirts.
"Flea and I met when we were about 12 or 13," Barry said. "We were music students. We've been lifelong music students ever since, and we think everyone should be able to be lifelong music students."
"What Gustavo Dudamel is doing for classical music is outrageous," said comedian Jack Black, "especially his focus on music education for the kids, it's astounding."
Herbie Hancock played with the LA County High School for the Arts Jazz Band – imagine your high school jazz band playing – at the Hollywood Bowl – just taking turns improvising solos: me, you, then take it, Herbie!
I also noticed a sizable South American contingent in attendance.
High up in the Bowl sat three generations of women originally from Venezuela, sporting their home country's flag. "When we arrived at the concert, we saw people dancing to Venezuelan music," said Rachel Lambrose, who lives in Murrieta, California. It brought a tear to her grandmother's eye, "it was exciting for her, a little piece of home."
"I think it's very important, with so many things happening right now in Venezuela, politically, it puts a Venezuelan in a different light," said Barbara Bishop of Menifee, California. "[Dudamel] is so alive, you look at his face and there is light. And he tries to make classical music interesting for young people."
"Music is one of those things," Lambrose said. "You may not be able to talk to each other, but you can make music together."
Flutist and composer Pedro Eustache – who was the first-ever piccolo player in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra when he was a child in Venezuela – sat closer to the stage. He had one word for Gustavo Dudamel's new role in LA, "Amazing."
"To have a Venezuelan's picture on the back of all the buses in Los Angeles, impacting the kids, impacting the music in LA, it's just amazing," said Eustache, who grew up in Venezuela but has lived in LA for more than 20 years. "He's going to revolutionize classical music, especially in America, where we need it so much."
In the audience also was Oscar Dudamel, Gustavo's father. His feelings about the event need no translation, he said he felt "muy contento, muy optimistico."
When an orchestra performs with Dudamel, the air just seems to vibrate, said Ingrid Sturegård, who was sitting nearby. She would know. She is a violinist in the Gothenburg Symphony, where Dudamel is in his third year as music director. "I think that everywhere, he creates an interest and a curiosity in people who don't usually go to concerts – he's like pop star," she said. Not only that, but he is a genuinely warm person, and to work with him is "tremendous, it's so energizing and vitalizing, and it's serious work," she said. "We are very happy for Los Angeles."
After all the pre-shows and the performance by the Youth Orchestra of LA, the evening culminated in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its new Music Director. The giant video screens standing on either side of the Bowl provided the perfect opportunity to study Dudamel's conducting, along with everything else.
The first movement of the Ninth sounds to me like creation trying to take root; ideas floating around; they gel and they fall part. I wrote that down before reading the program notes which said "the dynamic energy and scope of the ideas in this movement suggest creation myths to many..." Hah! Maybe it's a theory I'd heard before, but I heard it tonight anew, as a member of the audience and not the orchestra.
I got the feeling that Dudamel gives what is needed, when it comes to his conducting gestures. It seems like a technique informed by experience, and not just experience in front of a mirror, or with pro musicians who will play well regardless, but experience with youth orchestras – ensembles that are not so easy to mold to your will.
His gestures have a strong rhythmic certainty, something that perhaps is underrated. "What, you think I'm here just to keep the beat?" I imagine a stereotypical egomaniacal conductor asking, with some indignation. But I think a wise conductor knows, this is a precious task -- as important as the beating of a person's heart. Without it, nothing works.
I loved the Scherzo, so well-calibrated and precise. Literally, "scherzo" means "joke." Dudamel got the joke and made it funny. I laughed out loud when he actually cued a section by raising one eyebrow. It occurred to me that some of the most effective conducting gestures are the funniest-looking ones. If a conductor performs a beautiful ballet for the audience, beware of what he is doing to the poor orchestra. Dudamel's gestures included jerky wing flapping, the sudden punch, even just rising on both heels.
And however clear those gestures might be, a conductor must make it quite clear to whom they directed. Dudamel did it with his eyes, and with the level of his baton – very high for a signal to the back of the orchestra. A certain kind of cue even involves not looking – when a section is playing a secondary role or should be in the background.
For me, the third movement of the symphony was memorable, because yes, I have played this as a first violinist on several occasions. Against the backdrop of a beautifully spun melody is a lot of first-violin noodling, which only gets noodlier and noodlier throughout. I detected no trepidation, and I think the reason was more than the fact that these are all such excellent players. You just get the feeling that Dudamel won't dare leave you at your moment, and there he was, sculpting every phrase, so that all those busy notes had meaning and movement. He makes it so very clear.
It's all about the movement, isn't it?…
In the fourth movement, the celli and bass have to make their way through a forest of old musical material from the previous three movements until they alight upon a theme, the theme, the "Ode to Joy" that we all know and love. This theme crept in so quietly, you could feel everyone straining to hear, and as the other sections joined, Dudamel continued to control the volume, keeping it down until everyone had joined in. And here I must say something about the soloists – all were excellent, but the baritone, Matthew Rose, was smooooooooth. In tune, on target, pure goodness.
Now forgive me if I display some snobbery here but I was appalled and exasperated when the audience broke into an unrestrained wave of joyous applause after the huge dominant cluster-chord thingie at measure 330. What? How exactly does this happen? It sounds incredibly unresolved, there is no finality to this chord. It's big, it's huge, but it in no way sounds like the end. And yet.
I suppose my disappointment was not in the ignorance of the audience; I don't care. I don't even mind the occasional applause between movements; I love an enthusiastic audience. But this disturbed what would have been a most incredible musical moment: the huge blast, followed by the tiny march – it was set up so well.
But the music goes on, all was forgiven, if not forgotten.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Children's Chorale brought things so well to life, I was no longer in a critical mood, just philosophical. A young lady whom I've seen grown up was singing, as were a number of the members of the choir in my church. I was so happy to see members of my community participating in this event.
The words for Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" poem, on which the last movement is based, were translated into English, and alternatively into Spanish – the first Spanish words that appeared on the screens drew cheers. "Do you sense the Creator, world? Seek him beyond the starry canopy...Beyond the stars he must dwell..."
I know which Creator these words speak of, but I wondered about another one, the deaf man who wrote an epic symphony about joy toward the end of his life, trapped as he was in silence. So much joyous noise! Can he hear it across the centuries?
After the piece, Dudamel spoke.
"All these children are the future," Dudamel said, pointing toward the young musicians, given the best seats up front.
"It is so important to have our whole continent together, no North, no South," he continued. "I am very proud to be a Venezuelan, to be a South American, but I am most proud to be American."
And with that, he returned to the podium for the encore, a repeat performance of end of the "Ode to Joy," this time with fireworks.
For those of you who would like to see the performance, click here to go the LA Phil's webcast on http://www.laphil.com/webcast/.
This goes WAY beyond being a one-man band....
I had to share this, which my friend and colleague Nonie Reesor sent me:
Frankly, the violin part alone is pretty freaking hard, without playing the entire score, like this guy does!
Does anyone know more about this young man? The Youtube is all in Cyrillic.
Our interview with Joshua Bell is one of more than two dozen in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which also features talks with Sarah Chang, Maxim Vengerov, and David Garrett, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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