After posting "Selamat Hari Gawai!" on FB, I got a few puzzled responses.
Gawai is the rice harvest festival in Malaysia, celebrated mostly by the indigenous people in Borneo. One of my first Gawai celebrations was back in 2003 when I was invited to a kampong (village) out in the jungle. We made it before sunset when the festivities were scheduled to begin.
Gawai celebrations begin with the village elder women (priestesses) going into a trance to the beating of gongs in a tonal rhythm. My friends, knowing I was a musician, convinced me to join in the gonging. What they failed to tell me was that the beating of rhythms on a gong suspended from the ceiling went on for hours. After an hour or so, it felt like my arms were going to fall off and I had to pass the gong sticks to another. After the women went into a trance state, they made offerings to the gods and began a dance, weaving in and out of every "door" in the long house, offering blessings of prosperity and fruitfulness.
After the blessings, the festivities began. You are expected to go from door to door and partake in drink, food, song and dance. I was mesmerized by their music and dance, a bit like Thai. Women show their poise by dancing on plates. The plates are laid out in a row. They place the ball of one foot on a plate and then do a stylized dance before placing the other foot on a different plate. This goes on down the line of plates. The skill is in the balance, especially as the night progresses after much food and drink. This is repeated until dawn of the next day.
It was this holiday, thousands of miles away from home, that inspired me to begin playing viola again. The tonal rhythms and majestic movements woke my inner muse. I even brought home to the US one of the gongs used in the festival.
This year the "Night Court" musical/comedy is going to begin with Christmas Carols sung in the lobby of the Wortham Center before the show, with modified words of course :) The plan was to record a string quartet accompaniment for this pre-show teaser.
We managed to find a time we could all get together at the studio (one of the lawyers has a small recording studio in his home) to rehearse and record several carols. We divvied up the parts from the piano scores and alternated between a rehearsal and a recording. This went on for over and hour until we were finally done. Happy with the results, we started packing up when a severe thunderstorm blew through. Before the file could be saved, we lost power and lost the recordings.
We began to unpack to start over, but then stopped when someone asked - why don't we just play live? Everyone looked at everyone else for a moment. A collective smile slowly appeared on our faces. Sure, it is an extra 10-15 minutes added to our playing time each day for four days, but its just so much fun! Was there enough time between the pre-show carols and curtain call to get back down into the pit? Yes, about 10-15 minutes.
So, live it is!
It is that time of year again for the Houston Bar Association's musical/comedy production of "Night Court". It is the one time out of the year that I play in a semi-professional setting. We play 5 shows in 4 days. We in the pit are individually mic'd by a professional sound-tech crew. Sometimes we even rub elbows with the Houston Grand Opera backstage.
Playing in such confined quarters builds a camaraderie unmatched by any other other setting. The pit itself is quite cramped. It takes a bit of juggling to situate ourselves so that we have just barely enough room to play our instruments. We share one small dressing room for close to two dozen musicians to change into orchestral black and warm-up in. Dinner is taken in those confined quarters between arriving after our day jobs and curtain call. By then end of the week, we know more about each other than any other sane person would wish to know.
The word "creative" does not do justice to what happens down in the pit. While we play from mostly orchestrated scores, we have the freedom to modify the scores we play from as we see fit and the incidental music is entirely ad-lib - just the name of a song and its key signature. We add a touch of humor by picking a piece of music to be played by kazoo. It takes a lot of will power to not laugh while we perform certain numbers.
Though we may call the week of the show "hell week", it is a time that we all enjoy. For a few days we divulge ourselves in an alternate lifestyle. During the day we are lawyers, judges, engineers, teachers and medical professionals but by night we are musicians. Though we are in the darkest recesses that is called the pit, our music augments what happens on-stage and provides the stage crew time to change sets.
We play the bows but do not take them ourselves.
Just when I thought my stage fright had left me for good it came back this Sunday.
I left the house early Sunday morning to make it to church well ahead of the service to have time to warm up. As soon as I got on the freeway, I had to exit - several miles of I-45 and the frontage roads were closed due to a fatality accident earlier in the morning. What would normally had been a 30 minute drive took over an hour, and I arrived at church minutes before the service began.
My bow arm shakes resurfaced when it came time to perform. The tension wasn't just limited to my bow arm. I noticed that my left arm also felt like a solid block of concrete. But somehow I managed to relax enough to not to play everything staccato and keep the notes in tune, even if I added a few more unintentional ornaments to Bach.
After I finished playing, I sat back down feeling shame and embarrassment. I love Bach with all my heart and soul and felt like I did not do good justice to the 5th Suite. I prepared myself mentally to pack up after the service was over and sneak out with my proverbial tail between my legs.
The Music Director and my best friend were the first to speak to me afterwards seeing my disappointment in my performance and told me this: though I didn't play up to my own standards, do not let that come in the way of allowing people to enjoy the music as they perceived it. Put on a smile and say thank you, and then mean it.
To my surprise, others from the congregation came up to me with words of support, a comment on the complexity and beauty of Bach and my playing it through like it was nothing, a big bear hug, and a teary eyed "Thank You". My friend and Music Director were right. It is the music that counts, not its technical perfection.
Lessons today was an exercise not only in switching between different musical styles, but also of instruments. This was not the first time I've had lessons on multiple instruments in one session. Several years ago I took lessons in viola along side with learning to play cello while I was living in Malaysia. Today, I ventured into realm of violin.
I agreed to perform the Dvorak American quartet with members of my church later this summer on violin. I've been worried on my violin skills - is my intonation overly "wide", bowing to far over the fingerboard, or sounding too heavy from decades of viola playing, and not to mention the inadvertent key changes from playing on the wrong string? In short, could I make the transition from viola to violin to do this piece justice?
After packing up the viola and pulling out the violin, I started with a scale to "recalibrate" my hands and arms to the smaller instrument.. It seemed so tiny, almost like a toy rather than a serious "adult sized" instrument. I then began to play a few select measures of the Lento movement. The verdict? I was a natural violinist.
I thought that there would have been big issues with the transition, but that was not the case. Decades of viola playing trained me to play "deep" into the string, maximizing the stretch of my left hand, executing small shifts often, and developing a wide vibrato resulted into a rich tone on violin.
My teacher said that it is often thought that transitioning from violin to viola is easy. , however the opposite is true in some ways. The viola takes much more effort to get a good tone, the left hand is forced to work more to execute the simplest notes than the violin. What is difficult to manage on viola is surprisingly easy on violin.
No wonder why violin repertoire is much more complex than viola repertoire.
It seems ironic that after spending so many years studying the Bach Cello Suites, it is one set of works that I have yet to truly perform. The one time I did play one of the movements publicly, it was for an audition and it was cut-off due to time constraints. This Sunday, I will finally be performing a complete movement from one of my favorite Suites - #5 Allemande in C-Minor.
When I first studied this movement a few years ago, I fell in love with its tonal 'colour', being rich in chords creating a sense of being accompanied by a second instrument.. Those chords however were difficult to learn - intonation-wise and stylistically. Stopped 5ths are tricky on viola. It takes just the right angle of the left hand and placing the finger between the strings "just so" to create a perfect 5th. The thirds need to be played with one of the notes a little "out of tune" to make the chord sound perfectly in tune. Bow speed, angle and distribution is critical. Too much speed at the beginning of the stroke makes for an unintended accent. The chords must be played "broken" but fluid. All this makes the art of bowing into an exercise of supreme bow control while remaining relaxed at all times.
Picking this piece up again was like slipping into a pair of comfortable old shoes. Two years ago those shoes were new and there were a few spots that caused discomfort and a blister or two. I've walked many miles in those shoes. Over time they have become a part of me, a perfect fit between the shoe and the shoe-wearer - soft and comfortable.
It will be nice to go on a walk with Bach again.
While working through my Z music, I started the hunt for Y music and ran across a transcription for a Ysaye's Cello Sonata. So far is the the only "Y" piece I've found for viola.
After watching this piece performed on cello on Youtube I'm questioning WHY I'm doing this. But when I stop to think about it for a moment, this Z-A goal is much like the one I had for the Bach Cello Suites: for the adventure, pushing my limits further than before, learning something new, and branching out musically.
I'm trying to visualize myself executing those chords high up on the fingerboard on viola in the first movement. I foresee many months of some literally painful practice sessions to come close to giving this piece some of the justice it deserves. However, I am anticipating a better mastery of the fingerboard and bow arm after studying this piece.
Through all of this, I can't seem to overcome my addiction to "B" composers. To satisfy this craving, I'm delving in head first into the S&P's on violin, starting with Partitia #4 Giga. This movement is the easiest of all the S&P's, and reminds me a bit of the Brandenburg Concerto #6 final movement in style. Though I can't manage yet the left & right hand agility for most of the S&P's at this time, I am able to produce a rich sound on this Partitia with relative ease.
I took a long-shot and asked my viola teacher if he would coach me on violin to help me prepare for another Dvorak quartet performance. Not only did he agree (having played violin before college), but also admitted wanting to purchase a violin himself to explore the wider range of violin repertoire.
This response got me thinking about what music is available for violists. As a violist, the first place to look for a comprehensive list of pieces written for viola is the Primrose International Library at http://music.lib.byu.edu/PIVA/ When reading through the introduction page, I learned that there were overr4,500 published scores of works for viola. Looking through the PIVA list, you can find pieces written with Sax, trombone, harp, organ, choir, and mandolin.
If this is not a wide range of repertoire, I don't know what is! If one was to work though this list, it would surely take a life-time!
This past weekend, a few of us musicians got together at our church retreat and rehearsed the Dvorak American, with me on violin. We rehearsed for two hours Saturday afternoon, and decided that the American sounded good enough for that evening's Variety show. We chose to perform the last movement and rehearsed it for another hour later in the day.
We were first up for the show. We apologized in advance for any train-wrecks, and proceeded with the Finale. At one point the cellist got lost and asked to be told when we got to rehearsal mark 10. I got lost once, but found my way back in. We made it to the end, all at the same time and took a collective breath. To our utter surprise, we received a standing ovation! We were asked to play it again at church at a later date.
Not bad for three hours of rehearsal together, and for me only playing violin for something like 30 hours in my lifetime.
Summer time in Houston! It is not the return of the mosquitoes that I'm looking forward to, but my venture back into the orchestra pit.
This year's Night Court production is "Legal Holidays" put on by the Houston Bar Association. We had our first orchestra rehearsal this week. The scores were published the day before rehearsal, so we were all a bit worried about how "day 1" would sound. However, having worked together before we managed to pull off an impressive first rehearsal. The genre of music runs the gambit from classical, marching band, gospel, hip-hop, rock, to Latin music. Some pieces are easy, others are insanely difficult. All but one piece was written specifically for this show, however they are nowhere near their final revision yet.
After running through the music once, we began the process of modifying the scores - adding or cutting repeats, adding instruments, removing instruments, changing a note here or there, and sometimes even re-writing several measures. This process will continue up to the dress rehearsal, especially after we have our first rehearsal with the cast. By opening night, our parts will be heavily marked. It is a fun process, and one that exercises every bit of musical-know-how we hold collectively.
After finally having made it through the Sitt, I began studying the Zelter Concerto. It is much easier than the Hoffmeister or Stamitz from a technical perspective, however I discovered that easier does not necessarily translate into less work.
I thought I had it easy , but I was sorely mistaken. The smaller details of viola playing are receiving quite a bit of attention: evenness of tempo, articulation, range of vibrato, string crossings, evaluating different choices of fingerings and bowings, and sounding points to name a few. The musical bar has been raised.
Though I do not have to worry about navigating the fingerboard to get the notes right, I am having to put quite a bit of thought into musical interpretation and fine-tuning techniques. The simplest of passages are creating a new challenge in developing a "singing voice". The section of 16th note triplets are forcing me to to focus on evenness in tone across all strings so that notes don't "drop out". I'm having to figure out just exactly where in the bow I should be playing from note to note to get the sound I'm searching for.
No, easier does not mean easy!
More entries: April 2010
Enter to win Leonidas Kavakos' recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Mendy Smith is from League City, Texas. Biography
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