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Helen Harvey

Decision time-- say good-bye to the classics?

January 30, 2011 at 7:44 PM

I can no longer procrastinate.  The decision must be made-- this week-- and it will end up a public proclamation of the direction my music will take in the future.  While this direction could be reversed anytime in the future, I suspect, it will not.  It is, therefore, a watershed moment.

The decision?  Which group to continue with on Tuesday nights-- the local symphony or the local old-time jam session.  During our January break from orchestra rehearsals, I ventured out of my element to meet with 6-8 players of:  violin, guitar, mandolin, auto-harp, and, according to rumor, a banjo player, who hasn't yet appeared this year.  I printed off a 2" binder full of  folk songs-- some old-time tunes but many other folk tunes played by the Norwegian-American ancestors of this area.  We take turns picking songs, and I sight-read most of 'em, 'cause I've never heard them before.  The group has fun together, joke with each other, appreciate each other's input, and we learn a bit about chords and styles from our leader.

The other choice is the local amateur symphony playing classical music - a group of highly intelligent people:  a few  students ranging from high school through med/grad school, most middle-aged like me, some who have been with the group for 25 years. The conductor is quite personable, insightful, and the music he picks is a good fit for our talents and abilities. 
There is very little interaction between the players, no one goes out together after rehearsals or even after concerts.  The only time people made a point of talking to me at rehearsal was the night I came in with a  ff chord one beat too soon-  ugh-- the dreaded inadvertent solo.  I now live in fear of repeating that. 

One side of me wants to stick with the classical orchestra. That was how I was raised to play-- the classics.  I'd like to get more classical repertoire under my belt.  It pushes me both technically and mentally.  The other side of me wants to play music for fun.  I don't want to feel fearful every week.  I want to branch out into new musical styles.  I want social interaction in addition to musical interaction.

Why share it here?  I hope that some teachers, some parents, even some students might find it worth reflecting upon.  I ended up with a Suzuki teacher who never strayed from the Suzuki books.  In college as my eyes were opening a bit wider, I tried to take lessons from a fiddler I heard at a concert (he was technically really good), but my performance anxiety got the best of me.
Anyway, to the teachers and students out there--  keep an open mind.  Expose yourself and your students to many different styles of music. Help them see other opportunities. Few students will have a future playing classical music to dwindling crowds in concert halls, so why teach a strictly classical repertoire?  Our orchestra concerts are attended mainly by our spouses and significant others-- maybe 25 - 50 people.

The old-time jam players have played at farmer's markets and various venues with bigger audiences.  The old-time music is not terribly challenging, but is a great start towards bluegrass playing, that can certainly be more technically demanding.  Perhaps next year I can branch into bluegrass and jazz.   Oh- the possibilities!

From Emily Liz
Posted on January 30, 2011 at 8:09 PM

It seems to me that you really want to go with the jam group, so I'd go with them. It sounds like the orchestra you're with isn't particularly friendly. I'm part of an amateur group and we have a lot of fun; we go out as a group to serve the community. I'm not saying that you're doing this, but make sure you don't write off an entire genre of music just because you don't quite mesh with the people performing that genre in your area. There's nothing that says you can't take a year off from the orchestra and then re-join! Can't you play both styles as you decide, even if you alternate back and forth? :)

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 30, 2011 at 8:44 PM

Hi, I would agree with Emily...

I also want to join a group later on... I would prefer a smaller ensemble and/or chamber music to meet friendly people with common interest. 

I do not want to participate in one of these " competitive amateur orchestras where it's a pain to go each week to only meet kind but individualistic people..."  It's not normal or an "healthy" group, in my opinion, if musicians never hang out together outside the rehearshals.  I do not necessarely mean to go at one another's house but at least to celebrate a little after concerts or to do a Christmas party buffet etc. 

Perhaps it's not the classical genre that is to blame but the people's personality in this particular group who doesn't fit.

I do know that I played for a few years in a string ensemble at my conservatory.  While it was of a good caliber and fun, the kids hardly spoke to eachother.  That was because they didn't knew eachother and probably didn't want to know or interact with the others.  Basically, the parents brough their kid and sat there to stare at their kid (not the other's kids...) through the rehearshal.  It was a weird ambiance and I didn't like that "coldness" 

But my sister was in another group (stage band that did classical and pop) that was fabulous.  They did band parties after concerts and every member was there. Youngs and olds mixed quite well and they were ennough of each age pool so that everyone had friends. They made Christmas and Summer parties as well. Often, everyone would bring something for the buffet (cockies, rice krispies, sea food etc)   That is the most perfect and friendly group I saw.  (but it was in a medium size city.  I wonder if that could be found in a big city where people can be more individualistic and from different culture, country??? etc) 

Hope you find what you want as a group no matter the genre of music!

Good luck ; )

From marjory lange
Posted on January 30, 2011 at 10:34 PM

 You have clearly been wrestling with this a lot.  You can't make a really wrong decision, so follow your heart...and thanks, too, because you've given me a lot to think about.

From Susan Young
Posted on January 31, 2011 at 12:08 AM

I just came from a jam session.  Not hard?  Guess you never heard the Possum Creek band and friends trying to get through "Faded Love" without someone messing up, changing the tempo, or just bursting out in laughter.  When we play a song, the key is up for grabs.  I told them that I am going to make a spin the wheel board for choosing your key since no one can decide.  I look forward to our Sunday jams.  I can't play many of the songs but it challenges me to identify the notes and keys so I can at least long bow as more of a bass background.  Tonight, it took four songs of me saying, "I really sounded bad!  Why can't I get a note right tonight!" before I discovered a peg had slipped.  I love classical music and listen to it every day but I'm having too much fun right now!

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on January 31, 2011 at 2:04 AM

I have my feet in both camps. On Wednesday I have a chamber orchestra rehearsal with a pro conductor. Some of the 26 players are pro or ex-pro players, so the standard is high and a great environment for learning if you're a violinist who migrated from the cello section and is now very much the new kid on the block. 

On Tuesday I play fiddle in an English music session in a pub, mostly morris and Playford, but with a leavening of Scottish, Breton and other European. The Friday session is similar except that it is exclusively Irish. In both sessions printed music is unknown – everyone learns and plays by ear, a good discipline in itself, and some of the best players we have don't read music anyway. 

In both camps we all know each other well and get together socially on other occasions - except that the pub sessions are also social occasions in their own right.

From Adam Sweet
Posted on January 31, 2011 at 12:41 PM

I, too, play in both folk groups and classical ones.  I used to play with the Pioneer Valley Symphony, the Valley Light Opera and the Keene Chamber Orchestra, in addition to a bluegrass band, but pared away the PVS and VLO for just the very reasons you describe.  I kept the KCO for years due to respect for Director Eric Stumacher.  The only reason I quit (temporarily) was due to the birth of my son.  Once he is older, I will rearrange my schedule so I can join again.

I teach music (mainly fiddle, mandolin and guitar) out of my studio in South Hadley.  I run a couple informal jam sessions here.  The First Sunday of every month from 1-3 and Thursday nights from 7-9.  Anybody can join and frequently we see players coming through from Ireland or Maryland or California on their way to performing concerts at the Iron Horse or whatever.  They are informal and lots of fun.  People are more friendly and hang out after the jam session, catch up about news and check in with each other on Facebook.

I would never want to give up my classical upbringing.  It's a critical part of who I am.  

So I chose both.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 31, 2011 at 4:59 PM

 Oh, what a tough call! No advice or insight, just wanted to say I appreciated the difficulty of your decision. But, like it was said, you can't make a wrong decision here. And whichever you choose, well, after a spell if it doesn't feel right, there's the other one, waiting there for you.

Good luck in choosing!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 31, 2011 at 8:07 PM

Try the jam session for a while and see how it works for you.  You can always go back to the classical orch.  But, in your shoes I would not want the regret of not having taken a shot at something totally different which might be a lot of fun.  Or, if you can do both, do that way.  Have fun!

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on January 31, 2011 at 8:06 PM

I'm going the other way: I've been playing bluegrass mandolin for about 8 years, and now I'm studying classical violin.  I'm not ready for orchestral playing yet, although a few of us get together and play chamber pieces.

I've heard horror stories about how forbidding orchestras can be.  Bluegrass, on the other hand, is one of the friendliest environments I've ever seen.  Find a bluegrass jam in your area and give it a try.  (Your old-time music experience will give you a leg up.)  You don't have to jump right in and start soloing - many people are content to stay in the background, and there's nothing wrong with that.  If you're still learning the ropes, look for a "slow pitch jam" in your area.  This is where a few experienced players lead less experienced ones through some simple songs, played slowly enough for everyone to keep up.  In addition you'll get instruction in the structure of bluegrass songs, jam etiquette, etc.  See for an example of what it's all about.

I'm working hard to learn this devilish thing known as violin, which is made more difficult by the demands of classical music.  But now when I go to a bluegrass jam, I not only bring my mandolin but also my violin - which somehow turns into a fiddle in that context.  (And going the other way, when playing with my classical friends, my mandolin sounds great on the lead part in Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring.)

Anything that broadens your musical horizons is good.

From Helen Harvey
Posted on February 1, 2011 at 4:22 AM

interesting stories-- one and all.  thanks for sharing the comments, the advice, the related experiences.

Charlie & Susan- you've got my respect-  i can't imagine learning violin as an adult!

Pub jam sessions-  sound like a lot of fun!  I'm finishing up a program and will need to relocate soon, if I find someone to hire me.  Perhaps I should focus only on cities that have slow jam sessions hosted by pubs. ... i feel another Discussion Topic coming on...  :-)

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 1, 2011 at 4:44 AM

You nailed the head on why I generally enjoy playing chamber music over orchestral.  Unless the larger orchestral group is a particularly friendly one, chamber groups in my experience are much more like a group of friends doing something for fun than a 'job'. 

That being said, I did play with an orchestra in Oregon that was just as fun as the chamber group I was playing in at the same time.  We would do dinner/drinks after rehearsals or concerts, meet-up outside of the orchestra, and sometimes formed small groups for special occasions. 

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on February 1, 2011 at 6:46 AM

Mendy, What orchestra?  Is that when you got your John Hill?


From Lisa Fogler
Posted on February 1, 2011 at 8:46 AM

I play in an orchestra and we all know each other quite well, we socialize when we can. We are patient with each other, we share something in common, we are all the same, each one is a musician. Do we go out after rehearsals? No. You see, we work so a tuesday night at 11 pm is not the time to start a party! I think going out after the rehearsal has little to do with the ambiance of an orchestra. There is a member that is retired so invites whoever wants to come over to his house for a getogether. I don't live in the USA. At 11pm at night everything is closed, plus there are no bars and pubs to go to unless you drive an hour into Paris. So for me it's not an issue. What we lack in socialization after the rehearsal we make up for in acceptance during the rehearsal. Plus we schedule celebrations whenever we can. I know I could call up anyone in that orchestra if I needed help or was in a bind. We are a very tight group of 70! I sometilmes play in other orchestras and with other musicians for the fun of it, but I've never found anything that gives me the sensations I get playing in the middle of a my symphony orchestra that is moving as one entity. I vote orchestra.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on February 1, 2011 at 6:13 PM

My orchestra experience has been much more like Lisa F.'s, and I'm sorry to hear yours is so different, Helen.  A number of us used to stop off for a cold beer on the way home, although we're all too old and tired for that now!  Someone usually volunteers to host a post-concert party at least a couple times a year.  I know of at least three marriages between people who met in that orchestra, as well as a few love affairs that didn't end in marriage.  A few years ago, my husband was critically ill and hospitalized 60 miles away.  For the most part, it was orchestra people who left dinner on the doorstep for the kids and me.

Tough decision, Helen.  The orchestral repertoire uses the technique you're working on, and there's nothing more wonderful than sitting inside the sound of a symphony.  If the other players, besides not being friendly, are actively critical though, who needs it?  Especially if that culture seems ingrained and unchangeable.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 3, 2011 at 7:10 AM

Fransecsa -

I played primarily with the Hillsoboro Symphony, but also played with the Jewish Symphony and Williamette Symphony from time to time along with other smaller chamber groups.  And yes, I got my Hill shortly after moving to Oregon.

Posted on February 5, 2011 at 3:36 PM

Keep doing both !  Playing classical music with other musicians is a must for your soul and cannot be replaced by anything else. Of course, you should go away from this boring people and find some others more friendly. And of course, go and continue with your jamming sessions as well. You can live with both ! Should you go in only one direction you will end up terribly missing the other one sooner or later (assuming that you  really  like both kinds of music, which should be the case if you are truly a musician).

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