March 2009

An Insight into the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra Making Great Music

March 24, 2009 23:31

Today I got an email about the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and I remembered rave reviews about it on Laurie Niles wrote, in her blog of Feb. 26, 2009 ( that the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is the jewel in the crown of El Sistema, an intensive method of training children in Venezuela, most of whom live in desperate poverty, to become top notch musicians who play and love music. Laurie wrote in another blog ( that she regretted missing a performance of the orchestra. Ravi Narasimhan, who had attended the concert, wrote in a comment to her blog, "The energy in Disney Hall will not soon be approached let alone exceeded. Mr. Dudamel [the conductor], believe it or not, transcends all that's been written and said about him. Jaded Angelenos went nuts."

This is a picture from Daylife ( of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony during a rehearsal for the concert Laurie missed.  (Sorry, Laurie.)

The email I just got told me that the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Their performance is sold out, but they have scheduled an open rehearsal, with all seats in the house selling for $15. Wow! An open rehearsal may be even more interesting and fun than the concert. I've played in community symphony orchestras, and I know that the chemistry between the conductor and the musicians is a big part of the miracle of music making. I'd love to see how the conductor brings out the best in the young musicians. Of course, I bought a ticket right away. I chose to sit in the chorister section so I'll be above and behind the orchestra. From this vantage point, I'll almost be like an orchestra member following the conductor.

The open rehearsal is in about two weeks. I'm really excited about it, and I promise to write a blog about it.

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Free Downloads of the Concertgebouw!

March 19, 2009 22:51

Sometimes it takes Americans, at least me, some time to catch up with the Europeans, in this case, the Dutch. I recently got an email in a language I didn't understand, although I recognized it as Dutch. Google translator refused to translate it for me, so I looked for words that I could understand. When I saw "Concertgebouworkest" and "Bernard Haitink," I knew this had to be good, and I clicked on one of the links. I kept following links until I got to, which Google translated for me. I learned that radio4 is the Dutch classical music channel, which has webradio, podcasts, news briefs, and free downloads. I saw "Bernard Haitink 80 jaar, Nu GRATIS downloads...", so I eagerly followed that link. On the next page, I saw English near the right top of the screen, and when I clicked on it, the page was translated into English. I found that I could download three works conducted by Haitink for free: Bizet's Symphony in C Major, Schumann's Symphony #1, and Beethoven's Symphony #3, the Eroica. Then I followed the link to "MORE FREE KCO DOWNLOADS." (KCO translates to "Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.") I followed that link and found ten symphonies performed by the Concertgebouw and directed by various people other than Haitink. I had trouble downloading the recordings, so I emailed to the technical staff at radio4, and they gave me a lot of help. Now I have 13 beautiful recordings of the Concertgebouw, three directed by Bernard Haitink, on my computer, and I got them all for free.

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Happy St. Patrick's Day

March 17, 2009 05:30

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day by listening to some great Irish traditional music.

Start with some Irish fire: Celtic Dueling Violins by Irish Woman.

Zoe Conway, fiddler, plays traditional music accompanied by a man playing the bodhran, a traditional Celtic drum.

The Chieftains and Leahy comprise a band with hot fiddlers who follow up with some hot Irish traditional dancing. (Sorry, there is no embedding to this video on youtube.)

The last recording of the great Irish fiddler Sean McGuire, who passed away in 2005, is a set of reels.

Turlough O'Carolan, a blind Irish harper, made his living by travelling from the home of one Irish noble family to another and composing music for them. Although he wrote music for the harp, today his tunes are played by many different solo instruments and bands. This recording features the Chieftains and the great Irish harpist Derek Bell.

One of the great things about Irish traditional music is that we can play, sing, and listen to it sing it all year long.

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Adult beginners have advantages

March 14, 2009 16:09

Doesn't the phrase "adult beginners" have negative overtones? Some of the most common are: You must begin studying violin at an early age. Starting as an adult won't work because it's too late to train your fingers to play. Adults are too busy with commitments such as jobs and family to devote the necessary time to learning an instrument. Adults are quitters.

It's time to counter these negative thoughts with positive, realistic ones. Adults are mature beginners with mental preparation and study skills, including setting goals or targets and managing their time, that kids don't have. I try to teach my kid students how to set goals, but I know that this is a skill that takes years to develop. Although I'm focussing on mature beginners, the subject of targeted practice applies to all mature students.

Consider this scenario. It happens to everyone. You have a really busy day, and you think you don't have time to practice. Think again. There must be a very brief period of time, 15-20 minutes for example, that you can use to practice. Can you get any benefit from such a short practice session? Yes, you can. If you think carefully about choosing a target before playing, you'll get more bang for the buck.

There are many ways of choosing a target, and I'll mention just a few.

1. If you play with a group of musicians, you will want to play well at the next rehearsal or concert. Think about the most difficult part of your music or a part of the score where your mistakes wil be loud and clear, such as an entrance. If necessary, break this part of the music down to smaller parts and focus on one or more of them at a time.

2. Have you set some overall goals for yourself? Examples are: improve my vibrato, shift positions more smoothly and accurately, improve my intonation, play with accurate rhythm. You can use practically any piece that you're working on for this. Focus on just one thing and listen to yourself as you play.

3. Do you know any pieces which express or relieve your current mood? Are there any pieces which will will help you make it through hard times? One of my mature students has a father who is dying of cancer. This student is playing a lot of slow and gentle music to relieve his stress.

4. Think of a piece that you like and play well now. What can you do to make it sound even better?

5. Do you want to improve your sight reading? Try playing a new piece.

6. Do you keep a practice log? If so, have you noted passages or skills that you need to work on?

7. Has your teacher told you to work on something specific? It's generally a good idea to follow your teacher's advice.

No matter what your goal is, I recommend the following structure for a short practice period.

As always, start by warming up. Scales are good for this. Now that your fingers are warmed up, you need to light a small fire in your brain. Spend a few minutes playing something that you like and that you can play reasonably well. Listen to yourself and focus on things you do well. Then give yourself a pat on the back and move on to your target. Have only one target, and focus on it. Think about it and listen to yourself while you play.

When you take advantage of the mental skills you've developed gradually over the years, you can maximize the payoff of a practice session, even if it's short.

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Flying High

March 8, 2009 03:53

I just had a fantastic experience. I felt like an eagle with long wings soaring in an updraft. I felt that way even during the Kyrie Elaison, which I didn't expect to make me feel happy. It was Mozart. Mozart's Requiem.

The orchestra was small and the chorus large. At times, I watched their interactions. I couldn't do that for long, though. The music picked me up and carried me away on high. I couldn't understand how one man could create such beauty. All too soon came the strong, stolid Amen.

There is a place deep inside us that only music can touch. It is a place where we can connect to the best parts of ourselves, to other people, to Nature, and to a Transcendant Power. I had a wonderful trip there tonight.

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In Praise of Strings

March 2, 2009 18:05

I recently heard a wonderful concert that taught me about the variety of music that a chamber orchestra can play beautifully.

The chamber orchestra was the famous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, founded by Neville Marriner. I am familiar with a few of their recordings -- Bach, other Baroque, and Mozart -- and I like them very much. The instrumentation of this chamber orchestra varies, depending partly on how historically accurate the director wants to be. In this concert, the instrumentation was rather unusual: There were only string instruments.

Julia Fischer was the director and violin soloist in this concert. She did not conduct, but she signaled the players occasionally with her sweeping body movements. I had decided to attend this concert mainly because I wanted to hear her play two of the Bach violin concertos. She played the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1042) well, and she played the Concerto for Violin in E major (BWV 1042) brilliantly. She brought out a lot of emotion in the latter concerto, unlike some soloists who hold back because the concerto is Baroque. I felt carried away by the intensity of her moods, and I had to be careful not to do "air bowing," especially in the strongly rhythmic sections.

There were two very different twentieth century pieces on the program: Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10" and William Walton's "Sonata for Strings."

Benjamin Britten started composing in early childhood. When Britten was only ten years old, composer Frank Bridge discovered and mentored him. When he was 24, he was offered a commission to compose something new within one month for performance at the Salzburg Festival. He accepted the offer and composed "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10" within his deadline. The performance I heard covered a range of moods in a subtle, rather than dramatic, style.

William Walton's "Sonata for Strings." was altogether different. William Walton made his name as a composer of film music, including music for Olivier's films of Shakespeare's plays. Walton wrote only one string quartet, and about 25 years later, Neville Marriner suggested that he rework it as a piece for a string orchestra. In the resulting piece, "Sonata for Strings," I could hear elements of both string quartet music and dramatic film music. At times, the music sounded very much like a string quartet, with "conversations" among the instruments, but each instrument's voice was multiplied several times by the musicians in the chamber orchestra. Similar effects can be made in recording studios with overdubbing. At other times, the music was a dramatic and changing array of emotions. It was music that gripped me and carried me along by its force.

String instruments are wonderful. Their combinations, styles of playing, and emotional power are awesome.

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More entries: February 2009

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