17 January, 2010

Passion and Precision - the joy of chamber music

It's been ages - again - since my last blog posting.  Since then, I have been on two chamber music tours, played Mendelssohn and Bruckner, Shostakovitch, Mahler and many other composers, celebrated holidays with family far away, had 2 x-rays for separated ribs (ouch!), joined a new chamber music group, done a 21-day inner retreat, and so much else, too much to write...

First of all, let me say that as far as performing goes, in my opinion nothing beats chamber music for emotional involvement and satisfaction.  It's the intimacy of bringing a piece to life with a small group of (mostly, but not always) like-minded individuals with common purpose, creativity, and my own personal motto of what I strive for in music, "passion and precision."  It is the marriage of these two factors that make the magic happen.  I have the great good fortune of counting truly world-class musicians among my chamber music partners, and they are all the finest of human beings as well.  In the last 2 weeks of October, the Virtuoso Horn Duo and Friends (Kerry and me as the VHD, tuba player and brother-in-law extraordinaire Kyle Turner with magnificent pianist and dear friend Lauretta Bloomer on piano, the Friends) embarked upon a 2-week US tour, giving master classes, ensemble coaching, and concerts at the Manhattan School of Music, Penn State University, Malone University in Ohio, Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, the University of Missouri, the Cincinnati Conservatory, and the University of Western Michigan at Kalamazoo.  It was sheer pleasure to play together with Kerry, Laurie, and Kyle, all beautifully intuitive musicians with gorgeous sounds and totally professional stage presence.  It was also such a gift to listen to so many fine students in every location where we taught, not to mention the generosity of our hosts.

After our last engagement in Michigan, I flew from Detroit to London to play concerts and give master classes with the Ni Ensemble, my brass quintet.  It was the first tour for our newest member, trumpeter Bob Koertshuis (from Arnhem, Netherlands).  Bob, Heather, Leon, Dave, and I had a truly lovely week together, mixing hard work with lots of laughter, running the musical gamut between Berio at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to Frank Sinatra at a very cold outdoor barbecue charity benefit concert near Cambridge!  We also made a repeat appearance at the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Dance in Cardiff, followed by the best Thai meal I have ever eaten. In contrast to the breakneck pace of the Virtuoso Horn Duo tour, our schedule allowed us plenty of time to relax, go for walks in the country (one high point, literally and figuratively, was a hike up a hill in the Malverns, revealing a breathtaking view at the top), and of course a few pints here and there.  I treasure the sense of adventure, both musically and personally, in my Ni Ensemble partners, their love of experimentation, brilliant technique combined with great artistry, and the attention to detail carried along by a constant musical flow.  There are moments when we play together that I just want to jump up and shout, "Whohooooo" out of sheer exuberance!  We just had a photo shoot last week and will have our website ready to roll in the next few weeks.

The latest addition to my chamber music groups happened quite recently.  David Johnson retired from the American Horn Quartet, and the other members invited me to join them in his place.  I had been performing with them since last April, when health issues prevented David from taking part in the European tour, but becoming a member of the AHQ is a big thrill.  The quartet has a worldwide reputation and has been around since 1982.  I was only 12 years old in 1982!  Talk about stepping into a legacy...

The AHQ concerts are thrilling from the standpoint of the audience, but I can tell you after experiencing them from both sides of the podium, it's a constant 10,000 volts on stage.  Before my first full-length concert with them last spring, I was a little nervous, but from the very first downbeat, there wasn't a single second to think about anything other than the present moment.  The concentration doesn't let down, ever, during or even in between the pieces - I felt myself constantly aware of everyone else's parts, how I would articulate this note here, tune that minor 3rd there, breathe in the next phrase, fingers flying, pacing for the high notes, pulling out the stops for the climactic moments and soaring on the lyrical passages, mentally preparing for the next piece while taking bows for the one just completed...

Something I treasure from a fine chamber music performance is the instantaneous, almost telepathic communication between the members of each of my groups, which of course also has a lot to do with thorough preparation and rehearsal.  You have to put in the work to make it sound effortless!  Take huge risks, but only when hugely prepared for them.  The reward at the end of the performance is the ability to share the current of the music with the audience, and at the same time to experience that priceless feeling of emptiness and purity, like a huge wind just blew through my brain and left stillness in its wake.  For me, chamber music is a spiritual experience.  I love it.

02 October, 2009

Daily Bread and Mother's Milk

In Belgium, there is a small chain of café/restaurants called Le Pain Quotidien, or in Dutch, Het Dagelijks Brood ("The Daily Bread.") The idea is, you sit at one long wooden communal table, read your newspaper or chat (or write your blog!) while enjoying delicious soups, salads, open-faced sandwiches, croissants, taking your time. The café culture in Europe is one I treasure, along with so many facets of European living. So here I sit at said establishment in Antwerp, waiting for my tuna salad and hibiscus cardamom iced tea, feeling the simple pleasure of sharing a table with a few strangers. What if I were to strike up a conversation with the woman breast-feeding across from me? I've grown more shy about such things as I have gotten older, so I know I won't. It is lovely to watch the look in the young mother's eyes as she feeds her little one.

At another table nearby, a mother and daughter are having lunch together. From the speed with which they chose their dishes and settled into a conversation, I would guess they meet at least once a week. The daughter is around my age. Watching them, I am struck with a pang of envy.

My life is all I could ask it to be, and I am surrounded by loving, lovely people. But my own mother is 8,000 kilometers away. At most, Mom and I see each other twice a year, and sometimes an entire year goes by between visits. It's hard for me to get to Oregon from Luxembourg, especially when my "vacation" time often consists of concert tours to the four corners of the globe. I miss the relationship my mom and I might have developed, had we lived closer together. And it is always an awkward component of our times together, trying to fit the intensity of all our mother/daughter feelings and thoughts into a few days.

I know she loves me dearly and is glad that I am able to live my dream as a professional performing artist, and that she is proud of me. I hope she realizes how proud I am of her too, of her devotion to the people she loves, her willingness to be of service to her ideals and to those she encounters who are in need, of her sharp wit, of her quality of innocence in a world that so often succeeds in squeezing the innocence out of us. I think about her more than she will ever know.

Life is truly a series of choices, and the paths that open before us and close behind leave their indelible mark upon who we are. I would not, in hindsight, have chosen any other life than the one I lead. But sometimes I wonder what was behind the other doors. Would I be closer to my parents? Would I have had children of my own? Would I have been happy? Fulfilled? Of course it is impossible to know. My way of being involves remaining committed to the choices I have made without looking back. Still, I miss you today, Mom.

19 September, 2009

Virtuoso Horn Duo Facebook Page

It's been a very long time since my last post - lots to report! For now, I would like to advertise the newly-created Virtuoso Horn Duo page on Facebook. It's got details of all the stops on our upcoming Virtuoso Horn Duo and Friends 2009 US tour, as well as photos, discography, and (soon) chance to listen to our recording of "'Twas a Dark and Stormy Night" with the Sinfonietta Cracovia. Please check out the page and become a fan!

24 July, 2009

The Fruits of Spontaneity

Sometimes a small move off the planned path can make all the difference!  Last weekend, Kerry and I were in Montpellier with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg for the final two concerts of the season.  For me, they were the last concerts on my one-year conctract as 3rd horn with the OPL.  It has been a wonderful experience for me, being a full-time member of the orchestra for the season (I have been working there on and off since 2001 and will continue to do so on an occasional basis in the future.)  After delivering the ending chords of Dvorak's 7th Symphony to an enthusiastic audience at the Festival Radio France Languedoc-Roussillon, I felt the poignancy of another stage of life coming to a close.  There have been many of these lately, including sending my younger stepson off to university.  The next morning, the orchestra boarded a bus to Avignon, to catch a 6-hour train to Metz, then transfer to busses for the rest of the journey to Luxembourg.  From the bus window, I felt the intense Mediterranean sunshine, looked upon fields of sunflowers, rooftops of Provençal villages... and thought, why are we leaving this beautiful place so soon?  Now that the kids are gone, no one is waiting for us back at the house.  Kerry and I exchanged barely 2 sentences about it and decided spontaneously to ditch the orchestra in Avignon, spend the rest of the day and night there and look around, then travel to Paris, returning home a couple days later.  Just coloring outside the lines like that felt so liberating!   We said a few quick, "Have a great summer, we're staying here, bye!" 's before purchasing our TGV tickets to Paris and Luxembourg and boarding the shuttle bus for the center of town.  

We knew that Avignon had a rich and vibrant history which included being the seat of the papacy in the 14th century, but we had no idea we had arrived in the middle of one of the most renowned theater festivals in Europe.  It was a small miracle that we found a hotel room at all - though it was at the very first place we tried.  How great it felt booking tickets and hotel rooms the old-fashioned way rather than reserving on line!  After checking in to our room at the Bristol Hotel (does every European city have a Hotel Bristol?  Seems like it) we slathered on sunscreen and hit the streets.  Besides the main plays being offered at the festival, Avignon has a secondary "Off" festival much like the Edinburgh Fringe.  Actors from the numerous plays wandered around town in costume hawking their productions, and we were taken by a beautiful Japanese violinist handing out flyers for La Violoniste et l'Esprit de la Chaise (The Violinist and the Spirit of the Chair.  This play, all done with dance, mime, and instrumental music, was deeply moving and beautiful.  There was a message about artistry and overcoming the negative voices who come between us and our creativity, our magnificence of spirit, as well as the sadness of what is lost in war.  You can see highlights from the show here.  Having just dealt with a difficult personality on the podium ourselves, the play was balm to our souls.

We ate a delicious traditional Provençal meal with local wine under the stars, sat on our hotel balcony and watched all sorts of colorful folks pass by on the street, slept deeply, had croissants and espresso for breakfast the next morning, and then wandered out to the Pont d'Avignon, the Avignon Bridge.  I had known the famous song about dancing on the bridge since my French teacher taught us the tune in high school, so of course I had to do a little dance over the Rhône before departing.  Kind of a cheesy thing to do, but fun nonetheless.

The train from Avignon to Paris covers 742 km (463 miles) in under 3 hours, so I watched the southern landscape give way to distant Alps, Burgundian hills, and finally the flatlands that lead to the capital.  Arriving in Paris always feels a little like coming home, since we often find ourselves there.  Kerry led us to a hotel he had stayed at many times in the past in the area near the Sorbonne on the rue des Ecoles.  Everything we did on this trip was very spur-of-the-moment, including ducking into a shop featuring Celtic trinkets, recreations of Samurai swords, even Lord of the Rings paraphernalia.  Kerry found a fabulously cool lamp with a knight in full armor on one knee, holding the stem of the lamp, and we vowed to come back the next day for it.  Just outside the shop, we saw a young pigeon who was flapping around on the ground helplessly, one leg stuck out at an awkward angle, poor little thing.  I couldn't just let it lie there, so I asked the shop owner to help me get it into a bag and inquired where the next veterinarian was (luckily just a couple of blocks away.)  Did vets take stray street pigeons, I wondered!  I sat in the waiting room for a while until the vet was free, then asked if there was anything he could do for the bird.  Luckily, no one laughed at the foreign lady with the pigeon in a green sack (at least not in front of my face!)  While I sat there, I gave Reiki to it through the bag as it calmed down and blinked up at me.  The vet x-rayed the little bird and found that its pelvis was smashed beyond repair, nothing he could do other than put it to sleep.  At least it was a gentler end for the pigeon than a hungry feral cat.  I paid a discount fee for the x-ray, bid the bird farewell, and left quietly.

We walked around that part of town for a while then went out for Ethiopian food, one of our favorite cuisines (I couldn't bring myself to eat the chicken, after trying to save the life of another bird.)  And while sitting at an outdoor cafe that night, I remembered that a friend of ours lived near the Sorbonne, so I got in touch with her - she was on the rue des Ecoles just a couple of blocks up from the hotel!  So Julia had us over for breakfast the next morning, we went back to the Celtic shop and bought the lamp as well as a delicate fairy figurine for me, and the shop owner wanted to know all about the pigeon.  We took our luggage on a long walk past the Notre Dame cathedral in search of a particular Jewish deli in the Marais quarter to find pastrami, a rarity over here.  After getting lost a couple of times, we found it just in time for lunch then caught the metro to Paris Est station for our train back to the Burg.  

Though I am a seasoned traveler and can cope with just about anything that comes up on a journey, I prefer to leave as little to chance as possible.  Trusting that we would find seats on the train and hotel rooms and get everywhere we needed to be was a bit of a stretch for me.  This particular stretch led into some unexpected pleasures!

28 June, 2009

The Lip Trill Sermon

None of these blogs so far have concentrated on pedagogical matters of horn playing; however, indulge me while I preach about an obvious, ordinary, and yet often neglected aspect of practice.  

While giving master classes, students around the world often ask me for a quick fix or for something concrete they can do which will make a dramatic difference in their playing.  Those who have worked with me know that "practice lip trills 5 minutes a day!" always makes an emphatic appearance in my advice, delivered with missionary zeal.  The students nod politely and repeat, "Okay, 5 minutes of lip trills a day."  I can almost hear them thinking, "Yeah, right, like who's got time for that?  I hate doing lip trills / they never get any better / how is that going to give me a high C / take the fuzz out of my tone / win an audition /etc. etc."  

Well, I'll tell you. :->

First, here are two suggestions on how to practice lip trills effectively and efficiently.  You might find it helpful at first to get a metronome clicking, at a comfortable tempo (try quarter note = 104 or so.)  Each pattern lasts 8 beats.  Start on written C in the middle of the staff & slur quarter notes up a whole step to D & back down, C-D-C-D-C etc.  Then do 8th notes on the same pattern (twice as fast), then triplet 8ths, then 16ths, then sextuplets, then 32nd notes, finishing off with a beautifully held out C (all in one breath if you can manage it.)  Repeat this pattern in descending and ascending half-steps, striving always for evenness of rhythm and purity of sound, remembering to finish each pattern with a held note.  When you play trills in "real" life, you will finesse them into a phrase ending anyway.  So you'd might as well practice that.

Once you've got this down, you can do a shorter exercise, like the one I do every day after my scales.  I start on the written Eb at the bottom of the (treble clef) staff (fingering: F 2&3.)  Its a bit wider than a whole step.  As you go up by half-steps, the overtones will gradually get closer and closer together.  I trill evenly for a full breath on each note, looking always for a lovely tone and rapid, clean, smooth trills.  Also, don't be afraid to go higher than is initially comfortable.  I usually ascend at least to the G or Ab above the staff while doing this exercise.  IMPORTANT:  Play around with the dynamics. Try trilling softly, loudly, with crescendo, diminuendo, as well as trying out passages in the horn repertoire with trills in them (for example, the 1st movement of Mozart 4, the bit with the Eb trills.)

I tell students that if you do this every day for two weeks, your trills will automatically get better.  Some people trill with more conscious tongue movement, others feel the shake in the throat, lips, or even abdomen.  The most important aspect is keeping the air flow steady and alive throughout the trill and focusing on the sound you are producing.  Always go for the sound and don't obsess with any one physical point of resistance, such as the embouchure or tongue.  In my 30 years' experience with the instrument, I've usually found this to be a recipe for disaster, creating a scapegoat for any technical or artistic issues (example:  I can't do ______  because my stupid embouchure is _____.)  Don't get stuck in this victim-oriented thinking.  Become a pragmatist and find what works best for you.  Keep experimenting, and when you find the magic formula, practice it and make it really great.

So, what benefits can you gain from daily, correct lip trill practice?  Here are just a few, in no particular order:

- The need to focus on air flow gets your breathing apparatus functioning properly.  You need a lot of well-directed air to get the trill turning.

- You develop much greater endurance, as the subtle motion of the embouchure muscles strengthens and vitalizes them.

- If you can make a beautiful sound on a lip trill, you can definitely find this sound on non-trilled notes, i.e. the rest of the time.

- This practice is good for slurs and legato playing by increasing your flexibility and awareness of what happens between one note and the next.

- When you come to a passage with a lip trill in the repertoire, it won't throw you for a loop.  Geoffrey Winter of the American Horn Quartet often uses the analogy of the "tool box" - making sure you have all the technical tools in your "box" you will need to play anything that may occur in your score at any given time.  Excellent lip trills belong in the top shelf of this kit!

- Trilling gives your lips a pleasant little tickle.

Five minutes a day, initially for 2 weeks... then 2 more weeks... then 2 more... and so on!  Make it a lifelong habit.  Some people were blessed with naturally fast trills.  I was not.  But practice really does bring enduring results.  Just do it!

Sermon over.

25 June, 2009

Checking back in, and notes on the AHQ tour

It has been months since I last offered a blog posting on this website - writing has always been a balance of activity and introspection for me.  The fact that nothing has appeared here since March probably shows an overdose of the former, and lack of the latter.  Now that a friend of mine, Bruce Richards (principal horn in the Liège Philharmonic Orchestra), has started blogging at my urging (check out his worthy musings here,) I feel inspired to take up (virtual) pen to (cyber) paper once again.

So many projects have come and gone since March, but for me, by far, the highlight was the American Horn Quartet's European tour, where I filled in for David Johnson (recovering from a broken eardrum.)  We played 10 concerts and offered master classes and coaching in various locations in Germany, Luxembourg, France, and England.  It was on rather short notice that I received the entire 3rd horn book for the tour, many notes to learn, with a Luxembourg Philharmonic tour to northern Italy and Prague in the middle of it all.  Even though I have been a guest of the AHQ on several other occasions (mostly on Kerry's popular The Casbah of Tetouan, but also a few other multiple horn performances here and there on various continents), it's truly a different animal playing as part of this magnificent quartet, à 4.  We hastily put together a program for a gig for the German Criminal Defense Lawyer's Association near Bonn, and shortly afterwards met again in Bonn for two days of intense rehearsal.  One of the secrets of the AHQ's success is that very little, if anything, is left to chance in the performances.  Pieces and passages are rehearsed into the smallest detail, including metering crescendos and diminuendos exactly by beat, arrows indicating when to change the intonation of a held note according to the chord changes, ornaments and lengths of articulations, etc.  You wouldn't believe how many fingerings I wrote in for the fast passages in the Turner Quartet #3, for instance.  Luckily, I was playing from copies of David's music, and the fingerings he wrote in for stopped passages and tricky bits were absolutely brilliant.  I even bought a cheap (and yes, pretty nerdy) pair of reading glasses to aid me in the rehearsals.  

The first official concert on the tour was at the Stumm'sche Reithalle in Neunkirchen, near Saarbrücken, Germany.  This photo, used for later publicity on the tour, was taken just outside the concert locale.  Even though I felt extremely prepared, the program was taxing to the limit of endurance, as well as one requiring constant concentration.  Playing at this level is like driving a race car, in that one moment of inattention can cause a crash.  I was also concerned with showing that their trust in me was warranted!  Then, as we walked together on stage to warm applause and began the first piece, "America-Tonight" from Walt Perkins' arrangement of West Side Story, there was no time to think about anything other than the task at hand, the next bar, the turn of this phrase, the tuning of that chord, the mapping of energy to get to the high C at the end of the piece... and this continued throughout the concert.  On the one hand, the absolute devotion to the moment and the mental focus and clarity required to carry off such a task blot out everything but the performance itself; on the other hand, I felt throughout the tour that this state of mind was the most natural thing in the world.  There is room for bold musicality and gorgeous emotional phrasing, but always in a calculated and intelligent way.  The first concert went off without a hitch, as did the following nine.  Each evening we were faced with a different acoustic.  For instance, the chamber music hall in the Luxembourg Philharmonie was quite live with the sound bouncing off in an unexpected direction; in Saint-Nazaire, the acoustic was dry as a bone while we were all glistening with sweat in the heat; the cavernous American Cathedral on the Avenue Georges V in Paris caused us to alter our program to fit the church's resonance; and so on.  

We traveled from venue to venue in a rented Renault Trafic minibus, in which Kerry had posted homemade signs in the back window.  Nearly 5,000 km passed under the odometer as we drove from place to place.  Waiting for the ferry in Calais to take us to Dover for our weekend at the Tonbridge School, we pulled out our horns and practiced on the quay (to the amusement?? of the other ferry passengers.)

You can see a few videos on YouTube from performances on this tour, 2 with students from the class of Xiaoming Han at the Hochschule in Saarbrücken: Take 9 Fanfare and Farewell to Red Castle, as well as a video of our encore in Versailles, Bach's Air on the G String.   

It was an absolute, unadulterated joy for me to be a part of this project.  Geof, Charlie, Kerry, and Sherry (Geof's significant other, who took care of the merchandise sales on the tour, as well as helping with the driving and providing me with some female companionship!) were ideal travel cohorts, and were in high spirits for the duration of the tour.  They made it very easy for me to "drop in" to this world-class ensemble, and I am grateful for that.  The problem with being on a 3-week high with this sort of gig is, well, coming back to the real world!  Though I also love orchestral playing, returning to the rank and file felt like being a steeplechase horse who had just been harnessed to a plow.  That plow pays the rent though, and the yoke is relatively light...

17 March, 2009

The world will keep you waiting

Somehow I never seem to write my blogs while sitting in one place - a form of mass transit & my notebook & pen are the magic ingredients. This time I'm hurtling through the sky at 813 kilometers an hour, 12,000 meters above Canada - or is it Michigan? - in a winged metal tube. I've been in this particular tube for 8 hours, still an hour and a half left before touching down in Memphis, Tennessee. This week I'll be visiting family and catching up with my husband, who has been on tour with his quartet for over 2 weeks.

I was just listening to one of my favorite songs on my iPod, "
The World Keeps You Waiting" by the New York Voices. Ever since they performed with the Luxembourg Philharmonic last season, I've been a fan of their classy, artistic, beautifully executed renditions of original and arranged material. If you get the chance, go hear them live, or at least listen to their album "A Day Like This."

Only after hearing this particular song a few times did I start listening more closely to the lyrics. In essence, it's about choosing to listen to your own creative voice, to follow your inner vision on your life path. The world will try and seduce you into believing in its own importance. If you buy into worldly values and priorities, you will forever be left waiting, wanting, hungry.

The first two stanzas of the song go like this:

Maybe it means that I will be lonely
Maybe I'll step aside; let the others go
Maybe it means my days will be lovely
This path of my design

Choices are made and chances are taken
I turned my back on every latest rage
I lost desire for pretty distraction
I've reached the age...

I suppose it is the challenge of every artist, negotiating a way to live in the world and to transcend it at the same time. We are all artists, involved in the creation of our lives on earth, the divine spark, immortal spirit in mortal flesh, wondering who we really are in this world of "pretty distraction." No matter how much we have, we constantly want more.

The busier my outer life grows, the more I crave an inner simplicity & stillness to balance it out. Sometimes I forget/suppress this need and allow myself to get very caught up in the world and the dense cares that are a part of it. I need to remember to dance above it, to let my spirit be my guide, to live as a true artist, to take time for silence and reconnection to the source. Even, and perhaps especially, at 12,000 meters above the ground.