Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exchange Goes Two Ways

by JW

Thanks to Lee Philip for his post from Singapore. We should have also pointed out that we at Peabody have enjoyed meeting Emily Koh from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory this semester - she is Lee's "exchange" for the semester. We haven't had a chance to see her in bass classes because she is a composition major, but she's been playing in orchestra and is a talented bassist. She is also a blogger and we encourage everyone to check out Rantings of a Kontrabassist. She's been blogging a lot longer than us here so thanks Emily for leading the way!


by JW

Via the omnipresent Jason Heath, I just discovered this wonderful blog by psychoanalyst Mike Jolkovski examining the psychology of musical groups and of musicians in general. This topic fascinates me and I definitely plan to keep reading this blog. Check out especially this post comparing entrepreneurs and musicians, and this Venn diagram, which pretty much says it all.

I especially like this bit about musicians:

They need to march to a different drummer — in some cases, a whole different rhythm section – but they also have a deep need for affirmation that can make them painfully insecure, and afraid when they do get success and applause that it’s really all b.s., that they have fooled everybody.

I think almost every musician out there can identify with the moment after the recital or audition when people are showering you with praise and you have to force yourself to smile and say thanks, thinking all along, "Who are these people? Didn't they hear the eighth notes in bar 19 and the intonation lapses in the cadenza???"

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Guest Blog: On Exchange in Singapore

Hi, I’m Lee Philip, a 4th year double bassist at Peabody. I’m the lucky guest-blogger here because I’m writing from Singapore, where I’m studying as an exchange student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. The Singapore exchange is a new feature at Peabody this year, and they intend to continue offering it for the next several years. It turns out, they are offering their students the potential to have a really great experience out here.

So, here I am in Singapore. Yes, it’s really hot. It’s been a good place to spend a semester though - there’s a wide variety of food, much cheaper than you’ll find anywhere in the US, and it’s a great school. No, they do not allow gum; it’s kind of weird - something about the King sitting on some chewed gum, throwing a temper tantrum and banning it forever. It keeps the city really clean, though. Singapore is the cleanest and safest city I’ve ever seen.

I originally decided to come study here because I’d heard interesting things about the conservatory here a few times, and when this opportunity was suggested to me, I thought it’d be good for me. A semester in Singapore, a country known for its strict laws and firm work ethic, almost seemed like the ideal opportunity to prepare for a busy Spring semester that will include my senior recital, several auditions, and a performance of the 2nd Bottesini Concerto on the Karr/Koussevitzky bass. So, I got the go-ahead from my teacher and “the exchange committee” and I made arrangements to go.

I mostly expected to do my own thing here: stay out of people’s way, get good grades, and practice. I spent last summer in Japan as part of the Pacific Music Festival, so I did have some experience in a foreign culture. However, I was concerned about the fact that I didn’t know much about the kind of musical instruction I’d be getting out here. Like I said, the exchange program is brand new this year; a pianist and I make up the first group of students Peabody has sent to Yong Siew Toh for a semester, so it was hard to gauge what type of instruction we would be getting. It wasn’t until I had gotten settled and spent some time here that I realized that this exchange program, the Singapore exchange, is really a unique opportunity for Peabody students to become acquainted with the growing classical music scene in Asia.

While most people know that Asian musicians have been establishing themselves as leaders in classical music as soloists or as principals of major US and European orchestras, I was not aware and would not have expected that at some point, Asia might end up becoming the center of the classical music industry. Asian countries seem to be pushing a lot of money toward the arts, and many Western musicians are moving East to take advantage of it. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s starting salary is comparable to that of a 2nd tier US orchestra, and the cost of living is much lower. Within the last 6-7 years, Singapore has opened up the Esplanade Complex (the $350M home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra) and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (offers full tuition room and board to almost all of its 200 students).

In August, I asked my teacher here, Guennadi Mouzyka principal bass of the Singapore Symphony, about subbing with his orchestra. He kindly set up an audition for me with the music director, and last week I was hired to play an all-Strauss program with Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu. It was my first professional orchestra experience and a great one: I played the 4th part of Also Sprach Zarathustra on a boomy 5-string Pollman. While I was there, I was offered at least one more concert with them (I was disappointed to have to turn that down), and 2 weeks ago I was offered a two-week gig with the Bangkok Opera playing “Die Walkure” (I was very disappointed to have to turn that one down). That isn’t enough work to just pick up and move out to Asia, but it’s nice to know that there are jobs to be had and money to be made over here.

I know that, at first, studying Western classical music in Singapore might sound like as good of an idea as asking Paris Hilton for tips on running for president, but really, it’s a solid opportunity for which I’m thankful I’ve taken advantage. This is my last week here.. aside from my last two finals, I’m going to try to squeeze in my first game of cricket and one last Chinese steamboat chili hot-pot buffet. I’ll back in Peabody Bassland on Thursday. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving from PBDB

by JW

As the three of us prepare to celebrate (American) Thanksgiving, we want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to all our readers, wherever they may hail from. We've been having a lot of fun getting the blog rolling this year, and we're certainly thankful to all of you for reading our thoughts, posting the occasional comment, or hitting us with a link. With each delicious forkful of mashed potatoes, we'll think of you...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tune That Bass

by JW

I’m often surprised by the lackadaisical and unfocused way that some bassists tune their basses before playing. We all devote enormous amounts of time to training our ears, minds, and bodies so that we can play in tune. If our instrument is not well in tune, we make our task of good intonation much more difficult. Why spend countless hours learning the proper spacing and placement of the left hand when you’re not going to tune the open string to the right pitch?

The bass is more difficult to tune than the other string instruments for a variety of reasons, some technical and some situational.

- The interval of the perfect fourth doesn’t occur in the overtone series. Therefore, it is more difficult to hear on its own than perfect fifths.
- Because of this, we often choose to tune using harmonics. This method assumes that our strings are in good condition, and that the pitches of the harmonics don’t activate any wolf tones on our bass. Often, one or both of these assumptions is mistaken and we need to fix these problems by installing new strings or using wolf eliminators. If we don’t, then our harmonics can be inaccurate and our tuning will be also.
- The bass is not a very loud instrument, and especially in an orchestral context it can be very hard to hear oneself well enough to accurately tune. If we are surrounded by other bassists, it can be even more difficult as we try to pick out our sound amidst all the bass playing around us.
- The way we draw the bow across the string can affect the pitch in subtle ways, especially when we tune with harmonics. If we put a lot of weight into the string as we tune, the bow can bend the string sufficiently to alter the pitch. Try it and see for yourself: Play the “A” harmonic on the D string with a fast light bow and with a slow, heavy, “pressed” bow. This often connects to the issue of our volume; people tuning onstage during orchestra will play their harmonics far too loudly in order to hear themselves, thus distorting the pitch.

For all these reasons, I choose to always check my tuning with an electronic tuner. At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, we have two high-quality strobe tuners offstage that many NSO members use to check their intonation before going on to rehearse or play a concert. I also have a small tuner like this one that I use whenever I play to check my tuning. They are not expensive, quite accurate, and can also be purchased with a contact microphone that clips to your bass. This can be very useful for tuning in noisy environments (like onstage at an orchestra rehearsal!). They can also be calibrated for different “A’s,” from A435 to A445, so that you can set it precisely to whatever “A” your group uses – the NSO tunes to A442, for example, but when I’m playing with a piano I need to tune to A440.

If I’m in a quiet area, I check each open string with the tuner, drawing a relaxed, mezzo piano sound so as not to distort the pitch of the string. Every member of my bass section in the NSO uses a tuner in this way before we go onstage, and we all agree that it helps our intonation.

When I’m playing with a group that I’m not that familiar with, I often go to the oboe player (or whichever instrument will be giving the “A” at the beginning of rehearsal) and ask them to play the “A” into my tuner so I can see exactly where their pitch center will be. I then set my tuner to that pitch and tune my bass.

After we’ve played awhile, the action of our hands on the string and the vibration of the instrument can cause our strings to go out of tune. I frequently recheck my intonation with the tuner during a practice session.

One final piece of advice regarding tuning: Once I’ve tuned with the tuner, I play all my tuning harmonics, noting if any of them seem false or off pitch. This way, if I don’t have my tuner or need for some reason to tune without it, I can know which harmonics I can trust and which ones I need to “tweak” a bit to get the open string in tune.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Great German Bow Guide

by JW

Bob Oppelt, the principal bass of my orchestra (National Symphony Orchestra), has been building himself a great website with some interesting thoughts and insights about playing bass and being an orchestral musician. I especially wanted to point readers of this blog to this fantastic set of photos he took of himself demonstrating various German bow grips and commenting on what he considers their strengths and weaknesses. It's a great example of a way to use a website to inform and provide resources for students and teachers. Bravo Bob!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Sharps and Flats

by JH

While a student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, I attended a guest master class given by Bernard Linden, then a violist in the New York Philharmonic. His daughter Louise was a student at the Academy. In that class, he inspired a journey for me that continues today, that of understanding tonality and intonation. Mr. Linden demonstrated that he would practice the intonation of a passage by determining an appropriate reference tone for the tonality, and then compare the notes in the passage to this tone.

It was many years later that I started to realize that notes even spelled the same way on the page may need intonation adjustment according to the tonality. Even more recently I became aware of the illustrations of Zarlino in the Groves Dictionary, explaining that not all whole steps are the same size and that not all half steps are the same size. Many errors of intonation involve playing sharps too sharp, and flats too flat.

Try these things, preferably with two or more players:

1. Most important for these activities is that the basses (or other instruments) are tuned accurately. I suggest for two players, agreeing on pitch for the open D string. Then one player finds the D on the G string which they both agree is in tune. The D on the G string is sustained while the other player tunes his or her G string until both are satisfied. After the G strings are settled, one person plays the open D while the other finds the A which is one fifth above, and both agree that it is correct. The A is sustained while the other player adjusts his or her A string. After the A strings are settled, find the E which is a fifth above open A. Sustain this E so the other person’s E string can be tuned. Hopefully the instruments are well in tune now.

2. Have one person play his open A while the other finds the E on the D string. Sustain this E while the first person finds the B on the G string which matches. Silently hold this B while the other person finds the B on the G string which matches the open D. After both B’s are found, compare. Are they the same? Which is higher?

3. One person finds the F# on the G string which matches the open D; the other find the E flat on the D string which matches the open G. Are they in tune with each other?

4. Find a G# which is in tune with the open E; find an A flat which is in tune with the E flat which is in tune with the G string. Are the G# and A flat the same note?

I could go on for a long time with other examples, but it will be more meaningful for you to discover some of this on your own. Good luck.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

And now a word from our lawyers

by JW

It occurred to me today that I should clarify a few things about the blog.

- While it is a collaborative effort, we each post on our own and are responsible only for the content of our own posts. No post by any one of us should be considered the opinions of anyone but the writer (always credited by initials at the top of each post).

- This blog is not affiliated in any way with the Peabody Conservatory or Johns Hopkins University, and it doesn't necessarily reflect their views. To see our official, Peabody-sponsored site please go here.

- Peabody also has a fantastic jazz bass teacher, Michael Formanek. We hope to have him post here in the near future. His absence here thus far should not imply that we don't consider him an important part of the Peabody bass community.

Thanks and back to our show!

UPDATE: Item 3 is no longer applicable now that Mike is part of PBDB.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Music School $$$ - Finding the Balance

by JW

No one doing any bass blogging can escape the influence of our acknowledged master, Jason Heath. His bass blog is the best and most comprehensive around, a clearinghouse of all that is noteworthy in bass on the Internet. His posts describing life as a freelancer and teacher, and his comments of the business of music in general, are thought-provoking, informative, and often hilarious. Jason has been kind enough to mention this blog on his site, and even to give us a few compliments. Combined with “Contrabass Conversations,” his excellent and informative series of podcasts, he is a one-man bass media empire. All this, and he is a full time performer and teacher. Does the guy ever take a nap?

A post of Jason’s that I’ve thought of quite often is this one from May 2007 on rethinking performance degrees. I had just started teaching at Peabody in 2006, and I was already thinking about many of the issues he touches on in this post when I first read it. As prospective students contacted me about Peabody, I felt increasing anxiety about the financial burden a Peabody student must take on vs. the employment prospects in music. No matter how talented and hardworking a student is, no matter how big a scholarship they receive, they are signing on for a profession where it can take many years to achieve any kind of financial security. Jason’s post offers some solutions, but for someone like me it offers mostly challenges.

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, MBA students, nurses – all these professional degrees require their students to take on lots of debt. But in each of these fields, work of some kind is readily available upon graduation. I’m not saying that every lawyer gets some fantastic job right out of school, or that people in these professions don’t face sacrifice and financial struggle in their career. The difference is that for any lawyer or doctor, there is a clear path out of debt after school, even if it features long work hours and drudgery. In music, you can face long hours and drudgery and get paid nothing. Even if you graduate from college with no school-related debt at all, you face the following major costs:

- traveling to and from auditions or competitions
- purchasing and maintaining your instrument(s) and bow(s)
- general travel expenses, either for car ownership and maintenance or for taking mass transit

All these expenses have a few things in common. They are all costs that either aren’t issues at all for non-musicians, or tend to be higher for musicians than non-musicians. They all are large – especially instrument costs! And unlike for student loans, there is no federally subsidized loan system waiting to help you buy a bass or attend an audition. On the contrary, it is very difficult to get a loan for an instrument, and they tend to have very high interest rates.

So what does this mean? Am I telling everyone they shouldn’t go to music school? Not at all. Music school is an almost universal prerequisite for success in our field. The percentage of working professional musicians who didn’t go to a major music school is incredibly low, mainly because there is no substitute for the four years of focused instruction and practice that a music major gets. Just as important as the actual coursework and lessons are the lessons you learn from your community of fellow music students as they work towards the same goals you have.

However, I’m less of a Polyanna on this subject than I once was. For every music student, there is a level of financial burden that is simply unwise. Exactly what that number is varies for each person, and it is determined by a complicated equation that takes into consideration your family’s income, your talent, your drive to succeed, and your ability to be smart with your money. I can’t tell you what that level is for you, but I can tell you that there is one, and I encourage all music students to consider what it is before they make the financial commitment to a music education.

The most important thing that facing the high costs of music education teaches us is: don’t waste it! Work hard while at school and absorb all you can. After you leave the college setting it gets harder and harder to stay focused on your musical work as the ugly realities of adult life begin to intrude on us. Having four or two years to become the best performer and musician you can be is a great gift – use them wisely and they’ll pay you back later.