On playing at concerts, part 3

Yesterday we had our yearly concert:

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It was my first concert after my year away, and it felt great. The two last rehearsals had been for me a bit borderline for concentration – there were both things that ran very well, and practicing more was boring, but also things that didn’t work well, and there was clearly no time to fix them. So overall I was in a right balance of relaxed and focused when I walked on the stage for the concert. It was also interesting to see how the calm of the musicians calmed down Mariano, the conductor.

I enjoyed playing with my fellow musicians so much! We are such a closely-knit group that we support each other, know who has difficult parts, and cheer the soloists as much as the audience, if not more. I didn’t feel like performing yesterday, the fun of being together was stronger than the stage fright. I took this picture at the soundcheck (sorry for the bad quality) – I love how some are concentrated, some relaxed while waiting for their cue, and in the middle Thorsten smiles. This picture sums us up so well 🙂

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Music weekend with my orchestra

Last weekend my orchestra had organised a three-day musical retreat, in order to practice before our main concert. We had a great time, that I enjoyed even more as I have recently started playing again, after a long musical break. I realised how much I missed my fellow musicians, the positive energy I get from our being together.

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Still nature with trombone (accidental composition)

The orchestra was divided in three groups: wind instruments (flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboe, bassoon), brass (trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas) and percussions, each under the lead of a teacher. The percussion section was definitely the smaller and consisted of me, the first drummer and the teacher. We first looked through all the notes (we had notes for 5+ percussionists in some pieces, and had to select which ones to play), then we practiced the most difficult spots. I practiced on the castanets, that are very conveniently mounted on a wooden base, and are therefore way easier to play – there is even a knob to calibrate the opening of the shells:

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We solved our doubts on the notes in the first half of the day and dedicated the second half to posture and movement while playing the drums. It was a precious moment. We rarely have the time to take care of our posture, because we are busy following the notes; but this work is even more important, because it allows us to play for longer bouts without strain or even injuries. The exercises are on a musical sense extremely simple (for example slow quarter notes) just because the attention is elsewhere, needs to be elsewhere: on the wrists, arms, back, seat; on the speed and the similarity between the hands. It is a sort of yoga for drummers. You can read more on this topic on John Lamb’s blog.

After the practice in separate sections we had two sessions of rehearsals all together. The sound was way better than in our previous runs, thanks to the accurate work on each difficult spot! I am confident that we will have a great concert, because we have passed the point where we only read notes, and are now able to add expression to our parts.

On Saturday evening the conductor was ready to thank everyone and close the session, when the trombones asked to practice one spot once more, and the conductor was so surprised. I later thought about it, and why is it such a rare event. Maybe it is because conductors are used to whip the orchestra forward, as if the orchestra itself would otherwise not play. Therefore, at the end of the repetition the orchestra usually ends up more tired than expected. In this case, working separately allowed a better feedback between the musicians and the teacher, and probably a more appropriate workload; thanks to that, we were not as tired as usual, and wanted to continue playing. If I were the conductor, I would take it as a sign that I have allowed the orchestra to work in an efficient way, and moreover, that it is manifesting its own will to improve. I would find it wonderful, and I would do my best to replicate the conditions that lead to it.

I’m so looking forward for our Sundays concert! I feel so different from when I wrote about concerts, and am so glad I am feeling overall much better.

Music recommendation: string instruments day!

Today I wish to share two videos: the first is Bottesini‘s Concerto for double bass N. 2, played by Principal Double Bass of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rinat Ibragimov. The video’s comments are gold 🙂

The second is a song by Loreena McKennitt, recommended to me years ago by a fellow software developer:

I keep finding music that speaks to my soul in ways I could not imagine. I turn to these sounds and voices in the times I feel discouraged and low. I hope some of you will like these songs, and I wish you to find more gems while travelling the wide ocean of the Internet 🙂

Playing music in the present

Like every Friday in these last two months, I have been wondering whether to come back to my orchestra. I have been taking a break since last Christmas.

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Rehearsals in the school’s theatre

They are a lovely bunch of people who have fun when playing music together. When I joined, they accepted me with open arms, and they were my first group of friends I made in Berlin. The conductor instead seemed (at least in particular moments, near important concerts) more focused on results and concerts. Most musicians managed to ignore or absorb his prompts and the atmosphere remained usually calm and pleasant.

However, as I sometimes play the drums (mostly replacing the first drummer, rarely on my own initiative), I felt more exposed, because the conductor only recently (realised?) told me how he needs the drummer’s role to be: he/she should be his closest musician, because most of the orchestra tends to listen to the drummer instead of paying attention to him directly. I find this a clever idea; but I don’t feel able to fill that position. My dearest memories with the orchestra are the ones when I am in a pleasant harmony with my fellow players, like a jazz ensemble, mumbling music together, listening to each other – and these moments were invariably interrupted by the conductor, who desperately wanted my focus back on him, in order to regain control over the speed and dynamics of the whole orchestra. I felt woken up from a dream, sometimes too rudely (well, anyone woken up from a dream would see it as rude, I suppose).

I thought about that a lot and finally realised that the role he needs is not the role I have in mind for myself, and my attempts to walk in his direction both exhausted me and were objectively unsuccesful. Therefore I said I needed a break and left for now six months.

What I love is to play music in the present. That means to play music with attention and concentration, becoming aware of notes, of details, of my fellow musicians. The time for the future is before and after the playing session – not during it! – it is the selection of pieces for an upcoming concert, and the careful comments after the repetitions. But without playing in the present, there is no music, there is only a lot of stress when you realise how uncertain is the piece – and after playing, you can’t see the things who went well, because they are initially hard to spot, so few in the middle of a lot of mistakes and uncertainty. Everyone could say that the piece is not ready; but it takes a careful ear to spot the little improvements, that are the minimal, crucial building foundations for further work.

If I were a more skilled drummer, or a cooler-headed horse, I wouldn’t have suffered that much under the strain. But repetitions were my time for drums practice, not for judgment. I felt sometimes that a repetition was in fact as stressful as a concert. I still fear that, therefore I think I’ll skip rehearsals one more time tonight.

 

Music piece of the day: Scarlatti’s Fugue in G minor, a.k.a. “The Cat’s Fugue”

Much has been said by well-informed critics over this piece; played it has been many times along centuries.

When I listen to this execution I find it witty, clean, passionate, classy. The initial notes could have been composed by a cat walking on the keyboard. The piece evolves then in a subtle crochet-work of harmony. There is so much grace and balance in these notes.

This is a graphical rendition of the score – the main theme is represented by red dots, and the patterns are visually easier to spot:

I hope you enjoyed listening to this piece! The links and videos contain links for further listening (like a lively jazz version!).

Cat tax: Nora the piano cat.

 

On Hayao Miyazaki’s movies

Today I wish to talk about what I love of Miyazaki’s work, and hopefully transmit some of his passion.

In 1985, Hayao Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli and produced animation movies who quickly became popular in Japan and abroad.

I must say that the first movie I saw (Ponyo) left me quite cold. I tried to follow the plot and was disappointed that it sort of lazily meandered around. I watched some other films from him and then re-watched Ponyo, and only then I was enchanted by the superb drawings, colors, movements, details, music and humour that pervaded the whole movie. I think that I truly appreciated Miyazaki’s movies when I stopped watching them to see what happens, and began to watch them to see how things happen. In this perspective, the movies look incredibly deep, rich, witty, attentive, meaningful and optimistic. I like Miyazaki’s decision to put a lot of details for you to decide which ones to follow, and that satisfies my joy in watching movies many times to spot something new every time.

I recently watched a video of Studio Ghibli’s backstage, when they were producing Spirited Away. I saw him and his team putting an insane amount of work behind every single drawing – but a meaningful work, an incessant exercise of observation and care, that is moreover visible in the final product, and makes these movies so valuable:

One important part of these movies is the music. Most soundtracks have been composed by Joe Hisaishi, who mixes elements of many genres and writes powerful, complex and rich music that perfectly matches the scenes.

Most comments to these videos and this article talk about strong positive emotions that this music evocates. There is a sense of peace, purification, even humanity in these notes, that I feel like a call to become a better person.

I hope I inspired you to watch Miyazaki’s movies, or at least sparked some joy 🙂

Music recommendation: “La Guerre” by Janequin

I would like to present you a chanson from ClĂ©ment Janequin, a famous French Renaissance composer. He was one of the first composers who added noises and effects to songs – bird chirps in Le chant des oiseaux; market sellers’ advertising their goods in Les cris de Paris; cannons, trumpets, horses and shouts in La Guerre:

On ChoralWiki you can find the French text and its English translation.

I listened to this piece many times, discovering its many layers: at first I was captivated and amused by the sounds that animate the battle, then amazed by the musical skills of these singers, then by their joy in singing this piece, and then  by the sound of Renaissance French and its nowadays odd pronunciation. It is nice to note that modern Canadian French contains visible traces of Old French – and that makes this song look so unbelievably Canadian to me, especially the last part where the singers shout: Victoire! that they pronounce: VictouĂ©re! – it makes me smile, but also think of the centuries that have slowly passed and shaped French language, as a river digs a canyon. I feel connected with the mind of Janequin through the centuries, thanks to the countless people who kept this piece of music alive. Enjoy!