I’ve been in Oklahoma for three months and I’ve just returned from my first trip away from Norman. It seems strange to want to write about my new home after being away but maybe the space gave me some perspective to piece together the puzzle.
Good fortune has connected me to many good people at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Ruck has helped me feel at home in the studio. His students have been nothing but helpful and welcoming as we dove into the Villalobos Bachianis No. 1 for our first concert. We are a fellowship of relaxed but very focused cellists here in Norman and I wholly enjoy this environment. Moreover, academic opportunities are flourishing. The faculty here are engaged at a level that inspires me intellectually. From the undergraduate class that I assist as GA to the theory course on performance and analysis that I’m taking, the scholarship is rigorous and insightful. Even outside of the school of music, Norman is presenting great professional opportunities. Not only am I playing with the Norman String Quartet and the newly formed Pacha Cello Duo (http://www.thepachaduo.com/) but I have also started teaching violin, cello, and coaching a chamber group at the Norman School for Strings.
Capping all of these Oklahoma activities has been the International Festival, Cello Fresno 2015. Artistic Directors Emilio Colon and Dr. Thomas Loewenheim brought together a roster of amazing faculty. Philippe Muller, long-time professor of the Paris Conservatoire, and Csaba Onczay of the Franz Liszt Academy, were the special guests. Masterclasses and performances were also given by Antonio Lysy (UCLA), Thomas Landschoot (ASU), Jonathan Ruck (OU), and Brian Schuldt (Felici Piano Trio and Unbound Chamber Music Festival). Four days of masterclasses and rehearsals culminated with a grand celebration of cello with a 50-piece cello ensemble playing Prof. Colon’s arrangement of the Beethoven Coriolan Overture, the Junior and Senior division Popper Competition winners, Olivia Jin and Sonja Kraus, and a performance of the Penderecki Concerto Gross for Three Cellos featuring Onczay, Muller, and Colon.
I want to frame this event with something I’ve been meditating on since my arrival to Norman. In Dr. Ruck’s first studio class of this year he posed a provocative take-away question.
If you look out into the world at large, it is a complicated place with many problems. The news is filled with tragedies unfolding both at home and abroad. As citizens of state, nation, and world, we have a broader awareness that dire needs exist. On the other hand, pursuing music can be a rather introspective and maybe even selfish vocation. We dedicate an enormous amount of time to perfecting our art by practicing and investing in our own playing. The time and energy that we spend… why do we dedicate it to cello and not to another worthy cause?
I feel that this is a pressing question that is abstractly existential and pragmatically relevant. After experiencing such a wide array of performances and teachers, I ask myself the following questions. Where do I belong, what is my purpose, and how do I fit into the community of cello, music, and the world at large? On a micro-level it seems that all is well. I practice to make myself better at the cello. I study to advance my academic career. I teach to earn a living and impact lives on a small scale.
But when I consider things on a macro-level, when I look beyond my own day-to-day struggles, my assuredness falters. What purpose does this serve the world, a world that is in dire need of dedicated servants for important causes? Are there not people who go hungry, are there not injustices needing righting, and is the world itself not growing ever more complicated, and I might add, warmer? I was once told, “don’t do what the world needs, do what you love, that is what the world needs”. And while I do agree with this millennial outlook on vocation and lifestyle, I’m not sure if I’m completely sold. With every human on the planet pursuing his or her own desires, how do I contribute to more than just myself and how does classical music contribute beyond its hallowed halls and venerated academic institutions?
I would argue that in a world that is filled with conflict, turmoil, and despair, art can become more than just art. It can have a higher cause and greater purpose. Consider Cello Fresno. Teachers and students from across the country and around the globe convene for four days of pedagogical and performance exchange. Every student who participated in a masterclass made a musical offering, not only for the teacher, but for every other student in the hall. We are, in a sense, equalized by the challenge of presenting our very best technical and musical performance. Then the teacher, wise with experience, bestows their best insight and knowledge to the student and audience. Thus, we learn from each others' differences. We celebrate the variety of approaches and styles of music making. We progress together.
And in the end, we assemble together as a single entity, a cello choir of massive proportions. With so many schools of thought, individual personality quirks, and sheer numbers, I’m sure that not everyone knows or even likes one another. But that is beside the point. We put all of it aside for something greater than ourselves. While this may even be different for each individual yet it yields a single outcome: art, a constructive and positive force. Let us honor this universally understandable achievement, for it is a living monument to education, cooperation, and human expression.
A special thanks to Prof. Jonathan Ruck for helping make the trip possible by providing our rental car, Leo Kim for finding us cellos to use in Fresno, to the Stefanacci family for hosting us, and Prof. Colon and Dr. Loewenheim for organizing this festival. Thank you also to Dr. Loewenheim for your work with me in your masterclass. I look forward the reuniting for the next Cello Fresno!
I took more pictures in five days than I have all year. Take a look!
I recently had breakfast with Interlochen faculty pianist Steve Larson who told me that he enjoyed reading my posts. So, since I know I have one devoted fan, I decided to write again after almost a year’s hiatus.
How to summarize another action-packed year? First, there were the academic developments. Another year of doctoral coursework down and only one to go. That being said, if anyone knows of a collegiate cello position opening up that combines with teaching responsibilities for a strings program or as an instructor for core music theory / musicology courses, hit me up. My spring recital, Bach’s Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in A Major, and the Martinu Variations on a Theme of Rossini, went off without a hitch. I give credit to pianists Michael Stafford and Hsin-I Guo and the coaching of Dr. Jon Ruck and Prof. Stephanie Shames for our success.
In the area of teaching, my assistantship at OU has been advanced. Instead of grading for the musicology department, I’ll be teaching two sections of Understanding Music, OU’s non-major gen-ed music history class. This week, I returned from Interlochen’s Institute Week (my third summer) as an assistant to Crispin Campbell, Dr. John Marshall, and our special guests Dr. Melissa Kraut of the CIM and Portland Cello Project cellist Gideon Freudmann. These world-class musicians have been superb mentors since and I am constantly learning from their examples. I must give a special thanks to Dr. Kraut for her masterclass suggestions for my Dvorak Concerto and also to Gideon for his words of wisdom. And back here in OK at the Norman School for Strings, I continue to teach violin, cello, and group classes. Emily Stoops and Dr. Rob Bradshaw have their NSFS cello camp in July which I will also help with.
Performance opportunities in the greater Oklahoma City area and beyond have also picked up. Between playing for worship services at St. Luke’s Methodist Church of Edmond and being contracted for the Fort Smith Symphony’s 2016-17 and 2017-2018 seasons, I squeeze in the occasional quartet gig with the Norman School for Strings Quartet. One of the biggest performance developments has been working with concerti. Yet again, I made it to the finals of concerto competition but I still have yet to grasp that elusive title as “winner”. One must have many irons in the fire. Composer Gene Knific is writing a brand new cello concerto for my last doctoral recital this fall and just this last week, I performed the first movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tom Riccobono. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with former teachers and colleagues as well as perform this great masterwork.
This blog is now almost four years old. It has been (and continues to be) an effort to catalogue the accomplishments of my career. Another way of looking at it is that it’s just internet bragging. You don’t have to come to my website to know what I’m talking about: our Facebook and Instagram feeds are littered with photos and videos of who someone played with, what prestigious program where they went to study, or what incredible job they just won. I don’t mean to be cynical. These are all good things, and good things should be shared. However, it’s easy to become discouraged about your own standing in life by voyeuristically watching carefully edited and filtered internet avatars. Thus, it comes as no surprise that social media can sow the seeds of “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” syndrome.
What we don’t see behind the shared successes of social media is ‘the hustle’. When I was playing youth soccer in elementary school, my dad would always yell “HUSTLE!” from the sidelines. During both those failed attempts at child athleticism and today as a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-some, hustle means get your butt in gear and go get it. Hustle is what turns a chaotic schedule into a dynamic life. Hustle is what gets you the gig, gets you to the gig on time, and gets you asked back for the next one. Hustle means that you take every opportunity you have and if there are no opportunities, you make them yourself. And, most importantly, hustle translates into constantly thinking about what your next move (or moves) will be. All these hours of planning, practicing, and performing eventually add up to those photo-finish moments and triumphant feelings. The thing that social media and the limits of our human perception strain out is the process of the product, or, that is to say, the hustle.
With the uncertainty of today’s job market and the continuing trend toward a fragmented ‘gig economy’ (not only in music but in other disciplines as well), we have to sew together a patchwork of vocations to produce a functioning career. I’m painting in broad strokes here, but the vast majority of successful musicians, both contemporary and historically, have worked multiple multifaceted jobs and even changed those jobs often. Honestly, I can’t think of a single musician that only does one thing. Every one of my colleagues or mentors who is hammering out success on a daily basis is hustlin’ like nobody’s business.
This very human ability to adapt and respond to adversity or challenge provides fulfillment in our lives. Like Gideon Freudmann said to me, and I’m paraphrasing here, “people like watching other people do stuff.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s a caveman hitting two rocks together, a football game between two rivals, or a great musical performance. We are drawn to human-made spectacle. This brings me great comfort since the profession of performing and teaching music can’t be automated by technological advancements. Boom. Job security because robots can’t play or teach cello! I never would have considered that when I started this career almost 9 years ago. I hope to make year 10 the best one yet!