Cellists at WMU have a unique experience. Our studio-life blends together with orchestra since we are unified by having just one orchestra and our studio professor, Bruce Uchimura, serves as its maestro.
I’m not sure what other sections in USO see when they look at us in rehearsal. Maybe… an eclectic mix under the watchful eye of our Hawaiian overlord. We have no shortage of personality, strong personalities at that. We hail from every corner of the state of Michigan (St. Joseph, Detroit, Flint, and Manistee to name a few), national locations (D.C and Hawaii), and even international homelands (Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and even Northern Iraq). Each member brings a unique set of talents to the table. Yet what really binds us is our constant support of each other. I am so grateful of that. Even with our petty conflicts, comedic antics, or competitive spirit, it is the love of making music and seeing each other succeed that drives us forward. As section leader and as a section member, in studioclass or in private lessons, I always thought that it was my duty to serve and help you as a graduate assistant. But I now realize that is all of you who have taught me the most invaluable lessons of my graduate degree. Thank you for your patience, your tolerance, and most of all, your support.
Today is my last USO concert, and perhaps, my last university orchestra concert of my academic career. The program includes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the Frank Martin Ballade for Flute featuring Maria Vizcarra, William Kraft’s Timpani Concerto featuring Amber Feltrin, and the John Williams Tuba Concerto featuring Chance Huiet. The highlight for me, and I think the rest of the section, is the Rossini’s William Tell Overture with its famous five-part cello section solo. The fun begins at 3:00 in the Miller Auditorium!
Do you ever think about milestones in your life and wonder, “how did I even do that?” When I reminisce about repertoire I played in middle school, high school, or even undergrad, the only answer to that question is that “I was too stupid to know what I was doing.” This feeling extends even to this last academic year. I am dumbfounded when I look back on the program of my fall recital, the Six Preludes of the Bach Cello Suites and Bright Sheng’s Seven Tunes Heard in China. Was that really me? How did I even do that? I tell myself, yes, that was me and I did it by working my tail off: six months of preparation, four public performances, and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
I am asking myself the same question the day before this second recital. Two and a half months of preparation, no public performances, and a whole lot of rehearsing with three brilliant pianists: Debussy Sonata with Sarah Amos, Shostakovich Sonata with Tina Gorter, and three new compositions by and with Gene Knific. It has been a challenge for me since the rules that applied to the former program do not apply to this one.
When I set these two programs side by side, I realize how much yang and yin they have. The fall recital was all about digging deep, pushing forward, and finding the guts to play a solo program all alone on the recital hall stage. I had to find the strength to carry it myself. This spring program is a completely different beast. Digging deep doesn’t work since I’m only playing a fraction of the notes. I have to go beyond myself by exploring the score and the musical ideas presented by your duo partner. Pushing forward isn’t a effective strategy because I am in stride with another artist. Collaboration and compromise means finding a pace at which we can both run. And guts? The truly terrifying experience of this program has not been finding the strength to hang on but seeking the ability to let go.
When I say “let go” I mean the act of surrendering to the realm of possibility, that in performance, anything can happen. Trouble spots I’ve practiced ten-thousand times all of a sudden feel insecure while sections I’ve worried about for months go off without a hitch. As is always the case with chamber music, we have to dance in step together so that means fitting what you are doing with another independent agent. And that final question, "will the adrenaline hurt me or help me?" Yes, this is the true terror of performance. Change, unpredictable and uncontrollable change. The fear of the unknown is so strong that I have even found myself answering the questions about my program preparation with “I don’t think its going to be good…” I would rather it be negative than not know what it will be. I would rather set myself up for failure than consider that I have no real control over what will happen.
Over the course of the last few months I have had to discover another way of being, partly through the discipline of cello, but also from practicing yoga. The other day, as I was sitting on my mat, I said to myself calmly, “what am I feeling?” I answered back “Actually… I feel terrible… horribly anxious and I know I shouldn’t, I should be more prepared than this, I should be acing this I should… ” The blockage wasn’t the anxiety itself, it was the expectation that I should be sailing through this with ease. I came to the conclusion that “yup, that’s a silly expectation to put on yourself, so just be okay being worried about it.” It was at that point that everything became okay.
Just kidding. That’s a complete lie. Everything was not okay nor will it be but the important point is that I accepted that it wasn’t so I could move forward. Being open, and therefore vulnerable, to what will or will not happen, is the way of decisive action. When mental space is created, one can rationally and expressively react outwards rather than emotionally and instinctively retract inwards. As Mr. Starker always said with a slight smirk, “don’t get excited, create excitement.”
So, if you want to experience some excitement, come to my final recital program at WMU at 6:00 tomorrow night in the Lecture Hall at the Dalton Center. It is a collaborative concert featuring Sarah Amos, Tina Gorter, and Gene Knific on piano.
This Wednesday (April 15th) at 8:06 PM, you can turn your dial to 102.1 FM and listen to the WMU Cello Quartet Cellicatessen on WMUK’s Let’s Hear It.
WMUK is my default station as I commute around the greater Kalamazoo area. So I was very excited when our host, Cara Lieurance, invited Adriana Fernandez Vizcaino, Allyson Perez Monsanto, Jordan Hamilton, and me into the Yoshimi Takeda Performance Studio to play some of our repertoire and talk about our lives as cellists. On the program, you can expect to hear music by Astor Piazzolla, Johann Strauss Jr., Julius Klengel, an original composition by our own Allyson Monsanto, and even a couple arrangements by yours truly. Topics of discussion in our interview session range from some colorful biographical information to our views on what makes being a cellist great. If you are interested to know more about WMUK's Let's Here It, you can find past programs here http://wmuk.org/term/lets-hear-it or follow WMUK on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/wmuk102. A special thanks to Cara Lieurance for producing our session, Martin Klemm our sound engineer, and the staff at WMUK.
I don’t want to give away too much since I want you to tune in, either on the radio or online at http://wmuk.org/, but here is a recording of the one of the songs that was arranged specially for this program:
My recent hiatus from writing was a result of some soul-searching. That phrase soul-searching has always interested me since it suggests that there is some kind of cavernous space inside a person that merits exploring, and what you find, is something of value. After two competitions, one at the University of Oklahoma and the other at Western Michigan University, I learned that I had reached multiple limits. I had done everything I could, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to organize and prepare myself. Yet, even with my efforts, I could not shake my frustration over the outcomes. It was not the burn of “losing” but the bitter resentment that I did my best and my best was still not enough. This frustration didn’t wash away but lingered in my practicing. With another recital and a string of concerts approaching, I was feeling the pressure building.
What ultimately released this pressure was a series of fortunate events which perhaps are best explained by an examination of a movie. If you haven’t seen the film, Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, Andrew, and his brutal instructor, Fletcher, whose methods can best be described as “the means justifies the ends”. Physical assault, verbal abuse, and emotional manipulation are just Fletcher’s tools of the trade as he “[pushes] people beyond what’s expected of them”. Fletcher justifies his cruelty, malice, and sadistic nature claiming that it will produce the next “great”, the next legend of jazz. Andrew, as a driven and impressionable young man, eats it up. Like a zealot kneeling before the altar of wrathful god, he punishes himself with practice until, literally, he bleeds on his drumset. This continues until Andrew convinces himself that yes, the path to greatness requires sacrifice and what he must throw upon the pyre is his humanity.
Andrew makes two claims in this scene.
(1) He has no need for friends.
(2) The hallmark of success is being “great” both in ability level and notoriety.
Thus, he has bound his self-worth and sense of identity to how well he can play and how well people know how well he can play all while disregarding personal relationships. So too Fletcher, as the mentor who has no qualms about throwing chairs at his students heads, couldn’t care less about the well-being of the person as long as they are the perfect musician. This is why, in my opinion, Whiplash is a fantastic drama of the silver screen but a strangely misguided celebration of the life’s most toxic and intoxicating drug: the ego.
I think that the ego, while happy to feed on petty victories like external validation or short-term gains such as pleasure, is a glutton for negative thoughts. And with a limitless feast of that comes from being in an intensive program such as the fiction “Shaffer Music Conservatory”, the cruel tutelage of a teacher, the inherent pressures of a competitive industry, or simply the stress of trying to perform at your best, the very fragile and sensitive ego is sent into a dangerous tailspin.
For me, there was no Fletcher throwing chairs at my head but there was an equally cruel and unforgiving force in my mind. My ego had built offensive and defensive mechanisms to protect itself from present, past, and future threats. Every moment I was on guard. “Don’t miss that shift… Don’t play out of tune. What would such-and-such teacher / student say about how that sounded?” If I wasn’t constantly distracting myself with backseat-driver directions I would revisit past failures or worry about future disasters. The worst part about it was that for every painful experience, either real or imagined, it would spawn another series of overreactions which would lead to more pain, etc. The vicious circle had consumed me.
One of the main factors that broke the cycle was a mock-interview with Julie Nemire, Director of Academic Advising for the College of Fine Arts and Brad Wong, School of Music Director. After being gently grilled with questions that would likely be asked in an application process, Mr. Wong and I discussed my career options. I know I put people in a difficult position when I ask them, “what do you think I should do when I grow up”, but Mr. Wong gave me sage words of advice which I will summarize:
While a developed resume, prolific performing career, or pedagogical prowess are all important factors, the question is not “what can I do” but should be “what can I contribute”.
Like the crash of the cymbal, my mind hit surprising clarity. I realized why I had identified with Andrew’s character, I realized why I had “reached my limit”, and I realized what was really important to me. My personal self-worth, like Andrew, had depended on how well I could play my instrument, how well I could teach, or how intelligent I could be. Moreover, respect and admiration from my students, teachers, and peers could only be earned by being “legit”. This incredible amount of pressure I put upon myself was fueled by the negative cycles of my mind. Yet when I re-framed the entire situation to “contribute”, it all made sense. The blood, sweat, and tears spent in the practice is not for my own personal glory, it is so that I may tell the narrative of the composer to an audience or be at a level to collaborate with a colleague. Perfection was not a virtue or even an ideal that was worth any value because it lacked meaning. Thus, the pressure to achieve unrealistic standards, fed by my ego, was no longer a worthy purpose.
This is not to say that it is not my goal to achieve a high level. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am happy to announce that in the fall I will begin my DMA in Cello Performance at the University of Oklahoma studying with Professor Jonathan Ruck while serving as graduate assistant to the musicology department. A journey on my cellistic odyssey is about to set sail I look forward to exploring what the future may hold.
This Sunday morning, the WMU cello quartet Cellicatessen will play on behalf of Fontana Art’s Crybaby Concert Series at the Kzoo Baby and Family Expo. Selections range from Telemann and Piazzolla to Lady Ga Ga and John Williams. Come by and see us at 11:30 AM.
If the AM is too early for you, kickstart your afternoon with the WMU University Symphony Orchestra and an ambitious concert (3PM at Miller Auditorium) featuring Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances, and the Maurice Ravel transcription of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Don Juan bolts from the starting line as Strauss weaves the narrative of this famous playboy. Themes are introduced to signify Don Juan's enthusiasm for his ideal woman but each is replaced by a new idea as he moves to his next conquest. In an almost unrelenting fashion, the music is boisterous and full of bravado. However, a feeling of sincerity and pure love does come with a beautiful oboe solo midway. But true emotion cannot keep Don Juan from his libertine ways. Strauss brings back his opening material at end of the tone poem (Don Juan's return to amorous pursuits) but surprises the audience with an unexpected ending... Many of the individual instruments' parts are notoriously difficult so hold on tight as anything can happen in performance.
The Malcolm Arnold English Dances are an attractive set of pieces contrasting in style and affect. All sections of the orchestra get showcased at one point or another. The orchestration is reminiscent of other modern British composers such as John Rutter or John Barry. My personal favorite is the piccolo solo in the first movement.
Last but not least, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, is full of Russian flavor while also having French sensibilities. Mussorgsky's original set of pieces for piano are based on paintings by Viktor Hartmann. It is sometimes hard to believe that Mussorgsky conjured his soundscapes from this visual art. Movements such as The Hut of Baba Yaga or The Great Gate of Kiev are a massive extrapolation on a single idea (such as the grandeur of the gate or the menacing folk-tale of a hut on legs). Ravel's transcription also includes excellent instrumentation for the orchestra that can wash the audience over like a wave and other times plays like a breeze.
One of my favorite renditions of this piece is by the prog-rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Their album 1971 live recording takes Mussorgsky's classical masterpiece and transforms it into a modern spectacle. There is an amazing organ solo at 38:00 in which Keith Emerson tortures his keyboard equipment all while displaying his sweaty chest, rockstar hair, and killer 70's shiny garb.
On Thursday, travel plans permitting, I will find myself in Norman Oklahoma to participate in “Low Strings Attached” held by the University of Oklahoma School of Music. The faculty list boasts an impressive roster of all-star cellists and bassists, though, I am most glad to see names of my former cello professor Emilio Colon and Suzuki pedagogue Cara Miller. Besides attending this low-strings festival weekend hosted by cello professor Jonathan Ruck (also an Indiana University alumni), I will also be participating in 2015 Donna Turner Smith Cello Competition with Mvt. I of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and the Prelude of J. S. Bach’s D Minor Suite. It will prove to be an exciting weekend for all.
Also, rumor also has it that a few of my old studiomates from Indiana University might be there… Updates coming soon.
The month of January is named after the ancient Roman god Janus who is depicted as having two faces on a single head: one looking backwards to the past and one towards the future. What I find interesting is that Janus was assigned to doorways, gates, and passages of all kinds. He is a kind of watchman for movement, transition, and change.
Perhaps this is why people feel the need to take stock of their past year or make resolutions for the coming one. It gives us a feeling of propulsion. We hope that if we can muster the momentum from our ideals, the projects already accomplished or goals not yet reached, that this will turn into inertia that we may ride through the peaks and valleys of the new year. Inevitably, however, we hit a wall. The thought of six-pack abs don’t quite seem to inspire us as much as they used to. Gym sessions get less frequent while trips to the fridge do not. The ideal is replaced by reality: the wish satisfies the mind but does not sustain the body or the spirit.
This leads me to the single most important lesson I learned from preparing for my M. M. degree recital. Traditionally speaking, I have had a love-hate relationship with practicing, which to be honest, was mostly a hate relationship. Practicing was always a requirement, an obligation, always “work”. No twenty-four hour period was complete without it and from the pre-dawn to the after dark, my days were planed around the sacred and profane hours I would spend with my cello.
Finally, after half a year’s preparation, it was over. In the hours following the performance of the program I felt feelings of satisfaction, accomplishment, and oddly enough, anticipation. This anticipation wasn’t so much anxiety as it was the excitement of “what’s next?” It was at this moment that I realized something. I didn’t hate practicing. I didn’t hate work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I liked it. But I did need it. It didn’t bring me happiness because happiness is too ephemeral. It brought me fulfillment, fulfillment that only comes through sacrifice, adversity, and challenge.
This allows me to reframe my former statement: the wish satisfies the mind but the only thing that sustains the body and spirit is hard work. Propulsion is a daily practice that we reaffirm every day. In order to get over the mental block of being tired, complacent, or just plain lazy, I apply the following rule.*
The Rule of Fifteen Minutes: When you don’t “feel like it” for whatever reason, just do it for fifteen minutes. If after fifteen minutes you hate it, then stop and move on to something else.
However, once you’re over the initial psychological hump, there is a good chance you won’t stop. The mind with its short attention span and tendency to cry out with little ego-ridden toddler statements (“I don’t want to”, “I’m tired”, etc.) is satisfied by short-term gains. In the big picture of things, there is nothing wrong with this because short-term gains bring us happiness and without a bit of sugar, the medicine is bitter so to speak. However, where as happiness is the quick sprint, fulfillment is the marathon. Working on the most challenging projects in our personal and professional lives is what endures.
I would like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone and best wishes for all of your endeavors!
*I cannot claim originality to the Rule of Fifteen Minutes. My friend Katherine had it on Facebook and the original can be found here in the context of long-distance running: http://runhaven.com/2014/12/01/15-minute-rule/
I hate Christmas.
Shots fired, I know. For all you people out there that love Christmas and the baggage it brings, calm yourself, pick up the ornaments you may have dropped on the floor, and continue reading. I’ll unload my statement. I love “Christmas”, the day before, the day after, the time spent with family, and savoring of home-cooked food. It’s everything else that grinds my gears.
Black Friday is the beginning of the madness. We have no time to recover from our Thanksgiving food-coma before consumer bacchanal descends like a dark shadow over every retailer in America. But even if you skip out on the crowds at the mall, the specter of Christmas cheer still creeps into your life. The moment the turkey carcass has been stripped, every radio station, TV channel, restaurant, and business begins the real onslaught. Sometimes its innocuous. Other times it is borderline horrific.
Christmas music. Yes, the bane of the month of December. Excessively jolly, wholly cliché, and entirely aggravating, its like a dry itchy red rash that comes back every winter. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t stop itching it. It’s just there. It’s everywhere. Every musician has played Christmas music, ranging from the meek collegiate musician trying to scrape out enough money for Christmas gifts to the mighty commercial artist cashing in on their new CD. I’ll admit, I’m a sinner in this movement. We take something that is wonderful, a holy day, a time for family and friends when we can relax and find peace, and we ruin it by commercialization, commodification, and sheer overload. I do like Christmas. Three days of it I can deal with, maybe even a week, but not a month. This bastardization of something that is inherently good makes me want to live the monastic life in seclusion only to hear the prayers and chants of fellow monks until it all blows over.
When I heard that WMU University Symphony Orchestra would be accompanying the Moscow Ballet for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, I had mixed feelings. Wow, the Moscow Ballet! … But Nutcracker... The music of this most famous ballet is so ingrained in our ears and minds in America. Truly, it is an American phenomenon which, since the mid-20th century, has become so integrated that it is synonymous with the Christmas season. The question is, why?
One explanation might be Disney's Fantasia in which a suite of the Nutcracker’s dances was employed. It captivated the minds of a huge audience by bringing to life the auditory experience of music into a visual narrative. However, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring were also used and these are not in the general consciousness or sub-consciousness of the American public.
Another explanation might be how the Nutcracker has been bonded with the Christmas season cycle. Since Christmas comes back every year, so does Nutcracker. Repeat performances means repeat plays and the whole effect snowballs over decades until many ballet companies and symphonies rely on its programing to survive leaner financial times.
I believe that America’s love affair with Nutcracker is part of a fantasy. I don’t mean to use the word fantasy with a negative connotation. It plays into, more specifically, our Christmas fantasy, our need for child-like wonder in which we can return to innocence and a time when we believed in the splendor of magic. Since Charles Dickens, Christmas has become a time for generosity but also meditation about what is really important to us. We abandon our usual rationality and adopt a very different attitude. No matter how big or small the gesture is, we celebrate with magnificence and extravagance. Decorations that would otherwise be ridiculous are now beautiful. Music that is unrealistically cheerful is welcome. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker embodies this. The Christmas setting, splendid costumes, elegant dancers, and not to mention live orchestra, serves us the ultimate artistic feast of the season. This acquired taste is something that is in our blood, more than baseball or apple pie. It’s a spirit that is stronger than the anesthetic of vodka, stronger than the most brutal Russian (or Michigan) winter, and stronger than the sands of time.
Moreover, I would posit that there is a need for this kind of outlet. With the harshness of the world and daily grind of the year, the performance of great music such as the Nutcracker serves as a necessary escape, not in a blind or willfully ignorant way, but in a meaningful one. Even with the unholy commercialization of the holiday and the cliché re-gifting of pre-packaged Christmas music, one cannot but help be moved by the desperate and grand pathos of Tchaikovsky’s sincere expression.
This is the kind of art the melts the Scrooge-ish heart and Grinch-like attitude of the most cynical individual. It’s times like Christmas that music remind us that this is what we need, not only for a day, week, or month, but an entire year and entire lifetime. The WMU University Symphony Orchestra plays the Nutcracker for the Moscow Ballet tonight at 7:00 in Miller Auditorium.
It is tricky to talk about a sense of “homecoming” when I have had so many homes in recent years. First and foremost, Northern Michigan will always be my home. But I also consider Bloomington, Kalamazoo, even St. Olaf or Petoskey to be homes in some capacity. Of all of these locations, Bloomington brings back the strongest feelings. With its limestone architecture, bustling Big Ten campus buzz, and familiar eateries and watering holes (Mother Bear’s, Dragon Express, KOK, Bear’s, Irish Lion, to name just a few), I feel a rush of nostalgia even though I have been gone for less than two years.
This last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of playing for a family member’s wedding in Btown with my friends and colleagues Ryan Fitzpatrick, Lauren Shriver, and Sonja Kraus. We all studied cello together in Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. And while our lives continue to evolve, what remains the same is our comradery and friendship. I have to say, it is one of the greatest perks of being a cellist. You’re never really just a cellist. You are a community. A cellommunity? As long as you are with your cellist brothers and sisters, you are at home.
One of the pieces we performed was the first movement of the Popper Suite arranged by our former teacher Emilio Colon. Here it is performed by an ensemble of 176 cellists honoring Janos Starker at his 75th birthday.
The completion of the Up North tour of my M. M. degree recital program was a success, even with the first real snow of the season. Everywhere I went, I was greeted by warm and inviting people. As with almost everything I post on this blog, the tour was a learning experience. That was part of its purpose. However, I was pleasantly surprised by a few things.
No. 1 Performing music is challenging but people are nice.
Some moments were far from perfect. But the point was to test what needed fixing before the degree recital in Kalamazoo. I did the best that I could every night. As Steve Larson said, "you can't wish for problems not to come up, you just have to negotiate with them as they arise." More importantly, the program was meaningful to the concert-goers. People of all ages really enjoyed the entire program. And they expressed this. Which is kind of a nice post-performance pick-me-up. You realize that the only person that really knows your mistakes is you and everyone else, they don't really care. An audience doesn't expect perfection, what they want is to be moved by the music.
No. 2 Adapt, Adjust, Persevere
Its interesting to me that no matter how many times we musicians perform, there are still so many extra-musical factors that have the potential to throw us off. Driving, weather, set-up, warm-up, lighting (too much or too little), nerves, what you had for dinner, what you didn't have for dinner, how you slept the night before... the list goes on. Even with all the preparation, there are still in-concert challenges to address. Mental focus is key to keeping myself on track. And no matter what, we must strive to make it better than it was the night before.
No. 3 Why Go To Concerts?
One strategy I employed while on tour was the "post-concert" talk. While I do enjoy a "pre-concert talk" once in a while, sometimes I feel that they limit an audience's ability to receive the music rather than opening them to the possibilities. I tend to believe that a lot of people are equipped to experience the music on its own terms and on their own terms. Thus, the post-concert talk allows people to ask me questions ranging from "why did you choose to go out of order with the preludes?" to "when did you start playing the cello". Answering questions to "meet the musician" allows for further connectivity to the experience of experiencing live music.
If I add up No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 in my mind, I come to the following conclusion moving forward. Live performance is meaningful because it is not perfect. It is "in the moment", raw, intense, and unedited. A recording is a timeless and perfect representation of an artist's statement. Yet the concert hall offers a level of honesty and artistic nakedness that is thrilling, engaging, and meaningful. Perhaps this is what our ephemeral treasure is. No matter how brilliant that video of so-and-so is on Youtube, no matter how perfect his or her recording is, there is nothing like live performance. Marc Coppey, professor at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, gave me perspective on this in a lesson.
"I can send an email to a million people. Does it mean anything? I can copy my own recording a million times, does it make it better? Copy Coppey? (Laughter). Always remember, whatever you play, whether it is in a lesson, in a masterclass, or a concert, whatever you do is original and only in that moment. It never comes back. It can never be recreated."
You can't capture or reproduce the experience and community of a live performance. And that's what makes it beautiful.