On Tour: Chicago, Seattle and Victoria

Last month, I went on a little mini recital tour to Seattle and Victoria, and I stopped in Boston and Chicago on the way.  I got to see dear friends that I had not seen in years (and meet their children!) and I finally got to see the PNW for the first time (spoiler alert: it’s gorgeous).  The trip was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.  Without a pianist or my very helpful husband to pitch in with the driving and other logistical matters, I was exhausted when I got back home.

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Because I often have to check my cello (in its extra heavy-duty Stevenson flight case), I try to do direct flights whenever I can.  In this case, I needed to stop in Boston for a couple of days anyway.  I taught some lessons, caught up with a good friend over dinner, rehearsed with the always-lovely Craft Ensemble ladies for an upcoming concert and helped a student make her supplemental audition recording for her Nov. 1 college applications.  I managed to cram a lot into a short amount of time, but I also got to soak up some fall colors and enjoy the changing leaves (because I had NO idea what I was about to witness in Seattle).  Continue reading

How to Learn a Piece of Music Once You’re Out of School

(and, honestly, even when you’re still in it!)

When I was in Chicago last week I had lunch with a young cellist that I know from my Boston days.  I used to work for her mom, and I’ve known this girl since she was a baby.  Now she’s all grown up (22!) and playing in Chicago’s Civic Orchestra.  I asked her what topic she would want to read about in terms of being a post-conservatory, but pre-professional musician.  After thinking about it for a while, she came up with this:  “How does one go about learning a piece of music–from cracking open the music for the first time to performance level–without the help and feedback of a teacher?”.  Ahhhh.  Yes.  Essentially, how does one learn to be their own teacher?

First of all, we are all constantly learning and tweaking our practice methods.  I do have a particular passion/obsession with practicing/learning techniques, and I can share what works for me, and what I try to instill in my students. 

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  1. Start with the Eagle-eye view. Zoom out as far as you can.  If it is a standard piece, then I would start by listening to a few recordings and just familiarizing yourself with how the the piece goes.  I like to do this in the car, while I am cooking or folding laundry, etc.  Then I listen to it a few more times, while sitting with my music, or better yet, the piano score. And I see what pops out at me.  Then, finally, I take it into the studio and just play through it.  No matter what, I just want to get a sense of what feels natural and idiomatic, and which sections will be problematic due to challenging technical demands, or because it just doesn’t sit well on the instrument (Poulenc Cello Sonata, I’m looking at YOU!).

2.  Zoom in a bit and find the large sections. I’m talking as basic as Intro, Exposition, Development and Recap, or ABA, or what have you. I like these sections to be between half a page and a full page, but definitely not more than that.  I take each one of those large sections and play through it a few times, and mark the things that prove to be obstacles (anything that causes me to stop or hesitate—usually a group of fast notes, a tricky shift, or some awkward double stops).

  1. Next step is the zoom in further and mark some smaller sections (that lyrical phrase, that line of double stops, that long run of 16th notes, etc.) and I bracket those. I ask myself what the problem/obstacle is, and figure out the best solution. Then these are sections (more than a measure or two) that I will repeat 5-10 times, and I’ll do this for a few days–always bearing in mind what my solution is to the specific problem.

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4. After a few days of that, I’ll have ironed out a lot of the kinks, but there will inevitably be a few things here and there that stop me in my tracks. That shift, that one double stop, those last 2 beats of that 16th note run.  And those are the things that I drill on repeat until they are hammered out.  This is the mouse-eye view.  The minutiae.  Getting all my ducks in a row.

  1. When I am satisfied with having gotten a handle on those bits and bobs, I start to zoom out again. From small sections to larger sections and back out to the whole piece.  When I can honestly say that I’ve got the notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations down, I’m ready to move onto Part B.

 

If Part A is all about figuring out the printed markings, then Part B is to figure out what they all mean.  WHY is it marked fortissimo there? Is it angry? Excited? Just a balance thing to carry over the piano? 

  1. Decide what the music is about. If the composer is alive and well, and you have access to them, you can just ask them. Otherwise, you might be able to dig up some good program notes online, or read up on the composer.  Maybe there are some published letters in which they talk about writing this piece.  Barring all that, you can just find your own interpretation of the music.

2. I zoom back in again, and create a story, with characters and plot and plot twists, and emotions and reactions and dialogue. I try to make it as vivid as possible and line up the notes/rhythms/dynamics/articulations with that story. I want it all to MEAN something.

On to Part C: Hone your storytelling skills. 

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Now that I’ve got the notes down, and I have decided what story I am trying to tell with those notes.  The only thing left is to see whether or not I am successfully communicating my story to my listeners.  If I have performances happening, that’s easy.  I’ll get feedback.  If I have decided that my story is one of hope and inspiration, and an audience member tells me that they really enjoyed my sorrowful lament, then I know I need to tweak something.  Maybe my tempo was too slow? Or maybe my tempo was fine, but I need to increase my bow speed to keep the energy level up.  And this is the part that makes it worth performing a piece over and over again.  Each time you have a new opportunity to be more convincing with your story; to tell it better, or communicate more clearly– to reach your listener in a more direct way.  And that is what it’s all about.  There is no such thing as a “right” interpretation, but you should be clear about what YOUR interpretation is, and if any of the notes/rhythms/dynamics/etc. are insecure, you won’t be able to get your interpretation out smoothly.  It will feel held back and stifled.

So there you have it.  Through a series of zooming in and out and in and out again, you first learn all of the little black dots, lines, dashes and words on the page, then you find out as much as you can about the circumstances behind the writing of the piece, then you decide what it is about, and figure out how to bring your story to life.

It is a wonderfully empowering journey.  A little scary at first, when you are accustomed to having a teacher there tell you how to play every note, but doing it brings about more self-confidence and the feeling of connecting with your audience over a piece that you brought to life yourself is an incredible feeling.

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in front of the Arts Center at College of Charleston

 

 

Spotlight Series: Sarah Whitney

To continue our monthly series on kick-ass women of the classical music world, this month we have violinist, blogger and all-around music entrepreneur Sarah Whitney.  A native of Concord, MA (She’s a GBYSO alumna!) and currently residing in NYC, Sarah has been taking the classical music world by storm as a member of the acclaimed ensemble, SYBARITE5, as well as running her own unique concert series titled “Beyond the Notes”.  She performs regularly as a duo, AND a trio, is a regular on the recording session circuit and is passionate about creating innovative concert experiences.  As if being on the road almost half the year isn’t enough, she has also recently launched her own blog, The Productive Musician, where she gives great advice on time management and basic life hacks for the artistic soul.  Today, she is giving us a little insight into how she gets it all done,  the valuable lessons she has learned while on the road as a touring musician, and how the biggest risks are always the ones worth taking.

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What are your morning rituals or routines?

SW: In the past year or so my morning time has become very sacred. I’ve found that it’s the only way for me to have any sort of routine amidst my ever changing schedule. Ideally, I like to have 1 1/2 hours of “me time” BEFORE I check my email. During this time I will do the basics – make my espresso, eat breakfast, shower, get ready, etc. I will also spend time to plan my day, set my daily goals, read something inspiring and do a short meditation. I’m currently using a planner called the Panda Planner which I love and helps outline much of my planning. This pre-email time has helped me immensely. Most emails are “asks” and although they are things that I need to tend to, most of the time they are other people’s priorities to be fulfilled. By setting my priorities first thing in the morning before checking email, I’ve found I have a better chance of keeping track of and completing my most important tasks.

Any Must-Haves for air-travel? 

SW: A pashmina scarf! The temperature can always be unpredictable on planes so a scarf is something small and lightweight to carry that can be a great way to keep warm and double as a blanket. Also, I oftentimes roll the scarf up and use it as a makeshift lumbar back support which I’ve found makes longs flights SO much more comfortable.

I also only travel wearing jersey and never leave for the airport without my refillable water bottle!

What has been your scariest moment on stage? 

SW: A few years go my quintet, SYBARITE5, premiered a brand new concerto for string quintet and orchestra with the South Carolina Philharmonic. We had been mumbling about switching to iPads for music reading for a while and thought this would be a great time since we wanted to read off of scores. So, we took the plunge. During the performance, all seemed to be going well until I turned the page with my foot pedal only to see I had flipped from page 1 to page 3. I turned back thinking I had skipped a page only to find myself toggling between pages 1 and 3 with no page 2 in sight at all! Mild panic ensued and since there wasn’t much I could do, I slapped on a big smile and did a little improvising to get me through the missing page! Luckily, all the pages were in impeccable order moving forward, but my heart definitely skipped a few beats – no, MANY beats – during that performance!

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What has been your most rewarding moment as a musician?

SW: One of my favorite things is performing at retirement and nursing homes. When my grandparents were living, I would visit their retirement home and grew up frequently performing at these communities. Sometimes they were formal concerts and other times they weren’t but I loved sharing my music this way. Throughout my career, I’ve continued to play at retirement homes all over the country; a few years ago, I was playing at an intensive care unit where many of the residents were not 100% cognitively aware. I was playing Moon River and all of the sudden one of the residents started humming along. This created a chain reaction and before I knew it, I had a choir of residents singing along! It was an extremely rewarding and magical experience. Although we couldn’t really speak to one another, we could connect through our music.

Practicing: Love it or Hate it?

SW: Practicing is a very precious time for me and it’s something that I have grown to sincerely love. Between all of the necessary admin work, travel and life events, it can be quite challenging to find a lot of practice time. I miss those days at grad school when practice hours were a plenty! I have, however, learned to be much more effective with my practice time and can accomplish more in less time than I used to.

What about when you were a kid?

SW: Probably the exact opposite of how I feel about it now! There was usually lots of negotiating about practice time and I was constantly looking for ways to put it off. My parents probably have a laundry list of excuses I used!

Who were some of your role models as a young musician?

SW: Gidon Kremer was a huge role model to me. He was one of the first violinists I learned about that pushed the boundaries of being a classical musician. I was fascinated and inspired by his creativity, artistry and fearlessness to be different. This opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about what it meant to be a violinist.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a professional musician? 

SW: I didn’t actually grow up always knowing 100% that I wanted to pursue music professionally. It was a large part of my life and I was very serious about it, but I had a lot of interests and ideas about the future as a young child. When college “discussions” came along my junior year of high school, the prospect of music school was appealing and seemed to make a lot of sense. In some ways you could say the decision to become professional was during my junior year when I applied to music schools for college, but honestly, there really wasn’t a “moment” and in hindsight, it actually happened very organically.

 

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Have any pre-concert rituals? 

SW: Tea! I’m very sensitive to temperature when I perform and get cold very easily. Even in warmer climates, the air conditioning in concert halls can often be very fierce. I’ve found the best and most consistent way to keep my body temperature warm is with a hot beverage so I’m usually sipping on tea or hot water before a show!

Do you have a favorite city to perform in?

SW: One of my favorite places to perform was in Fairbanks, Alaska with SYBARITE5. It was March and indescribably cold, but the the warm reception and hospitality of the community was amazing. We also got to see the northern lights and had one of the most memorable back stage riders consisting of an entire Alaskan salmon!

 

What do you find to be the hardest part of being on the road?

SW: The hardest part about being on the road is being sure to make time for myself. I travel mostly with SYBARITE5 and sometimes it’s very convenient to do everything together as a quintet. Although I love my colleagues, it took me a while to realize how essential my “me time” was. I’ve had to find ways to make sure that that happens and make sure I’m disciplined about my time management on the road.

What advice would you give to your 18-year old self? 

SW: All of the musicians you are around now will become your colleagues in the real world! Keep in touch with these people – they will be incredible resources for advice, collaborations and support.

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If you could have dinner with any classical musician, dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you ask them about? 

SW: Prokofiev! I would ask him if he was going to write one more piece of music what would it be, and who would it be for?

What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career? 

SW: The biggest risk I have taken is probably moving to NYC …without a job! In 2008, my last year of graduate school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I realized that I did not want to be in an orchestra and therefore had no exact idea about what I WANTED to do after I graduated. I had met Louis, founder of SYBARITE5, at the Aspen Music Festival and School and he called me with a proposal: Would I be interested in moving to NYC after I graduated to help grow SYBARITE5 into a professional chamber ensemble even though there wasn’t any concrete work or financial guarantee yet? Crazy, right?! Well, I took the plunge and I’m so glad I did. Almost 10 years later I have established quite a career in NYC and toured the country and the world with SYBARITE5!

Where can people find you? (website, IG, FB, Twitter, etc.) 

www.sarahwhitney.com

Blog: www.theproductivemusician.com

IG: @sarahwhitneyistall

FB: https://www.facebook.com/sarahwhitneyistall

Thank you so much, Sarah!  Safe Travels!

My Week in Florida

Hi Everyone,

Sorry I have been a bit MIA as of late.  February was insane, and then March got even crazier.  I’ve missed writing, but then you know how it goes….the longer you wait, the harder it is to get going again.  I realized that I hadn’t even posted about last month’s trip to Florida, so that’s where I’ll start.

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I had planned this week of concerts around South Florida to coincide with Paul’s February School Holidays, so he was able to join me for for the trip.  I had been in Boston for some recording sessions and a concert the week before, so we met up in Miami for a little sight-seeing and relaxation, and then moved our way up and down between Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach.  I had a mix of public and private recitals, school workshops and master classes scheduled for the latter half of the week.  Over our 8 days there, we caught up with dear friends, met some new ones, and I got to perform my solo program for a whole bunch of people. We explored the Wynwood area in Miami, checked out the Museum of Science, and went to the New World Symphony Gala.  We walked the Riverwalk in Ft. Lauderdale and hit up the shopping strip in Palm Beach, spent time with my uncle and time at the beach. It was lovely.

But we were also there on Valentine’s Day, and what should have been (especially during marriage month!) our über romantic get-away, ended up being a horrible, horrible, awful, mind-numbing day when 17 innocent kids were gunned down at their own high school a couple of miles from where we were at the time.  Needless to say, it lent a bit of a grayish tint on my memories of the week.  Everyone was distracted.  I showed up to play my concert the following day and they had completely forgotten about me.  I do strongly believe that music heals the soul, but in truth, no one was really in the mood for a concert, least of all me.  The concerts all happened (except one, but that’s a whole different story….!) but we were all walking around in a bit of a daze–at times pretending that everything was fine, and at other times, depressed and uninterested in doing anything at all.

It was, however, good to be in some warmer weather, and as I mentioned, we got to spend time with relatives and dear old friends – some of whom I had not seen in over a decade.  We ate delicious meals and went on romantic walks. I got to see Paul get excited over geeky things at the science museum and he got to catch a glimpse into my former life in Miami Beach.

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So, there you have it.  It was a strange and bizarre trip, and while it wasn’t the luxurious get-away I was hoping for, I am so grateful that Paul was there with me.  I’m not sure I could have done it without him.  Logistically and emotionally, I needed him there.  He drove me to concerts so that I wouldn’t arrive exhausted, he chatted up audience members and convinced them to buy cds, and he let me snap at him (sorry!) when I didn’t really know how to answer his questions that were generally along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country?” and “Why can’t you guys solve your gun problem the way the rest of the world has?”

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It was in Miami, actually, many moons ago, when Gary Hoffman gave me some advice that I have never forgotten.  When I asked him what it was like to travel around the world as a concert cellist, he looked at me, and said “Well, you just have to accept that 85% of the time you’re going to feel like shit.  You’re going to be jet-lagged, or have a headache, or have caught a cold on the airplane, or some weird thing is going to be going on in your life or around you, but you have to learn how to just show up and do it anyway.”  That week in Florida definitely tested me in a lot of ways, but overall, I think will come away with fond memories of the people I met and got to play for, the talented and enthusiastic students I worked with, of renewed friendships and tender moments. And on Saturday, I will be thinking of all of those people marching in the States, I’ll be going for a long walk around the island in solidarity.

-Kate

January 30-Day Focus: Blogging

 

I can’t believe I’m already on month 5 (F-I-V-E!!!) of my (year-long) 30-Day Focus Project, and I have to say, it has been an AMAZING experiment for me.  The clarity I have found in identifying the 12 most important areas of my life has been profoundly helpful in improving my ability to make plans, decisions, and set goals for my work, my relationships and in basically every area of my life.  I feel like I have accomplished more in the last 4 months than I have in the last 4 years!  I’ve been announcing each one as they come, but here is the full list in case you’ve been curious: Continue reading

The $100 Bill

What would you do if I handed you a $100 bill?  

I once had a student who started cello lessons with me when he was 5 years old, and he LOVED the cello.  He loved playing the cello, he loved practicing the cello (as soon as he woke up-at 5am! Much to his parents’ dismay).  But he had this weird thing he did–He only used about 3 inches of bow–ever (probably due to the fact that he was trying not to wake his parents up!).  And every week he would come into his lesson, sad about his lack of tone, and I would say “Use your whole bow!  Use more arm weight! Yes!!!! Just like that! Do it again!  Terrific!  Okay.  Practice this piece like that, with big bows, and you’ll always sound like that”.  And he would leave his lesson super excited about knowing exactly what to do to get that great big cello sound he was after.  And then he would come in a week later, using only 3 inches of bow, and sad that he sounded so wimpy.  And we would repeat the cycle. Continue reading

Chicago!

Remember that little trip to Chicago I took in October?  It was just last week, but it feels like it was a gazillion years ago!  It was exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, and everything you would expect.  Overall, my experiment of going to a city and playing as many concerts as I could for as many different groups of people as possible worked.  I learned a hella lotta stuff about the whole process of sending press releases, booking concerts and venues and more importantly, I learned a lot about myself and what I need in terms of concert prep. Continue reading