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This post is a trope on the felicitous phrases “Re-Imagining the University Ensemble Experience” and “Re-Imagining the Music Degree Recital” by David Cutler, author of the book The Savvy Musician as well of the web site of the same name. Please hasten to investigate these posts and his book and let him inspire thoughts and dreams in you as well.

Cutler directs the Accidental Collective, “Duquesne University’s premier contemporary music ensemble”, which, besides the regular audition process also wants to know “who you are” – you have to fill out a form “describing background, skills, and interests: secondary instruments, improvisation, composing/arranging, singing, public speaking, movement, additional competencies, reliability, willingness to take chances, etc.”  Instrumentation choice is thus inspired by the whole person/package, not just what they play, so the group may have a very unusual instrumentation. But so be it. The idea is, roughly, if you built it [right], a unique and dynamic group will come out of it.

The potential sticking point is finding literature for an essentially random assortment of instruments. They approached this problem in two ways. The first is nonjazz improvisation, “the ultimate ear training development,” and they give improvised concerts. “Not only did their understanding of musical structure, texture, gesture, harmony, melody, and rhythm expand exponentially, but they developed a deeper understanding of their role within a chamber ensemble, and grew together as a group.”

This struck a chord with me because of my work with improvising ensembles Cerberus (horn, trumpet, tuba, & guest) and the Latitude Ensemble, as well as my semester course “Improvisation for Classical Musicians.” It’s amazing how the experience of making up your own chamber music makes you a better musician when it comes to playing the written down stuff. It’s also more fun than is probably legal in some states. It’s very very difficult to start up a new chamber ensemble of any size in a place (i.e. school) where everyone’s schedule is already packed with other obligations; add to that complications of finding a common time to rehearsal & perform as well as a rehearsal room. The solution to this musical Gordian Knot is the Latitude Ensemble, because we can perform a concert with only part of the group, since we make up the entire concert at the time – as long as four or more of the fourteen can be there (and do several rehearsals), we’re in business. However, it’s been a wonderful revelation to discover David Cutler’s group and what they do. There is much we can learn from them.

The Accidental Collective’s other initiative for repertoire has several approaches. First, they orchestrate piano pieces for the particular instrumentation of the current group, which they then workshop and experiment in rehearsals, trying out different ways to realize the piece. They also issued a Call for Scores with the American Composer’s Forum and other organizations, which resulted in over 100 submissions. Next, they commissioned orchestrations, asking friends to take existing works and orchestrate them for the group (public domain?). They also “transcribed and modified” some existing compositions, adapting them to the group.

I admire the “Lessons Learned” section Cutler puts at the end of the article, especially things like “Each failure taught valuable lessons. If nothing fails, you’re playing too safe.” And: “It is essential to work with the right people and create a healthy environment.”

Amen. I have often thought that any orchestra or chamber ensemble should have no playing in the last “round” of any audition. By that point, all the players these days are at a very high level. What they need to do is go out for dinner. Or play cards. Do something social and interactive, something that shows what kind of person you are dealing with. Repeat as necessary. The last few candidates are going to be fine players; your real question at this point is: who do I want to sit next to and make music for years with? Hiring players is like getting married except it’s harder to get a divorce. What good is it to hire a brilliant player if they are an ***hole [technical term]?

But I digress. Let’s move on for inspiration from David Cutler’s other article on a re-imagined school recital. Cutler says that current degree recitals teach student musicians this: “Playing a standard and balanced solo program in a pre-determined space at a high level equates to success.” And then: “The problem – it’s not true!”

He goes on to list 13 other aspects that should be considered along with artistic excellence – but aren’t the way things are now. I won’t list them all – you should read his original article. But it’s clear that there are many ways that the current recital system could be enriched and improved, both for the student, who could and should learn to think more multidimensionally than just standing up reciting notes and phrases and for the audience. Cutler is a specialist in musical entrepreneurship, something most of us never get exposed to. Taking advantage of even a few of his tips would bring the “show” to more audiences, create better programs for both audience and performer alike, and build and expand the future of music and music making. His list should inspire us all, not just to carry out some of his excellent ideas, but also to come up with our own. Ideas off the cuff that spring to my mind to add to his list would be: involve the audience when possible; be interdisciplinary at times (work with dancers, poets, actors, etc.); use lighting and other elements of stagecraft to enhance the experience; start a blog about your experiences & connect with others doing similar projects. What comes to your mind?

Another musician/author with new visions of music study and music making is William Westney, author of The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. His discussion of the value of mistakes is a refreshing change from the cult of perfect that permeates our study and work as musicians; there are thought-provoking discussions of perfectionistic expectations, the dangers of sight-reading, and more. He brings up some great points about learning and pedagogy in Ch. 8, “Lessons and Un-Lessons”: “Curiously, students don’t always like it when we teachers try to revamp our educational philosophy. The perfectionistic, prescriptive music teacher persona is so entrenched in the general cultural perception that students may want to continue to cast us in the role of omniscient dictator no matter what we say or do. Students usually come around to a new approach eventually, but sometimes this can take a little while.”

Westney’s text is so rich with ideas that it’s impossible to do more than sample a couple of them here. I really enjoyed his discussion of the problem of interpretation. There should be many ways to interpret a given passage, but “while we think this and say it, we don’t always act on it in the teaching studio. It’s all too convenient to dictate prefabricated solutions to students, shaping the students in our own image. … How can students awaken and grow musically if they are trying to perfect a second-hand rendition of someone else’s interpretive instinct?” One answer to this is what he calls “interpretive brainstorming,” where the student is required to come up with at least three different approaches. And let them pick the one that they like the best. The point is that they have to tap and develop their own creative, knowledge, and music instincts rather than just parrot a learned version. I’ve always liked what one of my teachers once told me when I asked him which way I should play a particular phrase. He said, “Convince me.” It’s more important to be convincing that “right.”

Westney also re-thinks the idea of the Master Class. He says that although some master classes can be brilliant in imparting inspiration and knowledge, “the format … seems to invite a rather different outcome than the intended one: students frequently come away dishearteningly and (perhaps subtly) humiliated, having learned little of lasting value. It’s ironic that the audience will sometimes feel quite pleased with a class in which the performing student herself ended up feeling frustrated, since it’s the student who should matter most.” Westney’s idea of an Un-Master Class is designed to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional Master Class using a different approach that he says originated with Eloise Ristad, author of A Soprano on Her Head, one that breaks down barriers and traditional roles, creates a comfortable environment where ideas are generated, traded, developed, and evolved by the whole group. There is no standard formula for the Un-Master Class (no surprise) since the outcome derives from the combined imaginations and work of everyone present, including acting, brainstorming, and even “physicalizing” the music (e.g. Dalcroze Eurhythmics). Westney also describes some exercises to warm-up and loosen up the group to help create the proper environment for the class, such as Call and Response, Passing the Ball, and Mirroring in Pairs.

Music performance and music education need visionaries. We can all draw inspiration and ideas from authors like this to inject new life, passion, and musicianship into our daily lives as performers, teachers, and students.