Category: Articles

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Beginner’s Guide to Preparing the Piano

inside of a piano

In my university music department, I run a weekly composition colloquium, bringing in guest composers and new music performers, as well as faculty speakers, with the latter often coming to talk about things like idiomatic writing and extended techniques for a particular instrument, or setting up a composer website, or digital publishing. A couple of years ago, some of my composition students asked me if I could spend one of those meetings on extended techniques for piano. I dug through my scores, found some of my own and some Crumb, Cage, and Cowell, (among other things), and began jotting down ideas. I did a little organizing and saw that it might make sense to talk about techniques on the keys, inside-the-piano ones, plus a few simple preparations. I thought, “There has to be a book out there that already does this,” but a couple days of searching didn’t turn up very much. The campus library had a copy of Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, and I found several dissertations that dealt with one facet or another of the topic: one on body health and piano extended techniques, another on a pedagogical plan for introducing young students to extended techniques, even a giant historical treatment of extended techniques for piano, and then several studies of particular parts of the repertoire (especially on the works of the “Three C’s” mentioned above).

But, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. And I thought this book was needed.

So, now I’ve written that book (The Contemporary Piano: A Composer and Pianist’s Guide to Techniques and Resources), it’s out in the world, but I still feel like there’s more to do to let pianists and composers know a little more about the sonic resources available within the instrument, and to encourage safe experimentation with the piano. Recently clarinetist Heather Roche conducted a study to determine a body of multiphonics that were easy for clarinetists across models of instrument and across levels of performance experience—some universally easy multiphonics. I’m thinking of these articles as something like this for the piano—some basic, easy preparations and inside-the-piano techniques for every pianist to try.

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I think lots of pianists and composers are a bit intimidated by the idea of reaching inside the piano, or of inserting foreign objects into the instrument. I totally get that, and I have experienced this trepidation myself. Pianists are often insulated from their instrument in ways foreign to most players of other instruments—clarinetists clean and adjust their instruments regularly (even assembling and disassembling them each day). Oboists fashion an essential part of theirs (and many oboists carry their toolkits around with them). Cellists change their own strings. Percussionists regularly replace instrument parts or fashion new mallets or parts themselves. Practically everyone tunes their own axes. But, not pianists. So, to a lot of pianists, suggesting that they tune, adjust, and repair their instrument (much less reach in to play inside it or prepare it with other crazy implements) may feel a little like you’re asking them to repair their own Tesla or dabble in a little light surgery on themselves rather than visit a trained mechanic or board certified surgeon.

Now, if you’ve already toured Annea Lockwood’s Ear Walking Woman or Frankensteined your Baldwin at home with nuts, bolts, and barbed wire, there may not be much here for you. But, if you’ve always been afraid of reaching into your piano, I hope something here will give you the confidence to try out some new resources. I’ve geared these toward application on grand pianos of any size, but many of these can be adapted to work on upright pianos as well.

Some quick guidelines before getting started: before reaching into a piano, always carefully wash and dry your hands to remove excess oils.   If you’ll be experimenting with a piano that’s not your own, you probably want to get permission from the owner and/or the piano technician who maintains the instrument first. (I’m happy to write you an endorsement for any of the experiments listed below, if that will help.)

Surface Preparations

Surface preparations (which involve preparing the piano by resting a foreign object or objects on top of the strings) are the least invasive preparations to try, so let’s start with those.

After cleaning your hands, a second caution: don’t use hard materials for your preparations. Cloth, paper, cardboard, rubber, plastic, wood, and thin bits of bamboo—these are the safest materials. For string preparations, the steel strings of the middle and high register are the least delicate, and the wound bass strings are the most delicate. It’s safest, if you’re unsure, to avoid using metals entirely, but there are softer metals that are mostly safe to use as surface or string preparations: many aluminum, copper, and brass materials should be fine to use on the middle and upper register strings and, with care, can mostly be used on the bass strings, too. (But, again, feel free to start with baby steps and save all metal preparations for much later.)

So, let’s get started! First, rest an ordinary piece of letter-sized paper on top of some middle register strings, away from the dampers. Then play the keys for that register.

It’s a great sound, and the preparation is both safe and easy to apply or remove—even in the middle of a piece.

You can also experiment with different weights of paper, which will change the duration and quality of the buzziness of the paper on the strings (try poster board, a small piece of cardboard, thick cardstock, tissue paper, or Japanese rice paper). You can also try paper on strings in different registers, though it’s generally most effective in the middle register where we began.

Next, take a piece of aluminum foil, maybe about half the size of the sheet of paper, and place it in the same way on the string tops in the middle register. Aluminum foil buzzes similarly to paper, but it definitely has a different sound.

For related but slightly different sounds, it’s also easy to fashion a string preparation from strips of paper or aluminum foil. Cut a foot-long (or more) strip of either material .5 to 1 inch across and thread this under one set of three unisons, over the next set, and under the next, and so forth. A pencil or a plastic children’s table knife can be used to get under the strip and push it up between unison sets, without actually touching any of the strings or putting any pressure on them at all. The strips each produce a tighter buzz than resting the sheets of aluminum or paper on the strings.

One surface preparation that I love and that George Crumb uses in a few works is placing a thin glass rod on top of the strings. This produces a metallic, jangly harpsichord-ish sound, and it also goes on and off the strings easily and is safe to use on strings in all registers of the piano. Registral placement of the glass will be limited a bit by the interruptive braces of the particular model piano you’re using.

Several composers have explored coaxing other sounds by applying glass objects to the strings. Some ask the pianist to use the base of a glass tumbler or a bottle as a slide on the strings—a sort of slide guitar technique. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Der Seiltänzer (1997) for violin and piano exploits the glass tumbler-as-slide, for instance. C. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies (1972) has the pianist invert a small wine bottle, placing the neck between two sets of unisons, and then pressing and sliding. Ashley Fure’s sextet Soma (2012) has the pianist spin a 4”x4” glass tile on the strings to sound “thin wisps of high partials that blossom sporadically into rich clusters.”

Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help.

As a grad student preparing to play Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae, I had no idea where to find an appropriate glass rod. I asked the composer when my student trio had a coaching session with him. He suggested the chemistry department would have them. I approached someone in chemistry about glass rods, and they kindly gave me a couple of lengths. In the Google age, this has gotten exponentially easier. A quick search of online sellers shows me that 1/4” glass stirrers in one-foot lengths are easily ordered. I just picked up six one-foot rods for $7 including shipping. Longer rods prove more expensive and may ship more slowly, but are available from scientific supply places. Or find a chemistry lab, explain to someone there that you want to play a piano with glass on the strings, and see if they’ll help you out with a couple of lengths of glass!

This brings me to my experience asking for help with my experiments with pianos and toy pianos. Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, and sheepishly explain what I need it for, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help. Go to the industrial supply place seeking music wire to reboot your toy piano in an alternate tuning? Suddenly there’s a clerk in steel-toe boots combing shelves for back stock and other diameters. Go to the sex shop seeking variable speed personal vibrating devices to play piano strings with? Get a careful tour of a whole case of possibilities, and next the manager is quickly unsealing boxes and loading in batteries for you to hear the range of speeds. It’s amazing how supportive people can be.

So, grab some paper, aluminum foil, glass, and cardstock, and go try some of these surface preparations!

Take Better Care of Yourself By Making Small Changes

A cream coloured mug filled with coffee and the word "Begin" written on the front

These days, being a musician usually means managing many aspects of our careers: performer, educator, composer, etc. Then, each one of those inherently comes with many different job descriptions: content creator, marketer, bookkeeper, project manager, writer/blogger, graphic designer, and administrative assistant!

Many of us are doing all of those things ourselves, and it’s not easy. So it’s not surprising that it can feel hard to add healthy habits to our lives when not dropping one of the balls we’re already juggling is quite a feat.

Making lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming, especially if you tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. I definitely can be, and I’ve attempted many failed “life overhauls,” which of course didn’t work, because I was trying to do everything at once! It’s much more helpful to think of change as a process, and approach it patiently and incrementally, instead. (This is also a process.)

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests that you think of a ridiculously small way to implement a new habit, such as flossing just one tooth, making the task so small that you can’t possibly rationalize not doing it. I admit, when I first read that, I scoffed, because how is flossing one tooth going to help with overall dental health? But while forming a habit, it’s actually not about the amount of action taken, it’s about the fact that you are consistently taking an action.

So where do we start with making changes?

If you’re an ambitious person (and I bet you are), you probably have lots of things on your list that you’re going to start “once you have time.” That can be a losing proposition, though, because rarely do things actually calm down. For me, the answer has been to schedule the things that I find most important, since urgent tasks often crowd out important tasks. But figuring out what’s important can also be a big question to answer.

I highly recommend the exercise that Megan Ihnen outlines in this article to get clearer on what your long-term goals look like and, by moving backward from there, determining how you’ll reach them. The next step is actually scheduling small actions that will move you toward each of those goalposts, because small bits/actions add up to big things. I happen to be really good at making detailed to-do lists, even broken down into small tasks. For a long time, I wondered, since I was so good at setting goals, why I wasn’t making much progress toward them. It turns out that we actually have to make time to do things in order to get them done, which can especially be challenging when there might not be a consistent routine or a “typical day” (more on that later).


You have a body

Everyone’s top priority goals are going to vary, but every single one of us has a body. Many of us view our bodies as inconveniences, at best, being annoyed about having to stop working to eat, drink water, go to the bathroom, etc. Lots of factors (being a music student, an American, a busy person) encourage us to get really good at living in our brains and ignoring our bodies. However, we have to take care of our bodies, or they will let us know via illness—and our brains certainly won’t work optimally, either!

Making friends with rest

Burnout is rampant among musicians. I hosted a Musochat last August on the topic of wellness and creativity, and nearly everyone replied that they had experienced burnout or were currently experiencing it. I certainly have, too, more than once, and last year it caused me to lose months of productive work due to anxiety (on the outside it looked like I was functioning, but I was only able to complete my work commitments each day, and was too exhausted to do much else). Now I am increasingly suspicious of the glorification of “hustling” and working all of the time, because it’s just not sustainable.

As a result, I had to renew and step up my commitment not just to self-care (I’ll get to that in a moment), but to rest. As the descendant of Midwestern farmers and a former music student (at a school where my peers were bragging about how many classes they were taking and how little sleep they were getting), I have always tended toward workaholism. This is also reinforced by our culture, which praises hard and even constant work. So, it makes sense that rest and taking time off can seem subversive!

Ironically, as I was creeping into the worst bout of anxiety and burnout that I’d had in a long while, I was simultaneously taking an online class on rest with Mara Glatzel, whose podcast Needy I also highly recommend. I know that it says something about me that I had to take a class on rest, but it also says something that I did not actually find real time for rest while taking this class! Now I better understand what my limits are, and I make sure to set boundaries on my work time. I also actually schedule rest time on my calendar.

  • While forming a habit, it’s actually not about the amount of action taken, it’s about the fact that you are consistently taking an action.

    Rebecca Hass, pianist and composer
  • I am increasingly suspicious of the glorification of “hustling” and working all of the time.

    Rebecca Hass, pianist and composer

Self-care is not just a buzzword

Self-care is not just about bubble baths and spa days (although those can be great). It’s about giving yourself what you need, which is going to look different for everyone. If you don’t know what you need, try starting by creating a five-minute daily practice during which you ask yourself what you need. I like to do this while I’m on my daily walk each morning (exercise + mental self-care: 2-for-1!)

We all really need some time each day to check in with ourselves, and introverts and highly sensitive people might need even more processing time. I’ve often viewed my own sensitivity as a weakness, since it makes me more susceptible to anxiety and depression, but it’s also a superpower. It’s what allows me to be a perceptive musician, composer, and creator. If you struggle with mental health, you are absolutely not alone—you can read more about my journey in this blog post and my episode of the Essential Omnivore podcast. There are also some great perspectives in this Musical Creativity and Mental Health series.

As I worked my way out of that period of burnout and anxiety last year, the biggest game changer was self-compassion. A lot of us tend to be really hard on ourselves, especially when it comes to being realistic about how much we can get done in a day, but we can practice being nicer to ourselves. I really like the meditations by Dr. Kristin Neff, which are free on her website and range from 5 to 25 minutes in length, so they’re easy to fit into a busy schedule.

I also recommend watching Day 2 of Angela Beeching’s Creative Productivity Challenge about negative self-talk and being more aware of our thoughts and feelings. She wisely reminds us, “It’s easy to imagine that other artists have all this figured out and that for them, creative work is a joy and ideas and solutions come easily.” The truth is that we all struggle with creative work and it is always a process, but we don’t have to feel bad about it (and if we do, that’s okay, too). Social media shows us a highlight reel of the work others are doing, without a full picture of the messy process of creating something. We don’t need to compare ourselves to an unrealistic image of only success; it isn’t helpful in any way. The longer I’ve been in my career, the more I realize that my mindset is almost the only thing that truly holds me back.

Do it motivation


Now I invite you to pick one (yes, just one!) small change that you’re going to make over the next month. Focusing on one change at a time will drastically increase your chance of successfully integrating it as a habit.

This is going to look different for everyone, but maybe your ways of taking care of your body will involve food, aerobic exercise, yoga, or taking five minutes to stretch before bed. Perhaps your ways of taking care of your mind will look like adding five minutes of meditation to your day, a morning or night self-check-in with what you need, or a mantra that you come back to throughout the day. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that you truly feel you need, not just something you think you “should” do because of external forces.

No matter how chaotic your routine (or lack thereof) might be, there are a few things that happen every single day: waking up, eating meals, and going to bed. You can pick one of these, or something else that you always do every day, and attach your new habit to it, scheduling it right before or afterward.

Now, actually put it on your calendar, or create a repeating alert on your phone, so that it has a tangible place in your life. As Dennis Tobenski shows in his article “Pitfalls of Living the Freelance Life,” you could use a bullet journal, or whatever system works for you. He also takes time each weekend to schedule out the week, and schedules breaks and vacations, which is crucial.

Then, find a weekly time to check in with yourself about how it’s going. My weekly check-in consists of just three questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not working?
  • What did I learn this week?

(I’ll be honest, when I tried to do a more extensive weekly check-in, I just stopped doing it, so don’t be afraid to keep it simple.)

This check-in is incredibly helpful because it allows and encourages me to make changes and tweaks as they are needed. If I failed to do my new habit that week, why did that happen, and what can I do differently next week? (Go back to those self-compassion exercises if you need to.) We can give ourselves permission to start and re-start things as much as we need to.

I’m wishing you success in your new habits and all of your endeavors! If you’re looking for some outside perspective on wellness as a creative person, feel free to get in touch. I offer free Virtual Office Hours in addition to coaching services.

The Collaborative Studio: Suggestions for Your Next Recording Project

So far throughout this series on the recording studio and the collaboration within, I have provided a primer on what producers are and what they do, my process of producing non-classical music, how classical music production differs from non-classical, and ways in which classical music production could evolve with contemporary composition trends. For this last post, I’d like to offer up five suggestions for those who may be new to the studio experience—either as a producer or performer—or for those who would like to take their future projects in a new, collaborative direction.

Communicate

A point that deserves to be reiterated is the importance of communication in creating a healthy and successful collaborative environment. This means talking through ideas, providing feedback, asking questions, as well as being an active listener. Communication is a two-way channel. Not only is it important for you—whether you are the producer or the artist—to communicate your thoughts, but it is equally important to listen to others involved. As the producer, this is crucial for creating a strong working relationship. I have been in sessions where the producer only gave orders and hardly listened to the artist’s ideas. It creates a bitter relationship and a hostile environment in which no creative process could ever be fruitful.

From the producer’s perspective, listening to the artists you are working with will give you a better understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve. If you are working with musicians who are not as familiar with studio processes, their ideas may not work out the way they are imagining. However, listen to their ideas to help them achieve the end goal they are envisioning. For performers, it is important to go into a project understanding that the producer is there to help you achieve the best outcome possible. Listening to your producer and offering feedback only strengthens the project and deepens your understanding of what is possible in the studio.

Trust your team (i.e. don’t take your engineer for granted)

Part of the communication process I listed is to ask questions. What I mean by this is that, specifically as a producer, you should not feel like you need to have all of the answers. In a studio session, you are collaborating with a team of professionals. Whether it be performers, songwriters, or engineers, each person has a wealth of knowledge to contribute that you may or may not have. Take advantage of these resources and ask questions. Every composer knows how important it is to consult with performers about the extensions and limitations of their abilities on an instrument. This is the same for producers; ask questions and learn about fields you may be unfamiliar with. If a performer needs to adjust their tone to better sit in the mix, defer to their expertise on the instrument and ask what options there may be.

On more than one occasion, my engineer has provided invaluable insight that changed the course of the session and created a better end result. There have been times in which I was so focused on the musical material of a song that I wasn’t thinking about the sonic impact of each section. Suggestions about which areas of the sonic spectrum were lacking have pushed me to change the way I approach a section—sometimes by writing new parts to complement existing parts, other times by omitting parts I thought were necessary but realized were just a distraction. All this is to say, never take engineers for granted. They are more valuable than just turning a few knobs and hitting record. Even if they’ve only been in the role of engineer, they’ve been in the room with countless other producers and performers. They may just have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Have a plan (but don’t get too tied to it)

When preparing to produce a project, I always begin well before the first day in the studio. This includes doing research, studying references, studying scores, pre-production, and general conversations with the performers about what it is they are wanting to do stylistically. I always come to the first day of recording with a plan. This plan isn’t always extremely detailed, but it is an aid in organizing the upcoming sessions to ensure that everything gets done in a timely manner. The reason I tend not to prepare an overly detailed itinerary is because these plans almost always change once recording begins. It is valuable to be flexible and not get tied to a set way of doing things. These changes come about once a solid workflow is established and it is evident where the most time will be necessarily spent. However, having the initial plan will help you stay organized once things are set in motion and pieces of the schedule begin to move around. Performers will look to you to lead the way and get things rolling in the studio, and having a strong start sets you up for a successful and organized project. One of the roles of a producer is to maintain organization and keep the artists on track to meet their deadline. Doing your research ahead of time and having a foundational understanding of what the artist is wanting to achieve will keep you from wasting time during the recording process.

From the artist’s side of things, one way to help prepare for your studio sessions is to have at least an initial reference for what you are wanting to achieve sonically. Your references can be a combination of sources and they don’t necessarily need to all be things that you like. Knowing what it is you don’t like is also a helpful resource for the producer and engineer. Having an idea to get the conversation started is a great way to begin the pre-production process.

Push boundaries

One thing that I often see get lost in the studio is the spirit of exploration and experimentation. Of course, time and budget constraints can limit what people will be able to do, but, for those who are willing, the studio is an ideal environment for pushing boundaries. In a studio setting, you have the luxury of being able to hear an idea come to life in real time, and nothing is permanent if you don’t want it to be. As a producer for non-classical artists, I love offering up suggestions that are outside of the box. Sometimes they stick and sometimes they get shot down, but if an idea is easily executable there is no harm in trying something new and seeing what sort of creative impetus spawns from it.

In the previous post, I talked about ways in which contemporary classical production might evolve. Take some of these ideas or come up with your own and try them out. Maybe it won’t work, and that’s okay. I have no shortage of ideas that were left on the studio floor because they just didn’t work out, but there was no harm done. I take those experiences and learn from them. Sometimes I tweak the ideas until they finally do work, and other times I just move on entirely.

Trust yourself

Not only is it important to trust your team, but you must also trust yourself. If you’ve established a solid foundation of communication between all parties, you shouldn’t feel apprehensive about speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with you or you have an alternative idea. In a healthy collaborative setting, respect between all parties should be strong enough to hear out and work through any ideas presented. Ideas will never come to life if they aren’t presented in the first place.

As a performer, being in a studio and surrounded by studio equipment can sometimes be intimidating. We have years of experience as musicians, and all of these experiences are different from one another’s. Studio production teams are small and every person plays an integral role. Your knowledge and strengths make you a unique expert in your field. The engineer will handle the equipment, the producer will take care of organization and management, and the performers will know their instruments better than anyone else in the room. Know your field and know your limitations; you will have a team of people there to fill in any gaps and to support you and the project till the very end.

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals—Part Two (the good part)

In my previous article, I suggested that it’s time to move beyond the top-down, conductor-driven kind of rehearsals in education settings to be more inclusive and more student-focused. We also explored some “whys” of rehearsal, other than preparing the repertoire. Here come some practical ideas to experiment with.

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t (well, just don’t) try all of them at once. That would not be successful. I certainly don’t employ all of these ideas all of the time. But I do use all of these ideas some of the time.

Instead of Always Telling, Ask More Questions

I get it. We like to fix things. We’re pretty good at it. And, most of the time it’s more efficient. But I can guarantee it’s not as collaborative or engaging as it could be when you are the one telling your students what to do 100 percent of the time. You can start with things like, “That was a pretty good run, but I heard a few things we could improve on. Before I tell you, what are you hearing?” Or, if you hear a balance issue, instead of “Trombones, please play softer.” You can ask, “Hey trombones, are the trumpets playing louder or softer than you are?” Or, “John, is Matt playing softer or louder than you are?” Be prepared for “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening to ____.” Then be prepared to run that section again so they can listen. Nine times out of ten, it will fix itself. You don’t have to do this ALL of the time. But the more you do, the better the students get at listening and figuring it out.

As long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.

Here’s another idea: when you are approaching the concert and ready to run the piece, ask the students to listen carefully for things that need improving. After the run, have them talk in their sections about what needs to happen. (This can get cacophonous. You have to be O.K. with the idea that as long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.)

Talk Less/Conduct Less

My dear friend Tim Reynish likes to say, “Talk less; show more,” and that’s great. It should be a given that you are constantly perfecting your gesture and conducting to be the most musical/expressive/artistic/helpful it can be, and that you are consistently training your weaknesses. But more and more, I’m conducting less in rehearsal. When there is an ensemble pulse issue, it’s particularly important to stop conducting. We all know it’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch, so take the eyes out of the equation. It works nearly every time.

It’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch.

Also, get off the box and walk around. It’s amazing how differently you will hear when you do this. It seems like a simple thing, and it is, but it’s tremendously effective.

Change the Seating

I regularly do a “scatter” rehearsal, often two or three rehearsals before the performance. The rules are that the students cannot sit in the same row as they usually sit, and they cannot sit beside a like instrument. There are a number of benefits to doing this, but the most important benefit is deeper listening. More specifically:

  1. Musicians hear things in entirely new ways. Or, they hear things for the first time.
  2. Musicians get used to hearing the “back” or the “front.” Now they have to open their ears and adjust to make the balance work and the blend.
  3. It’s fun. Tubas like to come to the front row, as do trombones. And flutes like to move to the back.
  4. You hear things in entirely new ways.
  5. You can’t cue sections without looking ridiculous, so don’t.
  6. More individual responsibility and musical independence.
  7. It builds community and collaboration. Have the students introduce themselves to their new neighbors.
Try the “monk” rehearsal … where you don’t speak.

Try sitting in a circle as well, and put percussion in the middle. And you can always try the “monk” rehearsal (students LOVE this one) where you don’t speak. Very interesting what can evolve in this setting.

Be Authentic

Talk about being “authentic” is really hip right now. But, it’s amazing how many people I see change who they are when they are on the podium. Be vulnerable. Demonstrate that you are a life-long learner. Let your students in. If you make a mistake, admit it. Everyone knows you made a mistake anyway so if you don’t take responsibility, you not only look silly but you model a behavior that is really undesirable. Sincerity and humility build a culture of trust and responsibility. Early on in my career I observed a choral rehearsal where the singers quickly put up their hands when they made an error. It’s a simple thing but gosh, not only does it save time (you don’t need to stop) but it helps create this culture of accountability and trust.

Guide-at-the-Side versus Sage-on-the-Stage

Have a second score and have a student sit beside you while you run a large section or a piece. Have them talk to the ensemble about what they are hearing. Choose these musicians VERY carefully.

Invest in Student Leadership

This is for middle and high school folks mostly. All that incredible student leadership that you build in to marching band—section leaders, rank leaders, drum majors, etc.—bring inside. For some reason, all of that peer-to-peer coaching goes away with a lot of programs in the spring semester. Why?

Open up the Programming Decisions

What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire?

In the previous article I said something like, “We tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it,” and then brag that our students are more engaged in our band class than in their math class. What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire? You can start with a theme then give them a choice of three pieces that “fit” the theme, have them listen to all three (hey, now they’re listening to more repertoire!), and afterwards choose (by vote…democracy! Cross-curricular learning!) the one they want. The “buy-in” on that piece goes through the roof.

Record Rehearsals

Sure, you already do this. But do you send the recording to the students? I can assure you they think they sound better than they do, and it is ear-opening for them to hear it. Try telling them that their homework is to NOT practice and instead their homework is to listen critically to the rehearsal. Have each section deal with one aspect. For example, percussion comment on intonation (which they tend not to think about); trumpets make suggestions on balance; flutes make suggestions about blend, etc.

Project the Score

It’s absolutely silly to me that in 2018 we are still handing out individual parts. On paper. (Some students are using iPads) Why, for goodness sake, is there only one expert in the room with all of the information? And why do we keep it a secret? For several years, I’ve been projecting the score from my iPad. We have a large screen in the rehearsal room at the Hodgson School of Music which I stand in front of and the score is projected behind me for the musicians to see at all times. I have used the app forScore, which is great and pretty intuitive, but we are now also using Newzik. Projecting the score and referring to it in rehearsals is not only more efficient, it’s more engaging.

How you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters.

The greatest gifts we can give our students are life-long. Years from now, they may not remember a chromatic fingering, a composer’s name, or a musical term. But they will remember how it FELT to be in rehearsal, that their opinions mattered, how they learned to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, that you cared, how to work with others in a community, that hard work paid off, how to lead, how to follow, and so much more. Quality repertoire matters (that’s a whole other article), it matters a lot. But how you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters, too. And frankly, it’s how we will stay relevant.

“Of a good leader, who talks little, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” (Lao Tzu)

The Collaborative Studio: The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Music Production

The previous post in this series took a look into my production process for non-classical projects such as rock bands and singer-songwriters. Although my process changes significantly when I produce contemporary classical sessions, there are a few core philosophical similarities in how I approach a classical project. For this post, I want to walk through what changes, what is similar, and in what ways contemporary classical production can evolve.

The starkest difference between the two worlds of producing independent artists versus contemporary classical is the inclusion of a composer and a written score. When working with independent artists, you are usually working directly with the songwriter, and there is flexibility for changes. This flexibility doesn’t generally exist for classical music, so the focus then shifts almost entirely to the performance.

In classical recordings, there is an emphasis placed on producing a flawless performance with technical facility becoming the focal point of the recording. However, the inability to alter the content of a piece does not mean that production must solely focus on playing the right notes at the right time. During a recent project I was producing, the performer and I had an in-depth discussion about one piece that didn’t quite feel as satisfying as it could have. The performer was executing it flawlessly as written, but it took a deeper dive into the music to understand the best way to portray the work emotionally. Certain rhythms were flexible enough to be interpreted differently, and phrasing was altered to imbue a sense of drama that was previously lacking.

This is a drawback of working from a score; the details aren’t always as clear as they could be on the page. In these situations, a producer should assist in providing direction for the performers. As a composer myself, I can confidently say that scores often times fall short, and using your musical instincts can clear up any insecurities a performer may have about what’s written. It’s much like a performer coaching an ensemble, you dig deeper than what is on the page to understand what the piece is and where it is going. Not to mention that studio time is not free (nor cheap), so decisions need to be made as quickly and confidently as possible.

Good producers will do their homework for an upcoming project. Score study is only one aspect of preparation for classical music recording sessions. Other ways to prepare for a session could involve researching instruments that you have less experience with to gain a basic understanding of how they produce sound. This is a necessary practice for composers. Without an understanding of how an instrument works, a composer cannot effectively compose idiomatically. Producers can use this same knowledge—in dialogue with the performers—to make suggestions, coach, or troubleshoot sonically problematic passages.

Preparation should also involve researching the performers you will be working with, which will provide insight into how those performers sound and what they are capable of. When producing a classical project, I spend a lot of time listening to recordings. I listen to any previous or live recordings by the performers as well as other recordings in the same field, e.g. string quartets, solo flute, solo violin, etc. When listening to other performers’ recordings, I’m not as interested in the performance as I am interested in how the music impacts me when I listen to it. If I really enjoy listening to a record, I will deconstruct the production of the record. Or, transversely, if I don’t like how a particular record sounds, I will know what it is I want to avoid as I prepare for the upcoming project.

Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself.

One of my first memories of working with a producer was at a pre-production meeting where the producer asked me what records I was listening to at the moment and what I really liked about them. At the time, this idea of taking ideas for the sonic imprint of my own record from other records I loved had never crossed my mind. This is now a consistent practice for me. Any time I begin working with new artists, one of the first things I ask is about which records comparable to their own work do they enjoy listening to. This frame of reference provides a tangible source to study for the producer so that they can confidently execute stylistic choices that are in line with what the performers prefer but may not know how to articulate.

Listening through recordings from previous decades, the production style of classical music has only very recently begun to change. The biggest differences over the years have been the improvement of recording technology which produced higher quality recordings. For the most part, producing classical music has been as much about capturing the space as the performance itself. However, when you look at the history of pop or rock music, the production quickly moved away from capturing a sonically accurate live performance recording, and instead creating a unique aural experience on record that, in some ways, intends to replicate the live image but utilizes recording techniques that isolate instruments and add an immediacy to the sonic landscape. Music listeners never think twice about this approach. You hear a band on record and when you see them live you usually never think about how different the sonic experience is. Whereas, with classical recordings, what you hear on the recording can sound almost identical to what you would hear live if you were to witness the performance in the same space.

The idea of creating a unique aural experience on record that differs from a live performance without changing the content of the music itself is an exciting notion both from the perspective of a composer and a producer. Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself. On record, you can provide a unique look into a piece of music that can’t be replicated live, especially in the present day where most people listen to music through headphones.

There is a growing trend among contemporary composers of creating works that ignore the arbitrary boundaries of genre. These works—such as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered and Gemma Peacocke’s upcoming record, Waves & Lines—are ideal canvasses for modern production techniques, and a glimpse into what the future of contemporary classical production could be. The isolation and immediacy of the instruments in these recordings and the liberal exploration of the stereo field leaves behind the fixed spatial recordings of past classical recordings. Listeners are able to aurally navigate dense instrumental textures as if they were a part of the ensemble. The intimacy of this type of production also creates an emotional relationship to the music, much like the way a pop singer’s voice is recorded to hear every nuance of sound created. For as much as classical music harps on the emotion and drama embedded in works, it could benefit from this type of intimate production style.

My final installment in this series on the potential of the collaborative studio will offer up some suggestions for taking full advantage of your studio project and how to be a better collaborator with the rest of your production team. Every studio experience is a learning opportunity, and with the right positive mental attitude, everyone involved can benefit and learn in different ways.

Retaking the Stage: What Artists Can Be In Our Society

Composer Lei Liang and soprano Susan Narucki were aware they were delving into a topic of immense importance in their new chamber opera, Inheritance, which deals with guns and gun violence. So they didn’t really need a reminder of the issue’s urgency when a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue gathered for Shabbat morning services on October 27, the day of the opera’s third and final performance at the University of California San Diego.

“That Saturday performance was very difficult, personally,” said Narucki, who produced the opera and sang the central role of Winchester Repeating Arms Company heiress Sarah Winchester. Narucki, like Liang, is on the UCSD music faculty and they had previously collaborated in the one-woman chamber opera Cuatro Corridos, whose four stories (set by Liang, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Hebert Vázquez) dealt with human trafficking.

“Can art make a difference?” Narucki asked. “I have to say, when we were going onto the stage Saturday evening, I thought, ‘What can make a difference?’ There’s a part of me that felt we’ve gone so far in the direction of just not hearing each other—we’ve normalized insanity—that nothing could make a difference.”

That moment of hopelessness passed, as Narucki possesses a strong core belief in music’s transformational potential. After a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims, conductor Steven Schick gave the downbeat and the opera opened with a percussive volley that could have been mistaken for gunshots. “I think what ends up happening, and the whole cast felt this way, is there’s a kind of intensity you give to your performance in situations like that,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it seems like it’s a cry to try to break through that wall of indifference.”

Whether the piece—with a libretto by Matt Donovan, design by Ligia Bouton, and stage direction by Cara Consilvio—succeeded on that level can only be gauged by the individuals in the audience, but there was another wall that this unusually powerful work breeched in its immediate connection with a timely, complex, and controversial political and social issue: the apparent barrier between life and new music.

“On the one hand we’re at this experimental music center [UCSD’s music department], redefining what music can be,” said Liang, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 for his saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang (which has its own political subtext). Like Xiaoxiang—indeed, like most of his works—Inheritance tests, and even expands, the limits of the opera’s eight-member instrumental ensemble (two clarinets, trumpet, two percussionists, guitar, harpsichord and contrabass), creating a unique and wide-ranging sonic palette that extends far beyond the mere use of harmonics and multiphonics. “You can discover a lot of new things in things we thought were old,” said Liang, who is also research artist-in-residence at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. “It’s just the way of thinking was old, the way of playing was old.

“[On the other hand,] Susan and I share this passion that we shouldn’t think of ourselves in a box. Of course there are a lot of things that are kind of fun just because you discover something new, but they have to find their right context, their right message, their relevance to the story. With all these inventions and creating our own new music language, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the importance of what is really urgent in our society. We have to face it.”

PURITY AND IMPURITY

While it’s difficult to generalize that Liang’s impulse to engage with social and political issues is shared by a growing number of composers in an increasingly polarized and politically charged environment, politics is proving to be fertile ground for composers looking to connect with an audience, and not only in chamber opera (a form Du Yun also used in her 2017 Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, which offered an allegory on human trafficking) and opera (whether John Adams, who has repeatedly relied on current social and political themes, most recently in the 2017 Girls of the Golden West or David T. Little, in particular his 2016 opera JFK, but also his earlier Soldier Songs and Dog Days).

John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean and Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields both gently raise contemporary issues (climate change and the culture of coal), and both won Pulitzer Prizes (Adams in 2014; Wolfe in 2015), while younger composers such as LJ White, are dealing with issues that are no less immediate and in White’s case, particularly personal.

“There is a school of thought in contemporary classical music that music should be above everything else, that it should have a purity about it,” said White, who is on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. “To me, that doesn’t make sense. Everything we do in art comes from what’s around us and who we are as humans.”

White uses his own life as a metaphor. He is transitioning, and has been coming out over the last several years, which has inevitably affected his music. But even before that, he found himself interested in which musical elements signify genre. “I’ve been fascinated with the boxes we put ourselves into and how we can sort of combine signifiers from different worlds to create something that isn’t easily classifiable,” he said. “And I think that has a lot to do with the way I present myself in the world as well.

“I like my music to be a series of microdecisions, any of which could go in any direction to best convey what I’m trying to convey, the feeling or the purpose, rather than something that starts from a large decision that automatically makes a lot of your smaller decisions. That’s kind of what genre is, and also what being male or female is in a way. And that’s something else that’s charged and political, especially in the current moment.”

White’s compositions include pieces that are overtly political, such as his most recent work, Shuffled ‘Notes from “A Guide to Drag Kinging”’, based on a poem by Franny Choi and commissioned by Pushback, a new “modular contemporary music ensemble” whose mission is to advocate for groups that are “underrepresented and oppressed,” both in and outside the world of music.

I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate.

“We feel that a lot of the art we have made, and we have seen others making, seems a little distant from our sociopolitical lives, and the rest of our lives, really,” said soprano Ally Smither, who co-founded the project with bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. (They met while students at Rice University.) “I’ve had a growing frustration with the idea that my artistic practice, and my life and the lives of those in my community, in political and socio-economic terms, were separate and they didn’t interact,” said Roidi-Ward. “I think it’s important, especially within the community and in creating new work, that the work has something to say about the world that we live in, and the world we want to live in, and the type of community we want to build.” Pushback, which formed earlier this year, has already commissioned pieces by Binna Kim, Karim Al-Zand (Songs from the Post-Truth Era), Theo Chandler (Tamora Monologues) and White, who has also just completed a work for Schick and the La Jolla Symphony, which will be premiered at UCSD on February 9, 2019.

White’s new orchestral piece for La Jolla, Community Acoustics, is inspired by phenomena in natural ecosystems where, in White’s words, “a stratification develops among species where they all kind of have a certain register that is theirs alone and that they use for their calls and communication with other members of their species. It forms this sort of interlocking registral environment that allows everybody to be heard…And scientists have observed this and seen cases where it’s disastrous when this gets disrupted.”

It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see that even nature can be political. “Maybe ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been a charged topic,” said White. “But it is now. Everything is political.” Schick, who commissioned the piece and is music director of the La Jolla Symphony, increasingly eschews the term “political music,” and in a new commissioning program he and Brenda Schick (his wife) are putting together, he’s focusing on music with “optimistic social values,” of which White’s piece is the first commission.

“I really realized that my objection to, in quotation marks, ‘political music,’ is that it is so often proscriptive,” said Schick, a faculty member at UCSD and an esteemed percussionist in addition to his activities as a conductor. “It is a statement built on a negative. ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ ‘We can’t have that.’ ‘Look how horrible this is.’ ‘Look at the problems here.’ I wouldn’t say that is the definition of political music, but I think it turns out that a lot of the music that takes on things that cross over into real life takes a remedial approach. And what I’m trying to do, and I believe this is what distinguishes my interests from at least some people, is that I see the job of music in this regard as an affirmative action toward a moral society as opposed to a punitive action toward an immoral society.”

GUNS AND HUMANITY

Liang and Narucki had similar concerns. They were not inclined to make a piece with an overtly political message, but were committed to doing something on the topic of guns. “There are works that are the result of some circumstance, some commission, some external reason, but there are also works that just have to happen,” said Liang, whose own experience with guns dates back to 1989 in Tiananmen Square, when as a teenage protester, he found himself face-to-face with armed soldiers.

“This is one of those topics we have to do, especially because it is so hard,” Liang said. “It’s such a difficult topic to deal with. It’s such a black and white thing (in terms of people’s opinions). It’s so easy for people to think, before they even see it, ‘I know what the conclusion is going to be,’ and it seems people have already made up their minds. It’s so hard to find the right angle, to say, ‘No, there’s a humanity in this we must face and we must rediscover as we find ourselves in this conversation.’ I think that’s the thing that took us a while to find: what is the perfect angle to do this, a personal one for us?”

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

Liang had met Donovan, the librettist, while both were fellows at the American Academy in Rome, and Donovan, a poet who is director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, had been doing research on gun violence. “I’m really concerned about gun violence in this country, so it seemed like something that would be worth thinking about as a subject,” said Donovan. “But I will say I was reluctant. I was cautious from the outset about pursuing the topic because I didn’t want to write anything that would at all be didactic. I wanted to write something that would address the issue, and allow the issue to resonate for the audience, but I didn’t want to be presumptive, and write something that would be any way instructional about how this very complex issue might start to be resolved in this country.”

By chance, Donovan came across an essay about Sarah Winchester and her San Jose “mystery house,” where she moved after the death of her child and then her husband, and she renovated and expanded continually for nearly four decades. Donovan explained how that shaped the work itself:

Clearly there are some apocryphal stories that are all wound up in her legacy, but if you believe the legends, or at least take them at face value for a moment, I think what we have is a woman who is concerned about bloodshed from guns, but complicit in it in a very direct way. But then, her response to that concern, and her response to the violence that was caused by the guns [that her late husband produced and which now supported her] was to move out West and create a labyrinth from which there’s no real escape and no clear resolution.

And that for me became a rich metaphor, because I see America in Winchester. I see a lot of people, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, who are concerned about gun violence, but we are at such an impasse given how polarized the topic is, that I don’t see a clear resolution, and I don’t see anyone building a clear path toward any kind of change. So the labyrinth metaphor, it resonated with me right away and aligned with this idea this piece will be suggestive rather than instructive.

Liang and Narucki immediately embraced the idea and engaged Donovan to write a libretto and began developing the production, supported by grants from Creative Capital, the NEA, ArtPower, UCSD, and New Music USA. “It was beautiful to discover Sarah Winchester, this person who embodies the complexity of this issue,” said Liang, continuing:

The thing that moved me the most was when I went to the Winchester House, and saw she was such a wealthy person and everyone thought she was keeping some hidden wealth in a safe. It was typical of her; she had a safe within the safe. And when she died, they [her servants] rushed to get the key to the safe and discovered only two locks of hair [of her husband and her daughter]. It was such a powerful moment; it really showed what meant so much to her. It was life, it was her daughter’s life, it was her husband’s life, and she was living in this long period of grief because of loss of life. So that just made me feel there’s something we all can connect with.

It’s the humanity of it. We can let go of everything else in life, but not the ones we love. That is just something as a father, as a friend, as a son, I can relate to very, very deeply. I thought she gave us a really great opening to discover who she was, and in that process, discover what’s happened to us.

In developing the score over a period of three years, Liang said he wanted to build his own “mystery house,” his own sonic labyrinth. Within it he incorporates references to Winchester, whether in the use of the number 13 in the work’s rhythmic scheme (Winchester’s favorite number) or the inclusion of a Japanese scale, as Winchester had a close relationship with her Japanese gardener and his family.

Divided into ten scenes within a single act set in Winchester’s house, the piece juxtaposes past and present, myth and reality, the character of Sarah and three ghosts who double as a tour guide and two tourists (sung by Josué Cerón, Hillary Jean Young, and Kirsten Ashley Wiest in this production). At the end of Scene 8, the character of Sarah finally gets fed up with hearing the tour guide explain her life and her motivations and confronts him:

This, then is madness? To mourn the dead, to at least attempt to respond? To keep the hammers pounding in order to bear the dead in mind? …

Madness is not to be haunted, to ignore the dead, to act as if they’ve never been alive. Madness is to do nothing as the numbers of the dead grow.

That’s as close as Inheritance comes to making an overt political statement, but in the context of the opera, it seems an inevitable conclusion as we realize we’ve somehow normalized the “insanity” of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women, and children needlessly dying on a routine basis.

Scene from Inheritance (2018)

Inheritance (2018)
Photo by Farshid Bazmandegan

“Right now, given the political climate not only in our country, in the world of culture, the world of politics and society, there’s a lot of upheaval,” Narucki said. ”I do think, no matter how much I revere and adore the works of the operatic canon, that new works that are small scale and address contemporary issues in this way, puncturing the balloon, or puncturing that wall, will end up adding more vitality to the form, and attracting new audiences.

“Hopefully, it’s actually much more. It’s not as much about attracting new audiences as it is about retaking the stage for what artists can be in our society. I feel artists in our field, in the classical field, have in some way ceded their power. Music and performance is an incredibly powerful way to connect people. We doubt that power. We doubt the power we have to move and connect, and works like this bring people together in a way that’s very unexpected. That’s what’s very interesting to me, the idea you can create community and discourse and new ways of understanding each other through pieces of art like this. We do it with film, we do it with some museum installations, we do it with popular music. Why can’t we do it with this?”

An “Inspired by Midwest Clinic” Playlist Curated By Nicole Chamberlain


Our goal with user-generated playlists is to give you the power to curate the music you love on our New Music USA platform. You can now save, organize, listen to, and share videos and recordings from both projects and profiles by using playlists.

Using playlists is simple and intuitive. When you are logged in and on a profile or project page, if you see a video or sound recording that you want to add to your playlist, just click “Add to Playlist.” Once you do that, you can access your playlist at any time by navigating to “My Playlist” underneath the user tab at the top right of the page. The recordings you’ve added will now appear in your playlist.

Our friend and colleague Nicole Chamberlain agreed to curate a playlist inspired by the upcoming Midwest Clinic with works that she sourced from across the New Music USA platform. She put together this fantastic list featuring tracks from Alex Shapiro, Molly Joyce, Jennifer Jolley, Emily Koh, Alan Theisen, Russ Zokaites, and more! Nicole’s picks are helping us get pumped to experience Midwest Clinic through and through. Click the link and join us in the excitement.

LISTEN TO NICOLE CHAMBERLAIN’S
INSPIRED BY MIDWEST CLINIC PLAYLIST

About Nicole Chamberlain 
Atlanta Composer and Flutist Nicole Chamberlain (b. 1977) has composed numerous works for flute and has won NFA’s 2017 Flute Choir Composition Competition, 2016-2018 Newly Published Music Awards, The Flute View Composition Competition, Areon Flutes International Composition Competition, finalist in the Flute New Music Consortium Competitions, and finalist for the Kappa Kappa Psi’s 2018 Female Band Composition Competition. She has been commissioned by the Atlanta Opera, Georgia Symphony Orchestra, Gonjiam Music Festival, Oklahoma Flute Society, Atlanta Flute Club, and many others. An album of her music, Three-Nine Line, released in 2018 by MSR Classics. Learn more about Nicole at www.nikkinotes.com

The Collaborative Studio: A Look into the Process of Producing Non-Classical Music

My first venture into producing was with a Texas punk rock band whose main songwriter is one of my closest friends. The relationship we had was the perfect foundation for me to explore and sculpt my voice as a producer. I had done much work as a songwriter and a composer, but producing required me to give up creative control to respect someone else’s artistry. Not every project can be with your best friends, but it is important to create some sort of relationship with the artists you work with. Let them know that you are as invested as they are in their work.

When I sign on to a non-classical project as the producer, it is important for me to know how involved the artist wants me to be. Each project requires a different process based on what the artist is comfortable with or what they are hoping to achieve. Often I’ll try to be as involved in the pre-production process as I am in the studio. What this means is that before a band or artist enters the studio to record I am collaborating with them, helping them to mold the material that they have into the best possible version of itself. My background as a songwriter makes me an effective collaborator early on in the process, and these qualities are further augmented by the knowledge and skills I gained through my formal education as a musician.

My college education provided me with practical skills to complement the songwriting craft that I had developed prior to music school. Being able to analyze and understand form and theory helps to eliminate a lot of the time-consuming trial and error I underwent as a young musician. Although the school I attended only ever applied critical thinking toward works in the classical canon, I kept an eager interest in applying this knowledge to the non-classical styles that I loved. During undergrad I was still working toward becoming a better songwriter, so I used the analysis techniques I had learned in school to analyze my favorite records in order to better understand what made them so special to me. Analyzing non-classical music gave me another set of tools that I would be able to use as a producer when needing to fortify or expand a song that didn’t quite feel complete yet.

Studying composition taught me how to reconceptualize material that isn’t working in its current context. This technique has been invaluable to me as a producer.

In addition to the general music curriculum, my composition studies also provided me with a unique perspective on music and its materials. As a teenager, I had discarded countless songs because of mental roadblocks and I hadn’t developed ways to get past this. Studying composition taught me how to reconceptualize material that isn’t working in its current context. This technique has been invaluable to me as a producer. Not only has it saved songs from being discarded entirely, but it has taken perfectly “okay” songs to another level without sacrificing the artist’s intent. The material being reframed is still unique to the artist, and nothing gets changed without the consent of its creator. None of what I do as a producer revolves around me and my creative ability. Rather, I am using that ability to enhance what an artist has provided me to work with. The ability to perceive the material in new contexts is merely a way of seeing the true potential of what an artist has created.

Maybe my favorite aspect of being a producer is how similar it is to being a good teacher, whether it be in composition, violin, etc. The goal of being a producer or a teacher isn’t to create carbon copies of yourself or your tastes. Instead, you work harder to help artists or your students achieve (or sometimes to develop) their visions. It’s a more involved and difficult process than it would be to just change everything until you’re satisfied, but the end result is a product that is a true representation of someone other than yourself. It is a work that, as a producer, you helped to develop in order to fulfill another person’s vision, and that is a unique type of satisfaction.

Once I am in the studio with a band or an artist, things start to move quickly and it becomes necessary to focus both on the minor musical details as well as the broader picture of what the project is intended to be. Organizational skills, time management, and the ability to provide constructive feedback all come into play in a studio session. Not only am I monitoring the recording process, but I am also making decisions regarding where the most time will be spent, understanding how each part will sonically fit into the whole, and coaching performers when it is needed. It’s important to remember that each of these tasks involves a conversation—whether it be with your artists or your engineer—and the more you communicate, the more efficient your process will become.

When monitoring the recording process, there are two primary goals in mind. Capturing a technically proficient take and capturing the right performance. Music is an emotional force regardless of the genre you are working in, and it is important to portray that emotion in the performance. With indie artists or bands this is most evident in the vocals, which is why vocal tracking is one of the most involved processes. A singer may nail a passage technically, but if the performance doesn’t portray the right mood, it does nothing to serve the song. This is where a bit of coaching may be required, but just because a performer is being coached does not imply incompetence. It is simply the benefit of having an outside perspective weigh in on the effectiveness of a performance. Perhaps instrumental performers can relate to this type of coaching the most. Even though you may not always be coaching on the same instruments, a good coach understands how to articulate a mood or a character in the music so that any musician can understand. This ability to effectively talk about music is an invaluable skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The final processes that a producer is typically involved in are mixing and mastering. It is not uncommon for your recording engineer to also be your mix engineer, and having developed a strong communicative relationship will make mixing and mastering smooth and stress-free. In the mixing process, the engineer relies on clear and concise directions from both the producer and the performers. There’s no reason you can’t begin communicating with your engineer during the recording process about mix ideas. These ideas can range from topics such as balance between instruments, the use of special effects such as delay, or the overall timbral qualities of a song, e.g. dark, bright, warm, etc. Engineers who know where you intend to go sonically can begin to lay the groundwork before the recording process is finished, which makes mixing easier on everyone.

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the ways in which classical music production differs from what has been described in this post. Contemporary classical music has continually shown little interest in the boundaries of genres, the next installment will also dive into what this could mean for the future of classical music production and ways in which I believe contemporary classical music can take advantage of what non-classical music has already been doing.

It’s Not What We Do, It’s How We Do It: Evolving the Concert Experience

What I’d like to talk about today is what we do, what we believe in, and how we do what we do. Which, I believe, is rather suspect. At the end of this article, there will also be some practical ideas.  You probably shouldn’t try them all at once. And you probably won’t like some or all of them. But I think it’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience. I’ll talk about my experience in the collegiate and/or professional concert world, but I believe most of the ideas could work in a variety of settings.

It’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience.

An iceberg partially above water but mostly below.

Perhaps you’ve seen this meme on the internet. Where the tip of the iceberg is the performance and that vast complicated bit underneath the surface is the rehearsal process. It’s so true, isn’t it? And we’ve all heard that the journey is supposed to be more important than the destination. The process more robust, more post-modern, more life-changing than the product. Presumably this means that the more important lessons are learned along the way. That there is joy in each day’s progress (even, struggle). And the end result will be more fulfilling if we concentrate and are mindful of each step (both forward and backward) along the way.

And who am I to refute this notion? I don’t, in fact. But, let’s be honest, we are surrounded by messages that scream the opposite. We are destination-driven—goal-oriented. I’m a runner, but I don’t really train methodically and smart unless I’ve signed up for a race. Who doesn’t make to-do lists and take great pleasure in checking off the tasks when they are completed? Just about everything we do, especially as teachers/conductors, is driven by the end result.

In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it? And if that concert is bad—poorly executed, boring, poorly organized, out of tune, rhythmically unstable, whatever—everyone feels bad: the musicians, (perhaps worse of all) you, the musicians’ family members, the community members, and, of course, the administrators. So in this article, I’d like to focus on that performance, that product, the destination, the stuff above the surface.

Just about everything we do is driven by the end result. In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it?

Let me ask you a question: how many of you think about the audience when you program your concerts? It’s a serious question.

Now, in my case, most of the time, whether I’m guest conducting or at home, our audience is typically friends of the student musicians (or professional musicians), fellow faculty and educators (the student’s teachers), parents, donors, community members, and administrators. This includes the live and the virtual audience, as we’ve been live-streaming concerts at the University of Georgia Hodgson School of Music for the past three years.

With perhaps a few exceptions, I would guess that this is basically your audience as well. Yes?

OK, before we talk about our audience, let’s step back a moment and talk about the classical music concert experience.

When I googled “Classical Music Traditions” in preparation for this article, here are some of the titles that came up:

“What to wear to a Classical Music Concert”
“Concert Etiquette”
“The Concert Ritual: How to Enjoy a Live Concert of Classical Music”
From The Guardian, “Admit It, You’re As Bored As I Am”
“Saving Classical Music”
“The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” (Huffington Post)
“Is Classical Music Boring?” (According to the bloke at The Guardian, it is)
“Is Classical Music Dying?”
“How Diversity Can Help Save Classical Music”
“Can Classical Music Be Cool?”
“How Do We Fix Classical Music?” …that one from National Public Radio

And my personal favorite,
“Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes” (NYT)

Isn’t that extraordinarily odd? I don’t think the average person needs to worry about etiquette, rules, what to wear, fixing the genre, saving the genre) when they attend any other kind of live music event. Nope, it’s pretty much just “classical music” concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviors. Here’s something, when I google “who attends classical music concerts?” a whole bunch of stats come up, which I’ll share with you in a moment. When I google “who attends a popular music concert,” my whole feed is about the Obamas attending a Beyoncé concert.

It’s pretty much just “classical music” concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviors.

If I may quote Richard Dare, a first-time classical music concertgoer who wrote the article I mentioned, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained”:

Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck by my observations that concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. Had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a hip-hop concert—if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like? But this was classical music. And there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself preoccupied by the imposing restriction of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony-faced non-expression of the audience around me [let me add that I bet he observed that on the stage as well], presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic. I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in that way.

Neither, dear reader, do I. Richard Dare calls it “ritual behavior”; I have a student who calls it “ritual compliance” and I believe it’s killing what we do, and what we actually believe in.

We all know that it didn’t always used to be this way. Think of the bawdiness at a Mozart premiere, the boo-ing at a concert featuring the not-so-well-liked Beethoven, the riot that broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring…women throwing their unmentionables at Franz Liszt during his piano recitals. I’m not advocating throwing our underwear at anyone by the way, but surely, we’ve moved way too far in the opposite direction.

Concert attendance at classical music events is down in the United States and Canada. We all know it has been in decline for some time. Experts and pundits blame lots of things for this: music teachers (my favorite), poor government funding for the arts, Spotify and Pandora, wind band repertoire (my second favorite), technology and decreasing attention spans, movie music, video games—and perhaps all of this is true and we can lay blame where blame is due. But don’t we need to think about evolving the concert experience?

In 1958, Milton Babbitt penned a deeply controversial but memorable article. (By the way: Can you name a composition by Milton Babbitt? How about some of his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky, Percy Grainger, or Aaron Copland, all of whom who embraced folk song—so called “pop music”—in their music. And whose music has endeared itself into our hearts.)

Charles Rosen wisely said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest living tradition.” Yes, we’ve been saying classical music is dying for at least 200 years. I’m not worried about the music itself. It’s too good to die. Bach, for example, seems to me to be indestructible. The institutions of classical music and music education though, are another matter. There is good reason to worry about them, especially those that have refused to evolve for the better part of a century.

Back to dear Milton. I make my graduate students read his infamous article and write a counter-response entitled, “I Care If You Listen.” Let me be clear, I do care. I care about my audience. I care who listens and I care about what they think. I care when they choose not to come. And when they do, I want them to have a great time.

I believe that the days of ritual compliance at classical music concerts should end. And end now. The kind of concerts that most of us present where, as an audience member, you are never spoken to, you are expected to read the boring program notes in the dark, the musicians on the stage look as bored as you are, and you are expected to behave in a certain way, etc., seem now so silly to me. And boring. And I’m a so-called educated musician!

So, what I promised: here are some things that we have experimented with at the University of Georgia, and before that, at Cornell University. Some of these things you might not be able to do in your particular circumstances, but I hope as I go through these, you’ll let your creative juices flow and think about ways that you might incorporate some of these ideas (and add more of your own) in your unique setting.

No. 1 (and its No. 1 because anyone can decide to do this, anywhere, and any time)

Dump the no-applause rule.

Dump the no-applause rule. Invite your audience to clap whenever they feel like it. There is nothing more ridiculous and repressive than experiencing a huge cadence, inspiring and loud, at the end of the first movement of a concerto or symphony and all you hear is paper rustling and coughing. And we wonder why people don’t enjoy classical concerts? Or why the musicians on stage might not be having as good a time as they could be? Live music is supposed to be invigorating. And there’s a give and take with that audience and player energy that’s so important. Why not give this a try? The Hodgson Wind Ensemble has been doing this for about two years now and WE LOVE IT.

Now, there are ways to introduce this that will be successful and ways that won’t. But you can start with playing a march, or a polka, or any other kind of energetic, motor music, and turn around and clap to the beat. You can also, which is what we did, plant a bunch of clappers, to get the ball rolling and the rules changed.

No. 2

Embrace technology.

Embrace technology. We have tweet seats at the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts. They’re at the back of hall (so the lights on the phone don’t disturb the folks who don’t want to tweet), and listeners are invited to tweet to #HWE any time they want during the concert. I know some of you don’t like this. Can’t we find places in our lives where we put the screen down and just be in the moment? I get it. I do. But, I went to an orchestra concert when I first arrived at UGA. Down my row, during the slow second movement, a man started flipping through the program to see what was coming up later in the semester. An older woman across the aisle was so deep asleep, she was drooling on her sweater. You can’t tell me those folks were more engaged without their phones than the folks who tweeted things like this, during the concert:

“Love the clarinet soli! Hard to believe this was written in 1961. So good.”

“I’m down for ‘diet serialism’ but I’m a big boy who can handle full calorie Schoenberg.”

“When the bass drum hits are slightly too soft for your liking.” (Followed by a meme of disappointment)

“Breath. Taking. Completely beautiful and mesmerizing concert setting.”

“Erik has set the tone with that boss level performance. There will be applause after each movement now!”

“How fun! Y’all having fun up there stage-sitters?” (More on this later)

 

No. 3

Talk to your listeners. There is an entire generation of people who don’t know HOW to listen to music. And, if you are like me and play a lot of new music, guide the audience through it. Share with them why you love the music and want to play it for them.  You might have to examine what makes it quality music—something we don’t explore enough or define. We’re really good at criticizing bad music, but we’re not very good at defining quality. Take a crack at it.

If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance.

If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance. Then they have ‘ah-ha’ moments of recognition when they hear it again.

One of my great moments at UGA was when we performed Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. I invited a music history professor to speak about the work. We played excerpts and we played bird song over the sound system. We showed the video of Messiaen and his wife at the piano. In the parking lot after the concert, an audience member behind the wheel of an F-150 pick-up truck slowed, rolled down the window, and said, “Dr. Turner! That bird piece was my favorite!”

No. 4

Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it.

Experiment with intimacy and breaking down imaginary walls. “Stage-sitters” are just that. Put out some extra chairs and invite audience members to come on stage and sit in their favorite section while you perform the last number. This is a HUGE hit at UGA. A very touching moment happened once when our bass player’s five-year-old son came and sat on his daddy’s bass stool. Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it. That requires memorization—not a bad skill for our students to practice.

Rote Hund Muzik (the contemporary chamber ensemble at UGA) transformed the band hall into a lounge for Steve Reich’s Double Sextet. We set up the ensemble in the center, put a few chairs around the audience but invited people to get up and walk around; grab a drink, get a closer look. Big hit.

No. 5

Take risks. At UGA, there is a tradition at football games to “Light Up Sanford.” At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the fans take out their phones and put their lights on and hold them in the air while the marching band plays “The Krypton Fanfare” (from the 1978 Superman movie). Really loud.

We did this at a concert. During a piece called Beacons by Peter Van Zandt Lane, we invited the audience to take out their phones and do the same. We had stand lights, and the hall went completely dark. It was gorgeous. And fun. And pretty. And moving.

No. 6

When you have to put program notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write.

Experiment with projection and visual aids. At Cornell the stage had a huge screen that could come down because the concert hall was also a lecture hall. Instead of printed program notes, we projected them on the screen. And let me tell you, when you have to put program notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write. They have to be pithy and interesting. Don’t get me started on bad program notes. Anyway, as the piece progressed, the program notes came on the screen.

We can’t do that at UGA (no screen) so we experimented with listening guides.

But we also rent a projector and screen sometimes. We display images, video, Skyped composers, all sorts of things.

No. 7

Flash mobs. In some USA schools there is a disconnect between the marching band and the concert bands. At some of the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts, we invite the marching band to perform in some capacity or another, usually a flash mob outside after the concert. There is also a very popular program of training service dogs at UGA. We had them all come on stage when we performed “The Whistler and His Dog.” I believe we tend to live in a vacuum. We become insulated in our silos of thinking and being. Reach out. Is there an organization or group or individual that you could invite to participate in your concerts in some way?

No. 8

In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music!

Don’t shy away from making a statement. Recently I had an interaction with a student who said, “I don’t want my dissertation to be a political statement.” Why not? In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music! Why not provoke? Why not challenge? Why not engage in difficult discussions? HWE has addressed climate change, racial injustice, gun violence, mental illness—the list goes on. These concerts have been hugely impactful and successful and students have shared that they need to process some of these things. Why not through music?

These are just some ideas. I hope that they get you thinking creatively about what you can do in your own environment.

We all know what happens to a species that does not adapt to changing environments: they simply go extinct.

The Collaborative Studio: Roles and Expectations

For many classical/new music projects, the recording process is seen as a conclusion—the culmination of hours of rehearsal and preparation. Instead, your time in the studio can be utilized as another collaborative opportunity to further refine a project and prepare the work for a life both within and beyond a performance. On multiple occasions I have entered a studio feeling fully prepared to record the tracks as I had written and known them for months, only to be enlightened to new possibilities and ideas from a producer or engineer. The recording studio is its own creative space that provides a new perspective not only from the process of recording, but also from the team involved in that process. Taking advantage of this unique environment can be liberating and has the potential to elevate a project to another level that may have been previously unknown.

My background as a musician began like it does for many other people: playing in bands with friends. I was a guitarist in a variety of different rock, metal, and hardcore bands as a teenager, and was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to record three albums with one of those bands. It was then that I had my first experience working with an experienced producer. Over the course of those three albums, I absorbed as much knowledge as I could about the studio experience—everything from workflow, expectations on both the performing and producing end, studio techniques, and any secrets of the trade that I could remember. These experiences stuck with me because I enjoyed the process of working in a studio, although at the time I couldn’t imagine that I would do anything other than write and perform the music. Eventually, in college, I began composing concert music, which provided me not only with a new skill set, but a fresh perspective on music entirely. The communal aspect of music-making disappeared as I continued to compose, but I was suddenly involved in all determinant aspects of how a piece would sound and be performed. These varying experiences would eventually coalesce to inform my role as a producer, a new step in my development as a musician.

The definition of a producer can vary from person to person and for each project, but there is a certain foundational mission that you can expect to be a constant. Producers help artists achieve their vision for their work. They guide the way and keep artists on track and productive while also offering outside opinions—sometimes even providing creative input. While all producers have their own strengths and tendencies that define their production style, a critical attribute of their job is the ability to decenter themselves and put artists first in their decision making.

Andrew Rodriguez in the studio

This decentralization of personal artistry can be difficult, but it has personally transformed my creative process into a much more collaborative effort. When I first began playing music, it was a way to spend time with friends and share something together. Becoming a composer changed all of that, as the creation process became solitary. The primary aspect of producing that drew me in was the ability to collaborate again, yet this time in a supporting role rather than as the central creator. Working as a producer taught me to trust in the people I was collaborating with. This practice bled over into my compositional process and has given me a new sense of comfort in communicating and workshopping ideas with my performers. Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

In a modern studio session there are three primary roles: the performer, the engineer(s), and the producer. In a best-case scenario, these roles are fulfilled by different people. It has become the norm, however, for one person to embody two of these roles. Often you will find that an engineer will also serve as a producer. This is a stereotypical assumption by the general public, but in the modern age it is not entirely out of line. I can recall my first experience in a professional recording studio and being confused about who the producer was because I was unaware that having a separate engineer was an option. In some cases, performers may even opt to produce the project they are performing in.

One reason, outside of financial limitations, that the producer for a project may also serve as the engineer or even a performer is that an effective producer often has a wealth of experience as an engineer and/or a performer. These varying experiences and skill sets contribute to the producer’s impact in the studio. Having been involved in projects where I wielded dual roles (engineer/producer or performer/producer) I can say that it is not easy. Although there are overlapping skills, producing requires the ability to move between perspectives continuously. Performers and engineers have crucial jobs to execute that rely on focus and detail-oriented technical skills. A producer, on the other hand, is constantly switching between focusing on these details and recognizing how the pieces fit into the larger picture of the project. A trusting relationship with a producer can alleviate the pressure of having to focus on all aspects of the process.

Throughout the remainder of this series I will offer up some suggestions on how to be an effective producer and collaborator in the studio for those who may be new to the studio process. I will also be detailing the ways in which my formal music training has informed my production style for non-classical music, as well as how my non-classical background has informed my production of classical music. Working in a studio environment has been one of the most beneficial experiences in my musical development, and I want to encourage musicians to take full advantage of the possibilities of a truly collaborative studio environment.