A Whole New Viola!

Since I started preparing for my junior recital a few months ago, I have become increasingly interested in contemporary music for viola. It’s an awkward instrument, or at least that’s what society says. You’re far more likely to recognize the name of a famous violinist or cellist than a famous violist. They aren’t considered solo instruments, and I think in many ways that has shaped the way I view myself as a musician. I have always seen myself as a supporting musician rather than at the forefront of a performance, but that’s not a very helpful thing to envision for myself. Why shouldn’t I be a soloist? Why shouldn’t I be a leader? At the very least, why shouldn’t I strive for that level?

I enjoy contemporary music– I feel like it represents my beliefs about music and I believe in its future. It gives me the opportunity to play music by people who are living now. It gives me the opportunity to commission pieces from composers.  It’s different and weird, but to me, those are good things.

In my quest for contemporary viola music, I came across Nadia Sirota. She’s a violist who commissions new works, plays on recordings for people like Sufjan Stevens, and works as a Creative Partner for the New York Philharmonic. For the past few years, Nadia has hosted a few podcasts based on contemporary music. Finding her website was a revelation for me. A female violist, not violinist, making waves in the music world in more than just one way. She has a solid performing and recording career, but she is also active in the arts leadership community. If she can do it, I can too.

What’s most attractive to me about this solo-viola-contemporary-world is that I might be able to achieve a sense of individuality with my career. In music school they tend to produce the same type of players with the same values and skills. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you’re playing the same pieces of classical music over and over again. Contemporary music puts value in classical skills as well as more out-of-the-box skills, and there’s more room to do things that have never been done before. There’s more room for inclusivity: of players, composers, and audiences. Not to say that we shouldn’t preserve the music of the past, but it’s about time that we pay attention to the music that is happening now.

Mary Kathryn Nagle on Native Theater in the 21st Century

Tonight I attended the 4th Annual Berkhofer Lecture hosted by the Department of Native American Studies. This year’s lecturer is a citizen of the Cherokee nation, a lawyer and playwright named Mary Kathryn Nagle. Throughout the lecture, Nagle referred to various pieces of legislation that have affected Native American tribes through the years, particularly Native women and children who are victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Native American women are the most at-risk group of women to be affected by domestic violence and abuse, and nearly 97% experience this abuse at the hands of non-Native people.

Native Americans did not have any jurisdiction over non-Native people who committed crimes on tribal land because of a 1978 Supreme Court case “Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe.”  To this day many Native American tribes are still affected by this law, but the 2013 amendments to the Violence Against Women Act slightly expanded their rights on tribal sovereignty, and if the current reauthorization of VAWA goes through in the Senate, the situation will continue to improve.

Mary Kathryn Nagle has written about a half dozen plays about Native American stories from a range of different tribes. She is honest in admitting that many American theatre companies do not want to take on Native plays. Many theatre administrators believe that the audience for such plays would be too small, and they have to “think of the box office.” However, Nagle has been able to get her plays picked up by various companies in Oregon and New York and a few places in between, and she insists that the box office does not suffer in the slightest! She emphasizes the idea that by inflitrating the arts and media with stories of Native people, non-Native people will gain an understanding and perspective of a group that has been oppressed for far too long.

When asked why she has specifically chosen the medium of live theatre in which to tell these stories, her answer is compelling. “By having a Native person stand in front of you and tell their story, you are far more likely to understand their point of view.” She is right. Live performance is a medium unlike any other form of art. Reading something on a page or watching something on a screen does not command you to give the subject your undivided attention. Her argument is that by creating cultural visibility for Native Americans in American society, the visibility will in turn affect legislation and the general public’s treatment of Native American people. I was incredibly inspired by her speech, and it gave me confirmation and hope that the arts truly can make a difference in people’s lives.

Performance Anxiety

Recital weekend is HERE. Oh my god.

If I think about it too hard my body starts to feel like a live wire.

For the past month I have been playing for roughly 4-6 hours a day in order to prepare for a 40-minute solo recital. One piece I have been working on for 6 months, another for 2 months, and another for just 10 days!

I don’t really know how many people are going to show up– I’m not expecting too many. My divorced parents are coming to Michigan from two different states. My 7-year-old private student and her mom are coming. My girlfriend is coming. Maybe my housemates, too? Although, can’t be too sure about that at the moment.

Not gonna lie, I have really high expectations for myself. The recital is short and the music isn’t very challenging. I specifically chose pieces that I thought would reflect me as a person and musician. I have a very specific idea of what this recital is going to look like in my head, and I’m afraid that the end result will not reach my expectations. I am constantly reminding myself that this is supposed to be fun and not stressful.

Well, it certainly has been stressful. Consistently stressful, actually! Sometimes I am honestly in disbelief that I chose a performance career path, because performing can be a freakin’ nightmare sometimes. Anxious thoughts take over my brain whenever I think about performing, and sometimes they have a debilitating effect on my physical and emotional endurance while I’m playing. It sucks.

But lately I have had some affirming moments in the practice room and in lessons with my teacher because I have been practicing so hard. I can see my hard work pay off on a day-to-day basis and it’s really fun. I find that the more I practice, the more I feel connected to my instrument and confident about myself. I have to hold on to these thoughts as I perform on Sunday night. I have to practice hard for the next three days to make sure I am prepared.

And after this is all over? For all of April I’m gonna dedicate my time to learning Irish fiddle tunes because I’m heading to Ireland in May. I can’t explain how ready I am to relax. March has been an exhausting month. But I can’t think about that yet! Recital first! Wish me luck– I’ll report back next week.

CAO in the Studio!

Every Thursday night, me and about 20 other musicians come together and improvise, or as my teacher says, compose in real time. In this space, we feed off of each others feelings, voices, and sounds. We are called the Creative Arts Orchestra. If you are familiar with my column, you know that I have written about the group a few times before. It has been one of the most valuable parts of my music education since coming to school here.

CAO usually only gets one chance to perform per semester, but this last week we were lucky enough to perform in a new space! Wednesday night we were featured on WCBN, the University of Michigan student-run community freeform radio station in Ann Arbor. A few of us packed ourselves into a small studio and played a 9-11pm set on the local music show. It was definitely one of the more memorable experiences that I have had playing with CAO, and in my opinion, it featured some of our best improvisation work ever! I’m curious to know what listeners thought as they tuned into 88.3 FM on Wednesday night and heard our wackiness. Being in the studio was a real treat, especially because they had really nice microphones that picked up every detail of our playing. And it was uploaded on to Soundcloud so we can listen to the wackiness forever! I have included the links below: the first improvisation was around 42 minutes, and the second was around 19 minutes. My personal favorite is the second set. Have a listen, and support local musicians on WCBN every Wednesday from 9-11pm!

First set: https://soundcloud.com/wcbnlms/2019-03-20-creative-arts-orchestra-pt-1

Second set: https://soundcloud.com/wcbnlms/2019-03-20-creative-arts-orchestra-pt-2


Reinventing the Orchestra

This past week, the Philharmonia Orchestra played at Hill Auditorium under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen was recently featured in the New York Times discussing the future of classical music, and I thought it was a funny coincidence that he came to Ann Arbor just four days after the article was published. The article, written by Anthony Tommasini, is titled “Esa-Pekka Salonen Says Tweak the Orchestra, Don’t Blow it Up” and I wanted to reflect on it for my post today. I will link the article here, but from what I understand, Salonen suggests that instead of destroying the whole institution of classical music, it’s in each orchestra’s best interest to understand the community they are serving and tailor their concert programming accordingly.

Disclaimer: “Revolutionizing” the classical music world is a complicated topic for me. My identity is so intertwined with this institution that I think about it constantly, but it has been a challenging process and not all of my opinions are fully formed.  

Since entering music school for a classical performance degree, my relationship with classical music has changed. Music classes and rehearsals consume my school (and weekend) days, so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. There is a very strong element of conservatism in classical music, which to be fair, makes sense. The process of learning an instrument has been passed down by teachers for hundreds of years, and much of the music that we play is at least 100 years old. For the most part, the purpose of learning any classical art form is to preserve a part of history. It truly is a special, beautiful thing. I take a lot of pride in being able to perform historic pieces of music. Art should most definitely be preserved.

But there are traditions in classical music that should not be preserved. The institution, like many others, values the work and talents of white men at the expense of other groups. Classical music is rooted in classicism, elitism, racism and sexism. Performance spaces are often inaccessible for people because of the high cost of concert tickets and exclusivity in its “elite” audiences. The standards of perfection expected of audience members and musicians alike creates a toxic environment that inevitably harms the art itself.

What Salonen suggests, to program music that fits the audience/community, is valid and good advice. But I feel like a lot of symphonies are already doing that. In an effort to be innovative, orchestras will typically program two to three pieces written by dead white male major composer (Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, etc.) and for some diversity, they’ll include a filler piece by a 21st-century composer that’s under ten minutes long. And most of the time, that 21st-century composer will still be a white man. I am not saying that white men cannot or have not written great music, but I’m saying that it’s time for other artistic voices to be heard. It is immensely important to give contemporary music the acknowledgement that it deserves– there is so much important music that is being written right now and it needs to be heard. Why can’t contemporary music be in the forefront of the classical music industry? We can still play music from the past, but why not let Beethoven be the filler piece while the rest of the concert can be carried by new music composed by people of diverse identities?

I want to see what would happen if we “blew up” the orchestra. To reset this institution whose entire historical foundation is rooted in oppression, I believe that it’s our only choice.


Reflecting on Musical Women on International Women’s Day

In honor of International Women’s Day, I am reflecting on the women in my life who have guided me through musical journey.

First and foremost is my mother. Whenever I tell people that I am a musician, they’ll say something like “I used to play piano but I hated practicing and quit. I wish I had kept going!” To that I say, “me too!” I wanted to quit basically every single day when I was in middle school. If it wasn’t for my mom forcing me to practice, I definitely would have quit. She drove me to all of my lessons and rehearsals, paid for instruments, summer camps, and private lessons, and she had to endure ten years of hearing me squeak away on violin and viola. My dad was also instrumental (ha) in my musical development, but it’s International Women’s Day so the man can wait.

Two out of the three main viola teachers in my life have been women. Thanks to them, I have glowing examples of what it looks like to be a professional woman in music. Through their guidance and cautionary tales, I have become a strong musician and an ally to other women and girls in the industry. With their help I have been able to heal the injuries I sustained from playing. I have always had the freedom to show emotion during my lessons, and even cry if I had to. Learning to play an instrument puts you in a vulnerable position and some days you can’t just leave your feelings at the door. I am forever grateful for their patience and skill.

My best friends are female musicians. We didn’t all become friends in the same place– some at music camp, some at music school, some in high school. We’re spread out across the globe. Each one has played music with me. Each one has provided me with moral support after a bad audition or in the midst of an identity crisis. Every day I feel like I’m talking with one of them about the screwed-up climate of the music world: what we want to change and how we’ll change it. We also help eachother forget about music when things get too tough; remind ourselves of the value in living a balanced life. They inspire me to be a better musician and person, and I wouldn’t be myself without them.