Category Archives: Music History

History Preserved: Guarneri, Amati & Stradivarius Violins

This weekend I had the great opportunity to travel to New York City and spend time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was especially excited about their wing dedicated to musical instruments with some incredible stringed instruments on display, including original violins by makers Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri as well as other 16th century violins from the Cremona school in Italy.

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“The Antonius” Violin by Antonio Stradivari,1711, during Stradivari’s “Golden Period.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY)

Evolution of the Modern Violin

The Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families actively produced instruments between 1550 and 1744 in the same region of Cremona, during which time the modern violin as we know it came to life. While string instruments have evolved over time with various body shapes and string counts, very few changes have been made to the violin that was standardized during this time as a four-stringed instrument with its signature shape and size, strung in perfect fifths (E, A, D, G).

You may notice slight differences in design between the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius violins, but they are clearly instruments in same family with the same tuning, string count, and contours. These violins seem so familiar because they are; almost all violins today are made with Stradivari, Amati, or Guarneri body designs.

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1731 “Baltic” Violin by Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY)

For example, if you take a look at all the violins we carry at Kennedy Violins, you’ll notice that they are all made with the same standard measurements (body length, string length, string height, fingerboard length and so on—take a look at our violin measurements chart) used by luthiers today. Most are made and shaped with an original Stradivari design.

Preserved Historical Violin

As you may know, some instruments preserved from these hundreds of years ago are still in use. Most notably, there are 650 Stradivari violins still in existence, ranging in value from between hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars. In 2010 a Stradivari violin sold at auction for $3,600,000, a record high.

Updating to a Modern Setup

Even though these 16th, 17th, and 18th century violins are in tact and in use, the ones in performance today have actually been modernized with fittings that make them playable by today’s standards.

I found the diagram below so fascinating. From it we learn that a Stradivarius violin in performance today has been OPTIMIZED to compete with modern violins to catch up with the evolution of the violin that has taken place over the centuries. These evolutionary changes in setup have made the violin more easily playable with more projection and better sound quality.

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What’s changed? Here’s a visual comparing Baroque violin setup to modern violin setup.

What’s New?

Updates from the Baroque setup to the modern setup include

  • a new neck that angles back
  • a longer fingerboard that allows performance in higher octaves
  • a modern bridge
  • new strings, often synthetic with metal winding instead of strings made from animal gut
  • a modern tailpiece
  • a longer bass bar in the interior of the violin

What’s the Same?

What remains “untouched”? Essentially, the body of the violin (back, face, and ribs) and the scroll/pegbox.  This may not sound like much, but it’s the body of the instrument that most greatly affects the sound. The quality of wood and the precise gradations in the carving and thickness of the plates make these instruments sound like they do.

In this sense, the restored Baroque instruments retain their authenticity because no one can replicate the carving of the plates done by the original masters themselves.

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Violin by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1569, one of the “earliest surviving violins.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY)

The Legacy Lives On

If you get a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art or other museums throughout the world with string instruments on display, definitely take the opportunity to see these preserved treasures. Better yet, you can hear a Stradivarius performed live (or on record) by modern violinists including Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman.

To see and hear these pieces of history alive is truly a privilege as we remember the master makers who brought to life music as we know it today. Here’s to the continuation of their legacy through the practice and performance of music forever!

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How to Keep Classical Music Alive

How can we keep classical music from ending up six feet under? (Photo by Ben Salter)

There are plenty of saucy articles floating around questioning classical music as a dying art, such as these treasures:

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Each of these articles brings up some very good points about the past, present, and future of classical music. So is it dying? And if there is any truth to the conclusion that classical music is a dying art, is there anything we can do to stop it?

HOW TO KEEP CLASSICAL MUSIC ALIVE

I don’t know what all the statistics are — ticket sales, CD and digital music sales, concert attendance, radio traffic — but I do know that the best way to

  • keep a plant alive is to water it.
  • lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.
  • accomplish something is the work hard.
  • make friends is to meet people.
  • learn an instrument is to practice.

So when you apply this principle of ACTION in the quest to keep classical music alive, the trick to making a difference in the music community is to do something about it.

INSTRUMENTS IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE

At Kennedy Violins we are really serious about keeping classical music alive. That’s why our biggest priority is to get quality instruments into the hands of anyone and everyone who has any desire to play. We try our best to provide instruments, rentals, and lessons at the most affordable price for the quality because we want to give EVERYONE a chance to make music without unnecessary costs as a stumbling block.

I’ll use a gardening analogy. If you want to grow a garden full of produce or flowers or fruits, the first step is to plant seeds. Likewise, if you want beautiful music to be produced in your community, the first step is to get instruments into the hands of the people, especially the children.

Not to say that children are the only one who can play, but the majority of professional musicians who have found success started playing at a young age.

THE THREE ACTIONS THAT PERPETUATE MUSIC

Orchestra concert attendance, ticket sales, and symphony bankruptcies are only a portion of the picture. In the grand scheme, the continuation of music as a lasting tradition is based on three foundational elements:

  1. EducationIn order for music to be produced, musicians must be taught music performance, theory, and history.
  2. Performance In order for music to be produced, musicians must perform what they have learned.
  3. ListeningIn order for music to be appreciated, it must be listened to by people who care.

With that said, there are SO many ways to promote the ongoing exercise of these three foundational elements. I would encourage everyone to take part in these exercises by learning, playing, and listening to music. It’s all about INVOLVEMENT and faith in the lasting value of classical music as an important tradition worth perpetuating. May we each do all we can to support this worthwhile and enriching art.

Suzuki vs. Traditional Method

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“Music is the language of the heart without words.” -Dr Suzuki

There is so much confusion surrounding what the difference is between traditional and Suzuki method violin lessons. What’s the difference? Is one better? How do you choose?

I, personally, started on the Suzuki method at the age of three, went through two years of Suzuki pedagogy training,  and currently have a studio of thirty students that I teach the Suzuki method to. I believe in the Suzuki method and really enjoy using it with my students.

Dr. Suzuki was born in Japan and was a firm believer that every child can learn to play music. He was a strong advocate for creating an “environment” where music was fostered and encouraged in every child. The basis of his method was on linguistics and how a child learns spoken language. Just as we do not expect a child to read before they can talk, we should not expect a child to read music before they can play music.

With that idea, a Suzuki teacher will teach at least the first year of violin without having the child read music. The focus is on posture, tone and developing a love of music. This means the child will attend concerts, play with other violinists, perform as often as possible and be immersed in the violin world.  It is for these reasons that the Suzuki method is often the preferred method for teaching younger children ages 2-5. Children at these ages are not trying to keep up with any kind of school orchestra, are often not reading yet and their ear is still developing making them prime candidates for learning music by ear.

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Dr. Suzuki leading a group of children playing violins

Traditional violin lesson teachers will often be leery to start a child before 1st grade and often would prefer to wait until 4th or 5th grade. This is sad because many years have been lost in which the child could have been exposed to music and learning to appreciate it. The other major benefit to starting young is learning to perform at a young age which makes it less intimidating as you get older.

The positive side of waiting and doing traditional method is that the child can be self-propelled and often needs very little help from the parent other then encouragement. The Suzuki method is very parent involved. Especially when you start from a young age. Dr. Suzuki always encouraged the parent to learn along side the child. He felt like this was a positive role modal for the child and then the parent could assist in practice. Ask any teacher; too often a parent ruins a week of practice by giving a student wrong advice.

You can start the Suzuki method at a later age. I have started many students age ten to twelve on the Suzuki method. They do really well. The benefit of only focusing on posture, tone and love of music really brings out the artistry in playing the instrument. Making it way less about the technical side of reading music and more about the artistic side of making music.

To be honest, I do start my students with reading music by Book 2 of the Suzuki method. My reason for this is that my own musical growth was stunted by leaving out the reading of music for so long. By the time most of my students reach Book 2 though, they have been playing for three years. This is plenty of time to focus on posture and tone development without the stress of trying to read music at the same time. I do not however, use the Suzuki book to read music. I supplement with fiddle tunes, duets, scales, etudes and rhythm training.  If a teacher claims to be a Suzuki teacher and just teaches from the books they are missing the whole point of Dr. Suzuki’s method. His method was not about the songs he wrote or pieces in the books. His method is about believing in the ability of every child to play music, to foster the love of music in every child and to start them off in music the best way possible.

 To get a visual idea of what Dr. Suzuki was like and what his method brought about, watch this YouTube channel by clicking here. Crazy what love, devotion and belief in a child’s ability can bring about.

Making It Your Own: The Interpretation of Music

As a musical artist, you have the right to perform music however you please! (Photo by Ivan McClellan)
As a musical artist, you have the right to perform music however you please! (Photo by Ivan McClellan)

Here in our new Kennedy Violins location, we’ve opened a new studio for private lessons with local teachers in the area. Students are coming in with sheets of music and saying, in one way or another, “Show me how to play this.”

As the student learns the piece, it begins to take form, becoming something completely unique. But how do you take a sheet of music and bring it to life with your own interpretation?

A “RIGHT” WAY?
If you’ve ever studied the Bach Cello Suites in depth, you probably noticed that there are quite a few opinions and options as far as how to play them stylistically. I’ve sat in masterclasses observing arguments over bowing patterns and embellishments and whether or not playing a single eighth note as a harmonic is kosher.

So who’s right when it comes to all this?

  • bowings
  • fingerings
  • tempo
  • articulation
  • embellishments
  • phrasing

Answer: Everyone.

BUT! At the same time, why would we have opinions in the first place?

CREATIVE LICENSE
As a musician and performer, you are an artist. You are someone who takes a medium (your instrument) and creates something with it. The act of creation is a power and a right you have claim to as an individual artist. You have a style of your own that no one can replicate. With that said, what about influences like . . .

HISTORICAL CONTEXT
When I’m teaching students, I often tell them to look at the dates at the top of the page next to the composer’s name. Then we discuss that musical era and the characteristics of music played at that time.

Maybe you’ve had a talking to about the difference between a Baroque trill and a Classical trill (Baroque starts on the note above the note and trills down while classical starts on the note on the staff and trills up). Maybe you’ve studied music history and various composers and their stylistic characteristics. Are these stylistic prescriptions valid?

Answer: Yes.

As a performer of today playing music written hundreds of years ago, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Your performance becomes a combination of two historical moments: then and now. The composer who wrote the piece couldn’t escape the influence of his or her surroundings hundreds of years ago or a few days ago.

However, you can’t read the composers mind because he’s probably dead or lives far away or something. And you also can’t escape the current influence of the your modern relationship with music, the current techniques you’ve learned, or even the modern materials, design, and sound of your instrument. It is almost impossible to remove yourself from the influences of your historical circumstances or your teacher’s instruction.

As you approach a piece, maybe you’ve reflected on what the composer intended the piece to sound like with specific tempo markings, phrasing, and melodic elements. However, while a piece of Bach is distinctly Baroque (i.e. laden with characteristics of the Baroque era), you are certainly entitled to your own interpretation!

MAKING IT YOUR OWN
Your interpretation of a piece of music might be to

  • play the piece as “historically correct” as possible with absolute dedication to the composer’s markings and style of that time period. For example, with that Bach, you might play with little to no vibrato, those Baroque trills, dynamics as marked and little variation in the tempo.

OR

  • play the piece with a complete modern, post-modern, post-post modern, or twisted interpretation with completely unique tempos, instrumentation, phrasing, etc. You could play a piece of Bach on a synthesizer with each note lasting forty-seven seconds each whilst tap-dancing with a Carmen-Miranda-style fruit hat on your head. Your audience might walk away, bored to tears or totally offended, but you can revel in your own genius.

OR

  • do something in between.

And is any way better than the other way? Not really, no. In the end, you are the artist and the performer who can and will take a piece of music and make it completely your own simply by taking it into your own hands. So enjoy the creative process. That’s what it’s all about!

A Brief History of the Serenade

Photo by Elin B
Photo by Elin B

With Valentine’s Day less than 48 hours away, you might be sweating bullets trying to come up with some way–any way–to impress that special someone.

Well, I’m going let you in on a little secret. There is nothing that wins someone over like MUSIC. Sure, you could always gift your sweetheart a violin. But it’s also prime time for serenading and the singing telegram. And this strange tradition of awkwardly showing up at someone’s door to sing songs (think Christmas carolers) is nothing new. It all began with the serenade.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SERENADE

Going back to prehistoric times, there is evidence that music existed. Like verbal language itself, music is similarly a natural and essential form of communication. The oldest known musical instruments include a collection from China even dating between 6,600 and 7,000 BC. Now those are some serious oldies.

If you think about it, almost any piece of music could be considered a serenade in the sense that all music is intended to be performed for an audience, whether it be a hall of concertgoers or simple an individual.

But when it comes to the traditional serenade, this form developed in Medieval times as a way for an eager gentleman to serenade his lady love of choice. This was typically done in the evening through a window (Romeo-and-Juliet style) with self-accompaniment on a lute or guitar.

These medieval serenades developed into an art form of its own kind. During the Baroque era the serenade evolved into a lyrical piece still sung and played outdoors, but for an an audience rather than a courted lady. By the Classical and Romantic eras the serenade further evolved into a form in concert literature for string ensembles and orchestras, like a light symphonic work with multiple movements and varying tempos, but free of heavy, dramatic orchestration. The serenade kept it’s lyrical, evening-song character.

AND IT’S STILL HAPPENING

Going back to the original serenade with that young man singing at the window, this form of the serenade is still performed today. There is no shortage of young men wooing girls on the guitar. One of my old roommates was even proposed to via song. Singing telegrams, caroling, Italian men singing from gondolas, mariachi band specials, and even Elvis impersonators serenading couples down the aisles of Vegas wedding chapels are today’s popular way to send messages of love.

Now, you can even serenade your loved ones online. For example, my friend Fresh Big Mouf will send his original song, “Secret Crush” to your very own secret crush as a digital message of love. There’s modern serenading at its finest.

Serenade your secret sweetheart with a virtual valentine.
Serenade your secret sweetheart with a virtual valentine. (Photo by Marcello Ambriz)

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So if you really want to win over the one you love, you may find that harmony is the key (signature) to the heart. Ditch the chocolates and warm up your vocal chords because now is the time to confess how you really feel. And while you’re ditching your chocolates, send them to me. I can help you out with that.

Music Theory Basics Part 3: Key Signatures

In the first two parts of Music Theory Basics, we covered a lot of topics.  Today we will only be focusing on one topic: key signatures.  There are, however, several layers to this concept.  I will try an lay it out in a way that makes it a tasty parfait and not an onion.

Let’s start with a little background.

Western music (music originating from western Europe) evolved from ancient Greece.  Back then, music was learned, performed, and passed down by ear.  The Greeks used a system of modes.  Each mode had different “rules” of what the musician would play.  These rules determined, among other things, whether or not a note was sharp or flat.  From the modes developed, what we call, scales.  When music began to be written down, scribes noticed these “rules” for each scale and began to use key signatures to indicate the notes that would be consistently sharp or flat.

With and Without key signature

Key Signature: Generally written immediately after the clef, it is a series of sharp or flat symbols (AKA: accidentals) placed on the staff denoting which notes are consistently played sharp or flat.

key signature

  • Accidentals: Includes, sharp, flat, and natural signs.  Accidentals are used to alter the pitch of a note higher or lower.
  • Sharp: Means higher in pitch.  Notes with the sharp symbol in front of them, or that are indicated as sharp within a key signature, are to be played a half step higher that their natural counterpart.  For instance, an A-sharp is a 1/2 step higher that an a-natural.

sharp

  • Flat: Means lower in pitch.  Notes with the flat symbol in front of them, or that are indicated as flat within a key signature, are to be played a half step lower that their natural counterpart.  For instance, an A-flat is a 1/2 step lower that an A-natural.

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  • Natural: the natural sign cancels any previous accidentals and returns the notes to its unaltered or natural state.

natural

Now, I wish that I could say that once the key signature is set, you don’t have to worrying about it changing.  Key signatures can change often in a piece of music.  Plus, composers often use accidentals in places that they want harmony get interesting.  You will see the symbol directly in front of the note and that accidental applies for the entire measure.

passage

So, now that you understand all the symbols, how do you know what key you are in.  You could just learn by rote.  I like to use the following chart, though.  It is known as the Circle of Fifths.  I’m going to try by best to explain this briefly, but I could get a little long.  If you want to skip the explanation and just take the chart at face value, great.  There’s no quiz on it.  Just trust me it works.

circle of fifths

Want more information? It is called the Circle of Fifths because the key signatures are listed a fifth apart (meaning they are five notes apart including the starting note).  At the top of the circle, we have the key of C, the key of C has no sharp or flats.  It’s all natural.  If you were go up the scale by a fifth from C (C, D, E, F, G-that’s five!) you land on G.  The key of G has 1 sharp.  A fifth above G is D.  The key of D has two sharps and so on and so forth.  The more you advance by fifths, the more sharps you get.  You can see this pattern by going clockwise around the circle of fifths.  To determine a key signature that is full of flats, you must go counter-clockwise and you descend by fifths.  A fifth below C (C, B, A, G, F) is F.  The key of F has one flat.  Likewise, a fifth below F is B-flat.  The key of B-flat has two flats, and so on.

One thing that is tricky, is when you reach the bottom of the circle of fifths.  The flat key signatures and the sharp key signatures run together.  What’s happening there, we call enharmonic tones.

  • Enharmonic tones: They are two notes that are equivalent to each other.  For instance, F-sharp is an enharmonic tone to G-flat. Basically, an individual tone can have multiple names.  Still a little confusing?  Think about playing a piano.  If you start on G-natural, the black key below it is G-flat, but that is also the black key above F which we know as F-sharp.

Enharmonic_F-sharp_G-flat

What that translates to in the circle of fifths is that the key of C-flat major contains the enharmonic tones of a B major scale.

If the Circle of Fifths is not your cup of tea, check out Ricci Adams’ mathematic method.

We’ll stop there for today.  Our basics are quickly are becoming more advanced.  The last installment of Music Theory Basics, will cover intervals, scales, and the function of each note within the scale.

 

Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part II: Classical Music is Relaxing

Below is a continuation of my previous post, Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part I: Classical Music is for Rich People.

Photo by o5com.
Is classical music actually relaxing? (Photo by o5com)

6. Classical music is relaxing.
Sometimes, when I’m washing dishes, I’ll turn on one of three things: talk radio, classical music, pop, or Broadway music. Interestingly enough, while I do find most pieces on the classical music playlist to be calming, I believe that’s a result of the host arranging a playlist that appeals to what a general audience perceives as what classical music should sound like. In other words, the repertoire heard on the radio is vastly different than a professional orchestra’s repertoire for the season.

Beyond what’s played on the radio, there is a world of complex, intense, cacophonous, dramatic, edgy, avant-garde, and even violently animated orchestral music that is by far NOT RELAXING. Works that come to mind include Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Ride of the Valkyries, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

In fact, rather than feeling relaxed when I listen to these pieces, I find myself distracted from the tasks at hand, absorbed by the excitement and motion in these rich compositions. I have trouble treating most of the greatest masterpieces as “background” music that might relax me. These are the pieces that keep me riveted and on the edge of my seat.

7.Only educated intellectuals can understand and enjoy classical music.
There is some truth to this point in the sense that those who have studied music theory, history, form, and performance have a deeper understanding of classical music as a result of increased knowledge about classical compositions. But knowing where a piece was composed, in which key it’s written, from which musical era it originated, which opus number it is, or even who composed it doesn’t necessarily influence how enjoyable a piece may be to an audience member–educated or not.

In fact, sometimes the intense study of music–the probing and picking at it–can take the magic out of it. Beating a beautiful piece of music to death in the practice room can sometimes lead a performer from loving it to hating it in no time. I know plenty of professional performers who loathe and mock pieces like Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah just because they’ve played them too many times and find them boring.

Sometimes it’s those who are not educated in the field of music who have the greatest appreciation for it. To them it is some kind of mysterious magic; how can someone take something as static as a wooden instrument and make it sing and speak in such a moving way?

On that note, educated and studied musical scholars can often be the most critical of listeners, hearing the mistakes in performance and poor composition of harmonically challenged pieces. While being a learned musician may give you a deeper understanding of music, often it is the innocent or even ignorant who understand the true and deeper purpose and meaning of the music.

Composers did not write music for intellectuals only, but for the masses, for all people. Cooks don’t just cook for cooks, but for people to eat who will enjoy it whether or not they know the methods and techniques employed.

8. Listening to classical music will help you fall asleep.
Something that fascinates me is that massage therapists typically don’t use classical music as background music during a massage. Instead, there’s an entire genre of ethereal “massage music”–it’s like there’s a whole industry revolving around this dreamy, synthesized stuff. Okay, this is going to sound snobby, but because I’ve found typical massage music to be almost irritating, I’ve actually brung CDs of my own favorite, calming classical pieces to play that will edify rather than annoy me.

This statement though, that classical music will help you fall asleep, refers back to point number four in my previous post: all classical music sounds the same. I actually think there are very soothing and beautiful compositions and lullabies to which listening to would be far more effective than counting sheep. But it’s inaccurate to assume that all classical music creates this effect.

However, you might have to argue this point with that guy who always snores through every symphony concert you attend.

9. Only people who play classical music actually listen to it.
People who play orchestral instruments and music definitely tend to listen to more classical music than those who do not. Many people who don’t play classical music don’t listen to it because perhaps they have never even been exposed to it.

Exposure to orchestral music, then, is usually all it takes for one to develop an appreciation and love for the music. In my previous point (number eight), I established that one does not need to be trained or educated in the field of music to understand or enjoy it. I have developed a greater respect for people who don’t play classical music who listen to it and attend concerts because I appreciate their devotion and interest.

As a performer, if only players of classical music attended my performance, I would have a very small audience. I am so grateful for those who attend and listen to performances who have no musical background; these are those who are often most edified, impressed, and moved by the truly awesome power of refined music.

10. All classical music originates in Europe.
Most of time time the mention of classical music conjures up images of pink-cheeked men in powdered wigs and coats with shiny buttons. Okay. So it is true that Western classical music originated (note: past tense) in Europe. Western music notation with lines on a staff and notes written with rhythmic symbols were established in Europe in the 16th century.

What is amazing since the industrial and digital revolutions is that Western classical music began to spread across the globe not only on record, but in theory and compositional textbooks. In other words, the use of the musical staff and Western music theory became worldwide standards.

BUT what we can’t overlook is the entire genre of Middle Eastern and Eastern classical music. This is rich stuff! Eastern classical music is notated differently and composed with unique instrumentation. I can’t even begin to list the names of Asian and Middle Eastern instruments.

Beyond Eastern music, there is classical music composed by international composers from every nation. I encourage you to seek out and listen to a wider variety of classical music; there is just too much culture to be absorbed and too little time!

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So while I do believe that to enjoy classical music a basic understanding of it can improve both an appreciation and sense of fulfillment when listening or playing it, I also believe that an extensive knowledge is definitely not necessary. Classical music is for everyone.

So if you’re one who always opts for pop over classical, try giving the classics a chance! I GUARANTEE you’ll find something you’ll love.

It’s just that good.

Stereotypes & Misconceptions Part I: Classical Music is for Rich People

What kinds of people listen to classical music?  Photo by Caitlin Doe.
What kinds of people listen to classical music?
Photo by Caitlin Doe

Some strange kind of stigma has become associated with classical music, and I want to get to the bottom of it. It isn’t unusual for stereotypes about classical music and its listeners or performers to exist; after all, there are similarly plenty of opinions out there about Twilight-loving teenagers, Bronies, Trekkies, band geeks, and people who wear sandals with socks.

It’s nothing new, then, to assume that all classical music and its listeners can be stuffed snugly in a box tied up with music-note-printed ribbon and mailed to Austria. But for a brief moment, I’d like to debunk some myths about classical music.

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1. Classical music is for rich people.
I can see how this myth originated; in the 18th century the wealthy nobility were the patrons and commissioners of classical music, opera, and live performance. Watch a Jane Austen movie and you’ll see how playing the piano forte was as a mark of refinement.

Today, however, I will take this opportunity to inform you of some heartbreaking, but fairly well-known news: a great number of artists and musicians live in poverty. Even centuries ago they did. Music majors are among the ranks of graduates who receive the lowest starting salaries out of college. While the society at large believes in the great value of music and the arts, this is not proportionally reflected in the funding of the arts.

There definitely still remains the association of classical music with those who drink tea with their pinkies raised, or the nobility of the old aristocratic patrons. But, with the introduction of mass media and the internet, classical music is now accessible to listeners from all backgrounds around the globe.

2. Anyone who takes music lessons comes from a wealthy background.
Where people invest their money is a reflection of their values. Yes, weekly private lessons can add up as a monthly or annual expense, so are often quickly crossed off the budget when things are tight. And with the recent recession, as many families simplify their spending, it’s understandable that lessons often fall by the wayside.

However, there are so many affordable and even free opportunities to provide both children and adults with exposure to classical music. Many public schools offer orchestra programs with instruments students can use for free. Quality violins purchased online are more affordable and accessible than ever. Community centers and programs often sponsor free concerts, workshops, and even individual music lessons and scholarships for interested students.

In essence, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Be sure to take advantages of the wonderful resources that are available!

3. Music without lyrics is boring.
Yes, one might assume that because a piece of music isn’t accompanied by dramatic lyrics, fog machines, neon costumes, plastic surgery, and loud flashing lights that it must be boring. But classical musicians will tell you just the opposite.

While pop and folk music are often written with the same three chords and simple rhymes, I would almost argue that because pop music is “boring” in it’s composition, it’s easier to listen to. (Note: I am in no way arguing that classical music is “better” than pop music; the two simply serve different purposes and audiences.)

Unlike most pop music, classical music is composed with the richest of harmonic variations, the widest array of instrumentation, multiple melodies in one piece, and an incredible range of motion, tempos, and dynamics within a single composition. I believe that this is the reason why classical concert-goers sit silently while viewing and listening to a live orchestra; there are so many nuances in the music requiring focus and concentration to absorb. This is the opposite of boring–in fact, it’s both captivating and stimulating for the mind!

4. All classical music sounds the same.
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. [Utterly ridiculous? Anyone?] To say that all classical music sounds the same is like saying all Asians look the same. There is so much variation and personality provided by individuals within a culture and pieces within a genre of music. Listen to Stravinky’s Rite of Spring and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending to hear a vast contrast.

5. Classical music is great for atmospheric background music.
I recently had a horribly memorable experience sitting through extremely loud, staticy rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being forced down my ear canal while waiting on hold. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think classical music sounds its best from the receiver of a telephone.

As far as other background music goes, I absolutely 100% support the use of live classical music performed incidentally at receptions, parties, and other gatherings. Likewise, some classical music is wonderfully appropriate to play over the speakers in a store or restaurant. But again, I reference point number four. With the wrong set list, you may have guests or customers nodding off in their seats or running for the doors as Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance by Samuel Barber blares down from above.

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To be continued!

Classical Music Genres of the Common Practice Period

Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Playing music is more than just playing notes on a page. Simply playing the notes would be like saying words without expression, asking questions without the rising inflection at the end of the phrase, writing without punctuation, eating food without salt or spices, seeing the world without color . . . you get it. Creating beautiful music happens when you add flavorful touches and techniques:

  • vibrato
  • dynamics
  • articulation
  • style

That last one is hard to define for students and sometimes hard to teach. But when you understand the following classical music genres, you’ll know how to better shape a piece to represent the period in which it was written.

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THE COMMON PRACTICE PERIOD

The phrase “classical music” usually refers to any music played by an orchestra or ensembles including stringed instruments, piano, or vocals that feel . . . old. Music written by dead people who wore powdered wigs. Music directed by some guy in coat tails holding a stick.

Much of the classical music you hear today on classical music radio, Pandora stations, and Spotify playlists comes from the Common Practice Period. The term “Common Practice Period” refers to the three centuries between roughly 1600 and 1910 when the techniques, ideas, and written language of Western European music as we know it today were standardized and systemized.

THE THREE CLASSICAL GENRES OF THE COMMON PRACTICE PERIOD

You’ve probably also heard the terms “Romantic” and “Baroque” and “Classical” as sub-genres of general classical music. Well, that’s confusing. How can there be a classical music sub-genre of classical music?

Understanding the genres of classical music becomes increasingly important as beginning students advance into more mature performers. To bring some light to the subject, let’s break it down. From “oldest to youngest,” here are the three subsets of classical music.

1. BAROQUE (1600-1750)

  • Definitive Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Other Baroque Composers: Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell
  • Defining Characteristics: Continuous bass line (basso continuo), use of harpsichord and pipe organ, introduction of written works such as cantatas and oratorios, smaller ensembles with limited or no wind and percussion parts
  • Performance Style: added embellishments and tremelos, little or no vibrato, trills starting on the higher note

2. CLASSICAL (1750-1820)

  • Definitive Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Other Classical Composers: Christoph Willibald Gluck, Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethover (early works)
  • Defining Characteristics: short melodies and phrases, obvious cadences, larger orchestra than Baroque, music in sonata form, eventual disuse of harpsichord and introduction of piano, quartet music
  • Performance Style: light and clear articulation, trills starting on the lower not, modest use of vibrato, more dynamic contrast

3. ROMANTIC (1820-1910)

  • Definitive Composers: Ludwig Van Beethoven (transitional later works), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms
  • Other Romantic Composers: Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Antonin Dvorak, Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff
  • Defining Characteristics: reflective of human emotion and expression; a response to social and political movements; rich and song-like melodies; more modulation and key changes; larger orchestra with more winds, brass, and percussion; programme music and symphonic poems;
  • Performance Style:  dramatic, expressive, wide vibrato, dramatic and high-contrast articulation and dynamics, rich texture, virtuosic playing, lyrical and song-like phrasing

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Next time you pull out your sheet music, take a look at the composer’s name and their birth and death dates (usually included after the name). Identify the musical period from which your piece was performed, then try adding the stylistic characteristics relevant to that genre of music. Perhaps you’ll find yourself developing a greater appreciation and understanding of the historical value of music as well as the brilliance of these amazing composers. Enjoy taking your performance to a whole new level of musical maturity!

Pit Orchestra: The Land Down Under

Pit orchestras are part of a long-standing tradition in theater and opera.

One of my most memorable experiences in high school was my very first time playing in a pit orchestra. I remember it very clearly: the musical was called The Nifty Fifties, all the girls on stage wore poodle skirts, and there was a song called “The Blob” about the 1958 sci-fi horror film with choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. To top it off, I had a huge crush on one of the saxophone players who taught me how to solve the Rubix Cube between songs. What a riot.

In the following years I found myself in the pit again, playing in Fiddler on the Roof and 42nd Street. Little did I know, what I thought was a simple extracurricular activity was just a glimpse of future opportunities playing in pit orchestras as a freelancing musician.

The dark, crowded pit of musicians sitting elbow to elbow below the stage became even more familiar through college. Orchestra students were required to be a part of the annual opera productions, and I became acquainted with La Boheme, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Book of Gold. Then I was thrilled to land a gig playing of more than 60 performances of Forever Plaid and My Fair Lady with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Not to mention Christmastime productions of The Nutcracker, a piece orchestral players become very familiar with over the years.

It had never occurred to me that there are musicians who can make a living solely as pit orchestra players, especially in major metropolitan areas like New York or London where musicals are constantly running. While it may seem archaic to have live orchestral accompaniment in modern theater, pit orchestras are definitely still alive and essential in musical productions.

Sure, performing in a pit orchestra may not seem very glamorous. After all, you play the same music night after night, which (I admit), can get a little dull after a while. That and no one even sees you! Maybe (just maybe) they’ll see the top of your head and the conductor’s baton occasionally poking up from the depths. But then, on the other hand, you can enjoy being a part of the long-standing tradition of live music in theater.

If you’re looking for gigs, there are actually many opportunities to be a part of pit orchestras—especially at Christmastime when those Nutcracker performances are in full swing in community theaters across the nation. Consider how many musicals and operas are performed every day of the year in New York City alone! There really is a steady demand for skilled musicians in the theater community.

So if you’re set on becoming a glamorous on-stage soloist or orchestral player with the stage lights warming your skin, consider the pit orchestra as a humble, but unique and rewarding opportunity to contribute to the arts community. Who knows—maybe you’ll even learn to solve the Rubix Cube while you’re at it. The possibilities are endless.