Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why I Advocate for the Arts

By Audrey J. Szychulski, Executive Director

The small girl sat at the front of her section strumming her instrument with wild childish pleasure.  A bright smile shown on her face for all the world to see.  She was filled with joy from the wonders of her precious cello.

The seasons changed and the girl grew older.  She moved onto a larger more advanced orchestra with many others much older than she.  The girl now took her seat in the back of the section.  She was scared, nervous, and anxious all at once.  Overwhelming piece after overwhelming piece sat upon her stand, each of these more difficult than any she had ever played before.  But she was determined to be able to perform them all with a minimal amount of mistakes… no one’s perfect…. The pleasure of the lush, full sound of her instrument was all the reward she needed.

Years passed and the girl aged.  One bright day the blonde, still petite teenager walked into the rehearsal room; a room, like many, where she had spent thousands of hours. She took her seat now at the front of the section, a seat to be proud of, and felt a great deal of accomplishment. Since she had first sat down behind a cello, she had been through thousands of hours of lessons, rehearsals for orchestras, for trios, for quartets, with choruses, with bands, etc., concerts too numerous to count, music theory and history classes galore, learning and teaching at music camps, and had toured dozens of states and countries.  She sat there as her slender, nimble fingers glided up and down the neck of her cello and she let that bright childish smile of hers cross her face.

I hardly have the chance to play anymore.  As an Undergraduate, I went to college to be a music educator.  I wanted to give every child the chance to have the same wonderful experiences that I have had and continue to have from a life devoted to the arts.  For the about 9 years during and after college, I was mainly a self-employed musician and a private lesson instructor.  I was blessed to have students who overflowed with talent, delight, and excitement.  They understood that music was not just notes, cognitive and mechanical. Music is the joy, the pleasure, and the self-satisfaction that rewards the aesthetic and artistic soul.  My students understood that it is also about the bonds it creates between people and how it brings us closer as human beings.  I was an individual who for many years was privileged to see my students one on one on a weekly basis.  My students ranged in ages from 3 to 70.  We started by sharing music but we shared lives…  I was their confidant for their secrets, their support for aging, their sharer of new experiences, joy, grief, births, deaths, first loves, crisis, the challenging what do I do when I grow up, and just plain life and they were my greatest joys and hardships on a daily basis.  They made me a better person; they made me love music and life even more because of what they each gave to me as individuals.

I originally became an arts administrator by accident.  There was an opening with a small professional orchestra for a Manager of Education, Community Partnerships, and Operations and someone else decided to send in my information.  Oddly, they hired me.  And even more oddly when my boss announced that he was leaving for a larger orchestra they decided I should be in charge.  When I first walked into the rehearsal room of that bigger orchestra I was scared, nervous, and anxious… but I was also determined.  There were ups and downs, there was more schooling by choice (an Arts Administration Masters), there was life, economy, change, challenges, and moves to other symphonies, bigger symphonies, and to new states… What my students taught me was that I do a job not for me; I do a job so that I can give others what music gave me.  As the Executive Director of a Philharmonic, I now work everyday to give that to an entire community.

I work to serve the community, to reach new audiences, to serve the underprivileged, to educate, to help heighten an art form, to bring joy and excitement, and above all to spread bright childish smiles…

I advocate for the arts for many reasons. Yes, I know that the non-profit arts industry generates $166.2 billion annually in economic activity and I don’t understand why business minded people don’t take notice to the fifth largest industry in the United States and one that employs twice as many people as the American auto industry… and I tell politicians this often and loudly.... but I do not advocate because of those who choose to not understand. I advocate because I share a bond with the 5.7 million people who work in the arts and who, I am positive, have devoted their lives to the arts for many of the reasons I have. We share many of the same life experiences, we live and love with few boundaries, we do this for others, and we cannot imagine any other way that we would want to spend our lives. Our bank accounts will never be large, but our lives are rich and full every day.

Please, in a time where arts funding is being cut left and right, please, tell many why you advocate for the arts. -

Please help!

By Ken Johnston, Concertmaster

On a different note...
   Being a musician, I’m allowed to tell you this, and maybe you already guessed it- artists in general are terrible at the business of life. I wish I were different, but I’ve come to accept it. I’ll submit everything I know to the IRS this year as always, and keep my fingers crossed that Turbo Tax got it all right. My checking account remains more or less balanced, I’ve finally managed to stay on top of a schedule that is not in the least structured, I do make oil changes on time, and this might be the limit to my pragmatism. (Or maturity, if you must...) I will never manage to get to bed at any reasonable hour, I still find my keys in the front door where I left them the night before, and once, after puzzling over why a credit card company didn’t credit a payment I’d made, I found a soggy envelope in the driver’s side door of my car. Months earlier, I had stuck a check in it, took it to send in the mail, and promptly forgot all about it. 
   I’m used to seeing this in many of my colleagues. It comes from some sort of inability to think logistically through life. One of the greatest violin teachers in the world appeared in his conservatory to teach, and a few minutes later emerged downstairs at the front desk, looking abashed. He had forgotten the room number of his own studio. I remember a great player who was on the phone in the hallway of my school. This was back when phones actually had cords on them, and as he spoke, someone walking behind him said hello. He twisted his body to respond, and then someone else walked by. He turned and twisted, saying hi to all who passed, and then panicked, realizing that the cord was wrapped umpteen times around his own torso. He yelped, fought the thing, and finally fell on his rear end, bringing the entire cord out of the phone. I know great musicians who have finally figured out what “autofill” is on a computer, others who had to be told that the tires on their cars don’t last forever, and ALL of us, in our early days of freelancing and driving from town to town, remember the feeling of agony that crept through us when we realized that we had double booked a gig! In fact, this is all part of our history. It was said about Mozart that you could steal his wallet anytime- he’d never find out. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert; all seemed to suffer from the same “life” affliction. Even Leonard Bernstein dug a few holes for himself. He managed to do incredible things at 5:00 in the morning, mainly because they needed to be done by 9:00 and he hadn’t gotten around to them before then.
  Obviously there is a pattern here. Strangely enough, however, musicians are working very hard while their heads are in the clouds. My friends and I come to Erie from several cities to perform. If I’m in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Cleveland, I can share stories of the Avalon, Molly Brannigans, Pufferbellies, the Warner, etc... One of the tragedies of being a classical musician lies in the fear that we are distant characters in tuxes and gowns, floating in and out of a town speaking an old dead language. (The “old” part has some truth to it. I have spent all of my life, almost 24/7, with one piece of technology that hasn’t changed much in 400 years- a violin.) None of us in performing have chosen this field for the wealth. What we do has required, in most cases, two degrees in music, a lifetime of lessons, and practice every day. More important than these are two more things that musicians share. First, this is the only thing that we’ve ever wanted to do! Second, we know that the thing we do is significant. I remember being very young, gripping the bed at night listening to the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony, Scheherazade, Mozart piano concerti, Sibelius symphonies,Tosca, etc.... (I can vividly remember repertoire that my parents have probably forgotten that they ever played for me on record.) When I was a kid, these were the most thrilling things in the world. I have gotten to know a bit more music as an adult, but I still feel the same about them. Next year will be the fifth time that I’ve performed the Pathetique, but I’m still getting to know it, and when I perform it, what I want is for people to hear it the way I do.
 Lately, of course, all of us tired of hearing of economic issues. We aren’t all that sympathetic, and this of course is because all of us are in the same mess together! With this mind, however, I’d like to ask your help. Speaking about the National Endowment for the Arts is like speaking about someone very sick and on life support. We wonder when it’s time will come. I learned recently three things.....
1. that the federal government spends $1.4 billion every year on the arts. I was surprised to hear however that arts   organizations, through taxes, give back $12.6 billion. Even the dismal business side of my brain can see that this is a good investment. 
2.     The National Endowment for the Arts awards grants to a state on condition that the state give money as well.
3.    In partnership with the NEA, state arts agencies awarded 24,000 grants to 18,000 organizations, schools, and artists in more than 5,100 communities across the United States.
So, my point.....
Urge Members of Congress to Support the NEA
Tell Them the Arts Mean Jobs!
Every time I walk onstage, I can recognize many of you. It is an unfortunate thing about the ritual of a classical music concert that seems to make for a wall between performer and audience. Please know that as performers, we are in fact playing for you, not just ourselves, and I’d be grateful if you had a moment to help by writing a message of support.
Who to Contact

pastedGraphic.pdfSenator Bob Casey (D-PA) 
pastedGraphic_1.pdfSenator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA) 
pastedGraphic_2.pdfRepresentative Mike Kelly (R-PA 3rd) 
How to Make Contact
The quickest and recommended way to contact is through the Americans for the Arts website.  
Please use this link to send your message electronically:
Messages from this site will be sent to all three of the elected officials above.  After your message is sent you will also be given the opportunity to invite others to send a message also.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Brahms, the beard, no socks, etc...

By Ken Johnston, Concertmaster

I just read the wikipedia entry on the life and work of Johannes Brahms. A good part of me wishes that I hadn’t. I’d already done a good bit of looking into his life, and although to my knowledge everything on wikipedia here is “correct”, I’m still a little scared of the internet when it comes to this stuff. I recently performed Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in Cleveland, and when I looked around online to see what had been written about this piece, I found one site after another that described the Clarinet Quintet primarily in one word: “autumnal”. (I’m wondering who started using that one.) But, a sometime classroom teacher of music history, I might find it fishy if an entire class of kids submitted papers with this term as a chief descriptor. So, I’m thinking that when it comes to history online, people get to copy off of anyone they please, and this is too bad because occasionally, the good information that might actually be there is bound to look cheap. 
  In any event, rather than tell you specifically about the Brahms’ Requiem and our upcoming performance of it, I’d be happier speaking in more general terms about Brahms himself. Here’s the usual question- Who from history would you like to have a drink with? For musicians, Brahms might be somewhere on that list. Why? Well, in early childhood, all of us once tugged at long beards. A stout older guy with a long beard is invariably harmless. Plus, Brahms, as Wikipedia also acknowledges, was renowned for not wearing socks. Someone of my generation would of course remember Miami Vice, but there’s no comparison here. Don Johnson with a beard would never quite make it. Besides, Brahms wasn’t always a stout older guy, you know. Here is a photo of him in reckless youth, in a blog which even remarks on his good looks.....
We have a soft spot for those who have offered so much to the world, but don’t seem to have the confidence to match. If you read anything at all on Brahms, you’ll see that he threw out a good deal of what he wrote. Perpetually insecure, he seemed pained to show anyone what he’d done at all. Oddly, the more insecure he got, the better he wrote. It’s a weird phenomenon; we picture artists simply expressing what they feel at any given time, but in fact, their life circumstances match in no way what they create. Mozart writes a cute but nonetheless good minuet as his wife gives birth in the next room. Beethoven writes some astoundingly peaceful stuff as he lies in pain from every corner of his body. Tchaikovsky writes his darkest music when he is actually happy. (The unhappy Tchaikovsky wrote nothing at all.) And Brahms, forever paranoid that he would never live up to the high public esteem in which Robert Schumann held him, shows us his most beautiful things only after he rescues them from the fire. 
The story of the rescuing-from-the-fire is one that actually wakes people up in a music history class. The cool part is that I make none of this up. Brahms was in the habit of writing music and giving it to someone for a final check-up before submitting it for publication. Who? A woman, of course! (This one was a world-class musician herself.) Who else can really affirm for a guy anything he’s done? This particular woman is notable in her own right, but Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms were great friends even before her husband died. He remained a bachelor, and she never remarried, but they remained intensely close until her death in 1896, which makes for a passionate relationship of sorts lasting half of an entire century. So....did they or didn’t they?? I’m sorry to say that we don’t really know. You’re free to scour anything you find. In fact, we have many of the letters they wrote to each other. I’ve seen everything on this in any book available, since I’m the type to spend free time doing just this sort of thing, but if you can find me a real answer, I’d be impressed. In any event, it seems to have been the lovely Clara Schumann who convinced Brahms that he was a worthy soul, and when I get the chance to have a drink, or three, with a historical figure, I intend to do the same for him, even if it means less coming from another guy.
A couple of final notes before the Brahms Requiem, which I hope you mean to hear....
First, a story. As an undergrad in music school, I was rehearsing one of Brahms’ violin sonatas with a pianist and saw stars out of the corners of my eyes. I shrugged it off, and then during the performance, the same thing happened. I didn’t think of it till years later, when I performed another of his sonatas and the same thing happened. Strange, yes? It’s difficult to breathe comfortably when you play Brahms. His phrases tend to overlap, and they are LONG. Subconsciously, I breathe with phrases as much as I can when I perform, but with Brahms, I just end up hyperventilating a bit. 
Second, to translate for wikipedia, because it can’t seem to be bothered to help out-
  Brahms is described as being one of the final great classicists, as well as a contrapuntal master above all else. A classicist is someone who creates things within any kind of existing logic, rather than pushing boundaries and making a new set of rules. Brahms never stopped writing in the old ways. I have to remind myself that during his life, Wagner had already gone off on his many tangents. Tchaikovsky and many others were doing their “new” things. Tchaikovsky never liked Brahms’ music- (even a genius can be an idiot.) There is one anecdotal story of the two meeting awkwardly at a rehearsal. Both were shy. Brahms the classicist means that he wrote, for the most part, in the ways of the early 19th century. He wrote universal music, not “german” music. Also, when in doubt regarding what counterpoint is- picture a singer singing a melody. There is no real counterpoint here. Now picture two singers singing together. Automatic counterpoint of one kind or another.  Whenever we speak of musical lines and how they fit together, be it two singers, or three violinists, or a whole orchestra, we are speaking of counterpoint. When you hear the Requiem, listen closely to the final few minutes of the 6th movement. This is a gorgeous few minutes of music, but if someone were to ask you to hum it, you might wonder why it doesn’t feel the same when you try. This moment is beautiful because of all of the lines intertwining, not because of a single melody that you could hum. This kind of thing is what Brahms was really good at doing, and this is what we call a “contrapuntal master”.
Brahms is said to have been a creature of habit. At the end of his life, he supposedly drank two beers every day, smoked two cigars, and took a daily walk. I’ve been to Detmold, Germany, where he spent some time. I can also give an oblique thanks to the german people for keeping his favorite bar alive! He succumbed to cancer, but died comfortably as these things go. It is said that after losing a lot of weight, (his suspenders barely worked), he simply took a nap and never woke up.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Quick December Stories from Concertmaster Ken Johnston

Two quick stories for those of you who might be showing up for the Handel Messiah next week. (In fact, I know only these two stories of Handel.) He almost died in a sword fight. Better still, his life was saved by a button on his coat; one of those big metal ones that were the thing to wear in 1700. The other guy evidently got a good thrust in, and the button blocked the sword, chipping the sword tip and also leaving a nice welt on Handel's chest. The other story isn't really any less glamorous. He went flat broke at least twice in his life, yet died a very rich man. (Evidently, one of the"flat broke" parts was due to his own stupidity.) In particular, I always have the sword story in hand for my students. It's one of those examples of music as language, how music written by a nutcase three hundred years ago can be so different for modern ears as to feel stolid and dull. Our ears are acclimated to different things now, so when people like Bach and Handel, (who were born in the same year), come to mind, we have a mental picture of a wig, certainly not a sword fight. Throw away the wig and what we're used to hearing, and this music can sound quite different.

Actually, a third story...

The last time I performed part of the Messiah was, of course, a year ago in December. This included a string quartet and choir on the westside of Cleveland. I was playing viola this time, and I was squashed in between my cellist friend and the organ. We were in the middle of one of the recits, when a solo singer gets to glide up and down and everywhere for a while on her own, and a low instrument, like a cello, plays a drone note. This means that next to me, my buddy was holding a single note, with big slow bows, for maybe thirty seconds. I was thankful for the break, since reading notes on a viola is different than on a violin, and while one is second nature to me, the other really isn't. So, I was peering forward, getting ready for whatever came next, and I reached up with my elbow at just the time the tip of his bow came close to me. He almost dropped the bow when it hit me, and the middle of his long, smooth note turned into something of a mine field. It stuttered, cracked, and eventually he gained control of it. It was like watching someone in the few seconds that they wobble on a bike right before falling off. oooops! Two weeks later, we were playing another quartet gig, and we were sitting differently than for the Messiah. He commented that at least this time, we were further away, and so his bow was safe from me. After a comment like this, it was bound to happen! We collided again, and almost the identical story occurs. I remember holding my breath, trying not to laugh, until the thing ended. Right there onstage, my eyes tear up, and as people are approaching to tell us that they enjoyed it, he and I are both wiping our cheeks and thanking them. I know....really professional! The real lesson here is that I'm bad luck on a viola. I've done worse on a violin, come to think of it. In the fifth grade, during a concert, I skewered my standpartner in the ear with my bow. In my defense, I think every kid has done this maybe once or twice. It didn't help that I was in love with her at the time though. I've been ashamed ever since.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From the Concertmaster

I never know quite how to answer when people ask which Dvorak symphony I'm about to play. I usually try to mumble the number and look at my feet. I might have just left another town where I played Mozart 39, listened to Beethoven 3 in the car, and by the time I get to Erie, the remembering-numbers thing isn't working anymore. To make things better, Dvorak thought that his first symphony was lost, so there is for example what he called his "fifth symphony", which was the first to be published, thus making it his "first symphony", according to his publisher. This same piece, however, happens to be the  sixth that he had written, so obviously we have the Dvorak symphony #5/1/6, and this is what we will be performing in November. (We're calling it Dvorak's sixth.) If they can remember which number to reference, musicians would simply call it Dvorak 6, in the same way we would speak about Tchaik 5 or Schumann 2, since somehow "Dvorak's sixth" feels a little formal.

Speaking of that particular concert, we have the Beethoven Violin Concerto on the way, and therefore, of course, some Beethoven stories. There are QUITE a few, by the way. Dvorak and his publisher could never agree on numbers, but Beethoven outright stole from his publishers. (He wasn't good with numbers either.) There were times when Beethoven published the same piece with multiple publishing houses. In one instance, the story goes, he had offered the same manuscript to several publishers in London. One of the publishers didn't offer him the correct postage to send the finished product, so he sent the piece only to some others. When the first finally sent money, received the music, and then discovered that the piece had already been printed by their rival down the street, they were a They sent Beethoven an angry letter, and in typical Beethoven style, he sent an even scarier taunt right back. (He was probably in the middle of throwing a frying pan at one of his maids. He tended to do that...and no, he didn't even drink.)

I mentioned that he wasn't good at numbers. People like to speak about the math/music connection in the brain. I've never quite believed this, and if you saw my elementary school math grades, you'd be skeptical as well. There is, somewhere, a blank page inside one of Beethoven's manuscripts, and on it is a lot of scribble obviously meant by him to calculate how much rent he owed. He didn't know how to multiply, so instead, he has added all of these figures together, and still ends up wrong. To more important issues though...the violin concerto. I've never played it, since this is one of the big scary ones that very few can play in tune. If I'm playing Brahms or Tchaikovsky, nobody would know how out of tune I might be, (I'm a little sarcastic, but there's some truth here), but in the Beethoven, you'll hear everything! When I was in music school, we each had a playing test at the end of the year, called a jury, which meant that we were to perform for the faculty. To add to the terror, we had to play all the simple patterns: scales, arpeggios, etc... Very few sound good on these, and in the words of my friend, it always felt like we were standing naked under bright lights onstage. The Beethoven concerto feels a little like this, so please believe me when I say that a soloist sounding decent on this piece is REALLY good! Besides, it's a great thing to hear. Beethoven wrote it at a time when he was making lines as long as possible with as little harmony as he could get away with. That's a story for another time, but on YouTube is a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter playing one of the cadenzas. It's insanely good playing, (and in tune), and she's still as beautiful as she is here, so while it might take a little while to get to know the piece, you can at least look at her while you do.