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Leonard Bernstein’s “The Joy of Music”

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

“Leonard Bernstein at 100” is a two-year worldwide celebration of the life and career of the composer, with more than 2,500 events on six continents. There are many possible descriptors for Bernstein, including musician, educator, author, cultural ambassador, conductor and humanitarian. In Bernstein’s wide-ranging career, he found time not only to educate the public through television broadcasts of the programs “Omnibus” and the “Young People’s Concerts,” but also through books, such as The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Findings and The Unanswered Question.

As part of this major celebration, it seems pertinent to revisit some of Bernstein’s works, beginning with The Joy of Music (Amadeus Press, 2004). The first half of the book includes a series of imaginary conversations among characters including Younger Brother, Lyric Poet, Bernstein himself, Broadway Producer and Professional Manager, addressing topics of “Why Beethoven?”, “What Do You Mean, Meaning?”, “Whatever Happened to that Great American Symphony?”, and “Why don’t You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?”.

Bernstein’s many different roles in life led him to come to a wide variety of revelations about music. His background as a music educator informed his thoughts about music history. These include the ideas that, “All music must begin in the theater, historically speaking. … Music first arises attached to words and ideas. There is no folk music, to my knowledge, that is abstract. It is music for working to, or for dancing to, or for singing words to. It is always about something” (44). Music originated as folk music for various functions in people’s lives, including praying, life cycle events including weddings, other celebratory events, for healing, and for working.

The development of music included operas growing from small to large, and church motets becoming cantatas and large requiems. “Now musical idioms have become familiar; and the procedures of Western music are enough alike so that the music can be separated from the words or the ideas or the concepts – that is, from the theater- and can exist for the audience in its own right” (45). Now, we have different forms of music: not only operas by Mozart, but also symphonies, and not only Passions by Bach, but also his preludes and fugues. Certain types of music developed into others. Bernstein called the church, “the greatest theater of them all” (44), concluding that, “in short, the audience had grown up with the music in the theater, and had reached the point where they could relate to the music without the theater” (45). In other words, the churchgoing audience itself developed from a group that expected music to include lyrics, to one that also became interested in and receptive to instrumental music outside of houses of worship.

This brief overview of folk and church music is only a taste of the topics Bernstein included in The Joy of Music, some of which are discussed here. 

Tune in next time for a comparison of the music of George Gershwin and Bernstein.

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Music’s Healing Power

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, Vijay Gupta, spoke about “The Power of Music to Heal” at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, Ill., on Feb. 27. The free, sold-out talk was sponsored by ARTSpeaks, a grassroots group focused on arts advocacy in Naperville. It began with Bach solo music, unaccompanied, and Gupta joked with the audience that, that was what they had signed up for.

Gupta made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic as a child, appeared on Oprah’s talk show when he was 8 years old, and toured as a soloist internationally, including in Israel and Germany.

He took the SATs when he was 12, and began college when he was only 13 years old. He graduated from Marist College, “fell in love with cell biology,” and working in a lab at Harvard, studying Alzheimer’s, discovered his fellow researchers “were bigger music nuts than I was.”

However much science appealed to him on a certain level, and how little he wanted to disappoint his family members, Gupta heeded the advice from a colleague that, “You need to do what makes you leap out of bed in the morning.”

He earned a violin performance Master’s degree from Yale, and in 2007 at 19 years old, auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The conductor at the time, Esa-Pekka Salonen, awarded Gupta a position with the internationally-renowned orchestra. Gupta’s father moved to L.A. with him, as the condition upon which the gifted musician could accept his job offer.

Gupta eventually became the violin teacher of Nathaniel Ayers, a former Juilliard student with a severe mental illness who ended up homeless in Los Angeles. Gupta visited Skid Row, an area of downtown Los Angeles with one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States, of between 5,000 and 8,000 individuals. This visit led him to wonder, “How many more Nathaniels were out there? It was in meeting Nathaniel that I began to understand that it was about more than playing live music for audiences in a concert hall.”

Gupta started the program, “Street Symphony,” as a 2011 TED Senior Fellow. Street Symphony is a non-profit group that “places social justice at the heart of music-making. Our community creates opportunities for musical engagement and dialogue between world-class musicians and people disenfranchised by homelessness, incarceration, and poverty in Los Angeles County,” states the Street Symphony web site, http://streetsymphony.org/.

Next during his talk in Naperville, Gupta played a video about the orchestra. The video included an interview with Reena Esmail, a composer-in-residence with the Street Symphony, who said, “Music isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s a lifeline.”

Gupta then played a violin version live of the piece that Esmail composed for Street Symphony, “Take What You Need,” which was originally written for choir and audience in a call-and-response format. “We need to embrace art as a public health tool now,” Gupta said. “In a world where we are human doings, not human beings, the arts give us a place to be.”

The organization has played more than 350 concerts for the Skid Row community, with an average of 125 attendees each.

“How do we show up for this community without our instruments? That’s the challenge,” Gupta said.

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9 reasons why teens should study music

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

In one study, “Music training alters the course of adolescent auditory development,” Northwestern University researchers studied the affects of in-school music training on adolescents, discovering that it improves sound processing and language skills.

Specifically, compared to those who don’t study music, musicians tend to show enhanced:
1. ability to perceive speech in noise,
2. verbal memory,
3. language skills, and
4. reading abilities.

Musicians tend to:
5. respond to sound faster and
6. differentiate speech sounds to a greater extent.

According to the study, adolescents who study music in school
7. maintained higher neural consistency throughout high school and
8. showed the cortical responses of an adult earlier, suggesting that in-school music accelerates neurodevelopment.

9. These changes seem to benefit literacy skills. Although the two groups of high school students in the study both improved in language awareness relative to the general population, the music training group improved more.

Click here for a link to the full study write-up: http://www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu/projects/music/index.php

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Memorizing “Hamilton”

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

I used to dread memorizing songs. Then I realized that I was already doing this—for fun. Listening to pop music on the radio or the recording of “Hamilton” in the car, memorizing was a blast, a way to get to know a piece and a character better, and to take the notes with me when the piece ended. It was only when I sat down with a score and had to learn a piece for a purpose that it became a chore. It was all in the mentality.

To avoid thinking of memorizing as a difficult issue, start out by selecting music that you like and want to listen to repeatedly. This repeated listening will make a huge difference in your ability to take the music with you after the recording ends.

For vocal music, learning music written in a language you already know is going to be easier than translating a piece composed in a strange language. Memorizing a song from the musical “Hamilton,” for instance, is much easier than picking an Italian aria from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” [“The Marriage of Figaro”], if you’re a native English speaker, and your knowledge of Italian is more limited. (If you grew up learning Italian, however, or are immersing yourself in it at a young age, then you’ve got an edge on someone else struggling to pick out the individual words of “Deh vieni non tardar” later in life.)

To learn Angelica’s toast in “Hamilton,” for example, I recommend listening to the soundtrack and singing along with it, rewinding for any words you miss, and getting a copy of the score. It’s also a decent idea to buy or borrow a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book written about creating the musical that has the text of each of the songs. Then, of course, you also need to sing through the piece on your own to make sure you know it, and work to make it your own.

If you have a visual memory, you can also sit down with a score and stare at it, learning it phrase by phrase, as you hear it in your head. Study a phrase; hear it; cover it up with your hand; sing it through in your head. Go on to the next phrase and repeat.

Write down what you know about the character, including her likes and dislikes. In the case of Angelica, write about her emotions about Alexander Hamilton’s marriage to her sister, and the reasons why she introduces Eliza to Hamilton, rather than dating him herself. Rewrite the song in your own words to make it your own.

Part of researching a character is differentiating between her portrayal on the stage and her personal history in real life. What are the differences between the ways that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Angelica for the stage and the ways she acted in real life? She was already married in reality when she met Hamilton, but for dramatic effect, Miranda created a love triangle between her, her sister and Hamilton. Her toast, “Satisfied,” is about a dilemma created for the stage. This type of personal character history is what singers need to research to create an accurate portrayal. Knowing this background is what will give you a leg up in an audition, not to mention making it easier for you to memorize a song.

A song is part of a larger character arc. Learning about the entire arc, including where the character is mentally and emotionally at the beginning and ending of a larger work, will help you learn about the intention behind a song and the purpose of a piece. This will help you portray a character’s actions better, too. Out of authenticity can come hand or arm movements that help an audience understand your character better, movements that will add to a character, instead of seeming extraneous and detracting from your portrayal.

One of the dangers of learning a song by listening to one recording of it is that, that’s the only way you can picture it sung. It becomes harder to make the piece your own this way. At this point, there’s more than one recording of the songs from Hamilton. Although it can be fun to listen to one recording over and over, it will help your interpretation of a piece to sample different ones.

Learning the words to a song is always easier when you know what you’re saying. If you’re singing in a language other than English, get a good dictionary, or become familiar with Google translate or IPA Source, and write down the word-for-word translation underneath the text in a score.
Think about the motivations behind a song. In an opera like Marriage of Figaro, think about the overall character arc and where the piece falls within the opera. What is the character thinking about and feeling when they’re singing? How does each phrase advance the song? Where is a character emotionally before and after they sing a piece?

I often find that singing or playing a piece on the piano helps me think through a problem. Is this true for you, too? Characters may be the same way: as they sing about an issue, the music helps them move from point A to point B. Find ways to connect with them, and you’ll find that memorizing their words will be that much easier. Great composers like Miranda and Mozart have given you material worth performing. It’s your job to bring their phrases off the page and onto the stage. Go forth and memorize.

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10 things to do before lunch to keep your mind active

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

1. Sing. Open your mouth and sing your favorite tune. Then, do it again. Listen to a recording and then sing your song again. Think consciously about how you want to sound. Listen to a different recording, and compare it to the first one and to how you were singing. Keep trying to improve your interpretation and see what you can do.

2. Write. Open up a Word document, a journal, or compose an email to yourself. You might be surprised what you come up with.

3. Watch a free webinar. Google a favorite topic like music and see what you can learn.

4. Move. Go for a walk, inside or outside. Light exercise can change your mindset and give you a different perspective on the day.

5. Go outside, or at a minimum, look through a window. There’s a whole world out there to remember and explore.

6. Make up a rhyme. Pick a word and go on from that. Then create a second one.

7. Read. Pick up a book or magazine, or open a browser and read Google news to expand your thoughts for the day.

8. Meditate. Sit back, close your eyes, and listen to the world around you.

9. Have a conversation. Reach out to a friend, relative or someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile to get their perspective on life, meaning, or current events.

10. Laugh. Google your favorite comic (Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling and John Oliver are three of my favorites) and start your day off with some humor.

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Classical Singer magazine article

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Happy New Year! Hope that it’s peaceful and musical.

Check-out the first part of my new article here and more on Classical Singer magazine’s web site: “In 2004, the Royal Opera House made headlines by dropping the dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt from the cast of Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos because she couldn’t fit into the little black dress assigned as her costume for the production.” (Paywall)

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5 reasons to practice

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

I’ve found that one of the most difficult aspects of continuing to improve as a musician is that, once you reach a goal, complete a performance, compete in a contest, your motivation dries up. Here are some reasons for you to keep moving along the path to improvement and to nailing your next goal, even if you haven’t figured out what it is yet:

1. Routine, routine, routine. It’s part of your life. Making music makes your day better. If you keep it in your life in between performances, you’ll feel better.

2. Surprise, surprise! Performance opportunities can come out of nowhere. Your parent’s friend, who happens to be a musician, is visiting and wants to hear you. Your music teacher wants to show off her best students for a visiting teacher on short notice. You have a rare opportunity, and if you’ve kept up your skills, you’re ready for it. If not, then, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

3. When you show up for people, they show up for you. You want to present your best musical self at each of your lessons. It might be easy to forget this since you see them every week, but your private teacher’s opinion of you matters. If you want them to recommend you for a summer program, a master class, an ensemble they’ve recently heard about, then you benefit by playing/singing your best each week. This way, you’re more likely to get more (and better) opportunities.

4. The same holds true for any ensemble you sing or play in. Conductors can tell whether or not you’ve been practicing in between rehearsals and for chair placements. If you play well each week, rather than only bringing an apple for the teacher on the first day, then you might get opportunities otherwise invisible to the naked eye (i.e. playing/singing in select ensembles, and better audition times for advanced groups). Not to mention that continued practicing makes it easier to succeed when those special opportunities show up.

5. Oh, the places we’ll go…when we have a little extra time. The things we’ll discover when we’re not under pressure. You gain that extra finesse when you play/sing more. You can choose your own repertoire to explore. The pieces you heard when you were a kid that inspired you to become a musician? You can finally dig them out. The extra songs you’ve been meaning to learn that always fall by the wayside when an audition rears its ugly head? You have time, yay! You’re always saying you want to do a duet or trio with friends, and never have time? That time has just arrived! Use the blank space on your calendar to remind yourself why you became a musician, and what continues to make it fun! This “extra” time is yours for the taking…pretend that Facebook and other “social” networks don’t exist for a day or two, and remind yourself what it’s like to make music in person with other musicians.

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7 Pointers for Performance Anxiety

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

Performance anxiety is somewhat common. Here are some pointers for dealing with this aspect of being a musician:

1. Practice as if you were performing, including starting each piece the best way possible several times in a row.

2. Practice with relaxed concentration. Figure out where you tense up when you perform, and address it when you rehearse. Practice in front of a mirror, and notice whether your shoulders rise. If you’re singing, and you can see your bottom row of teeth, practice squatting and keeping your back straight while singing, to build up back muscles and rid your tongue of tension. Drop your jaw while rubbing the area in front of your ears and sighing on an “ah” to release tension there.

3. To perform at your best, it helps to focus on one element at a time, such as keeping the musical line flowing, or imagining singing each syllable in front of the previous one.

4. If singing, think about the meaning of the text. Speak the text in advance and notice which syllables and words you emphasize, and replicate this as much as possible.

5. Before you begin, mentally rehearse performing a piece with correct rhythms, contrasting dynamics, accents, staccato or legato where indicated.

6. If possible, get at least one positive person in your life to come to your show.

7. Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed. They want to be elevated and transported to the world you’re creating with your music.