In Praise of the Adult Amateur and Non-Pro Musician

I attended the first-ever Chicago Clarinet Symposium this weekend at Northeastern Illinois University. It was two days filled with everything clarinet: master classes, concerts, vendor displays and sample instruments. I enjoyed my time there. I took lots of notes, discovered new-to-me repertoire, heard amazing performances, and met some nice (and talented) people. I even met my bass clarinet hero. We were all kindred spirits in our love of the clarinet.

One thing that became clear to me, however, was that I was not part of the target audience for this event. I am not a college student, professor, or full-time professional performer. I have a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition, a Master of Library Science, and work as a cataloger for a public library.

Me performing "The Old Grumbly Bear" with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

Me performing “The Old Grumbly Bear” with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

I do cobble together some of my income from music. I teach private clarinet and piano lessons to middle and high school students, sell my compositions and arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, and sometimes get paid for performing. I consider myself a semi-pro musician in that I do make money from music, but it is not my primary income (and as of yet, does not come remotely close to matching my primary income).

I felt some inkling of not-really-belonging as I registered, as the master class performance options were nearly full already. Once I arrived and saw my fellow conference-goers, it seemed even more clear that I was an outlier. On the second day, I appeared to have completely flummoxed one woman I was chatting with in that I didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet (and even that seemed to stump her when I said my degree was in theory/comp, not clarinet performance). She seemed surprised that I’d even heard about the event, much less had the interest and inclination to attend.

I do want to reiterate here that I did enjoy myself. I may not have been part of the target audience, but I still gained immense value by attending. Besides, I’m actually kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. I also know that a couple of my peers would have liked to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them this time.

But this did get me to thinking about so many of us musicians who are my true kindred spirits: those of us who took the practical route after getting our BMus degrees (or didn’t pursue music degrees at all); those of us who earn most or all of our income through non-music careers; those of us who still want to participate even if we’re not the ones taking center stage at a prestigious concert.

Those of us who still want to learn. We are in community bands, teach private lessons, have jam sessions with friends, play the local pit orchestras, and participate in any number of other musical activities. We’re out there.Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. Click To Tweet

Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. In fact, some of us finally have the resources (and some time) to put toward that goal. I have felt a pull toward taking lessons again myself, though finding a college-level teacher when you’re not in college anymore is a challenge. It’s hard to know where to start, how to discover who is willing to take on a middle-aged clarinetist who isn’t working toward landing a symphony job, how to work lessons and practice time into an already-crammed adult life schedule. And I don’t even have kids that I’m shuttling back and forth to their own numerous activities.

(Of course, this also leads to examination of the past, and how much time I could/should have spent practicing and networking, but didn’t. For a variety of reasons. But that subject will have to wait for another post.)

What, then, can we do to encourage and include the adult amateur and semi-pro? I believe there are large numbers of us. Do we start our own conference? Do we speak up to event organizers to see if they will include some tidbits for us? Some sports have pro-am events—can we incorporate this idea into our music world? Or do things like this already exist? I’m not sure, and I’m just starting to really mull all this over.

Knock on Wood rehearsal, January 2017

Knock on Wood clarinet choir rehearsal, January 2017

I am the founder and organizer of Knock on Wood, a clarinet choir based in McHenry County, Illinois. We are a community group of over twenty musicians. We range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and range in clarinets from the itty-bitty E-flat sopranino to the ginormous contrabass. We play in this group because we love the clarinet family and the gorgeous music that can happen when you get large numbers of us together. We want to sound good. We want to improve ourselves. We want to simply enjoy playing our favorite instrument with fellow clarinerds. (And we’d love for you to stop by our Facebook page to see what we’re about).

We’ve discussed having our own Clarinet Day, with a few master classes and a mass choir that invites those who don’t regularly play with us to join us for the day. While yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate, I want to make sure we still give opportunities to our adult players.

This is still in the very early planning stages. We have things to consider since we’re not affiliated with a university, namely the budget. We also have a challenge that we’re “way out” in McHenry County and not closer to the city of Chicago (that said, I’ll mention again that we have over twenty clarinetists on our roster, with more who would join us if their schedules could fit with ours. People are out here and interested). I do feel that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, though, and we can make it happen.We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included. Click To Tweet

But until we get this event off the ground, I want to encourage those who are beyond the status of amateur to remember that we’re here. We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included.

 

Discussion by Yves Gourhand

I don’t know how it is where you live, but here in the Chicago suburbs the weather has been glorious for February!

Mod architecture by geralt.

Mod architecture by geralt.
CC0 Public Domain

We’ve been able to take walks outside, open the windows a bit, and our moods are certainly lifted. I know this warm spell won’t last, and we’ll probably get a March (or April) snow like usual, but I’m happy to get a bit of spring.

In deciding what piece to talk about next, I realized I have not talked about any clarinet quartets (for shame! And I’m a clarinet player!). While there are a ton of quartets out there, I chose “Discussion” by Yves Gourhand. It seems to be somewhat obscure. All the more reason to talk about it, right? At this point, I don’t actually remember how I came across this piece– whether I heard about it somewhere or I just found it while falling through the black hole of YouTube. Regardless, it captivated me.

Part of the problem with obscurity, though, is that I haven’t had much luck finding info on Gourhand. He has a few published pieces out there, all focused on clarinet (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my world!). I’d like to know more about him, and whether he working on any other pieces.

Immediately there’s a quiet intensity to the piece. The first clarinet plays a syncopated rhythm over the bass clarinet, who holds the pitch an octave lower. The rhythmic pitch rises a step, the bass still holding the original pitch, but has a quick change at the end. The intro continues similarly, with the first clarinet continuing to rise in the scale and the other clarinets joining in over time. The bass line also grows more active throughout, and the groups grows louder as they move into the first theme.

At 0:20, we begin Theme A. The first clarinet leads, with the second and third playing pulsing chords and the bass undulating underneath it all. I’m struck with imagery of a cityscape for this theme. It’s very much hustle and bustle, but a beauty within it all. At 0:27, the second and third, then the bass, have a bit of an echo to take us to the next measure. We repeat the first phrase, but listen to how the accompaniment changes at 0:33– the middle clarinets have a short moving line instead of the pulsing chords. The melody changes slightly for the last bit of this second time through.

To bridge the gap to the next theme, the bass clarinet gets a fun run up and down the instrument (0:36). Theme B is full of flying fingers, jazzy sounds, and syncopation. It’s a short theme, but energetic and wild. Of course, as a bass player, I love the great solo lick at 0:55 (It’s fun to play, too!). From there, we return to Theme A in its entirety (0:57), with just a couple of small alterations in the middle clarinets’ accompaniment and a slightly different ending.

We get a new theme at 1:16. The running line moves between the second and third, the bass has a different bass line, and the first has a more of an accompaniment role. The first does take over again around 1:24, then the group plays a syncopated line upward to finish the phrase. There are some octave jumps in the bass to bring us back to Theme A. It’s largely the same, but again he changes some of the middle parts ever so slightly. I, admittedly, did not realize this before when I rehearsed and performed it. However, I was playing the bass part, which doesn’t change during the bulk of Theme A. It’s mainly the ending that changes for that part. This time around, the bass line leads up to a held chord from everyone, signaling something different is going to happen.

We’re into a new theme at 1:54– the “slow” theme (Theme D). As with other pieces I’ve discussed, like “Overture to Candide” and “Festive Overture”, things only feel slow because Gourhand is using quarter and eighth notes, instead of the sixteenth notes and syncopation that we’ve heard until now. The underlying pulse is the same, the note lengths are just different proportions. It’s common, but very effective, composition technique. Theme D begins with the second, third, and bass clarinets in octaves. The next iteration of the theme is in the first part, with the second providing harmonic material (2:12).

At 2:29, the first continues the melody, the third takes over the harmony that the second had been playing, and the second brings in new harmonic material. Finally, Gourhand’s not quite done Theme D yet, and we get one more round of it at 2:46. The third gets to shine on the melody this time, the second goes back to her original harmonic line, and the first takes over what the second was just playing. The bass brings in a new line as foundation for the rest. At the end of the theme, there’s a slight ritard, a chord held for just a moment, and a run back itno Theme A.

We’re treated to a near note-for-note recap of Themes A-B-A. As Gourhand likes to do, he slightly changes the middle parts’ accompaniment rhythms. But largely we have the same as what we heard at the beginning (including that great little bass lick!). However, the last time through the A melody, he writes a call and answer throughout the group, rising up intensely through chromatic chords until the final chord in the soprano clarinets and a run down the bass line.

I hope you’ve enjoyed “Discussion” as much as I have. See you next time, and remember– think spring!
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Praeludium by Armas Järnefelt

As it’s winter and there a lot of things happening in the world right now, I decided I wanted to talk about a happy little tune, “Praeludium” by Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt (1869-1958). Järnefelt had a long career as a conductor and composer. He lived in Sweden for about twenty-five years, serving as music director for the Royal Theatre.

Heather. Picture by Snufkin on Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain license)

Heather. Picture by Snufkin on Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain license)

He bounced back and forth from Sweden to Finland, eventually having a “home base” in Stockholm but leading the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) during World War II. The Soviet Union had declared war on Finland in 1939, resulting in the then-current conductor of the HPO fleeing the country and man who originally would have been successor refusing to come back from the United States. Järnefelt lead the orchestra in forty concerts, including one to celebrate the cease fire.

“Praeludium”  was originally composed for small orchestra in 1895 and is one of his best-known pieces. A lot of people have never heard of Järnefelt, however, partly thanks to his sister marrying a big-name Finnish composer of the time and friend of Järnefelt– Jean Sibelius.

 

We begin with a bouncy, pizzicato string accompaniment that sets the cheerful mood of “Praeludium.” The oboe enters with the melody (Theme A), echoed soon after by the first clarinet at 0:08. The bassoon, second clarinet, and flute have staggered entrances after that. Notice how the melody is fugue-ish — it flits about throughout different instruments, overlapping each other, with some variance here and there as it fits with the other lines. Another interesting tidbit is his overall instrumentation for the woodwinds; full orchestras typically have pairs of woodwinds (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons). In this piece, the only woodwind to have its usual pair is the clarinet; the others are singles.

As the woodwinds flitter along merrily and the strings keep plucking away, Järnefelt decides to add even more layers of melody via the brass starting around 0:23 (two horns and two trumpets pitched in F instead of their usual Bb). There’s a lot going on here! It’s worth listening to this entire opening section a few times to challenge your ear in picking out all the different lines that are happening at once. Some percussion even join in here (triangle, then cymbal).

Despite the euphonic chaos, everyone comes together to close out this section of the piece. The strings are on autopilot and seem like they’ll just take us around to start it all over again, but the woodwinds take over the plucking and change gears (0:42). I love the modulation that happens so quickly there.

The violins bring us a new theme (B), one that’s smoother without as much happening along with it (0:44). There are some held chords, with the clarinets and horns providing a long—short-short rhythm in  the accompaniment. The second violins provide harmony to the moving melodic line. It’s a short theme, though, and some bounciness bubbles up in 0:48 in the melody, echoed by the clarinets, then echoed again by the violins. Other instruments join in a run up to a restatement of Theme B, which turns the melody over to the woodwinds and the moving accompaniment back to the strings. This time, when we get to the bounciness, we only hear the statement by the woodwinds and one echo in the strings before the woodwinds take off into another run that leads to a big, long (for this piece) chord at 1:02. There’s brief cutoff before what sounds like it could be a final cadence, except the strings go right back to their plucky accompaniment that we heard at the beginning. They’re quite determined!

We don’t quite go back to the beginning, though. At 1:08, we hear Theme A, but this time it’s played by several instruments together (instead of fugue-ishly), and most other instruments are doing either the plucky accompaniment or the long—short-short version. The theme ends, exposing a single held note on the horn– a big shift from everything we’ve heard so far. We get a quiet callback to our plucky accompaniment from the strings (1:17). Realizing that the horn is resolute in holding that note, the strings slow down their plucking and lead us into the next section.

Here we experience a big change in mood. We’ve been very cheerful and lively throughout the piece so far; the violin solo that begins at 1:36 is quite different (Theme C). Melancholy. Wistful, perhaps? Beautiful, no matter what other adjectives you use. The accompaniment still has a long—short-short feel to it, but it’s subdued. The horn answers the violin with its own countermelodic line at 1:31; it culminates in a beautiful chord progression from the horn and accompaniment and an emotive octave jump in the solo violin around 1:34.

The oboe takes over Theme C at 1:37. The accompaniment changes to focus on held chords with the second violins and violas singing an upward-moving line. The violin restates the horn’s line we heard a little while ago and extends it down farther. The oboe and horn answer at 1:50, slowing down just a bit before the rest of the strings take over, determined to get us back to our Happy Place (1:56).... before the rest of the strings take over, determined to get us back to our Happy Place Click To Tweet

While the pluckiness and peppy tempo have returned, it takes several seconds for the strings to modulate back into F Major. They do, however, and we find ourselves back to the beginning of the piece, the oboe starting Theme A (2:03) and the layering process all over again. If you hadn’t listened to the opening a few times earlier, here’s another chance to catch some of the melodic lines you may have missed before.

We get Theme A in its entirety. When the melodic lines take a short break, the strings keep plucking away, although this time it’s toward the end of the piece. We get a few measures more of just the accompaniment, which then gives way to a line that walks up through the string section (2:40) and the final, two-note cadence from the entire ensemble.

I hope that “Praeludium” has provided a bit of sunshine to a winter day, and that you’ll join me next time on Tonal Diversions. Thanks for reading!

(Shameless plug: This is another piece I’ve transcribed for clarinet choir. Check it out at this link and support the blog with your purchases at Sheet Music Plus.)

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Old Scottish Melody (Auld Lang Syne) by Charles A. Wiley

I feel like I say this every year, but is it the end of December already? As with any year, 2016 has had ups and downs.

String of festive lights

String of festive lights

I feel I’ve grown musically thanks to some of the opportunities I’ve had, and look forward to continuing on that journey in 2017. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with my music over at Sheet Music Plus and plan on adding several more pieces to my catalog next year. (If you’re a composer or arranger and want to start selling on SMP, I’d be grateful if you used my referral link to sign up). I enjoy playing with several ensembles, and I’m happy to see my Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir grow in membership. I do have things to work on, though, and more regular posting for this blog is one of those things. But at least I’m here now, with one last post of 2016. And what better song to chat about than Auld Lang Syne?

Most of us are familiar with this tune, as it’s played and sung on New Year’s Eve around the world. The lyrics are attributed to Robert Burns, though he said he was simply the first person to write down the old words. (For regular readers of the blog, you’ll remember that we talked about ol’ Robbie before, with the piece Tam O’Shanter). This particular version was arranged by Charles A. Wiley (1925-1992), a prominent band director who later founded TRN Music Publisher, Inc. This is my favorite arrangement of Auld Lang Syne. I think that’s partly because it has a similar feel to Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, which is another favorite of mine.

The piece begins with the melody in the middle to low voices, most notably first trombone and baritone. The accompaniment is understated, with some slow movement here and there throughout the band. At 0:33, as we begin the chorus, there’s a lovely descant line above the melody. The music swells toward the climax of the first section, then fades to a final chord.

The second verse begins with the melody in the upper winds (1:07), bringing out a different tonal quality than we heard at the beginning. The accompaniment starts out similarly understated, with the range extending downward throughout the first several measures of the verse. Around 1:17, however, you start to sense a running line happening in the clarinets. The flutes join that line at 1:25.

As we transition from the verse to the chorus (1:38), there’s a series of “bell tones“ that rise up through the brass and percussion. The band crescendos to a nice, full sound for the chorus. We still have some bell tones, then the brass take over the running line (1:52), albeit more punctuated than what we’d previously heard in the woodwinds. The chorus quiets down a bit as it reaches the end, but not much since it turns around into a crescendo to bring us into the final stretch.

Instead of going into a third verse, Wiley takes us into a repeat of the chorus (2:17). He expands the music in volume and range, pushing in new directions compared to what we’ve heard throughout the piece so far. The first line of the chorus has the melody with powerful chords supporting it; the second line treats us to a forceful horn line running through it (2:26). We also hear percussion that waited to have its say until now (cymbals and timpani). As we reach the last lines of the song, the ensemble quiets down to a peaceful ending.

And so we say goodbye to another year. Whether 2016 was good, bad, or indifferent for you, I wish you all a happy and healthy 2017. Thank you for joining me on this musical journey at Tonal Diversions!

 

Slava! by Leonard Bernstein

With the appearance of “Slava!” on our music stands this semester in community band, I decided now was as good a time as any to chat about this fun piece by Leonard Bernstein. For those of you who have followed the blog since the beginning, you might remember my post from a couple of years ago on Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide.” I’m way past due for talking about another Bernstein piece!

Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich playing cello.

Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich playing cello. Photo by music2020; used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Shostakovich composed “Slava! A Political Overture” to honor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in his first season as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a prominent cellist in addition to a conductor, and he worked with many composers to bring new cello works to the repertoire. This piece for orchestra is titled after Rostropovich’s nickname, “Slava.”

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I’ve played this piece a few times and have listened to it too many times to count. But it’s always been the band version (transcribed by Clare Grundman). I knew it was originally composed for orchestra in honor of Rostropovich, but didn’t think about it too much beyond that. I learned some things while researching this post! For one, the concert band version has a different subtitle: “a concert overture.” It turns out that it’s more than just a simple subtitle change. The original version (which is what I’ll dissect later) has a section in the middle that’s cut for the band version. This section is a vamp that accompanies a pre-recorded tape of parodied political speeches. I had no idea this part existed until now. If you’d like to read some more of the background of the piece, head over to the Kennedy Center’s website.

 

Bernstein sure knows how to start with a bang! We start with a rush down through the orchestra that ushers in an accompaniment. The basses aren’t content with their usual “oom” to someone else’s “pah,” so they add in a run of notes every few beats. The lead trombone starts the melody at 0:08, a jaunty tune that slides around a bit. Another brass voice takes over at 0:15, followed by a muted trumpet. The accompaniment punctuates each shift. More voices join the fun at 0:20, continuing the theme through its first half. (Note: Composers are great recyclers. To hear a previous incarnation of this theme, head over to this video around the 4:15 mark to hear “Grand Old Party” from the Broadway flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”). Composers are great recyclers. Click To Tweet

At 0:26, most of the group is in on the action to begin the second half of the theme. It starts out very similar to the first iteration, with different voicing and some other little differences (I love how at 0:31 it sounds like the trombone is laughing). The tune gets passed around some more and we build toward the end of the theme. There’s a great horn line starting at 0:41 that echoes the melody. The final lick (0:44) makes you think it will end on a nice chord, but instead it immediately rushes headlong into a recap of the intro.

However, Bernstein being Bernstein, he doesn’t continue into a repeat of Theme A. He takes through a busy, helter-skelter type of transition to lead us into the next theme.

“Pooks!”

(“Pooks” was the name of Rostropovich’s beloved dog. This particular outburst is omitted from the band version)

Now we settle into an active, yet constrained, accompaniment (1:05) compared to what was happening during Theme A. We’ve moved into 7/8 time. There are seven eighth notes per measure, but at this speed, we hear it as a lopsided three beats (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Once the soprano sax solo* begins Theme B (1:11), it’s easier to hear those three larger beats. There’s an undulating accompaniment pattern underneath the soloist. (*Thanks to a keen-eared reader that also heard another instrument playing the theme with the sax. I thought I heard something, but couldn’t quite tell. Based on the instrumentation, I’m wondering if it’s electric guitar. Have any of my reader played this in orchestra to know for sure?)

(Once again, Bernstein pillages material from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” though I think it’s rather evident that this music was worthy of receiving new life. This time the source song was called “Rehearse.” Check out this video around 8 minutes in for the full song, although it’s also part of the overture)

At 1:36, we modulate abruptly and get the accompaniment in a new key. The melody is now in the upper voices; but as usual, the horns steal the show with their echo starting at 1:40. We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). The two lines converge at the end, then the trumpets barge in at 2:03 with a call back to the intro. There’s some back and forth between various instruments, ended by a snare drum hit that comes across as a parental, “Enough!” (2:08). There’s one final burst from the other instruments to finish their thought.We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). Click To Tweet

Immediately we jump back to the intro, but with different and reduced instrumentation that leads us to the vampy, political section (2:10). We hear various snippets of fake political speeches, which are appropriately capped off with a blow from a siren whistle (the instrumentation lists I’ve found show slide whistle, but this recording sure sounds to me like a siren whistle is being used).

The full orchestra comes in joyously with Theme B (2:46), including the horns’ echo, though this time there’s more of a balance between the primary line and the echo. At 3:09, we shift immediately into Theme A, with a vastly different group of instruments than what we heard at the beginning of the piece. More folks join in at 3:20, filling out the sound, and pretty much everyone is in by the time we get to the last bit of the first half of the theme (3:26) and the start of the second half.

Bernstein dials it back a little so that we get the same type of interplay between voices at 3:32 as we did the first time through all of this. But the rest of the group isn’t content to remain on the sidelines, and they join the party again at 3:39. They get to the last phrase of the theme, repeat it, but then give us a third time that’s altered just a bit rhythmically. There’s the briefest moment of silence before everyone brilliantly and enthusiastically gives us a final taste of Theme B (3:51). The tune is altered ever so slightly, but to me it’s just enough to give this last bit some extra oomph and sound rather triumphant. We get one last quick change back to a itty bitty part of the intro (3:57), then a sudden, quiet, sustained chord for a few beats until the musicians shout out, “Slava!”, and then the final, quick notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me for Bernstein’s rousing overture. See you next time!

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